The Unthanks

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The Unthanks
The Unthanks in Bury 1.jpg
The Unthanks at Castle Armoury Drill Hall, Bury, Greater Manchester, on 17 October 2015
Background information
Origin UK
Genres Folk
Years active 2004–present
Labels Rabble Rouser, EMI (UK), Rough Trade (rest of the world)
Members Rachel Unthank (voice, cello, kalimba, feet);
Becky Unthank (voice, autoharp, feet);
Adrian McNally (piano, dulcitone, autoharp, marimba, celeste, kalimba, Fender Rhodes piano, chord organ, glockenspiel, Indian harmonium, percussion, drums, voice);
Niopha Keegan (violin, voice);
Chris Price (guitar, bass, ukulele, dulcitone, voice)
Past members Belinda O'Hooley (piano, voice);[1][2]
Jackie Oates (violin, voice);[1][2]
Stef Conner (piano, voice)[1][2]
Rachel Unthank and the Winterset at Germany’s folk, roots and world music festival TFF Rudolstadt, 2009

The Unthanks (until 2009, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset)[1][3] are an English folk group known for their eclectic approach in combining traditional English folk, particularly Northumbrian folk music, with other musical genres.[4][nb 1][nb 2] Their debut album, Cruel Sister, was MOJO magazine's Folk Album of the Year in 2005. Their seven subsequent albums have each received four or five-starred reviews in the British national press.


Rachel Unthank and the Winterset[edit]

Cruel Sister[edit]

Originally an all-female band, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset made their debut performance at Towersey Village Festival in August 2004[2] and, on 11 May 2005, launched their debut album Cruel Sister at Holmfirth Folk Festival.[2]Cruel Sister received support from a number of DJs on BBC Radio 2 and was subsequently awarded Folk Album of the Year by MOJO magazine.[5]

The Bairns[edit]

Becky and Rachel Unthank with Niopha Keegan at TFF Rudolstadt, 2009
Becky and Rachel Unthank with Niopha Keegan at Castle Armoury Drill Hall, Bury, Greater Manchester, on 17 October 2015
The Unthanks at Castle Armoury Drill Hall, Bury, Greater Manchester, on 17 October 2015
The Unthanks at Castle Armoury Drill Hall, Bury, Greater Manchester, on 17 October 2015

Their follow-up album, The Bairns, released on 20 August 2007,[6] was nominated for the Best Album award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2008[7] and was runner-up for the 2008 Mercury Prize.[8] The album debuted in the UK Top 200 Albums Chart at number 178 in the week after the Mercury Prize award ceremony.[9] Reviewing The Bairns for BBC Music, Mel Ledgard described it as "an album with a cinematic quality, huge in dramatic atmosphere".[10] In a four-starred review, Robin Denselow of The Guardian nominated it as "one of the folk records of the year".[11]

The band were nominated for three further BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2008 (Best Band, Best Live Act, Horizon Award), and were successful in one category, receiving the Horizon Award at the ceremony in The Brewery, London.[12]

The Unthanks[edit]

Here's the Tender Coming[edit]

In 2009, the band became The Unthanks, and their manager Adrian McNally and his childhood friend Chris Price[13] joined the group. Here's the Tender Coming, their third album (and the first under The Unthanks moniker), was released on 14 September 2009.[3] It was Folk Album of the Year for The Guardian and also for MOJO magazine.[4] Sid Smith, of BBC Music, described it as an "astonishing record", "beautiful”, “haunting”, and “beguiling".[14] In a four-starred review for The Guardian, Colin Irwin said: "This album may not be quite as bleak as The Bairns, and the sound is more sophisticated, but they still sound like nobody else... Tracks build slowly and mysteriously, but all are in service of the song. Their arrangement of the title track − a traditional song about the emotional devastation wrought by press gangs − brilliantly encapsulates the story's fraught desperation. Their version of Nobody Knew She Was There, one of Ewan MacColl's lesser-known songs about his mother, painstakingly paints a similarly dramatic backdrop with more atmospheric brass, and they put their own stamp on the Nic Jones classic, Annachie Gordon."[15]


