A Weekend with the Unthanks

I’m not really sure where to start with last weekend. I think a lot of my posts begin with me talking about my unrealistically high expectations of some sort of activity, and then dealing with the various (and hilarious) ways that said activity failed to live up to said unrealistic high expectations, but were wonderful nonetheless, and I learnt all sorts of life lessons in the process. That’s right, isn’t it? Each blog post is essentially a slapstick, Disney-produced, after-school special, with me playing the high-octane, anxiety-fuelled Hilary Duff/Miley Cyrus character? From what I remember of my previous posts, this seems about right.
Well, I don’t know how to break it to you, but last weekend’s activity actually managed, in all honesty and reality, to live up to said unrealistically high expectations. To the extent that I’m not sure I want to write it all down and tell people about it, in case in the act of writing it down, it may all disappear, or I’ll realise that I was actually dreaming the whole thing.
Where to start? The story starts back in April 2011 (you can actually go back and read my original blog post, if you’re so inclined, how crazy is that?) when I decided, after a brief search through YouTube videos that I definitely wanted to see ‘The Unthanks’ at the Cork Music School. That concert remains one of the best live performances I’ve ever seen, and well and truly moved me from my childhood love of happy-clappy fiddle-dee-dee folk music into the darker, more mournful, verging on the depressive, folk music. At the concert, the band mentioned that they had been organising ‘singing weekends’, where people could come and spend a weekend with them, do group singing, learn harmonies, eat good food, sing in a pub, and just generally be relaxed and sing. All I had to do was sign up to their newsletter, and they would give us folk on the mailing list priority when it came to bookings. I would have happily knocked people down, walked over their heads, and various other terrible and completely unnecessary things in my haste to get to that mailing list sheet. Bookings opened last June, I picked a seemingly impossibly far away weekend in January 2012 and charged my credit card.
In all the stress of the end of last year, I completely forgot about my singing weekend until a week or so ago. But it turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done since I left the au pairing. I’m sure if I could have had singing workshops for the past 4 weekends, I would now feel completely rejuvenated. As it is, I’m still feeling pretty blissful.

Anyway, what is there to tell you? The weekend did start badly, with my flight from Cork to Edinburgh delayed by 5 hours, meaning I lost out on an evening in Edinburgh which I had been looking forward to, and also meant I lost a few hours the next morning, as I had to sleep in and catch up from the night before. Nevertheless, I still got to climb Arthur’s Seat again (I refer you to the original blog post on Scotland in June 2011 as to the significance of this place), which was freezing, but still made me feel incredible. Especially since I could see snow on the mountains in the distance, so the icy blasts only made it seem like the wind had swept directly over those mountains and then flown tiny pieces of ice across Edinburgh, up the side of Arthur’s Seat and right against my face.
I spent 45 minutes or so in a very cute little tea-room, which was, nevertheless, very insistent that I leave as soon as I had finished my tea, something I have never experienced in Ireland or Australia before. It soon became clear from the amount of signs around the place (‘Toilets are for Customer Use Only. Non-Customers will be charged 50p’. ‘We take no responsibility for coats and bags left on the coat stand.’ ‘A service fee of 2 pounds will be added to the cost of the Full Breakfast if its to be shared between two.’ etc.), that whilst it was a very pretty place, it was by no means a friendly place. Let this be a lesson to you all.
At 2:30, I met up with some of the other workshop participants at Waverley Station, one of whom had offered us a lift to the Northumberland farm the singing workshops were taking place on, through a specially constructed chat board for the weekend. We had a quick drive down the coast, where I saw my very first nuclear power plant, which was very strange, not least because it looked nothing like the cartoon Simpsons version of a nuclear power plant and that is, of course, my only visual reference point for nuclear power plants. Do we have nuclear power plants in Australia? I don’t think we do, but I could be completely wrong. Someone enlighten me? Anyway, it was the closest I’ve ever been to nuclear power, and it was creepy. The building was huge, had no windows and looked impossibly futuristic in a very rural landscape. It was both impressive and terrifying. I kept waiting for it to explode or for me to get superhuman powers or something.
The drive only took a couple of hours, and we were welcomed onto the farm by members of the band, including Adrian McNally, who plays piano (and is married to Rachel Unthank) and Niophe Keegan, who plays violin and sings backing vocals. I had been talking very seriously and calmly to myself all the way down, due to the fact that, anyone who is a regular reader of these blog posts will know, I have a tendency to make a fool of myself in front of people I admire. Strangely, I think its worse for me with musicians than actors, I don’t know why. Maybe because on top of the admiration, there is an aura of magic around them, because I feel like they do things I really couldn’t do. Like, effortlessly harmonise, remember what flats are played in what key signatures without looking at the music, and sight-sing. So, I had been giving myself a stern talking to, that, when I met these people who form one of my favourite musical groups, I was not to trip over my own feet, I was not to make incomprehensible gushing sounds at them, I was not to laugh unnecessarily loudly at things they said, but I was to act like the rational and sensible adult human being I know I am, deep down, and treat them like the decent, and perfectly normal human beings that they inevitably were and not as if they were some kind of musical wizards or magical, ethereal beings, the likes of which had never before been seen on this earth, and to whom I was not worthy to talk.
