Interview: The Unthanks, folk band

Renamed under the family moniker, Rachel and Becky Unthank's band has grown in size and stature but, finds Aidan Smith, they retain their homespun philosophy

Photo: Alex Telfer

I'M IN a pub with the folk singer Rachel Unthank and we're debating unusual surnames, where they might have come from and the temptation to take them literally. But of course, Rachel is no more likely to unthank me for the pint of real ale I've just bought her than my neighbours Jamie and Emily are of flinging classic novels on the pyre because they're called Bookless.

"I had a Latin teacher at school called Smellie," I say.

"Well, I had a history tutor at Glasgow Uni called Steve Bottoms and before the first lecture he told us to just hurry up and get over it."

Did she see the story about Cock, Daft and Gotobed starting to die out because people were changing their names – and does she regret that? "Absolutely. When I was a teenager I got self-conscious about Unthank but now I'm very proud of it. We've done research and it dates to the time of the Border Reivers and that Anglo-Scottish argy-bargy when everyone was stealing each other's cattle and women. It means 'to move onto common land and live there'. Like a squatter, basically."

The name has hardly held her back. Rachel Unthank and the Winterset almost won the Mercury Music Prize for their album The Bairns a couple of years back and captivated many who didn't think they liked folk music with their dark story-songs and their dark good looks, straight out of gothic melodrama. Now there's a new album, Here's The Tender Coming, and a new band moniker, The Unthanks, but in a reshaped line-up Rachel still sings with her kid sister Becky.

Adrian McNally – producer, manager, the one who dragged these shy and retiring siblings kicking and screaming into a folkie career and as of recently "Mr Rachel Unthank" – has full group status now and joined us in the bar attached to Newcastle's railway station. This is close to the Unthanks' heartland. They grew up in Northumberland, listening to songs about toil underground and boats which didn't come back. Both parents sang; they can hardly think of an adult they knew who didn't. Now they sing the traditional numbers their way, mixing with contemporary folk songs, adding covers of Nick Drake and Robert Wyatt.

There seems to be more welly from EMI this time round, and more glamour on the sleeve, but in the songs women are still having their husbands spirited away by pressgangs and they're still getting bald patches from pushing coal-buggies with their heads – then saying thanks for the work, kind sir. "If the label were going to steer us in any direction it might have been to have Rachel and Becky dancing round a tree with plaits because that's the nu-folk iconography," says Adrian. "But it's so not us," says Rachel. "We're young women who like fashion and love getting dressed up."

The band are not surprised by the folk revival. "People are looking for something more real," says McNally. "There's been a reaction against processed pop driven by reality shows but I also think it goes beyond music. In this globalised world, authenticity has disappeared: your high street now looks like mine.

"Folk has an honesty and a sense of place that people crave and the songs are full of universal truths. They speak as loud as they did when they were written, sometimes louder, because lessons haven't been learned, the human condition appears to have regressed and we're still fighting stupid wars."

The Unthank girls find it amusing that folk is suddenly cool; in their world it's never been anything but. "When we were at school Becky and I used to get lifts to folk festivals all over the country," adds Rachel. "We camped, got drunk and met boys and reckon we had a lot more fun than friends who had boring weekend jobs at Pizza Hut and TGI Fridays.

"We never had a rebellious phase where we didn't like folk. I did have a grunge period and Becky was a little heavy metaller but we couldn't have shocked our parents if we'd tried. Mum and Dad didn't ban pop from the house."

Nevertheless, despite an adolescence steeped in folk, Rachel resisted trying to make it her career. "I thought that would have been big-headed. Everyone sang but it was a community thing. Who was I thinking I could do more with it? So I went up to Glasgow to study history, but, of course, I was in denial.

"Glasgow was really important to me: great Scottish folk singers like Hamish Imlach made sure I didn't forget music. And a key album was by the Bar Room Mountaineers which, back at our digs after the pub, we'd always bung on the stereo for a singsong. There was one song about cod liver oil, another called Hairy Mary and my favourite chorus went: 'I'd rather drink heavy than any other bevvy'."

The only Unthanks original on the new album, Lucky Gilchrist, is a track about those Glasgow years, though it's an elegy for a dead friend.

"Gary Gilchrist was this amazing guy: an East End lad but a snob, camp and yet macho, looked a bit like Freddie Mercury. He died not long ago: went to sleep and didn't wake up. Adrian wrote the song and it's very much in the Unthank tradition of life, love and death – the stuff that's important to everyone."

Rachel and Adrian married in January, to the dismay of some of the band's male fans. He's joined the group with some reservations, saying: "Couples have enough to argue about without being on the road all the time." But he's been crucial to their success.

"Right from the start it was obvious that Rachel and Becky were fantastic singers but fantastic prevaricators as well. They're far too modest and self-effacing and I couldn't let them mess up their chance."

McNally's hard nose comes from serious graft in what can often be the most melancholy arena of music, that of the tribute bands – though there was nothing gloomy about performing Robbie Williams hits to 2,000 drunken, screaming women at riotous hen nights. "Five nights a week for two years without a holiday," he says. "Godawful chain pubs or sad working men's clubs in the Valleys. But brilliant fun and the best-paid job I've ever had."

"It's his guilty secret," says Rachel. "It was long before I met him. Otherwise I'm not sure he'd have stood a chance with me."

The Unthanks play Oran Mor, Glasgow, tonight; the Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, tomorrow; and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, on Tuesday. www.rachelunthank.com

This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 25 October 2009