The Unthanks is the folk group that even the rock aristocracy loves.
What do well-known names such as Martin Freeman, Colin Firth, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Robert Wyatt, Ben Folds, Ryan Adams, Rosanne Cash, Dawn French, Ewan McGregor and Nick Hornby have in common?
They are all fans of the English folk group The Unthanks. Not so strange, for the sister Becky and Rachel Unthank are quite unique. One thing is the way their voices suit each other, Becky's breathy and airy compared with Rachel's which is sharp and clear. Another thing is how difficult it is to classify them, how they actively resist established frameworks and rules.
Ended the rock hegemony
When the music press select the album of the year, the lists are usually dominated by pop, rock, rap and r&b. This tradition was broken in 2007, when The Unthanks released their album The Bairns. That was then under the name Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, since then little sister Becky has grown up and the two are on the same level, both as regards name and talent.
The album reached high on many year lists and was nominated for perhaps the most prestigious popular music award in the UK – the Mercury Prize. Among the other nominees that year were Radiohead, Adele, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and Elbow.
From the pub to the stadium
You never quite know where you have them. In folk music clubs, of course, but they can just as soon work with Sting, Orbital and Portishead, they can write film scores, they can travel to Africa with Damon Albarn from Blur and Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, they can arrange song sessions in a little pub, give school concerts and travel on big US tours, or they can cook for 50 fans during one of their singing weekends in their native Northumberland. Their perhaps best known song is not a folk song, but an unnerving cover version of King Crimson's progrock classic Starless.
The group finds much of its traditional material in its home area Northumberland - in the northeast of England – but gets just as much inspiration from musicians such as Steve Reich, Miles Davis, Sufjan Stevens, Robert Wyatt, Antony & Johnsons, King Crimson and Tom Waits.
Oral and storytelling tradition
Social awareness underlies the group's music. The sisters do not regard folk music as a music genre, but rather as an oral storytelling tradition that provides a perspective on our own time. This approach to storytelling addresses the complex relationship between modernism and the lessons of the past. Adherence to traditions may seem like a contradiction to musical boldness – but in the hands of The Unthanks they fit together naturally.
Shipbuilding and poetry
The group has released 12 albums. With Mount the Air in 2015 they won best album-category in the BBC Folk Awards. The latest releases have revolved around two conceptual series, Diversions and Lines. There they have gone in depth into themes like the First World War, the shipbuilding industry in the northeast of England and songs based on the poets Emily Brontë and Molly Drake (Nick Drake's mother).
A concert with The Unthanks ranges from the minimalistic and painful to the joyous and life-affirming. At Olav's Festival in Church of Our Lady, the sisters appear with Adrian McNally on keyboard and Niopha Keegan on violin and vocals.
«The Unthanks seem to regard folk music the same way Miles Davis regarded jazz: as a launch pad for exploring the wider possibilities.» – Uncut
«Rachel and Becky’s voices are one of the true wonders of 21st-century music» – NME