A trip to the Abruzzo to sing with the Unthanks, the UK’s coolest folk band!
Gary Cancell - The Sunday Times July 31st 2016
The Unthanks are a Mercury-nominated folk band. They have collaborated with Sting, Orbital and Portishead. They count Ewan McGregor and Nick Hornby as fans. All of which is to say they’re a pretty big deal. And, earlier this year, they formed a new choir. With me and 14 other amateur singers — no talent necessary. And it only took us four days. How’s that for bragging rights?
I’d had enough of aimless holidays and, given that I wanted to achieve something — in this case, learning to sing folk music — I decided it may as well be in a beautiful place. For me, that was Santo Stefano di Sessanio, a little hill town in the mountains of Abruzzo, a two-hour drive northeast of Rome. My home for five nights was to be a low-tech, high-romance room in a renovated stone house.
We’d rehearse for three hours each morning, leaving plenty of time to explore this tumbledown fortified town, with its cobbled lanes, medieval stone houses and an earthquake-scrambled 14th-century Medici tower. And after four days of ambling and practising, we’d give a concert. “Folk Britannico,” read the posters pinned to crumbling walls in town. “The Unthanks con l’accompagnamento”. I didn’t mind being the accompagnamento. I felt big-time.
Rachel and Becky Unthank — my tutors — were as smitten with Santo Stefano as I was. “We can’t just sing miserable songs from the northeast here,” Rachel said during our first rehearsal. Having grown up in Gateshead, the sisters are familiar with moody northern skies, but the windows of our 16th-century rehearsal room revealed the most delicious sunbaked countryside. They sat us in a circle and took us through our first number. “Rose, Rose, Rose, Rose,” it went. “Shall I ever see thee wed? I marry thou shalt, when I am dead.” Next up was the haunting Caught in a Storm, by Graeme Miles, a prolific Teesside songwriter. The sky clouded over…
Weirdly, the folk songs we learnt — about miners, bonny lasses, ha’pennies and dry-stone walls — sat perfectly with the Italian countryside. Something about the simplicity of the music and the landscape. What sat less well was my accent. “You’re going to have to do vowel reconfiguration,” Rachel said. It turns out estuary English and Northumbrian aren’t natural bedfellows. From now on, “done” would be “doon” and “rain” “rairn”. The sisters smiled. “We’ll make a Geordie out of yers yet.”
During a break on our first morning, I heard them working on harmonies in a medieval passageway, as swallows darted past outside and lavender scented the air. Their voices were beautiful, weaving in and out of one another like cotton threads. I felt very lucky.
In fact, the whole trip had a pinch-yourself quality. I heard tales of awards shows and touring with Ben Folds, of travelling to Ethiopia with Damon Albarn and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I read about the band winning the 2015 Radio 2 Folk Awards album of the year, then I did a tree with them. (Yoga is on offer, too.)
The next morning, I was up at 5am to walk the flower-strewn hills with Rachel and my fellow amateurs, pausing to sing Bright Morning Star as the sun rose and spilt over the Apennines, illuminating the castle where they filmed The Name of the Rose. The sisters, along with their mother (sorry, mootha), threw themselves into everything, rather than disappearing after rehearsals. Folk is an ego-free zone, it seems. We ate together, walked together and laughed a great deal together.
We cried together, too. One day, we drove to a church in Bominaco, another lovely Abruzzo village, and in the Oratory of San Pellegrino, we formed a circle and sang Bright Morning Star again. If music has charms to soothe the savage breast, add ecclesiastical reverb and it’d make anyone weep like a lost child.
“Oh where are our dear mothers?” it goes, “Oh where are our dear fathers? Some have gone to heaven shouting.” Not all the words came out. “Singing is how we celebrate,” said Rachel, who was as moved as the rest of us. “And how we commiserate.”
The night of our performance came round all too soon. In a local wine bar lit with oil lamps, we gathered in a corner, rustled our lyric sheets and launched into the Unst Boat Song, the oldest song of Shetland — sung with three-part harmonies in a mixture of Norn (a medieval Norse language) and dialect. We sang Little Weaver Bird, by Molly Drake, mother of Nick. We sang the Great Silkie of Sule Skerry, an Orkney ballad about half-human, half-seal beings. People clapped — we had become a choir. Not a bad one, either.
Actually, an inspirational one. Just after we finished, the sommelier found a guitar and introduced us to Italian folk, translating as he went. “The butcher’s daughter,” he sang, full of emotion. “I saw you in the garden. Boobs. Pear-shaped boobs.” Next, a group of Italians turned to us, broke into song, then asked us for another. That’s the thing with folk music — it’s democratic. Anybody can join in. Usually, everybody does.
Time for one last Farewell Shanty. It was a traditional Cornish song of valediction, and, though I’m not religious, the final lines meant no less to me. “When your sailing’s over,” we sang, seated around a table with glasses of beer, “haul away for heaven, haul away for heaven, God be by your side.”