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New band and album for The Unthanks' Belinda O'Hooley

AS tough decisions go, this was a toughy. Belinda O’Hooley was an integral part of a band which was tunefully travelling down the highway of commercial success, critical acclaim and international recognition at speed.

AS tough decisions go, this was a toughy. Belinda O’Hooley was an integral part of a band which was tunefully travelling down the highway of commercial success, critical acclaim and international recognition at speed.

But something wasn’t right... and after a lot of deep soul searching, she left.

That band was the Northumberland-bred Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, and Belinda was the lady in charge of the distinctive keyboards which featured on – among other things – the band’s Mercury Music Prize-nominated album, The Bairns.

“It was a difficult time, and a very, very difficult decision,” says Belinda.

“It took me quite a while to decide to move on. There were lots of triggers. As we were getting more and more successful, there were some brilliant things happening and it was all very exciting, but at the same time, I felt a bit straitjacketed.

“I couldn’t develop my own songwriting and other styles of music and just felt like I needed to make that break. It was a relief when I made the decision. But it wasn’t an easy one to make.” That was back in January 2008, just a few months before The Bairns’ Mercury nomination did what Mercury nominations do.

At that time, Belinda was spending some time, simply getting her life in Huddersfield – where the Leeds-born singer had gone to university and subsequently met Rachel and Becky Unthank – back to normal.

“Having come out of the band, I had a lot more time, and I didn’t actually do anything for about six months.

“But starting to write songs and writing music, together with meeting Heidi (Tidow a fellow singer/songwriter), made me realise there was still all of this creativity in me.

“I wasn’t sure which direction to take it, but it was almost like it was organised for me. I was getting asked by lots of people in the folk world when I was going to do an album and start performing again. That gave me the nudge to say ‘right, I’m gonna do it’.”

And do it she – or should I say they – have. Under the monika O’Hooley and Tidow, Belinda and Heidi, who are partners in life as well as work, released their debut album, Silent June, to a raft of reviews that glow, in February.

“We got all these festival slots last year, without even having an album... and all these people were wanting to buy something from us, and we hadn’t recorded anything to sell to them,” says Belinda.

“So we saved up all the money and recorded the album at home. We bought all the equipment and used the piano which was used in The Bairns.”

It was an instrument Belinda couldn’t get away from – in more ways than one.

“Recording the album was very full on. In our house, the downstairs is just one big massive room and we had to move the piano into the middle of the lounge to get the microphones round it. We had a string quartet playing and various guest musicians too.

“We’ve got a really old Victorian house with thick walls, thank goodness,” she laughs when I wonder whether her neighbours now count themselves as fans.

“We’ve got no-one living on one side and the lady who lives on the other side was apparently really enjoying it. She’s not moved out anyway, so that’s a good sign.”

Belinda, who comes from a big Irish family of traditional music lovers and players, says anyone who enjoyed The Bairns, will find similarities as well as differences throughout the 11 tracks on Silent June.

“I feel it’s a development from The Bairns,” she says.

“The signature sound I created on that album came out of the fact that it’s virtually impossible to accompany them (sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank).

“When I met Rachel and I heard her and Becky singing, I had never heard anything like it before. I was absolutely captivated by their singing. It was so beautiful and unusual.

“So, when I was in the Winterset, people would say they ‘loved the sparse, piano accompaniment’ – but the reason behind it was that if you put anything more on top, you would have spoiled what they were doing. It taught me to be very sparse in my piano playing, which I’ve kept.

“But there is much more of a classical feel with Silent June,” she continues.

“People have been calling it chamber folk. We didn’t tag it as that, but people who have reviewed it have put it in that category.”

This week, a North East audience can decide for themselves when Belinda and Heidi, together with violinist Anna Esslemont, from BBC folk award-winning band Uiscvdwr, perform at The Cumberland Arms in Byker on Saturday.

“I’m really excited and looking forward to playing The Cumberland again,” says Belinda.

“When I was in the Winterset, we did an amazing gig there and recorded it.”

It’s nice to hear that she looks back on her time with the Northumberland band with fondness.

“Absolutely,” she says, “and I really wish them well... and they’re doing really well. It’s great to see that they’re able to keep it going and sing those songs all over the world.”

O’Hooley and Tidow play The Cumberland Arms on May 8. Call 0191 265 1725.

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