Their fourth album, Last, was released on 14 March 2011, reaching number 40 in the UK albums chart, and received a five-starred review in the Sunday Express and four-starred reviews in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph. In his review for the Sunday Express, Martin Townsend proclaimed it "a gorgeously unhurried, utterly mesmerising masterpiece".[16] Thomas H Green of The Daily Telegraph said it was "string-laden and luscious but also delicate, wistful and melancholy".[17] Robin Denselow, for The Guardian, described it as "a bold and highly original set".[11] Sid Smith, for BBC Music, said that "Proving once again that sad songs are very often the best, their fourth album is brimming with material that is as haunting as it is beautiful."[18] Writing in NME, Anthony Thornton said that the album "proves the mix of Rachel and Becky’s voices to be one of the true wonders of 21st-century music".[19] As well as traditional material, the album included a song written by band member Adrian McNally ("Last"), and versions of songs by Jon Redfern ("Give Away Your Heart"), Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan ("No One Knows I'm Gone"), King Crimson ("Starless") and Alex Glasgow ("Close the Coalhouse Door").

The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons[edit]

In a departure from their usual practice of showcasing material from their studio albums, The Unthanks performed two concerts at London's Union Chapel on 8 and 9 December 2010 consisting entirely of material written by Robert Wyatt and by Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons.[20] The concerts were recorded, and The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, a live album based on these recordings, was released on 28 November 2011 to coincide with a UK tour. In a four-starred review, The Observer called the album "A triumphant excursion".[21]

The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band[edit]

In July 2011, starting with concerts at Durham Cathedral and at London's Barbican Hall, they began a UK tour with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, performing new brass arrangements of songs from all four Unthanks albums, as well as new material.[22] A live album, based on these concerts, was released in July 2012. In a four-starred review, Robin Denselow of The Guardian described the album as The Unthanks' boldest experiment yet.[23] In a five-starred review, Martin Townsend in the Daily Express said it was "easily the band’s best and most mature album to date".[24] The album is designated Vol. 2 in The Unthanks' Diversions series and follows on from Vol. 1 (The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons).

Songs from the Shipyards[edit]

Songs from the Shipyards, Vol. 3 in The Unthanks' Diversions series, was released in November 2012. This is a studio-recorded album of songs from a soundtrack, compiled by The Unthanks, which was first performed live in February 2011 at Newcastle upon Tyne’s Tyneside Cinema to accompany the showing of a documentary film by Richard Fenwick about the history of shipbuilding on the Tyne, Wear and Tees.[13][25][26] The album includes Elvis Costello's "Shipbuilding" and songs by Graeme Miles, Alex Glasgow, Archie Fisher, John Tams, Peter Bellamy and Jez Lowe, plus a centrepiece track, "The Romantic Tees", written by Adrian McNally. In a four-starred review The Observer's Neil Spencer described it as "a stark creation, using little more than piano, violin and voices" but said that its minimalism "lends poignancy to songs and poetry narrating the glory and grime of a vanished era".[27]

Mount the Air[edit]

Their album Mount the Air, released in February 2015, received five-starred reviews in The Daily Telegraph and The Irish Times. The Telegraph 's reviewer Helen Brown described the album as "a slow, swirling affair that mixes original material with traditional tales. Underpinned by McNally’s cool, fluid piano it’s simultaneously ancient and fresh."[28] Joe Breen, writing in The Irish Times, called it "their most ambitious work" and said that it "places them in the same league as the likes of The Gloaming and the Punch Brothers".[29] In a four-starred review for the Financial Times, David Honigmann said: "Once a bleak Northumbrian chamber folk outfit, the Unthanks have reinvented themselves on a symphonic scale, as witness the 10-minute title track, ushered in on harps and with an orchestration that recalls Gil Evans’s work for Miles Davis."[30] Robin Denselow, in a four-starred review for The Guardian, said: "This is a return to the gentle melancholia of Last, and while there are fine vocals from the Unthank sisters, the dominant figure is Rachel’s husband, Adrian McNally, who plays keyboards and percussion, and produced and wrote much of the music... It’s a lush, often exquisite set".[31] Teddy Jamieson, writing in the Sunday Herald, said: "The Unthanks return with an album that takes the folk tradition the sisters grew up on and sails it into wilder waters... Folk's storytelling tradition is still very much at the heart of this album. But what thrills here is the sense of scale at play in the music, the unrushed, easeful way the musicians stretch into songs, let them linger without ever overstaying their welcome. That and the earthy humanity of the sisters' voices."[32] However, The Observer's Neil Spencer bucked the trend, giving the album three stars, and criticising the "ambitious but lumbering orchestration... Two instrumentals eschew the group’s strength; more voices please".[33]

