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Rachel Unthank Interviewed

Kevin Bourke talks brass and appearances at The Lowry and Hebden Bridge

Published on September 9th 2011.

Rachel Unthank Interviewed

MERCURY-nominated Tyneside band The Unthanks have a peerless approach to folk music. "I think that in some respects we are one of the most traditional acts in folk music," says songwriter Adrian McNally, "and in other respects we’re one of the most sonically adventurous." 

We like playing around with the process and driving home a point that these songs are for everyone and that a story can be told a thousand ways."

Rarely can this fascinating juxtaposition be seen more clearly than in their current project, a spectacular alliance with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band that incorporates brand new pieces alongside new arrangements of traditional and original songs. It's coming to the Lowry on Tuesday September 13 after premiering in the awesome surroundings of Durham Cathedral.

Previously known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, The Unthanks have over the course of four albums expanded from a traditional folk quartet into a 10-piece mini-orchestra for whom clog-dancing comes just as naturally as covering the diverse likes of Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons and Nick Drake. Their music has won them fans from far beyond the usual folk circles and scored them a Mercury Music Prize nomination for their album The Bairns.

The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, meanwhile, celebrates its 130th anniversary this year. Over its epic history, the band has established itself as a regular winner of National Champions of Great Britain, and is widely regarded as the best and most consistent public subscription (i.e not under the thumb of either colliery or factory) band of its sort in the world. In 1977 they even scaled the pop singles charts with The Floral Dance.

Rachel Unthank believes that "brass band music has the power to evoke the whole spectrum of emotions, from power and celebration to humility and heartache.” I know just enough to agree as, not long ago, I moved to Dobcross in Saddleworth, thus finding myself in the very heart of brass band country. But I'm very much a newcomer to a music that Adrian has in his head and heart.

"It’s something I absorbed as a child," he enthuses. "Me and Chris, my band mate, grew up three doors apart in a small mining village in South Yorkshire between Barnsley and Wakefield, called South Hingley. It’s somewhere that’s two-and-a-half miles from Grimethorpe colliery, so brass band music was part of the fabric as we were growing up. 

"This is something that I’ve had half a mind on for a long time, but more as a pipe dream, to be honest. It’s partly my interest in brass bands and partly an obsession with people like Miles Davis and his Sketches Of  Spain album, so it’s slightly a jazz influence as well.

"But I never imagined for a second that we’d have the chance to do something like this. Perhaps it is something in the power and dynamics of brass that is so charged and electric - the brass collective of instruments is surely the loudest of any instrument family, and for me it is the restraint of this power when brass is played tenderly that brings out such beauty and honest emotion, like a formidable giant with gentle hands. ’ve been reinventing pieces from all of our albums for this as well as arranging and writing new music."

Even though this project has been a long time in the making, the timing wasn’t ideal. Adrian is married to Rachel Unthank (who fronts and sings for the group alongside her sister Becky), who only recently gave birth to the couple’s first child, George. "But with a band this big and expensive, even though that's an artistic decision of ours, if you get a commission and a chance to tour it, then you have to seize that chance when you can. So all the brass scoring I’ve done, which is something I’ve never done before, was done in the first four weeks of George’s life. Two very steep learning curves at once," he observes ruefully.

Nonetheless, the birth of George inspired "a four-movement suite in tribute to our newborn. It’s called ‘The Father Suite’ and the first and last movement are called George I and George II, the first based on something I'd come up with as a 12 year old boy and the second based on something I remember my dad used to play about with on the piano when we were kids. Then there are two middle sections, the first of which is a spoken word piece by a miner Jack Elliott from the film Death Of A Miner set to music and the third is an adaptation of ‘The Father’s Song’ by Ewan MacColl."

The Unthanks Band Colour

Later this year, they'll be touring again, including a pair of dates in Hebden Bridge where Adrian and Rachel live, with a show based around the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons. They've also done the music for a film and have so many "other little projects that it will be a little while before we start thinking about the next studio album proper."

 But isn't it strange and challenging to hear your songs re-arranged by someone else?

"Absolutely not. When you’re sat on stage in Durham Cathedral and there’s 1,000 people in front of you and you look across and there’s a 30-piece brass band and your wife performing four weeks after giving birth to our first child, it was really quite a sense of, one of those moments in my life where I had to acknowledge where I was and what I was doing and how lucky I was and what a pivotal moment in our career that felt.

"Now and again we’ll get some sort of enquiry from somebody saying ‘do you mind if we use your song in this context?’ and our response is always, ‘it’s not our song, it doesn’t belong to anyone, you don’t need our permission’. Part of demonstrating that is to re-present songs that we’ve done ourselves before in different ways to prove that it can be told in different ways and that they are for everyone and aren’t fixed in stone.

"We’ve done that right through our careers. We stepped up to a 10-piece band in 2007 and rather than playing old material on tour we re-adapted those songs from our first two albums in a completely different fashion. We like playing around with the process and driving home a point that these songs are for everyone and that a story can be told a thousand ways."

The Unthanks and the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band are at The Lowry on September 13. The Unthanks perform the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons at Hebden Bridge Picture House on December 5 and 6.

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