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Baker's Dozen

Ongoing Adventures: Rachel Unthank's Favourite Albums
Jude Rogers , March 25th, 2020 10:23

Jude Rogers speaks to Rachel Unthank about her abiding love for and political importance of maintaining the folk tradition... but explains she wasn't averse to a bit of Faith No More when it all got too much. This week's Baker's Dozen.

The first time I met Rachel Unthank she was a few wines down, standing on a chair, dancing to ABBA after the 2008 Mercury Prize ceremony. Her original band, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, had been nominated for their debut album, The Bairns, and performed ‘Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk ‘to the crowds of sponsors and music industry suits. "I married a man for his money/And he's worse than the devil himself," Rachel began. She then told us of a woman who stayed out all night to spite him, filled herself with alcohol, then got beaten black and blue by him on her return. They stood out.

"We were terrified that night," Unthank remembers of that early experience. "I mean, we were sitting to next Radiohead. And Robert Plant was there! He said he liked my dress! And Adele was swigging from the bottle, saying, ‘My mam would love you.'" She even invited them to her afterparty, Rachel remembers, and later got them to support her at the Roundhouse. "That was brave of her. And it turned out her mum was only a few years older than me.


Having a change of personnel and name, to The Unthanks, in 2009, Rachel's band have been one of folk music's success stories ever since. They're also worth digging into, as Rachel and sister Becky's beautiful, wavery North-Eastern vocals could be easily dismissed as cosy and comforting by those who don't dip into their contents. As a band, they'e explored the songs of Nick Drake's songwriter mother Molly, Anohni and Robert Wyatt, made albums about World War One, Emily Bronte and the North-Eastern shipyards, collaborated with brass bands, orchestras, and Africa Express, and in recent years also soundtracked TV (including Mackenzie Crook's recent, brilliant, climate change-themed revival of Wurzel Gummidge). 

Their latest album, Diversions Vol. 5, Live And Unaccompanied, sees the sisters and long-time bandmate Niopha Keegan going back to raw, stark performance, singing songs by the likes of Richard Dawson and Connie Converse, as well as those from traditional sources. It feels like a good time, 
as life has changed a lot in recent years for Rachel, given her divorce from Adrian McNally, her musical partner and husband for much of the Unthanks' time together. This hasn't mean the full group has split up, she insists – this album by the trio of female singers was already planned. 

But it does feels like it has extra resonance, she admits. "Singing is a core part of our relationship as women. It's also where Becky and I came from. She's seven years younger than me, and when she was little, she'd only sing at family parties if I'd do it with her, or else she'd be hiding behind the sofa! But singing became how we learned about the world, and how we grew up, and when I went off to university in Glasgow, we'd even sing together over the landline, which sounds crazy, but it was about us connecting. Singing together is about being equal, and being a partnership, to me. It really has that power."

The Unthanks' Diversions Vol. 5, Live And Unaccompanied is out this Friday, click the image of Rachel below to begin reading her selections