Memory Box[edit]

In October 2015 they announced the forthcoming release, in December, of a limited edition CD, a new Christmas 7" single (the first Unthanks single to be issued in this format) and other items to commemorate the band's 10th anniversary. The CD will include exclusive live tracks, demos and outtakes and BBC session tracks.[34]

Other recordings[edit]

Rachel Unthank provided vocals and cello on Simon Haworth's 1998 album Coast to Coast[35] and on his 2003 album Taking Routes.[36] She also played cello on Julian Sutton's 2005 album Melodeon Crimes.[37] Rachel Unthank and Adrian McNally provided backing vocals on Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell's 2010 EP The North Farm Sessions and on their 2011 album Kite.[38] Becky Unthank provided vocals and music boxes on Martin Green's 2014 album Crows' Bones and co-wrote two of the songs.[39] She and Rachel are featured on Sting’s 2013 album, The Last Ship.

The 2012 album Harbour of Songs, produced by Adrian McNally, featured The Unthanks in two songs, "The Ruler" with Nick Hornby and "Dream of a Tree in a Spanish Graveyard" with Ian MacMillan.[40] In 2015, The Unthanks contributed vocals to the song "A Forest" from the album 8:58, a project by Paul Hartnoll.[41]


In 2012, Rachel Unthank performed songs in a podcast for The Guardian on Royalty and the English folk song.[42]

Television and radio[edit]

On 16 December 2012 (repeated on 4 March 2013), The Unthanks presented A Very English Winter: The Unthanks, a one-hour television programme on BBC Four.[43] This showed the customs that people celebrated on different days of the later autumn and winter, and ended with information about the famous Pancake Race at Olney.

Rachel and Becky Unthank and Adrian McNally hosted an Easter-themed programme that was broadcast on BBC Radio 6 Music on 6 April 2015. It consisted of two hours of music by P J Harvey, Ben Folds, Eliza Carthy, Louis Armstrong and other personal favourites from their own record collections, followed by three hours of BBC archive live music and vintage BBC documentaries.[44]

Personal lives[edit]

Rachel and Becky Unthank are sisters, born seven and a half years apart, who grew up in Ryton, Tyne and Wear. Rachel graduated from Glasgow University and Becky went to Manchester Metropolitan University. Their father, George Unthank, is an interior designer[45] and a well-known local Northumberland folk singer in a group called the Keelers, named after the boatmen who sailed the Tyne.[13][46][47][48] Their mother sings in folk choirs.[47]

Rachel is married to group member Adrian McNally who is also the group's manager, musical arranger and producer.[13][25][49] They have two sons: George, born in 2011;[22] and Arthur, born in 2014.[50]

Niopha Keegan comes from an Irish background and these influences can be heard in her playing.


Rachel Unthank and the Winterset[edit]

Album Release date
Cruel Sister 11 May 2005
The Bairns 20 August 2007

The Unthanks[edit]

Album Release date Notes
Here's the Tender Coming 14 September 2009
Last 14 March 2011
The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons 28 November 2011 Vol 1 in The Unthanks' Diversions series
The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band 30 July 2012 Vol 2 in The Unthanks' Diversions series
Songs from the Shipyards 5 November 2012 Vol 3 in The Unthanks' Diversions series
Mount the Air 9 February 2015
EP Release date Notes
"Lucky Gilchrist" (Single edit) (Adrian McNally)[1]/ "Tar Barrel in Dale" (Live) (George Unthank)[48]/ "Sexy Sadie" (Lennon and McCartney) 30 November 2009 "Lucky Gilchrist" is a single edit of one of the tracks on The Unthanks' Here's the Tender Coming album. "Sexy Sadie" first appeared on the MOJO covermount CD album of Beatles covers, MOJO Presents the White Album. "Tar Barrel in Dale" is taken from a live performance on Radcliffe and Maconie, BBC Radio 2, on 23 December 2008
Singles Release date Notes
"Last" (Radio edit) (Adrian McNally) 13 June 2011 From the album Last
"Mount the Air" (Single version) (Adrian McNally/Traditional/Becky Unthank)/[51] "Died for Love" (Traditional, arranged by Adrian McNally) 8 December 2014[52] From the album Mount the Air
"Flutter" (Becky Unthank/Adrian McNally) 16 February 2015 From the album Mount the Air
"Died For Love" (Traditional, arranged by Adrian McNally) 8 June 2015[53] From the album Mount the Air

