If there was one folk act guaranteed to do a First World War project it was The Unthanks. After a few false starts, they have co-created a project with fellow Mercury Prize nominee Sam Lee.
A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War is a multi-media collaboration pulling together the distinctive voices of Lee, alongside sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, all under the watchful eye of Unthanks arranger Adrian McNally who has done so much to push their sound forward.
“We had a number of different World War One projects put to us but this felt like the right one given we were going to do something,” McNally tells Northern Soul. “Our main motivation was to do something around the subject and to work with Sam who we had been friends with, and fans of, for a long time.”
English folk has long been a musical chronicle of working class life so it seems like a good fit for the best contemporary folk acts around to reflect on a conflict that claimed the lives of so many young factory and mill workers.
“The show is still revealing itself to us as both our approach, and Sam’s, is to be like magpies picking source material from here, there and everywhere, and even with a few weeks to go we are still putting it together,” says McNally. “Sam almost had a project in itself last February when he went to the South West and spoke to local people and did some research to come up with ideas for new songs.
“I know other people who started off doing World War One projects and actually stopped because it is so overwhelming – the magnitude of the subject – and we gave up early on trying to tell some sort of linear story with a narrative. We chose instead to treat each piece individually and provide little snapshots and insights in small kitchen sink ways.”
The Unthanks have built a legion of devotes thanks to their determination to take on traditional folk songs with a new contemporary twist, rooted in the near-telepathic singing between the two sisters. What does this project mean to them?
“We’ve looked at a lot of war poetry and people have asked if it will be a sombre affair and are we in for a miserable night,” notes McNally. “It might well be, but I think in many respects the poems we have been drawn to are individual stories, but more that they were more love than war, death or strife.
“We are doing a poem called A War Film by Teresa Hooley that is about a woman who imagines her son going off to war. He is far too young at that point but she talks about what it would be like if he went to war. Ultimately the poem is an expression of her love for him and it’s that kind of perspective we are drawn to rather than trying to say all war is bad or something political.”
To help Lee and The Unthanks put their new songs into context they have recruited video designer Matthew J Watkins who worked with Gorillaz on Monkey – Journey to the West.
“It’s hard getting your head around what Matt intends,” says McNally. “A couple of years ago we created a live soundtrack to a film about shipyards, and it was very much about performing to that. The rehearsals were really quite tricky to sync up the music with the film, but Matt doesn’t work that way. It would be more accurate to describe him as like a VJ rather than filmmaker so what he will be doing live will be essentially live mixing visuals to what we do on stage.”
After this project The Unthanks are back to the day job, finishing off their new album before embarking on their biggest tour to date in 2015. So what can McNally tell Northern Soul about their eagerly awaited new release?
“It’s still under wraps as it isn’t finished yet but it’s not far off. It’s our first proper release that is not a project album since 2011 so it’s been a long time in the making.
“We’ve recorded it in our new studio just down the road from where Rachel and I live so we’ve been at it for two years – albeit Rachel and I did have kids in that time. It’s been a time when we’ve tried to step back from performing as after releasing those three Diversions albums in a year we felt like we needed to bugger off for a bit before folk got sick of us.”
For a long time their followers have wondered what original Unthanks songs might sound like and the good news is that Becky and Rachel have each contributed a song to the new disc.
McNally says: “I’m not the lone writer in this case although l’ve written a ten minute piece on the record and there is a 12 minute opening track which is loosely based on a traditional tune. It is much more than that as we’ve written new lyrics and whole musical passages that aren’t anything to do with the traditional ditty.
“It’s really not important to us as artists to try and advance that element of what we do as it just kind of happens that way. We ultimately regard ourselves as performers and arrangers of traditional music. So if I am to write a song I am going to put it on albums that have traditional music. We set ourselves a high bar in that respect.”
In many respects the The Unthanks are traditionalists. But they have managed to cross over, attracting fans who would run a mile from the Aran sweater, big beard and silver tankard image of folkies. So much so in fact that their website boasts ringing endorsements from The Office and Sherlock star Martin Freeman and Oscar-winner Colin Firth, among other celebrity fans.
“Perhaps to some people it might seem gratuitous to make public your notable fans but they are all people who are artists themselves so that always means more to be appreciated by other artists than the critics or anyone else really,” reflects McNally.
“It does mean an awful lot and we are constantly shocked and surprised by the people who come out of the woodwork and express some fanship. I only wish our sales were as strong as our critical acclaim.”
By Paul Clarke
Photos in black and white by Sarah Mason
A Time and Place: Musical Meditations on the First World War is at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on September 19, 2014. For more info, follow this link: www.operanorth.co.uk/productions/har-music-a-time-and-place