Rachel Unthank explains to Viv Hardwick how the music and poetry of Nick Drake’s mother came to inspire the band’s Newcastle Theatre Royal debut

A NEW project involving a debut at the region’s A-list venue, Newcastle Theare Royal, makes it seem like multi-award winning North-East folk band The Unthanks are planning ever bigger challenges.

“I don’t feel like this one is bigger,” muses Becky Unthank, one half of the female voice and clog-dancing nucleus of the band with sister Rachel. “We have a list a mile long of things we want to do and one of them was playing with an orchestra, which we did last year, and we’re releasing and touring music and songs with them again later this year.

“And another part of our wish-list is an unaccompanied album. Something really small and quite traditional and I personally never think about whether the journey is big or small. I suppose it’s like our diversions albums, which give us the chance to explore ideas and different types of music and influences that we have. I think that doing it this way avoids us having to say, ‘This is who we are as a band now’. It’s just what we’re up to at the minute.”

Perhaps the most unusual path so far brings The Unthanks – who also include Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally, Niopha Keegan and Chris Price – to the 1950s recordings of the late Nick Drake’s mother Molly. How Wild The Wind Blows at the theatre royal on Sunday, May 14, will feature the folk band’s take on Molly’s songs, alongside film footage and Molly’s poetry.

Nick Drake, who died from an overdose in 1974, aged 26, had a major influence on artists from the 1980s in spite of selling a few thousand of his three albums during his lifetime. Molly made home recordings of her songs in the 1950s, but didn’t release anything at that time in spite of sharing her son’s ability to create the sound of the charming and bittersweet.

“We’ve grown up in the Tyneside area and been going to the theatre royal since we were kids. It’s a beautiful piece of architecture for a start and helps provide part of the identity for Newcastle. Grey Street is one of my favourite streets and we’re going there because we like to support different venues. It will also give our audience a different experience.

“We’ve just finished the album of How Wild The Wind Blows and it’s really a quite interesting journey and this has become a chance to perform it live and see how the songs transfer to the stage and what the audience’s reaction is like.

“We first came to the music through Cally (Martin Callomon) and Gabrielle (Drake, Nick’s famous actor sister), who look after the Nick Drake Estate. Cally worked with Nick and he and Gabrielle sent us Molly’s album, which was released a couple of years ago. The songs immediately captured our attention and what a little treasure it was to find. We were all Nick Drake fans anyway, and to find out that his mum also wrote songs was really intriguing. She wrote the songs for herself and the family and wasn’t looking necessarily to perform them in the way that we do. That makes them all the more personal and genuine,” says Becky.

The approach to The Unthanks came after Cally heard the band’s version of the Nick Drake song River Man. “Cally and Gabrielle came to one of our concerts and I think they were interested in our music and we became friends and kept in touch. Cally helped us make our Memory Box, which celebrated us being a band for ten years. There was a songbook in there plus a CD and Cally helped us make that.

“We sold it as a limited edition and they knew we were interested in Nick Drake songs as listeners, so they sent us the Molly Drake CD. At first listen, Rachel, Adrian and myself all said, ‘We’d love to sing these songs’. You always have these ideas floating around and don’t always get around to doing them. It’s been really lovely to get inside these songs and explore them. Molly has a strong sense of identity and there are links to Nick’s music, but the songs definitely stand up in their own right. They are fantastic and she was obviously a very emotionally intelligent woman and very observant and empathetic. She talks about dreams and reality, the light and dark of life and romance. Things we can all relate to. Listening to these poems and songs makes you think, ‘I knew someone like that’ or ‘I felt like that, but didn’t know how to articulate the feeling’. So we felt emotionally connected to Molly’s songs and I think other people will as well,” says Rachel.

Molly died in 1993 and has the words of Nick chiselled on her gravestone: “And now we rise, and are everywhere.” Does Rachel feel a link in spirit between the Unthanks and the Drakes because both families have a musical heritage?

“We were brought up with music in the house and it was something we enjoyed as a family. I think the connection between us and Molly is the songs and the quality. The decision to put the songs out into the world meant that they were everybody’s property. That must be conflicting in some ways because these were Gabrielle’s mum’s songs. The estate have been really supportive and it is a strange feeling of, ‘How do we live up to these songs?’ and the thought we could never do that and just be true to them and present them in our own way.”

Rachel is aware of the “one night to get it right” nature of the event but feels that singing the songs “inside out” forthe album is a help but knows that putting everything into place on stage is a whole different thing.

“I’m sure it’s going to change throughout the tour,” she adds.

  • The Unthanks, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Sunday, May 14. 7.30pm. Tickets from £23.50. Box Office: 08448-112121 or theatreroyal.co.uk
  • Diversions Vo 4 – How Wild The Wind Blows: The Unthanks Perform The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, is out on vinyl LP, CD and download on May 26