Various artists[edit]

Album Release date Notes
Oak, Ash, Thorn 21 February 2011 The Unthanks perform one track: "Oak, Ash and Thorn" (Traditional, arranged by The Unthanks)


  1. ^ Ed Rex (10 December 2011). "Singing Siblings". The Spectator. Retrieved 9 December 2011.  "They may call themselves folk musicians, but it is the strains of jazz, foreign scales and other unlikely influences that set The Unthanks apart from the rest of the Neo-folk movement."
  2. ^ Graeme Thomson (2011). "The Unthanks – Last". Uncut. Retrieved 24 June 2014.  "The Unthanks seem to regard folk music the same way Miles Davis regarded jazz: as a launchpad for exploring the wider possibilities."


  1. ^ a b c d e David Honigmann (21 August 2009). "Rachel and Becky Unthank's new band". Financial Times. Retrieved 26 May 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "The Unthanks Biography". 2008. Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  3. ^ a b Steve Drayton (4 September 2011). "BBC Introducing: New name and sound for The Unthanks". BBC Local/Tyne. Retrieved 25 May 2011. 
  4. ^ a b "The Unthanks: Biography". The Guardian. 4 June 2010. Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  5. ^ Julian White. "Mojo Recording Of The Year 2005". Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  6. ^ "Rachel Unthank / Rachel Unthank & the Winterset The Bairns". AllMusic. August 2007. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  7. ^ "BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards: 2008 Nominations". BBC. Retrieved 29 January 2008. 
  8. ^ Kitty Empire (6 June 2010). "The Unthanks". The Observer. Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  9. ^ "Official Album Chart for the week ending 20 September 2008". ChartsPlus (Milton Keynes: IQ Ware Ltd) (369): 5–8. 
  10. ^ Mel Ledgard (30 July 2008). "Folk song is all about connection and communication – gifts that are second nature...". BBC Music, BBC website. Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  11. ^ a b Robin Denselow (24 August 2007). "Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, The Bairns". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  12. ^ "BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards: 2008 Winners and nominees". BBC. Retrieved 20 February 2008. 
  13. ^ a b c d Tim Adams (27 February 2011). "The Unthanks: 'We're miserable buggers and not afraid of it'". The Observer. Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  14. ^ Sid Smith (2 October 2009). "Here’s the Tender Coming raises the group’s standard higher still". BBC Music, BBC website. Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  15. ^ Colin Irwin (6 September 2009). "The Unthanks: Here’s the Tender Coming". The Observer. Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  16. ^ Martin Townsend (13 March 2011). "Album review – The Unthanks: Last (Rabblerouser/EMI)". Sunday Express (London). Retrieved 24 August 2014. 
  17. ^ Thomas H Green (11 March 2011). "'Last' by The Unthanks' is luscious and delicate". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  18. ^ Sid Smith (3 March 2011). "Brimming with material that is as haunting as it is beautiful". BBC Music, BBC website. Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  19. ^ Anthony Thornton (16 March 2011). "Album Review: The Unthanks - Last (Rabble Rouser)". NME. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  20. ^ Andy Gill (23 October 2011). "The Unthanks play Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons, Union Chapel, Islington". The Independent. Retrieved 21 November 2015. 
  21. ^ Neil Spencer (20 November 2011). "The Unthanks: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons – review". The Observer. Retrieved 30 November 2011. 
  22. ^ a b Adrian McNally (8 September 2011). "The Unthanks get tender with brass". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  23. ^ Robin Denselow (26 July 2012). "The Unthanks with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band: Diversions Vol 2 – review". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 July 2012. 
