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.”