Rachel Unthank: the big interview (3)
February 02, 2008
Continuing the Big Interview with Rachel Unthank. Part 2 saw her hitting back gently at the attackers
This was meant to be the concluding section of Rachel Unthank's interview with Salut! Live. In it, we hear more about Belinda O'Hooley's departure from the band and there is also input from the manager Adrian McNally, described by Rachel as the "invisible member" of the band as well as her future husband.
But the series is not quite finished. A little more space is needed for a very short and not entirely serious Part 4 presenting the promised Potted Rachel feature: quickfire replies to 13 questions. That will be posted tomorrow (Sunday).
When I read the answers given to all of my questions, posed electronically from thousands of miles away in the Middle East, I was struck by their candour and passion. I hope readers agree that it was right to give them in full. They do not end the debate - essentially "are they any good?" - and are not intended to.
However, the interview provides a fascinating backdrop to Monday's BBC Folk Awards ceremony. There, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset will perform and discover whether any of their four nominations - best album, best group, best live act, horizon award - have produced awards.
Without stooping to silly name puns (though it was sorely tempted), Salut! Live thanks Ms Unthank, and Adrian McNally, for their time. It is obvious that I am an admirer of the band; I reviewed The Bairns favourably in the Daily Telegraph and put it in third place in my list of the best folk albums of 2007.
But that is as far as it goes. At one point during the Mudcat thread, it looks as if someone is accusing me of sticking up for the band because of some unspecified "vested interests". So for the record, my own votes for Monday night were cast as follows (I justify the Horizon choice on the grounds that I was largely unaware of Rachel's band until the year at issue):
FOLK SINGER OF THE YEAR Martin Simpson
BEST DUO Show of Hands
BEST GROUP Lau
BEST ALBUM Prodigal Son (Martin Simpson)
BEST ORIGINAL SONG Never Any Good (Martin Simpson)
BEST TRADITIONAL TRACK Cold Haily Rainy Night (The Imagined Village)
HORIZON AWARD Rachel Unthank & The Winterset
MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR Martin Simpson
BEST LIVE ACT Show of Hands
And now to conclude the main part of the interview..........
Salut! Live: One of my daughters, a typical London girl, laughed out loud when I recited the Canny Lad (and even completed the "when he wants a bit" line). Yet it's so North-eastern you can imagine people with no connection to the region not getting it at all (and certainly not identifying with your note about it being a novel in four lines):
I’d never really thought about how if you didn’t know the social history of the region then you might not get the wider context, you are quite right, we’ve kind of taken it for granted that everyone has the same cultural references as we do. I love that your daughter could relate to it though, the complex and comedic truths of relationships cross any geographical boundary.
Who do you listen to? What is your view of the state of folk? Is it appealing more to the young or is it just the artists that are getting younger but still attracting mainly older fans?
We listen to anything and everything. Obviously a strong diet of folk over the years including pretty much everything you would expect, and for me a teenage love of grunge! Current favourites are Sheila Stewart, Alasdair Roberts, Lau, Lisa Knapp and Chris Wood. Sufjan Stevens is a big favourite, along with Regina Specktor, Anthony and the Johnsons and Bonnie Prince Billy. There is usually a right old eclectic mix playing in our van, from any of the above to Led Zeppelin, Stevie Wonder, Queen, Joan As Policman, Ben Folds Five, Portishead, Tinariwen or Nina Simone. The state of folk music is complex. On some levels it is extremely vibrant, with lots of new, young bands and singers coupled with inspiring old pros. If you go to any folk festival there is always a number of up and coming young acts on the bill and an obvious young presence audience wise. This has been harnessed by people like Shooting Roots running workshops pacifically aimed at a young age group and giving them opportunities to get involved musically with other young people. The Folk Degree ran by Folkworks and Newcastle University have definitely injected a fresh wave of young people playing folk music in the city, and has helped raise the genre’s academic profile. If you go to my local music session in Hexham there is a heartening mix of young and old playing side by side. In the mainstream too there appears to be a fashionable nod towards folk music. As I’m sure you’re aware there are new genres such as acid folk and even a trendy new folk bar in Manchester called Dulcimer! How much