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The Unthanks: Songs from The Shipyards

Northumberland-based folk band The Unthanks will be in Sheffield performing their live soundtrack to internationally acclaimed filmmaker Richard Fenwick’s documentary Songs from the Shipyards at the Crucible as part of this year’s Doc/Fest. Commissioned by the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle, the film uses archive footage to document the rise and fall of the shipbuilding industry on the Tyne, Wear and Tees. Now Then chatted to The Unthanks’ piano player Adrian McNally about the film, Doc/Fest and the current UK folk music scene. In your soundtrack to Songs from the Shipyards you’ve included songs from a variety of songwriters from the North East. What were your criteria when deciding what to include? There wasn’t quite the range of material to choose from that you might find about say, the mining industry, partly I guess because the shipbuilding industry is relatively younger. But the North East has some tremendous and largely unsung writers, like Johnny Handle and Alex Glasgow, and we will take any excuse to shine more light on their work, plus it was also an obvious excuse to tackle Elvis Costello and Clive Lainger’s ‘Shipbuilding’. The centrepiece of the music is a self-penned piece written around some poetry by the Teesside writer Graeme Miles, who sadly died recently. We hope our June performances of Songs from the Shipyards will be a fitting tribute to him. The album traverses a whole range of emotions. Do you think the film dwells more in the hopeful or negative aspects of the shipbuilding industry, and did you try to follow this in your soundtrack? We decided early on in the creative process that we wanted the film to have a story narrative, rather than just being a random collection of images set to atmospheric music. The film and soundtrack take you on a powerful journey from the optimism of the industry’s birth, through the prosperous days of almighty production, through to the decline, the political controversy and eventual loss of the shipyards. While our natural inclination might have been to dwell on the loss of an industry and way of life, we also needed to find songs that captured the days of optimism and glory, and to play in an upbeat style we’re not accustomed to. Obviously the industry was hugely important to families in the North East. Did you feel a pressure to do the subject justice, so to speak? Part of the reason that the film is probably more about loss than anger is that these industries died away a while ago now, and we felt the time now was perhaps more for remembrance than for protest. But the difference between respectful remembrance and romanticised nostalgia is a difficult line; between describing them as great days and remembering that they were tough and dangerous days, between the pride for what the workers achieved and the reality of the wealth it created being siphoned away from their communities, and the emotional complexity for those communities of having created something great, only to be completely deserted when the going got tough. How is it best for history to remember that? The arrangements on this album are very simple and minimal – usually just a piano and solitary violin accompanying the voices – which is a step back from the bigger ensemble you’ve used on your recent studio albums. What were your reasons for using a smaller group? When the chance came to work on it, we were on tour as a strippeddown five-piece in Australia, so that’s what we had to work with! We had a week off in Melbourne and spent it putting the film soundtrack together. The Unthanks have always had a core creative unit of five, but until Songs from the Shiypards, we’d never actually performed as a five, having toured the past three years with an add-on string quartet and trumpet. So it was an overdue pleasure to arrange for just the five of us. What does it mean to you to be part of Doc/Fest this year? Although the Unthank sisters are from Tyneside and Rachel and I live in Northumberland, I grew up in a small mining village near Barnsley, as did our guitar player Chris Price, so it’s always special for us to play in Sheffield. Most of our formative teenage gig-going was in Sheffield. With the film essentially being an illustration in microcosm of Britain’s industrial decline, I’m sure it will resonate with anyone with connections to South Yorkshire’s industries. How much do you see yourself as part of the UK folk tradition? Well, we do write the odd song, but in the main we concern ourselves with interpreting traditional song, so in that sense we are very much a part of it. Our sonic palate is wider than that most commonly associated with folk music, but what interests us about the folk tradition is the content, not the style. Folk music is an oral history, not a genre of music; a human exercise in sharing and empathy. What matters to us, in this project for instance, is that the people who worked in industry are remembered for what they achieved, and that the lessons of that time, good and bad, are understood from the position that we now stand in. Ultimately, our music palette is based on our abilities and drawn from the musical vocabulary we develop as listeners. Limiting musical colours to those we think of as “folkie” is like a storyteller using the same voice to tell all his stories. The storyteller should understand that it’s not about him; it’s about the story and the listener. How much do you feel the rise of ‘nu-folk’ over the last couple of years has helped or hindered the UK’s existing folk music scene? In all honesty, I don’t think it’s had much impact at all. Certainly there has been much use in the mainstream of the folk vernacular, but I think that’s just a natural backlash to globalisation, as culture looks for depth and identity in homogenised times. Just as folk music is suddenly cool, so is knitting and growing your own veg. I certainly think that the media spotlight on folk music has presented an opportunity for folk music to appeal to a wider audience, but I’m not really sure that has translated into anything real on our side of the tracks, so to speak. I think that’s partly because the indie way of doing folk is to make music that sounds under-produced, a bit shabby, more ‘real’, and so that’s what the mainstream thinks folk music is about. But when artists from the trad side of the tracks try to make music appeal to the mainstream, they try and make it sound polished and shiny in the hope it will be better understood in the commercial marketplace. I think a lot of music by young artists on the folk scene sounds too squeaky clean for those bearded veggie growers looking for a clod of earth in their music. What’s next for The Unthanks? A rest, hopefully! We recently went through a period in which we released and toured four albums in 18 months. It’s been an amazing period of discovery and creativity, and we are extremely grateful to our audience, who three times in a year were asked to come and see us in the full knowledge that we wouldn’t be playing a note of music they’d heard before. We are very lucky that there are listeners out there who are prepared to move with us, rather than hoping for a greatest hits set. But we’re going to take our time making our next record, and we’ll be endeavoring to stretch ourselves ever further. Songs from the Shipyards will be performed by The Unthanks at the Crucible Theatre on Sunday 16th June. Tickets are available via )
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