Unthank you for the music
I had come to the end of my phone interview with Rachel Unthank when she casually mentioned that she was 31 weeks pregnant with her first child -- and how she hopes that she doesn't give birth on the road in Ireland (her band The Unthanks start their five-date Irish tour in Dublin's Vicar St tonight).
"My partner Adrian says he's been investigating the different maternity hospitals in Ireland in preparation. I said to him, 'In preparation for what?' He's got me all nervous now! My bump better behave!"
Any new addition to this wonderfully talented family is to be welcomed. Rachel and her younger sister Becky are the shining lights of the current English folk scene -- they hail from the north-east, near Northumbria -- but their music has also found a wider audience who appreciate the way it gives old musical forms a refreshing 21st-Century twist. Indeed, last Christmas they performed an entire concert featuring only the songs of maverick eccentrics Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons.
Wyatt himself is a fan: "They are like the morning dew that hasn't steamed off yet; they are fresh and new and I really don't think they know how good they are," he said.
While Rachel and Becky's pure, pitch-perfect voices are front and centre of their sound, they are complemented by subtle piano, string and brass accompaniments that lend it a chamber music vibe.
The sisters' breakthrough came when their second album The Bairns was nominated for the prestigious UK Mercury Music Prize in 2008. Then known as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, the group suddenly found themselves competing against the likes of Radiohead, Robert Plant and Adele for the accolade of album of the year.
Though they eventually lost out to Elbow, Rachel and her band had made their mark.
"It was amazing to be suddenly put on a playing field with people like Radiohead and people you've grown up admiring," says Rachel. "That's the wonderful thing about the Mercury: it always brings up names from obscurity -- like our own! -- and gives them a chance.
"Half the audience may decide that's it not for them, but at least they've been given a chance to hear it and decide for themselves."
So did she hang out with all the rock bands afterwards?
"We thought that there'd be this amazing after-show party, but the really famous people went off and had their own party. So there was just us and Adele. By the time we had managed to gather all of our members, it had finished," she laughs.
The follow-up, 2009's Here's The Tender Coming was also nominated for numerous folk awards and saw them upstage the likes of Eric Clapton and Kings Of Leon when they performed on Later . . . with Jools Holland.
Now they've just released their new album, Last. It's a thing of rare beauty, full of timeless tunes culled from the days of yore as well as intriguingly arranged cover versions of songs by Tom Waits and -- do not adjust your set -- 1970s prog-rock behemoths King Crimson.
"We like a good song. As long as we feel some connection with it, it doesn't matter what genre it is. It's the story we start with -- that's our approach whether it's a traditional Northumbrian folk song or a King Crimson cover," says Rachel.
Bob Dylan said in his memoir Chronicles that he preferred 19th-Century folk songs to 1960s music because the characters in the songs seemed more alive and real to him? Does Rachel feel the same attraction to ye olde songbook?
"I like the way that old folk songs don't shy away from difficult topics -- they deal with everything from domestic abuse to child mortality or emigration," she says.
"Also, if you've grown up hearing those kind of songs, then you're not afraid of them. 'Close The Coalhouse Door' (from the new album) is very much in the folk repertoire and is about a mining disaster -- it's pretty gruesome but we've heard that song all our lives."
Was there always folk music in the Unthank household growing up, and did she listen to Irish trad?
"My mum and dad loved folk music, and got into it in its revived form in the 1960s. We always liked folk clubs and festivals," she says.
"And we listened to Irish and Scottish as well as English folk music. We heard a lot of Altan growing up, and The Voice Squad, who had beautiful singers with gorgeous harmonies. My brother plays the fiddle and he used to learn a few Irish tunes.
"And Niopha Keegan, who plays in our band, is second-generation Irish. Her musical roots are traditional too.
"A lot of our friends played instruments so we'd spend half the day listening to sessions in the pub, playing tunes and having a few beers."
Despite their rising fame, Rachel and Becky have resisted the temptation to move south to further their careers.
"Me and Becky were brought up in Tyneside, just on the cusp of Northumberland," says Rachel. "We've moved just a little further down the River Tyne into Northumberland and me and Adrian (McNally, the band's pianist, arranger and Rachel's partner) live there in a little hamlet in the middle of nowhere. It's next to a farm. Becky now lives in Yorkshire.
"It feels like home. People say, 'Do you not want to live in London to be near the record industry hub?' But with the technology that now exists it doesn't seem necessary."
Rachel is looking forward to touring Ireland, and says she has always received a warm welcome here.
"We're actually bringing a string quartet with us to Ireland -- a 10-piece band with trumpet and bass."
And after that?
"We're gonna do a concert in Durham Cathedral with a champion brass band."
Here's hoping that by then Rachel will have her own bairn there to hear that one.
Last is out now on Rabble Rouser/EMI. The Unthanks play Vicar St, Dublin, tonight; Cork School of Music, tomorrow; Dolan's Warehouse, Limerick, Monday; Roisin Dubh, Galway, Tuesday; The Riverbank Theatre, Kildare, Wednesday; and Belfast Empire, Thursday. www.the-unthanks.com firstname.lastname@example.org