this has to do with traditional music is debatable, there seems to be 2 different seams running independently. It’s all good in my opinion, if one tempts the other to take a peek, then they can only be enriched. The matter of folk clubs, I know, is a different matter. Although there are examples of many thriving clubs like the Davy Lamp in Washington, ones of exceptional worth like the Elliots club at Birtley and great new, vibrant examples like The Magpies Nest in Islington, a lot of clubs are struggling with declining numbers. I don’t really know what the answer is. I for one have learnt loads of wonderful material by listening to club singers, yet I can understand why younger people are put off. At the end of the day a lot of theses clubs were invented by young people in the sixties because they wanted to meet their mates, get drunk, chat someone up and have a good old sing or play. I don’t think my generation and younger are different. They just need to do it in there own way, just like the previous generation did in order to attain a sense of ownership. We do play a lot of gigs in provincial towns to a mainly mature audience, which is fine by us. We also have a mission to reach a younger audience with folk music. We play a lot of city centre gigs to try and give young people the opportunity to engage with our music, as this is where there are larger, younger populations and it seems to be working. I think that the new Green Man type scene is partly fuelled by a thirst for authenticity and that if they knew how to access the traditional scene then they might appreciate some of it.
.......the following question was added after news reached me, via the Mudcat debate, of Belinda Hooley's departure from the band:
More than one reviewer noted the excellent contributions of others in the band, notably Belinda. Is her loss not a severe blow to the overall sound?
It’s a real shame but not a blow. We’ve got another six months of touring The Bairns, and we have an excellent new pianist Stef Conner to do the job. Stef has a degree and Masters in Music and is currently doing a PHD in Composition. We have already performed an intimate concert to our closest friends and harshest critics and Stef was a great success. As I have already gone into, creatively the Winterset has never been led by one individual. If anything the creative drive lies with invisible band member Adrian McNally. Belinda was a key part of our sound and our next album will be inevitably different. In fact even before Belinda’s departure we had intended the next album to be less piano dominant. We are relishing a whole new range of possibilities.
And in final thoughts on the strange experience of watching her work - and floaty dresses - subjected to such intense critical scrutiny, Rachel added this:
It is all a bit weird to deal with. Obviously we are just trying to get on with our lives and have never previously been in a position where we can read about what people think about our comings and goings. It is very peculiar. Not one of the perks!
This was Rachel's interview - and yes, it would have been nice to find room for the thoughts of Becky, Niopha, Stephanie and Belinda too, but look how much space it has taken already.
To read Adrian McNally's comments in full, you will need to go to this link. Here is the flavour:
Though there are many reasons why the band works, the gold at the centre is the natural honesty in Rachel and Becky and their commitment to music and songs first and foremost. They are innocence without ignorance, sincere without sentiment. ........Rachel Unthank & The Winterset subvert folk music with love and authority. Truth be told, Rachel and Becky would much rather be sat in a singaround than on stage at Glastonbury, and I hope their sincerity towards folk music breaths through the records, no matter how leftfield the arrangements.
Potted Rachel: Rachel Unthank - on life, likes and dislikes
What a fascinating interview with a young woman who really does know what she is talking about. I bought the album on the strength of hearing Farewell Reegality on the radio and it took a while to warm to the whole set but now there are whole areas of it that I feel are truly outstanding. The bits I don't like are irrelevent - it's great that Rachel and her band use all of their musical influences to produce such an eclectic piece.
I saw them on a cold night at Darlington Arts Centre and enjoyed the show although I did find Belinda a little wearing at times. Her musical talents were great but I did not warm to her attempts to dominate the band. Anyway, that was how I saw it.
I hope that Rachel continues to be Rachel. If people don't like her style, they don't have to listen or go see her. Best of luck to anyone who can make a living from doing something they enjoy - let's rule Sam Allardyce out of that then.
Posted by: Pete Sixsmith | February 04, 2008 at 11:42 AM