THE UNTHANKS – Lines (RRM021S / RRM021SLP)

LinesLines is a trilogy of song cycles inspired by poetry, focusing on three female perspectives across time: Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca; World War One poets; and writer Emily Brontë. Lines is available on general release from February 22nd .

After discovering Brian Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries, the actor and writer Maxine Peake created the play The Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca as part of Hull’s hugely successful City of Culture events. Bilocca was the woman who changed policy and regulations following the loss of three trawlers in close succession in early 1968. She led women from the Hessle Road area of Hull (where many of the trawlermen came from) in protest against the lack of safety in the trawling industry. The protests led to a meeting with the government in London and then to eighty-eight safety measures being enacted.

The play had an original live score by The Unthanks and this album has five tracks. The music is predominantly written by Adrian McNally. A couple of the songs have lyrics by Peake – but the album also includes Bolling and Fishman’s ‘Lonesome Cowboy’ (which is a surprise until you relate the lyrics to the long journeys of the trawlermen). I didn’t get back to Hull to see the play, but based on this album, I regret it even more than I did at the time – the music is magnificently atmospheric, with rich but hushed tone set by McNally’s piano and supported by equally soft vocal and playing from the rest of the band.

It isn’t possible to understand Hull, particularly West Hull, without understanding its trawling history. Peake’s play with its focus on the events of 1968 has helped unite this fishing tradition into the modern city of culture. To give an idea of the significance of the women’s protests, Brian Lavery quotes one of Bilocca’s colleagues on her return to Hull from London as saying that the women of Hessle Road “did more in six days than Trade Unions and politicians had done in a century”. The definitions of folk music are many and varied but one of them is “the people’s music”. The Unthanks album will help preserve the story of Lillian Bilocca and the Headscarf Revolutionaries. It will also widen the audience that knows the story.

Mike Wistow

The second part of Lines comprises six songs concerning the Great War and, of course, there is a back story. The songs were originally written for a project marking the beginning of the war and have now been recorded to mark its end. Such projects tend to be collaborative affairs and so the first voice we hear isn’t an Unthank but Sam Lee who sings the first part the long opener ‘Roland And Vera’. Roland was Roland Leighton who was shot and killed two days before Christmas 1915 and Vera was his fiancée Vera Brittain. The song is based on her memoir and there’s lots about her to look up.

‘Everyone Sang’ is the first set of words by a contemporary poet, in this case Siegfried Sassoon with music by Tim Dalling who also sings on this recording. Sassoon was also responsible for the harrowing ‘Suicide In The Trenches’. Adrian McNally takes over as composer from this point beginning with ‘War Film’ by Teresa Hooley, although the poem was probably written in the 1920s. We don’t often think of women as war poets but Jessie Pope, who wrote the final piece ‘Socks’ is one such. Wilfred Owen dedicated Dulce Et Decorum Est to her which shows the regard in which she was held at the time.

The short poem ‘Breakfast’ was written by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, the leading Georgian poet. It’s typical of the way wrote about the minutiae of life and The Unthanks expand it including lines from ‘Hanging On The Old Barbed Wire’ which are perfectly in keeping. The music is, perhaps inevitably, dominated by McNally’s piano with extra strings brought in to bolster Niopha Keegan’s fiddle and Chris Price’s bass and guitar

Dai Jeffries

As the concluding part of The Unthanks’ Lines trilogy, part three is based on the poetic works of Emily Brontë. Commissioned by the Brontë Society to commemorate the bicentenary of Wuthering Heights, this set of scored poems also forms an audio trail around the Haworth Parsonage (until 31 March 2019; free, but equipment booking required).

Unlike the epic adventurousness of some of their more recent work, this album has a direct simplicity, featuring only Rachel and Becky Unthank’s voices accompanied by Adrian McNally’s piano. McNally composed and performed on the parsonage’s 5-octave cabinet piano, which no doubt informed the hypnotic minimalism of the resulting music. Ambient sounds derive from on-site recording sessions, which took place after museum hours.

As we enter ‘The Parsonage’ the crows take raucous flight from the churchyard next door. Opening the door, only footsteps and the chiming and ticking of clocks disturb the stifling stillness. Nature, time, death. A triumvirate of forces scouring across Emily Brontë’s life and work.

