“I'm glad to be around at the same time as them. They make my heart beat faster.” Martin Freeman
“It hits you in your soul, rather than your head. I love them.” Ade Edmondson
“There really is no better folk band in the land” Q Magazine
“It’s quite a rare thing now. They’ve really got everything you could want from music. And I’m very fussy.” Robert Wyatt
Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and the only British folk representation in The Guardian’s and Uncut’s best albums of last decade (worldwide, all genres), The Unthanks have an army of notable fans, including actor Martin Freeman, Elvis Costello, Colin Firth, Robert Wyatt, Ben Folds, Ryan Adams, Rosanne Cash, members of Portishead and Radiohead, Dawn French, Paul Morley, Ewan McGregor, Stephan Mangan, Al Murray, Ade Edmondson and Nick Hornby. The Unthanks is a family affair for Tyneside sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, with Rachel married to pianist, producer, arranger and composer, Adrian McNally. Using the traditional music of the North East of England as a starting point, the influence of Steve Reich, Miles Davis, Sufjan Stevens, Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons, King Crimson and Tom Waits can be heard in the band’s 8 albums to date, including Mount The Air, released to huge critical acclaim earlier this year.
Definable only by their restless, peerless eccentricity, The Unthanks see folk music less as a style of music and more as an oral history that offers perspective on our own time. Their unique approach to storytelling straddles the complex relationship between modernism and learning from the past. Staunch traditionalism and sonic adventure may seem like polar opposites, yet they are easy bedfellows in the gentle hands of The Unthanks.
There are no easy one-liners to capture who or what The Unthanks are. You might find them singing in a Tyneside folk club one night, and playing to 2000 Londoners the next, having performed to a primary school in the afternoon. You might find them collaborating with Adrian Utley (Portishead) one moment, and writing the score to an archive film about the shipyards the next. Or visiting Africa with Damon Albarn, Flea and Joan As Policewoman and then presenting a TV programme for BBC4 about traditional dance. Rubbing shoulders with Robert Plant, Adele, Elbow and Radiohead at the Mercurys, or in a bunkhouse on the coastline of Northumberland cooking for 50 fans on one of their residential singing weekends. Running singing sessions in the back of a pub on a Monday before heading off to tour America or Australia on the Tuesday. Signing licensing deals with EMI while continuing to record vocals in broom cupboards under the stairs. Spending 9-5 managing their own careers without agents or labels, and heading down the studio in the evening to write scores for a project with a symphony orchestra. Collaborating with Orbital while championing songs from the folk club floor singers of the North East and re-presenting them to anyone who wants to listen. You’ll find them played by the folk show on BBC Radio 2, but equally by cutting edge BBC6 Music, Radio 3 and Radio 1 DJs. You might find them on the cover of a folk magazine like fRoots or in the pages of NME. For every glamorous accolade, there is an act of grounded integrity.
Recent adventures beyond their central activity include a brass band collaboration with national champions Brighouse and Rastrick, a reimagining of the work of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty, and a soundtrack to a film about the shipbuilding industry - plus collaborations with Orbital, Sting, Adrian Utley (Portishead), Martin Green (Lau), Martin Hayes, The MacColl brothers, The Voice Squad, conductor Charles Hazlewood, The Moulettes and German composer Werner Cee.
Rather than embarking on some grand celebration, The Unthanks are quietly marking their 10th anniversary later this year with a short tour of small intimate spaces, with a pared back line-up, their feeling being that if folk music is a lifelong pursuit, 10 years is just a drop in the ocean. And in the same respect, rather than putting out an exploitative ‘best of’, a release of rarities; live recordings, memorabelia and unreleased material will accompany the tour.
“If there was such a thing still as having a favourite band like in the old days, I’d say they were my favourite band.” Paul Morley
"The Unthanks seem to regard folk music the same way Miles Davis regarded jazz: as a launch pad for exploring the wider possibilities.” Uncut
‘Intimate, epic, overflowing with feeling and musical intelligence’ The Independent
“I had to take a single summary of what Alfie and I have being doing over the years to the proverbial desert island I wouldn’t take one of our own records. I’d take the crystal clear interpretations of The Unthanks.” Robert Wyatt
“Rachel and Becky's voices are one of the true wonders of 21st-century music" NME
“It is their ability to pare back extraneous matter and to stare unflinchingly into the very soul of a song that makes them a spellbinding experience" BBC Music
“Just beautiful” Lauren Laverne
“Haunting, original and magnificent” The Guardian