Rachel Unthank: the big interview (1)
February 01, 2008
NOTE FROM COLIN RANDALL 20/3/2019: I have noticed a lot of traffic to this article from Facebook. Could anyone tell me in the Comments below (open to all) where on Facebook the link appeared? Couldn't locate it at the Unthanks page. Just curious ...
You like a band and you say so. You dislike them and say so, too, or you just ignore them. So far so good.
What is it about Rachel Unthank and the Winterset that makes certain people feel so angry and - as it seems to me - so embittered that they are happy to descend into a trough of abuse, some of it fairly mindless, in order to say not much more than, "I don't like them"?
Anyone who has visited the Mudcat folk discussion site in the last couple of weeks, and strayed into a thread about the women who make up that band, will know that for some people, measured comment and reasonably stated dissent are just not enough.
Rachel Unthank, her sister Becky and - to a lesser extent - their colleagues have come up against a snarling face of Mudcat (a site, as it happens, that I greatly enjoy most of the time). Rachel has seen what has been written about her and, it is fair to say, finds some of it unsettling.
More of that later. For Salut! Live has now interviewed Rachel at length. She has given full and extraordinarily candid responses to a series of difficult questions (and some trite ones). And she has dealt squarely with the Mudcat debate.
Her answers are so comprehensive and illuminating that I propose to run them in full, starting what is for me this morning (Saturday) but will be for others tonight (Friday). There will also be a separate posting dealing with the bizarre attacks on the band for having secured a licensing deal with EMI.
And Rachel has given an entertaining snapshot of herself and her life, her likes and dislikes in a Q&A that I will find room for somewhere.
Keep coming back and you won't miss any of it. Not everyone doing so will agree with my support for the band, as a fan who happens to have a platform (as I've been known to say before), and some will object to my criticism of the tone of some of the attacks on them.
My comment section is open to all reactions, subject to the usual limits. And my view that The Bairns is a "brilliant" album is worth no more than that of someone who found it a heap of tosh. Visit the Mudcat thread yourselves to decide whether everything that appears there meets ordinary standards of decent discussion.
And now hear Rachel as she speaks for herself (we reach the controversial bits later)..................
Salut! Live: Congratulations on your brilliant most recent album and the warm acclaim it has received. I found the first CD, Cruel Sister, good but not outstanding. Were you conscious of having made significant progress between the two?
Definitely. When we made the first album we basically recorded all our favourite songs. They were mostly songs that we had been singing for years, in folk clubs, at home with our family, and were what we instinctively gravitated towards. Simply pushing ourselves beyond the fear of recording our first album, which was a scary prospect, felt like a major achievement. The progression from Cruel Sister to The Bairns was a natural evolution really. Cruel Sister was the first time Becky and I had worked with these musicians, and no sooner had we come up with arrangements, they were recorded very quickly. The recordings are almost like sketches really. The Bairns gave us chance to explore and develop the more successful soundscapes on Cruel Sister. We had already drawn on our most obvious material for Cruel Sister, so with The Bairns we went away and consciously looked for material. We all pushed ourselves in rehearsals, trying to not stick with the first thing we thought of, but to explore each piece of music fully. Each band member was integral to this but, Adrian had a much clearer sense of an overall vision for the album and was integral in the creative process. He also has a great skill of getting the best out of us. I think it was natural process of progress as we began to take our music more seriously. Also the first album gave us the faith and confidence to be braver and bolder.
Was there ever a time you wondered whether The Bairns would work? Conversely, was there a moment when it dawned on you that you were creating something special?
Listening to it for the first time and realising that all those long nights recording in a cupboard under the stairs and all the mad ideas that worked their way in, have converged into something that you are proud of. That was a moment when we all felt excitement, satisfaction and relief. This was coupled with a realisation that it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. We took a lot of risks with this album and were a bit nervous that the folk world would reel in horror. I’m from that world myself, and have a natural fear of what people might make of our music, which is born out of a respect for the people who carry these traditions. The album is very special to us personally. It was recorded at a turbulent time for us and has been a partly cathartic experience. We were all very committed and excited about the album from the beginning.
How important were the others (The Winterset) to the sound? I remember ruing how little space I had in the Daily Telegraph to review it because I wanted to say a lot more about their contributions.
The way the Winterset works is that whoever is currently in the band, we try to draw on each other as much as possible. Each member is hugely important. Myself and Becky bring most of the material to the band. We always have an idea of the story that we want to tell musically and work with Belinda (O'Hooley, who has now left the band) and Niopha (Keegan) to realise this. The harmonies usually come from me and Becky too as it is natural for us to work together and then bring them to the others. A key element to our sound is that there are really two lead singers and Becky’s unusual voice really lends a different edge. Belinda and her piano obviously provide a core basis to our sound and her inventive playing and beautiful song writing has been wonderful to draw on. She has a talent to be able to translate our ideas in a non obvious way as she draws on a different musical vocabulary. Niopha for me really consolidates the Winterset’s sound, drawing it back to the traditional and underpinning the atmosphere. Her honest yet expressive playing also provides a foil to Belinda’s more extravagant style. There has also always been an invisible member in this band and that’s Adrian McNally. He has been integral to the Winterset’s sound, from introducing me and Becky to Belinda, being the translator of ideas from mine and Becky’s imaginations to Belinda’s playing, to arranging some of the tracks ( in Felton Lonnen he wrote the string parts, double bass, piano and percussion parts ), suggesting songs like Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song, pushing us all to get the best out of us and having an over arching vision of how the album would sound and could be pieced together. Basically we all have strong ideas of how we want or don’t want to sound, so everybody has to be happy with the outcome. This means that each piece goes through a number of filters before we are even half way there.
Part 2: Rachel Unthank answers the snipers