Brontë’s nature is not manicured or cultivated, but an untamed, raw beauty. As the little piano riffles of ‘High Waving Heather’ sketch in the endless moor-top breeze (just as likely to be a bitterly whipping wind!), Becky and Rachel sing alternate lines, before they run together in a harmonic stream.

Connecting with nature is therapeutic. ‘Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee’ makes a plaintive and heartfelt cry for its subject to re-embrace nature to gain relief from inner torment. Yet ‘Lines’ conveys the sadness of finding that nature cannot soothe those who do not allow it in.

‘Remembrance’ has been set to an arrangement of a traditional tune, which pairs very well with this heavily Romantic lament. But it’s the deceptively simple and placatory dissembling of ‘She Dried Her Tears And They Did Smile’, set to a slow waltz, that really gets under the skin.

Some of the songs comprise several poems in well-considered conjunctions, such as ‘Deep Deep Down In The Silent Grave’ partnered with the equally solemn ‘Oh Hinder Me By No Delay’. But it’s ‘The Night Is Darkening Around Me’ where the dread and defiance of “I will not, cannot go” is perfectly counterpointed by the tender ‘I’ll Come When Thou Art Saddest’. Bridging back to the first poem via a short poem fragment, ‘I Would Have Touched The Heavenly Key’, this is a delightfully constructed track.

The refrain of crows, clocks and footsteps opening ‘O Evening Why’ suggests this as a logical end to the album, but perhaps it’s just too downbeat, as Becky sings the first poem in a dirgey minor before Rachel joins with the equally tonally bleak ‘It’s Over Now; I’ve Known It All’. Instead, the brighter ‘I’m Happiest When Most Away’ escorts the listener back to the moors and leaves them contemplating the shifting night skies at the top of the world.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.the-unthanks.com

Recording the Brontë song cycle:

Towersey Festival announces top names

Towersey

Hothouse Flowers, Seth Lakeman, Steve Harley, and The Unthanks are among the acts headlining the 55th Towersey Festival.

The annual four-day folk and roots festival takes place from 23-26 August 2019, in Thame, Oxfordshire, and also boasts appearances from folk rock legends Oysterband, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, Two-Tone heroes The Selecter, and shanty singers Fisherman’s Friends.

Former buskers, Hothouse Flowers hit the international stage when Dublin hosted the Eurovision Song Content in 1988. Since performing as an ‘interval act’, they’ve forged a reputation as a blistering live band, combining rock, soul and folk.

Steve Harley emerged from the London acoustic scene in the early 1970s and set the charts alight. A contemporary of Bowie and T.Rex, his hits include summer anthem ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and the enduring ‘Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me)’.

Five years from his last appearance at the festival, Seth Lakeman arrives in the wake of an acclaimed globe-trotting stint as part of Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters. Expect to hear tracks from across the West Country musician’s career, including ninth album The Well Worn Path.

Remarkably, The Unthanks first ever live gig was at Towersey in 2004. Fifteen years on, and the Mercury Prize-nominated band have established themselves as one of contemporary music’s most inspiring, surprising and enquiring acts.

Also returning are Fisherman’s Friends. A huge success with audiences at 2018’s festival, the story of their incredible rise from Port Issac’s quayside to the UK album charts has now been turned into a film starring James Purefoy and Daniel Mays (in cinemas from 15 March 2019).

Others joining the line-up include Welsh/ African duo Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, winners of the fRoots Album of the Year 2018 Critics Poll; Show Of Hands’ guitarist Steve Knightley; BBC Scots Trad Music Award 2018’s Best Live Act, Elephant Sessions; and representing an exciting new generation of British singer-songwriters, troubadours Beans On Toast and Will Varley.

Towersey Festival Director Joe Heap said: “After an amazing 2018, we’ve really set out to capture what people love so much about the festival.

“As a result, 2019 is one of our most exciting and eclectic line-ups, with some of the biggest names in folk and roots music, from Seth and The Unthanks to shanty superstars Fisherman’s Friends, alongside major musicians from across the British Isles, Africa, and North America. There’s also the usual collection of names, such as Beans On Toast, who may be new to Towersey audiences, but who we know they’ll love.

“There’ll be loads of other surprises too,” enthuses Joe, who adds that further announcements are to follow shortly, including details of Saturday night’s headliner and more information about the festival’s celebration of the life and work of musician, tutor, activist and Towersey Patron Roy Bailey, who sadly passed away in November.

