I’ll say this for The Unthanks. When they decide to have an album launch in their backyard, they don’t scrimp on the catering. (I could and will say a lot more about the Mercury Prize-nominated folk outfit, but let’s stick with the hospitality kudos for now.)
On arrival at the band’s Northumberland studio, near Corbridge, as the sun set on a Sunday afternoon, there was a lot of bustle going on – mainly related to the buffet which was brimming with home-cooked delights for an invited audience which was to include Maximo Park’s Paul Smith and award-winning children’s author, David Almond.
Having catered for more than my fair share of parties over the years, the mother in me immediately sensed an extra pair of hands wouldn’t go amiss. And so I took responsibility for the dessert display – paying particular attention to the fish biscuits, which had been made by Rachel Unthank her very self.
I like to think that although I had very little – or more accurately, absolutely nothing – to do with the creation of the band’s latest studio album, Mount The Air, at least I made a small contribution to celebrating its release.
“I have to say the fish biscuits were laid out in a pretty wonderful way,” says Rachel a few days later when we catch up for an album chat. “I’m going to put them out like that always.”
No need to ask me what I was most proud of that week.
The Unthanks, on the other hand, had much more to be pleased with themselves about.
After unveiling the album via a three-part vinyl celebration (and accompanying tummy treats) in the studio where it was recorded, the band – Rachel and Becky Unthank, pianist and producer Adrian McNally (also Rachel’s husband), Chris Price on guitar and bass, and Niopha Keegan on fiddle and vocals – travelled down to London for a launch in the capital.
“It was lovely to listen to the album with everyone at home,” says Rachel. “It was a cosy night and we had lots of friends and family there, so it felt like a real celebration. Then the one in London was great too, if a little scary.”
That may have been because veteran music journalist Paul Morley was there asking questions, while a Hobbit DJ took charge of the decks (aka long-time Unthanks devotee, actor Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins in the international film franchise and says of the band: “They make my heart beat faster, or smile a lot, or cry. I’m glad to be around at the same time as them.”) Rachel laughs. “Me and Becky have often been accused of being Hobbits, because we’re so little, so he was in good company. “It was lovely to meet him finally. It’s lovely that you never know where your music ends up. People form their own relationships with it.”
And they certainly seem to be quickly forming an attachment to the band’s latest album, Mount The Air, if early reviews and social media buzz is anything to go by.
“You can’t help but be nervous, but as long as you are proud of it and happy with it, that’s all you can really aim for,” says Rachel. “If you feel good about it and someone else doesn’t like it, then that’s fine. It’s not going to be for everybody. That said, if people do really enjoy it, you feel like you’ve been successful in communicating the ideas and stories and the songs, so that’s always lovely.”
Their first studio long-player in four years, Mount the Air is the first to come out of their own studio, 200 yards from where Rachel and Adrian live with their two young sons, George, two, and Arthur, 11 months.
Not that the BBC Folk Award winners have been on a hiatus, mind you. The intervening years have seen them keep more than busy with major side projects like the acclaimed Songs from the Shipyards; their live and recorded collaboration with Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band; and working with Sting on the music for his musical The Last Ship.
“It has been wonderful doing the diversion stuff,” says Rachel. “But when you are doing a studio album it’s like being back to your true self and you can go wherever you want. That’s always exciting and challenging. In a way you don’t know what you’re aiming for, so it’s often a longer journey.”
Two years in the making, the band say Mount the Air is ‘musically more ambitious than ever’, including a 10-minute title track.
As well as offering them the chance to “be The Unthanks again”, the album stands apart from those which have gone before (Cruel Sister, The Bairns, Here’s The Tender Coming and Last) in that it’s the first time all five core members have got a writing credit in the mix.
“I suppose it does make you a little bit more nervous (having your own songs on there) but at the same time, it wasn’t planned,” says Rachel, who put pen to paper for the first time for Last Lullaby. “It’s hard to say what kind of style the album is really. Me and Becky are very much rooted in the North East and in the singing tradition here, so that is very much at the core of what we do, but we’re massive music lovers and listen to all different kinds of music from all different genres.
“We use lots of strings and brass and piano and bass and lots of harmonies... with a little bit of clog dancing thrown in.”
And North East fans of the band will be seeing all of the above when The Unthanks take to the stages of Newcastle City Hall and Middlesbrough Town Hall in March.
“It’s really exciting to be surrounded by all those musicians and that lovely palette of sounds,” says Rachel. “It’s really lovely to perform with a big band. Although the three of us (Rachel, Becky and Niopha) love singing in unaccompanied harmony, it does feel like there’s strength in numbers.
“We can’t wait to get out there - and it will be the first time we’ve played the City Hall, where we’ve seen so many other things - the last being my mam in the Werca’s Folk choir during the St Oswald’s competition. They won, so we have a lot to live up to,” she laughs.
Once the UK tour is finished, Rachel says they will be looking to book some dates in Europe and Australia.
“Before that we have lots of festivals in the summer to play at too, which we love. Part of the reason me and Becky got some songs together in the first place was so we could go to folk festivals for free. We had to have a song for family parties and thought, ‘well, maybe if we have a few, we could get some tickets for a festival’. That’s how we got started.”