Belfast Telegraph

The Unthanks: Sisters who are each other's comfort blankets

Even if their name suggests otherwise, the Belfast-bound siblings are actually rather grateful for one another's company, discovers Edwin Gilson

Listening to Becky Unthank enthuse about folk tradition as well as "different, unusual concert venues", you get the impression she will be right at home in the Empire Music Hall, that venerable Belfast gig spot that started life as a Victorian church.

She and her sister Rachel, plus their three other bandmates and an extra 10-piece ensemble, are headed to these shores in March. As you may expect from a folk group (albeit one that mixes "traditionalism and sonic adventure", as their website boldly states), The Unthanks are afforded a warm welcome every time they travel to Northern Ireland from their native Northumberland.

"I love Belfast audiences because I feel they are already in a great mood and ready to enjoy themselves before we even start playing!" says Becky, the younger sibling."

From the group's beginnings as the all-female band Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, to their Mercury Prize nomination in 2008, to their popular landmark album Here's the Tender Coming, The Unthanks have become a treasured English band, garnering support from everyone from Radio 2 to actor Martin Freeman, who once said that the group made his "heart beat faster". So is Becky worried about forthcoming critical reaction to new album Mount the Air, The Unthanks' first studio effort in over three years?

"Yes, I probably will be," laughs the singer and autoharpist. "We care about what others think and we want them to enjoy the music."

Part of The Unthanks' appeal lies in their homespun ethic, embodied by wholesome endeavours like the "singing weekends" the band host for fans. "We cook for the guests and put on singing workshops. It's all just about group singing and having a good time!"

Becky's tale of The Unthanks' night at the Mercury Prize ceremony, after the nomination of their second album The Bairns, also reveals the band's modest nature: "I was so excited, but also so nervous I couldn't eat anything! There was a meal laid on for us but I felt like I'd be sick if I ate anything. Seeing a famous person at the next table made us feel a bit out of our depth."

The singer isn't remotely fussed about being bracketed as a regional band, despite claiming in the past that The Unthanks were "not consciously trying to create a Northumbrian style … it's basically that our accents stick out". Today, she insists she and her band are "really proud to be from the North East; that's what we've always done, that's our thing".

"Comfortable" is also the word Becky uses to describe her working relationship with her sister. Entirely in keeping with folk tradition, most of The Unthanks' songs begin with just the complementing voices of Becky and Rachel.

"I have a comfort blanket in Rachel, and vice versa," says the younger sibling. "The arrangements are all based around our harmonies and stories."

The Unthanks' early musical career centred around local folk festivals, where the young sisters realised they could gain free entry by "just singing a few songs". "The universal appeal of these festivals - that everybody gets to have a go at singing, regardless of whether you consider yourself a singer or not - was great for us," says Becky. "It's not like: 'I am a singer, you are not.'"

At the Empire, whether you are a singer or not, there will be a perfect opportunity to revel in the Unthanks warm, welcoming brand of folk music.

  • The Unthanks play the Empire Music Hall, Belfast, on March 13. For details, visit www.thebelfastempire.com

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