Situated in easy reach of London and Birmingham, on the Oxfordshire/ Buckinghamshire border, and established in 1965, Towersey is one of the UK’s longest running independent music festivals. Boasting nine venues, alongside an extensive music programme the festival also features over 30 hours of ceilidh, daily workshops, well-stocked bars, street food, spoken word, film screenings, roaming performers, an acclaimed programme of activities for children and younger festival-goers, and more.

Tickets for Towersey Festival, which runs from Friday 23 to Monday 26 August 2019 at Thame Showground in Oxfordshire, are available now (Tier 2) from £129 (adult), £120 (conc), £90 (youth), £65 (child). For further information, and to book, see: www.towerseyfestival.com

Adrian McNally talks to Dave Freak about The Unthanks and Molly Drake

Molly Drake
Photograph by Sarah Mason

The songs of Molly Drake have been slowly seeping into public consciousness for the best part of a decade. There was a fleeting glimpse of her home recordings on the Nick Drake-and-co compilation Family Tree in 2007, followed by an album of her home recordings in 2013. Tracey Thorn and Eliza Carthy are among the artists who’ve since recorded cover versions, but it’s arguably The Unthanks’ The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake which really pushes Molly into the spotlight.

Released last year as the fourth in The Unthanks’ ongoing Diversions series, the project (spread over two albums, the second billed as Extras) was created with the direct input of Molly’s daughter, actress Gabrielle Drake, and has been described by the band as some of their best work.

For many, Molly – who passed away in 1993 – has been simply the mother of treasured songwriter Nick Drake whose reputation, based on three previously obscure (though now ridiculously popular) albums, continues to grow. And while her influence on Nick has been acknowledged, the arrival of the private demos tell us she was more than a footnote, but an equally rare and impressive talent in her own right.

“Certainly I think that an element of Gabrielle’s motivation to release her mother’s music was to show the world that her brother, the troubled troubadour, who we are often encouraged to think was born into a stuffy upper middle class English family, with parents who didn’t understand him, in fact had a mother with as much emotional introspection and poetic articulacy as he,” says The Unthanks Adrian McNally. “We can see now that Nick was from a close and loving family, with inspiration and talent passed down.”

When it came to arranging Molly’s starkly recorded material the band explored two approaches.

“On some songs, we have been quite faithful and sympathetic. With others, we have created totally different chordal and arrangement structures, retaining Molly’s story, sentiments and tune, but removing the vernacular of the time she wrote them in, to present them in a way that hopefully shows the quality of the song as being completely independent of the music of the time,” says McNally.

“Some of the creativity that produced those results was born out of necessity. As a piano player, I do not have Molly’s chops. I am not versed in the styles and ornamentations of her day. In most cases, my starting point, which is a common one in The Unthanks, was to get Rachel or Becky to do an iPhone recording of themselves singing a Molly song unaccompanied. I work to that only, so I am free from and not influenced by the song’s original chords and voicings, which often results in a completely different sounding song – because of course, a melody can be given a totally different emotion resonance, if it is set to different chords or rhythms.

“Only in instances where that route proves to be a dead end, do I then go to Molly’s originals.

“This is not a hard and fast rule. There are some instances when just through listening, a decision is made to remain faithful, or that an alternative idea is instantly recognised.

“In all cases, it is the song that comes first,” he stresses. “If we rework, it’s because we can see another way of capturing or putting a different spin on the sentiment of the song, or if we don’t, it’s because we cannot see a better way of expressing the sentiment of the song.

Touring the album last year, McNally and the band were touched by the way audiences connected with the material.

“The show is very subtly lit, so it was more possible than normal, to see faces in the audience, and quite how many tears were being shed!” he says.

“Molly’s writing is the very essence of bittersweet. In defence of her mother’s leanings towards darkness, Gabrielle has said of her mother that ‘happiness was something she understood profoundly – the more so, because she was so conscious of its opposite – sorrow.

“It’s the understanding and acceptance of both as part of life that brings about the condition of yearning that is equal parts hopeful and melancholic, and it’s the equality between beauty and tragedy that breaks our hearts, I feel.”

And while the songs have been the main focus for many, as The Unthanks’ album rightly pointed out, there’s also Molly’s poems too, which were recorded for the project by Gabrielle.

