Ian Maleney interviews Becky from The Unthanks ahead of their Irish tour which starts in Vicar Street this Saturday.
So you’ve got the new album out now, how have things been going since? You’ve been on the road a lot? Yeah it was just about a week after the album came out that we went on tour and it’s been really fun playing the new songs live. We just had a few days rehearsals and most of the band played on the album so they already knew their parts and we just did some rehearsing and it’s been really lovely to all play together again.
Is that the same kind of touring setup as you’ve had before? We’ve been playing with these people for the past year and a half really. Since we got the ten-piece band it’s pretty much been our group. It’s been me and Rachel singing, Adrian (McNally) on piano, Chris Price who plays guitar, ukelele, drums, bass, everything! We got a string quartet, we got Lizzy Jones on trumpet and Dean on double bass and drums. Lots of people!
Have you been happy with people’s reactions to the new material so far? Yeah, it’s been practically sold out every night. Last night we were at Manchester cathedral and it was an amazing atmosphere, really beautiful place to play, really grand and gorgeous. It kind of makes you perform in a different way if you play somewhere like that because it seems like a special occasion and it feels like that for the audience as well.
Absolutely. Do you get to play many of those kind of venues? Is there any that you particularly like? One of my favourite venues is Union Chapel in Islington in London. We’ve played there quite a few times now and it just kind of seems like it was made for us. Well, obviously it wasn’t made for us! But it feels so good to perform there, it’s an amazing atmosphere with big Gothic doors, I just love it.
That was where you did your show playing covers of Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty songs right? How did that go? It was an interesting project. It went really well, but it was a really scary thing to do! I don’t know what we thought we were doing! We just had this idea and we always talked about it but then we were actually going to do it! I’ve never been so terrified in my whole life! We didn’t rehearse enough, well, we did, rehearsed enough but only just! We thought we’d be finished our album by then and we’d have loads of time to kill but we still recording the album and doing all these songs, and of course it was really nerve-wracking because they are such amazing artists and we’re such big fans of theirs and to cover loads of their songs it was like, ‘What are we actually trying to achieve here?’. But it was interesting, explore their songs. At times it was like what are we doing but it was just an opportunity to explore their music more. It was very interesting for us and hopefully for the audience too.
Did you feel it adds any pressure, performing contemporary songs, when many of the songs you sing are very old? It does but, you know, if it’s something you want to do then I say just go for it. You can’t worry too much about what other people are going to think because then you probably wouldn’t do anything, would you?
Is there anyone else in modern music outside those two that you listen to a lot? Well, recently we’ve been listening to Villagers. We keep bumping into them around the world! We met them in Texas and then we bumped into them in Belgium when we got trapped in Brussels with the dust cloud last year so we hung out with them there. And then we saw them in Australia too, a few months ago. So we’ve been listening to them a lot lately. We’ve been listening to the folk band Lau, and a guy called Ewan McLennan as well, a Scottish guy. Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, a rock and roll band, I love them, they’re great. And Sufjan’s new album. We saw him in Australia recently actually. The day after we went over he was playing the Sydney Opera House and it was really amazing.
What kind of progressions do you feel you’ve made with the new album? Well, we originally decided that we were going to try make it sound a bit smaller but we recorded the strings in a village hall near where Rachel lives and it just sounded like a whole orchestra and it sounded so beautiful that we thought we had to go with that kind of scale. It’s been really nice having people we’ve been touring with play on the album this time so it kind of feels like a stronger unit, more of a collaboration.
You say you recorded in a village hall, was that an intentional move? Do you usually record outside of a typical studio? We recorded our first two albums at home essentially, in Rachel’s house and then we rented a cottage once. We did the third album in a studio and although I didn’t mind that experience, it was a good experience in some ways, it is so much more comfortable recording at home because you can record any time of the day or night, you can make a cup of tea, you can just chill out. We recorded the last one in Rachel’s house again, the vocal booth was the cupboard under the stairs and stuff like that. I think we’re a lot more comfortable in that kind of environment. It’s easier to kind of relax and not get stressed out or uptight and then it’s easier to be creative.
So finally, what are the plans for after this tour? Well, Rachel’s seven and a half months pregnant at this stage so we’re going to be taking a small break to let her have her baby and get used to motherhood! But we’re also do a festival with the Big House Brass Band, we doing that in July and we’ll be performing that and then we might take it on tour, which should be exciting!