  24. ^ Martin Townsend (26 July 2012). "CD Review: The Unthanks, Diversions Vol 2". Daily Express (London). Retrieved 15 August 2012. 
  25. ^ a b Tamsin Lewis (25 June 2013). "Unthanks soundtrack brings life to shipyards film". The Journal (Newcastle-upon-Tyne). Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  26. ^ Jeff Brown (23 February 2011). "The Unthanks celebrate Tyneside shipbuilding heritage". BBC Local/Tyne. Retrieved 1 November 2015. 
  27. ^ Neil Spencer (28 October 2012). "The Unthanks: Songs from the Shipyards – review". The Observer. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  28. ^ Helen Brown (7 February 2015). "Mount the Air, The Unthanks, review: 'a slow, swirling affair'". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  29. ^ Joe Breen (26 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount The Air Album Review". The Irish Times. Retrieved 4 April 2015. 
  30. ^ David Honigmann (6 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount The Air — review". Financial Times. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  31. ^ Robin Denselow (5 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount the Air review – exquisitely melancholic folk". The Guardian. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  32. ^ "The Unthanks: Mount The Air (Rabble Rouser)". Sunday Herald (Glasgow). 8 February 2015. Retrieved 11 February 2015. 
  33. ^ Neil Spencer (8 February 2015). "The Unthanks: Mount the Air review – more voices please". The Observer. Retrieved 4 April 2015. 
  34. ^ Alex Gallacher (30 October 2015). "Memory Box – Limited Edition 10th Anniversary Box of Unthanks Treasure". Music News. Folk Radio UK. Retrieved 1 November 2015. 
  35. ^ Reinhard Zierke (12 September 2014). "Coast to Coast". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 6 April 2015. 
  36. ^ Reinhard Zierke (12 September 2014). "Taking routes". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 6 April 2015. 
  37. ^ Reinhard Zierke (2 March 2013). "Melodeon Crimes". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 10 March 2015. 
  38. ^ Reinhard Zierke (30 January 2015). "Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 6 April 2015. 
  39. ^ Reinhard Zierke (2014). "Martin Green, Becky Unthank, Inge Thomson, Niklas Roswall: Crows' Bones". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  40. ^ Reinhard Zierke (21 February 2013). "Harbour of Songs". Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  41. ^ "Essential Signs Paul Hartnoll, Full Time Hobby and Peacefrog" (Press release). Name PR. 2 December 2014. Retrieved 9 March 2015. 
  42. ^ Guardian books podcast: Royalty and the English folk song. The Guardian (podcast). 1 June 2012. Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  43. ^ "A Very English Winter: The Unthanks". BBC Four. BBC. 4 March 2013. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  44. ^ "Easter Folk: the Unthanks". BBC Radio 6 Music. 6 April 2015. Retrieved 6 April 2015. 
  45. ^ Lynden Barber (11 January 2011). "North country sisters The Unthanks cast a spell". The Australian. Retrieved 8 September 2015. 
  46. ^ Peter Culshaw (17 April 2008). "Rachel Unthank: swapping clogs for high heels". The Sunday Telegraph (London). Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  47. ^ a b Colin Randall (1 February 2008). "Rachel Unthank: the big interview (2)". Salut!Live. Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  48. ^ a b "The Keelers: George Unthank" The Keelers official website. Retrieved 24 May 2011.
  49. ^ Robin Denselow (2 December 2009). "The Unthanks: Shepherd's Bush Empire, London". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 March 2015. 
  50. ^ "Arthur Unthank McNally". Facebook. The Unthanks. 8 March 2014. Retrieved 30 October 2015. 
  51. ^ "The Unthanks – Mount the Air: watch their new video". The Guardian. 11 November 2014. Retrieved 11 January 2015. 
  52. ^ Alex Gallacher (11 November 2014). "The Unthanks – New Album & Video: Mount The Air". Folk Radio UK. Retrieved 11 January 2015. 
  53. ^ Alex Gallacher (21 April 2015). "The Unthanks – New Single and Glastonbury Main Stage". Music news. Folk Radio UK. Retrieved 1 May 2015. 

External links[edit]