“It’s not just the songs. Her poetry too, through Gabrielle’s performances, is incredibly effecting. Every one of Gabrielle’s performances caused a strong emotional reaction in me on first listen, be that tears or laughter – both of which were caused by the same ingredient – beauty.

“Molly’s messages are profound, but the joy I feel is towards the brilliance and precision with which the truth of that message is articulated. The success of any art should ultimately be judged on how successful the artist has been in conveying what they intended to.

“On those terms, Molly’s writing is amongst the best I’ve ever heard.”

Dave Freak

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The Unthanks perform The Songs Of Molly Drake at Lunar Festival (26-29 July 2018) in Tanworth-In-Arden, Warwickshire (the home of the Drake family) on Friday 27 July 2018. Other artists appearing at the festival include Goldfrapp, The Stranglers, Amadou and Mariam, Songhoy Blues, and Jane Weaver.

For more information, see: lunarfestival.co.uk

Promo video:

The 2018 Folking Awards

Welcome to the 2018 Folking Awards and thank you again to everyone who participated last year. The nominations, in eight categories, come from our ever-expanding team of writers and were wrangled into shape with considered argument and arm-wrestling by the Folkmeister and the Editor.

There are five nominees in each category, all of whom have impressed our writers during 2017.

As with the format last year, all are winners in our eyes, as are quite a few who didn’t make the short list. However, it’s not just down to what we think, so again, there will be a public vote to decide the overall winner of each category.

*The Public Vote for each category will close at 9.00pm on Sunday 1st April (GMT+1).


Soloist Of The Year

 Jon Boden
Ange Hardy
Daria Kulesh
Richard Thompson
Chris Wood


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!

 


Best Duo

Kate & Raphael
O’Hooley & Tidow
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman
Laura Smyth & Ted Kemp
Winter Wilson


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!

 


Best Band

Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys
Merry Hell
Peter Knight’s Gigspanner
Police Dog Hogan
The Unthanks


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!

 


Best Live Act

CC Smugglers
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
Fairport Convention
Lau
Merry Hell


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!

 


Best Album

Bring Back Home – Ange Hardy
Pretty Peggy – Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys
Long Lost Home – Daria Kulesh
A Pocket Of Wind Resistance – Karine Polwart/Pippa Murphy
Strangers – The Young ‘Uns


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!

 


Best Musician

Kevin Crawford
Seth Lakeman
Richard Thompson
Karen Tweed
Ryan Young


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!

 


Rising Star

Sam Brothers
Siobhan Miller
Jack Rutter
Sound Of The Sirens
The Trials Of Cato


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!!

 


Best International Artist

Rodney Crowell
Anna Coogan
Michael McDermott
Le Vent Du Nord
The Wailin’ Jennys


Public Vote

*And the winner is: Open envelope!

 


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Folkies 2018

You Are Wolf announces her second album

You Are Wolf
Photograph by Dannie Price

You Are Wolf is the alt-folk project of award-winning composer and vocalist Kerry Andrew. Releasing her second album Keld in March, it is the follow-up to her 2014 debut Hawk To The Hunting Gone, a record that explored British birds and folklore. Now working as a trio with multi-instrumentalist Sam Hall and percussionist Peter Ashwell, Keld – an old Northern English word meaning “the deep, still, smooth part of a river” – is an album that explores and develops the theme of freshwater. Wild swimming is a key passion and inspiration of hers, and she can often be found dipping into lochs, lakes, rivers and the sea in all weathers. Though there are countless traditional songs about the sea, there are less about our inland waterways, and Kerry decided to use this as a challenge: to source traditional material and write originals all inspired by freshwater folklore.

It was an aim of Kerry’s to find songs that featured an array of strong female characters, and Keld includes traditional songs about waterfall banshees, killer female water sprites, drowning boys and powerful witches. Original songs are inspired by wild swimming, vengeful rivers, nymphs and naiads, and even an Anglo-Saxon charm. You Are Wolf brings these ancient songs and stories into the present, with bold arrangements inspired by leftfield pop, new classical music and electronica.

