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Folk sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank have had music in their blood since a very tender age, when they first sang together. Since then they’ve released several albums, been nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards as well as the Mercury Prize and can count Elvis Costello and Martin Freeman as fans. They’ve done a whole album of covers of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt songs, written songs to accompany a documentary on shipbuilding and toured with a brass band. Their brand new album, Mount the Air, takes folk songs and traditional music in a brave and new jazz and orchestral direction. It’s a heartbreaking and heartlifting collection of songs. I spoke to Becky Unthank about her musical heritage and whether she’d ever been on Unthank Road.


ere you self taught? How did you learn to play and sing?


The Unthanks


My parents have always been into folk music; it’s always been a big part of our lives . Since we were tiny we went to festivals all summer, camping and at family parties everyone has always sung songs, and we were taken to lots of gigs. We’ve always been surrounded by singing. Anyone can sing, you don’t have to think you’ve got a brilliant voice, it’s more like everyone having a go. Rachel and I started singing together when we were tiny ‘cos it was fun. We tried out harmonies and stuff. Luckily, we’ve ended up doing it as a job! Folk music is generally sung in a round or certainly in an environment where everyone is on equal footing. Was it difficult at first to get up on stage and sing to an audience? Well, at the small festivals we went to there wasn’t a big divide between the


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audience and the performers. It was certainly nerve wracking but it didn’t feel like a huge at first, until we became a professional band. Rachel thought about it more than I did as she’d always wanted to be a folk singer professionally, so she was quite nervous about the transition onto the stage as a performer. Can you tell me more about the residential singing weekends you run? We had four in January; they’re really really lovely things for us to do. We hire a bunkhouse and a couple of cottages on the Northumberland coast and about 40-50 people come and we cook for them all weekend and do workshops. Te ethos of it is about singing together rather than teaching how to sing. It’s such a pleasurable thing to do, to sing as a big group. It makes you feel great! We teach simple harmonies and we encourage people to sing on their own if they want to. Some people come every


year, some people go home and join choirs or write their own songs and it’s so nice to know we might have had something to do with that. Some people come on their own and make friends really quickly. It’s fantastic to see singing enriching other people’s lives. It was sort of a plan to see how else we could make a living other than touring, but we love it as much as everyone else. I wanted to ask you about the shipyards. Your beautiful album Songs from the Shipyards was written to accompany a documentary about the history of shipbuilding on Tyne, Tees and Wear; then you were on Sting’s album Te Last Ship, also about shipbuilding and your dad is in a folk band named after boatmen. Is the water and shipbuilding a favourite theme of yours? We’ve always lived near the sea and the river. In folk music people are inspired


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