Rachel Unthank In-depth Biography
Steeped in the musical heritage and folklore so abundant in the northeast of England, Rachel Unthank and her younger sister Becky found a fresh way of presenting the songs, stories, and customs of their home area around Ryton, Newcastle, to a young new audience. Oddly given their rich traditional credentials and proud determination to show off the pure roots of their music, they quickly gained acceptance and acclaim beyond the established folk scene, yet were initially regarded with suspicion by the folk music heartland. This was perhaps due to a dual maverick spirit that fully manifested itself in experiments with left-field pop material when they formed a four-piece band the Winterset, as likely to perform the songs of Robert Wyatt, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and Antony and the Johnsons as traditional ballads.
Brought up in a musical environment (both parents sang), Rachel and Becky were raised with folk music and strongly influenced as children by the storytelling properties of folk song and seeing great traditional singers like Sheila Stewart. In addition to an enthusiasm for singing and playing (Rachel plays cello, Becky plays fiddle), they both became adept clog dancers. Rachel learned her craft at the famous folk club run by the Elliot family of Birtley, Durham, but hid herself in various bands until Becky (eight years younger) was old enough to appear with her and she found the courage to take center stage. Rachel's full-on, unaffected Geordie vocal style contrasted sharply with Becky's more melancholy, seductive approach, and their arresting harmony singing brought them much attention when, mostly unaccompanied, they sang at festivals like Sidmouth, Whitby, and Bromyard.
Heading for Manchester University, it was by no means certain that the teenage Becky Unthank wanted to embark on a music career, so when Adrian McNally invited the sisters to record their first album on his RabbleRouser label in 2005, a reluctant Rachel was given top billing. Brought in as session musicians on the album, pianist Belinda O'Hooley and fiddle player Jackie Oates (the younger sister of Jim Moray) stayed to join Rachel and Becky and they formed the band Rachel Unthank & the Winterset. Including an eight-minute title track and the great ballad "Flower of Northumberland" alongside material by Cyril Tawney ("Monday Morning"), Nick Drake ("River Man"), and Alex Glasgow ("20 Long Weeks") and a live recording featuring Redcar Sword Dancers, their bold though cheaply recorded debut album, Cruel Sister, ended up as Mojo magazine's folk album of the year and received mainstream radio airplay. It was enhanced by the band's steadily growing confidence as a live outfit with a rampant sense of humor and the capacity to move from displays of clog dancing to deep, complex arrangements of contemporary material.
Jackie Oates quit the band early in 2007 following the success of her own self-titled solo album (she later joined Tim van Eyken's band). Oates was replaced by Niopha Keegan, an Anglo-Irish fiddle player from St. Albans completing a folk music degree course in Newcastle. By this time, Belinda O'Hooley's larger than life personality and versatile, often surprising piano arrangements had become an integral element of the band. O'Hooley, a former U.K. winner of Stars in Their Eyes (impersonating Annie Lennox), had spent several years as an entertainer for residents of homes for the aged, and she integrated various styles of jazz, music hall, classical, and pop standards into her playing behind the Unthank sisters' singing. She even wrote a couple of the songs subsequently recorded on the band's second album, The Bairns, an even darker, more challenging, and remarkable effort than its predecessor that included an inspired reworking of the old Sheila Stewart favorite "Blue Bleezing Blind Drink" and a haunting version of Robert Wyatt's "Sea Song." RabbleRouser licensed the album for release by EMI in the summer of 2007 with a high-profile launch when the group became one of the hits at that year's Cambridge Folk Festival. ~ Colin Irwin, Rovi