The album is produced by MaJiker, best known for his work on French alt-pop queen Camille’s Victoire-winning albums. He has also remixed / worked with Fever Ray, Nitin Sahwney and Gaggle, and brings an experimental pop sensibility to the album. Where Hawk To The Hunting Gone was heavily vocal, with lots of vocal looping – inspired by the likes of Camille, Bobby Mcferrin, Meredith Monk and tUnE-yArDs – Keld is more expansive. With a wider palate of sounds including drums, ‘cello, vibraphone, trumpet, found sounds and field recordings, it’s an album that not only draws from innovative contemporary folk artists including Lisa Knapp (who features here on “The Weeper”), Sam Lee and The Unthanks, but also by music outside the folk sphere: everything from minimalist composer Steve Reich to PJ Harvey, traditional Central African Pygmy music and Julia Holter. The brilliant poet Robin Robertson also appears.

You Are Wolf is a regular on Radio 3’s The Verb and performed her debut short story with music on BBC Radio 4’s Stories From Songwriters series. Elsewhere, as Kerry Andrew, she is a composer of experimental vocal music and choral music, has a PhD in Composition and is the winner of four British Composer Awards. Kerry has written for The Guardian and is an occasional presenter on BBC Radio 3. Her debut novel, Swansong, based on a folk ballad, is published by Jonathan Cape on January 25th 2018. The novel has been praised by Robert Macfarlane as “spiky, strange and contemporary, but always with a dark undertow of myth and folklore tugging at its telling” and by folk legend Shirley Collins as “a subtle, supernatural tale told in a present-day voice.”

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‘All Things Are Quite Silent’ – live:

THE UNTHANKS – Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake / Extras (RabbleRouser Music RRM016/RRM017)

Diversions 4For this, their fourth volume of Diversions, the Unthanks have chosen The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake. Inspired by hearing the limited release 2012 CD of her works (a set of songs, accompanied by a booklet of poetry) and spurred on by a pre-existing love of her son Nick’s works, hindsight suggests there was a kind of inevitability to this project.

Molly Drake’s songs often offer poignant, emotional insights into some of the darker recesses of the human psyche. In my view, the songs generally work much better than the poems. Sometimes the poetry feels rather stiff, straining to perform within the chosen verse metre. Perhaps age has tarnished some of the phrases. The songs seem to give her more freedom, allowing her flashes of brilliance in observations, in the way she describes a feeling or a situation.

Of course, The Unthanks aren’t the only artists to have responded to Molly Drake. Eliza and Martin Carthy’s 2014 version of ‘Happiness’ featured a special live appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, by Gabrielle Drake, the stalwart custodian of her family’s legacy. The difference between their version and the one on this album is intriguing. The Carthys’ version seems more robust, whereas The Unthanks leave the song’s fragility nakedly exposed.

This album, too, features Gabrielle Drake, here reciting her mother’s lyrics. Look out for her – be quick! – at the final gig of the current tour at London’s Barbican Centre on 28 May. This will be her first live performance together with the band, as the recordings were all done separately.

Molly Drake’s song recordings were usually quite short and accompanied only by herself on piano. Recorded by her husband, at his insistence, they were not intended for public consumption and aren’t of studio quality. In fact, they can often sound decidedly quaint to modern ears, but they offer some delicately lovely melodies and quirky insights into dark recesses of the human psyche. But that’s not all and, as The Unthanks are at pains to explain, there is a dry humour and an unexpected optimism in many of the songs.

From this relatively raw material, Adrian McNally has done his usual stunning job of creating atmospheric, ethereal arrangements, either working with the original melodies or creating new and sympathetic ones. Becky and Rachel deliver their seemingly effortless yet otherworldly vocal performances with tenderness and care, supported by the other able musicians in the band.

‘Woods In May’ has been slowed down and made spookier; the added clarinet on ‘How Wild The Wind Blows’ emphasises the song’s wistfulness and ‘Soft Shelled Crabs’ – never recorded by Molly but given a delightful arrangement based on Gabrielle’s memories of her mother singing it – might, in our unkinder world nowadays, be retitled “snowflakes”.

‘I Remember’ seems like a wry take on ‘I Remember It Well’ from the musical, Gigi with its two souls not quite as united as they might like to imagine. ‘Never Pine For The Old Love’ is simply sound advice and quite a few of the songs deliver similar words of wisdom. By contrast, poems like ‘Night Is My Friend’ or ‘Two Worlds’ seem very raw, grief-riven and hollow-eyed, but their honesty is indisputable.

The Unthanks have delivered a beautiful album (and a half if you count the Extras – and you really should). It feels like a fragile thing, eggshell-delicate, something to treasure and keep for best.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: http://www.the-unthanks.com

Promo video: