Becky Unthank isn’t saying that Milton Keynes isn’t as impressive a place as Manchester in so many words, but you do get the sense that her current location is not quite as exciting as some she has visited recently. On tour with her sister Rachel and the rest of the musicians that make up The Unthanks to promote their stunning new album Last, we hope that Ireland will be more to her taste when they kick off their tour here at Vicar St in Saturday…
It seems that changing the name of the band to the Unthanks has given you a new creative impetus?
Originally we called ourselves Rachel Unthank and The Winterset because I was going to university and I didn’t want that responsibility as I was a bit younger. That name didn’t make sense anymore and various members kept leaving, so we needed something that was a bit more general. It’s a lot easier being called The Unthanks, but it has coincided with a different sound as well. We’re on a larger scale now. It feels like that The Unthanks could be anything, as long as there’s still one Unthank in it. We can bring other people in or strip it down, we’re going to perform with a full brass band in the summer. We’ll still be The Unthanks but we’ll be doing something different.
For an album recorded at home, Last sounds superb…
The vocal booth is literally the cupboard under the stairs, full of Rachel’s shoes and a load of blankets. The strings were recorded in a village hall nearby but they sound like a whole orchestra. We thought we had to use that as the scale for the whole album. It feels a lot more comfortable recording at home, you don’t feel the pressure of time or money so much. I like to record at different times of the night when it’s really calm.
The mainstream seems to be going through one of its regular periods of talking about folk music. This time it’s Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons…
Well, it’s not what I would say is folk music but it’s different for everyone. I think Laura Marling is amazing, she writes such superb songs. She doesn’t go round saying she’s a folk singer, it’s more journalists. It’s not folk but it’s not doing it any harm.
Ironic then that you’re releasing an album that sees you move even further in the opposite direction?
It’s definitely not crossing paths in any way. For us it’s just about interpreting songs in a way that we find stimulating and interesting.
Does having an album that features traditional songs alongside Tom Waits and King Crimson compositions strike you as the perfect embodiment of what The Unthanks are about?
It certainly isn’t a premeditated decision to have a certain amount of traditional songs and a certain amount of modern ones, we just look for songs we love and would like to sing. It’s whatever we find at that time and can develop and arrange. We hadn’t planned to have so many covers but they were our favourites at the time.
You wouldn’t consider them covers though…
Well everything we do is a cover really isn’t it? We just don’t call them that in the folk world. It’s just your interpretation of that particular song.
John Redfern’s ‘Give Away Your Heart’ is a definite high point on the record. It’s a very different kind of anti-war song isn’t it?
I didn’t know it was about war for ages, I just loved the song and the album. I spoke to John about it and he said, ‘do you know what it’s about?’. I said, ‘er…no’. That album of his is amazing, we just wanted to draw attention to it.
The first time State saw you play just over two years ago it was upstairs at Whelan’s. Now you’re playing Vicar St amongst other Irish venues…
Recently it has changed a lot, practically every gig on the tour is sold out. We played Manchester Cathedral and it was full. Going to Australia too, we sold out three shows in Sydney. Maybe it’s just a gradual word of mouth thing. We do have people working on our behalf and we get reviews but it’s not on the same scale as pop music, you’re not on the radio or telly or the time.
Last is out now on Rabble Rouser through EMI. The Unthanks play the following dates: April 9th Vicar St, Dublin; 10th Cork School of Music; 11th Dolans, Limerick; 12th Roisin Dubh, Galway; 13th Riverbank, Newbridge; 14th The Empire, Belfast