Folksong has a history of packaging iron fists in velvet gloves. Some of the darkest deeds in our collective memory, from Little Musgrave’s slaying of one amorous misadventurer to the Battle of Harlaw’s slaughter of hundreds, have been carried down the generations on tunes so attractive they cry out to be sung.

Here’s The Tender Coming, the title track from The Unthanks’ new album, is a classic case in point. To hear its bright, nursery rhyme-like melody, you might think that the tender in question is part of a train full of goodies or an ice-cream wagon sending excited children running for their pocket money. It’s actually a boat, signalling the arrival on Tyneside of Nelson’s fleet, ready to press-gang the local menfolk into the war against Napoleon.

“It’s weird in a way,” says Rachel Unthank. “You have this sad content yet it’s a really heart-warming tune. I can’t help but feel cheery when I sing it.”

Cheery isn’t a word that’s been associated much with Unthank and her group, previously known as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset, but now reverting to the family name in recognition of the fact that Rachel and her sister, Becky, have always shared the lead vocals. When the group started out, Becky was about to start a history of art degree at Manchester University and wasn’t sure if she’d be able to study and still go out on gigs.

Four years on, the final year of her degree is on hold indefinitely because the Unthanks’ championing of their native Tyneside tradition -- much of it bleak, mournful and riddled with death, drunkenness and domestic abuse -- has taken a trick. Metropolitan commentators who normally wouldn’t go near real-deal folk music with a morris dance pole raved about the group’s second album, The Bairns, which went on to garner a Mercury Music Prize nomination.

The follow-up, Here’s the Tender Coming, which features an expanded line-up including string and brass sections, is being similarly well-received but, despite its sometimes sophisticated arrangements, it remains very much rooted in The Unthanks’ beloved Tyneside tradition.


Family affair


Brought up by parents who met at a 1960s folk festival and who introduced their offspring -- there’s an older brother as well as the two sisters -- to traditional music before they had started on solid foods, Rachel remembers sitting under the table as a child, listening to the family sing-songs and being transfixed by the stories they sang. Both parents are singers. Their father sang with bawdy Geordie shanty singers The Keelers; he also danced with a clog dance team, and dancing came first for the girls. At weekends when their parents fancied a lie-in, they’d put on the Albion Band’s Morris On album and practise their moves -- or jump around like mad, depending on who’s telling the story. Family holidays were invariably spent at folk festivals -- which, says Rachel, were really good fun if you were a kid.

“We’d go to ceilidhs and singarounds where we could be part of this adult world where they sat around and sang stories to each other,” she says. “We got to behave like little grown-ups, I suppose, because we were allowed to stay up late. In fact, our mother would always be traumatised when we got home because we’d go around proudly telling everyone that we’d been to Whitby and we’d stayed up to midnight every night. We also made lots of friends, because we weren’t the only kids at these things, and we’d meet up with the usual crowd everywhere we went.

“People often ask if we never rebelled, but we’d nothing to rebel against, because we enjoyed dancing and singing so much, and it’s not like we didn’t listen to other stuff. I was a teenage grunge and heavy metal fan, and I thought I might get a gig in a heavy metal band, but that didn’t come to anything. Our brother at one point decided that folk music was dead boring. But then he realised that if he came with us to festivals, he could have a social life, listen to some music, hang out with friends and drink beer.”

Back at home, they’d listen to their parents’ record collection, especially the great Yorkshire guitar picker-singer Nic Jones and Bert Jansch’s muse Anne Briggs, who have become heroes of the nu-folk movement and whose vinyl albums Rachel regards as a great resource -- she’s recently transferred the family archive to her own house. There was also a lot of Scottish music around, which accounts for The Unthanks’ singing of Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk (as learned from the great traveller singer and storyteller Sheila Stewart) and Flowers of the Town (which appears on the new album and is a variant of Flooers o’ the Forest).


Scottish influence


“The name Unthank comes from the debatable lands between Scotland and England,” says Rachel. “It describes someone who has moved on to common land and lives as a squatter. And a lot of our music might be said to be of debatable origins, possibly stolen from Scotland. You hear a lot of the Scottish influence around Northumberland and Tyneside anyway, especially in Northumbrian piping, and our language uses a lot of Scottish expressions. So it’s quite natural for us to pick up a song like Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk and sing it the way we first heard it, which was raw and direct rather than pretty and little-girlish.”

There’s another Scottish connection in that, between leaving school and taking up singing full-time, Rachel studied history and theatre at Glasgow University while she waited for Becky, who’s seven years younger, to join her in the band. Rachel regards the city as her second home and another song from the new album, Lucky Gilchrist, is about a Glaswegian friend who died far too young. Written by Rachel’s husband, Adrian McNally, it’s a song that in style and arrangement carries on from the Unthanks’ singing of Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song, which illustrates their willingness to bring material from outside their tradition into the group sound.

“It was Adrian who found Sea Song and put it on a tape for Becky,” says Rachel. “We liked it immediately because it feels like a folk song. It’s also constructed like a folk song, and since it deals with mythology and has that line that says ‘partly fish, partly porpoise, partly baby sperm whale’, it reminded me of those traditional ballads where the woman has a lover who’s actually a seal, like the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry. Yeah, we love doing that one.”

Nick Drake, Bonnie Prince Billy and Antony And The Johnsons are others whose songs have been appropriated and sung in the Unthanks’ unadorned Tyneside accents and may yet turn up in the new 10-piece band that they’re currently touring with to promote Here’s The Tender Coming.

“It’s really exciting,” says Rachel of the expanded line-up, which includes piano, dulcitone, marimba, accordion, bass and drums, as well as string and brass players. “It’s very different from what we’re used to and it’s still quite new, but after making the record we wanted to take it out of the studio. We’d explored a small, tight-knit group sound quite a lot and we wanted to work with a broader palette of sounds. It gives us more power, although there are one or two stages on the tour that we could have fun fitting everyone on to. It also means that there are more people to talk to and party with after the gig.”

It means more people to clog dance too, and more to join in the patented Unthank high-heel percussion style, a feature of their live set that they developed out of practical considerations.

“We included clog dancing in our act just because we could do it, really,” says Rachel. “But when it came to performing the song Felton Lonnin onstage, we felt it needed just a little something extra. So we introduced a simple step, which works quite well, I think, and because we’re girls, we did it in high heels. Someone on one of these internet chat rooms said that because we wear fashionable dresses and high heels we must be being packaged by EMI Records. But that’s not true: EMI only distribute our records -- we have complete artistic control over what we do.”

Thinking about on-stage presentation, she adds, doesn’t make the music any less traditional or detract from the most important element of their music: telling stories.

“That’s what it’s always been about for us, and the great thing about the tradition is there’s such a great store of songs with stories. We’re always finding new ones or hearing someone singing other ones or remembering one we sang as children and have never got round to relearning. We can go on forever, or for as long as people want to listen to us -- and we’ll never get writer’s block.”


The Unthanks appear at Oran Mor, Glasgow, tomorrow; Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, on Monday; and the Lemon Tree, Aberdeen on Tuesday.