The Unthanks: “I really do feel it might be our best work"

Reporter:

Jamie Bowman

A wistful mother in the 1950s makes some simple home recordings in her family sitting room.

Little could Molly Drake have known that decades later, her son would become one of the most poetic and influential songwriters ever, or that more than 60 years later, the dust would be blown off her own songs by one of modern folk music’s biggest bands, The Unthanks – who believe her work is extraordinary enough to rank alongside and independently of her brilliant son, Nick Drake.

Described as “charming and bittersweet, yet dark and pensive” – much like Nick’s – Molly songs were recorded at home by her husband in the 1950s and never intended for public consumption.

Now Mercury-nominated Geordie folk group The Unthanks have ‘reimagined’ them with full support from the Drake estate, including Molly’s daughter, the celebrated actress Gabrielle Drake, who even performs some of her mother’s poems set to the Unthank’s music on the band’s new album How Wild The Wind Blows – The Unthanks Perform the Songs and Poems of Molly Drake.

“I really do feel it might be our best work,” says pianist and producer Adrian McNally.

“And the reason at the heart of that I think is because it is perhaps the best work we have worked on.

“Molly’s writing and Gabrielle’s performances are tools of great precision and truth.

“At the same time it has been hard, partly because her writing is so sharp and the music so deft.

“It’s like driving a Ferrari for the first time. You’re all over the road before you learn how to harness it.”

The Unthanks is a family affair for Tyneside sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, with Rachel married to pianist, producer, arranger and composer Adrian.

Using the traditional music of the North East of England as a starting point, the influence of Steve Reich, Miles Davis, Sufjan Stevens, Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons, King Crimson and Tom Waits can be heard in the band’s seven albums to date and they first came into contact with the Drake family after The Unthanks covered Nick’s song River Man on the band’s first album in 2005.

“Gabrielle became friendly with us and she said it was one of the few covers that the family had really enjoyed,” explains Adrian.

“It led to a relationship and she sent us some of Molly’s music but I don’t think she expected us to do anything with it – we were just exchanging music as mates because we’re both music mad.”

So taken were the band by her performances, they’d conceived an album before they’d reached the end of their first listen to Molly’s music.

“There’s so much rehashing of old stories these days but we thought if ever their was an artist who deserved to be reimagined than it was Molly because she never performed these songs or had any musical aspirations fulfilled,” says Adrian.

“The recordings that exist are amateur and not always completed, so we felt it was a body of work that was actually as strong as Nick’s but had never been afforded that journey into the public sphere that his music did.”

The Unthanks’ spring 2017 UK and Irish tour, which visits Wrexham’s William Aston Hall on April 20, will be an audio-visual work featuring live performance by the band, film footage of Molly and spoken word pre-recorded by Gabrielle.

The show will exclusively feature Molly’s work, with the exception of the encore, which will feature Nick’s songs performed by The Unthanks.

“Musically speaking Molly leant on the Noel Coward style of songwriting which doesn’t have an awful lot in common with Nick, but where they do crossover is in terms of their disposition, emotional intelligence and melancholia,” explains Adrian when asked how much of Molly’s musical talent rubbed off on her son.

“The lazy recounting of Nick’s past is that he was a troubled young man brought up in a typically middle class English family that didn’t understand him when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

“The reality is he had an awful lot in common with his mother and a lot to thank her for in terms of his talent and the influence she must have had on him.

“We’re very focused on portraying Molly but I think the lovely side effect is that we see Nick in a different light too.”

Characterised by their beautiful harmonies and love of Northumbrian folk music, it’s not immediately obvious how Becky and Rachel’s voices will deal with Molly’s clipped English vocals and Adrian admits it was a challenge.

“Before we started it was a source of both fascination and worry,” he laughs. “Mainly we were concerned that the 1950s vernacular Molly uses wouldn’t suit their voices but as it turns out it’s worked really well because the songs are so good.

“With some songs we’ve been quite faithful to Molly’s stylings but on others we’ve drifted a long way from the source and hopefully that’s proved how strong the songs are.

“The emotive content was in direct contrast to the style and Molly’s stiff, mannered way of singing and although she embraced that style the things she was singing about were anything but.

“We have some footage of Molly but the biggest surprise to people will be that we have some of her poetry recorded by Gabrielle which has turned out beautifully in terms of how affecting her performances are.

“We’ve set her recitals to music and goodness me does it make it come alive so the show has essentially become a collaboration with Gabrielle.”

Last year The Unthanks celebrated ten years together as a band and this year it will be a decade since they were nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. 2017 looks like being another memorable year with this current tour just the start of a packed schedule.

“We’ve defiantly chosen smaller venues than we normally play and that’s in the interests of trying to make sure we play in settings where the music will work,” adds Adrian.

“It’s intimate music and we’ve put together a small ensemble to make it work but it’s still very compact.

“We’re primarily focused on piano, violin, double bass and clarinet so it’s our core five piece line up plus Rachel and Becky at the front and we’re really looking forward to playing some of these smaller venues.

“We’re hopeful about releasing some orchestral concerts from last year towards the end of this year and we’ll also be doing more concerts before Christmas and then we’re doing something in the autumn for Hull’s City of Culture celebrations which we’re not allowed to talk about!”

The Unthanks: How Wild The Wind Blows (Performing The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake) is at Wrexham’s William Aston Hall on Thursday April 20. Doors 7pm . Show 8pm. All ages welcome.

For tickets and information go to www.glyndwr.ac.uk/events or call 0844 888 9991.

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