But, there I was, being checked into my room by Niophe, and greeted by Adrian in an apron. I played cool (I think, I hope), though my heart was practically doing backflips. Of course, they acted completely normal, were incredibly lovely and friendly, and after a while, it became clear, that they ARE actually just normal people (surprise, surprise), who are just doing a job that they love, and that they happen to be very good at. If nothing else, the weekend was certainly a comment on celebrity, fame and fortune, and the ridiculousness of that form of mega-celebrity of the likes of, say, Oasis, or Lady Gaga or anyone that you care to name. There is no need to go crazy for these people. Nor should they prance around acting as if they are God’s latest miracle. They’re just people. But, of course, because they create something that gets inside us, and stirs up our emotions, it feels a much bigger deal than it is.
Anyway, after a cup of tea and some cake, we went to our first workshop with Becky and Rachel Unthank, where we learnt a few simple rounds, songs and choruses. They were delighted to hear I was from Newcastle, being Geordie girls, and that I was from Australia, as their cousin from Australia was also coming to the weekend. After a few minutes, it was completely normal singing with them. They were that laid back, friendly and open. We had a lovely dinner, then learnt some more choruses for the pub the next day, and I headed off to bed early, surprisingly tired.
On Saturday, I went for a big round walk of Seahouses, which was the town we were staying in, after breakfast. It was a very pretty little village, with a lovely view over the sand dunes back to Bamburgh Castle, next to the other, very pretty town of Bamburgh. The wind was howling, though the sun was also shining, and the pretty town had a variety of amusingly British sights, the pick of which, for my money, had to be the tiny little laminated sign that stated, ‘There’s No Such Thing as the Poo Fairy’, and was stuck in the ground next to a big pile of dog poo. I liked this sign because one of two things had to have happened for it to be in existence. One, someone on the local council, or in a neighbourhood group somewhere, decided that it would be someone’s job to roam the streets of Seahouses looking for stray dog poo, which would then be shamed by having said sign stuck next to it. Not only would that be someone’s job, but someone, somewhere had to finance the making and laminating of little signs with which to shame. Alternatively, someone saw the pile of dog poo, and then went home and SPECIALLY MANUFACTURED said sign and then took it back to the pile of dog poo. Both of which seem like a hilarious amount of work, time and money to expend on a pile of dog poo. Did it not occur to anyone that perhaps someone’s dog happened to wander away on its own, or, maybe a stray dog did it? Did it not occur to anyone that it might actually be impossible to eradicate dog poo from the world entirely and that the money for the tiny dog poo signs could most likely be spent better on other things, especially in recession-era Britain, where a million young people are unemployed, the cost of living in sky-rocketing and superannuation is being slashed? Anyway, that’s my two cents.
Back to the singing. We split in to two groups after breakfast and my group learnt a few songs and harmonies first with Rachel, and then later, more with Becky. We learnt a beautiful appalachian song the girls heard from a performer named Heddy West, called ‘Awake, Awake’, which was a real joy to sing with all the fabulous harmonies. The girls had said at the beginning of the weekend that they liked group singing, because you could ‘get lost’ in it, and that was certainly how I felt during this song. As a child and teenager, I didn’t like being in choirs very much, though I was in as many as I could be. It always felt like a chore, something I ‘had to do’, to get more practice at singing, at harmonies and learning more music theory. But, I still hated them for precisely for this reason – that a single person is lost in a choir. I didn’t want to be lost, I wanted to be heard! I wanted to be front and centre with the microphone in my hand! I wanted that, because, lets face it, I was more interested in the praise and adoration I might get from the singing, than from the act of singing itself. Of course, I must have had some affection for the actual activity of singing, otherwise I would have chosen something else – soccer, maybe, or… hula-hooping. Maybe it was the set up of the weekend, or because I’ve kind of given up on the idea that singing might be something that I can make a career out of, but, the feeling of being part of a group, and of that group creating simple, beautiful harmonies together, and hearing those resonances build and fill the room, was really beautiful, really relaxing, and, oddly enough, very comforting and therapeutic. It was akin to the things I’ve been doing in my art course.
After lunch, we went for a walk on the sand dunes, and attempted to sing a few songs down there, which delighted me, because I’m always singing in public, down the street, in parks, at the shopping centre, and getting strange looks. When there’s 40 of you, on a beach, singing in harmonies, and someone walks past you, the strange looks are deflected away by the joy of being in a group doing exactly the same strange thing you are doing. We were defeated, unfortunately, by the gale force wind and sand storms, and despite attempting to complete the stroll by walking backwards up the beach so as to not get sand in our mouths and eyes, we decided to pack it in and head to the pub.
The pub was a beautiful, old traditional pub, with oodles of sea bits and bobs hanging from the ceiling, and hot ginger wine for sale. I’ve only had ginger wine once before, at a folk festival, and whilst the night in question was not one of the best of my entire life, due to the rather large consumption of ginger wine and whiskey (the best types of folky alcohol), I still really love the stuff. I’d never had it hot before, and let me tell you, ginger, with heat, is pretty impressive. It catches the back of your throat like nothing else. I was coughing and spluttering and toasty warm in no time. We all crushed ourselves inside the tiny front room and sang the choruses we had been taught the day before, various members of the Unthanks family and band leading them, the few bemused locals joining in on those they knew. At some point, workshop participants were invited to sing, and, you guessed it… I volunteered myself. I decided to give my very best ‘Tippin’ it Up to Nancy’, figuring people might be able to stumble along in the chorus, and, at the very least, it was fast and fun and I knew it well. Of course, though, there is something a little terrifying, about singing a favourite song of yours in front of the members of one of your favourite bands. Its thrillingly terrifying in a way that I don’t think I experience in front of other actors anymore. Well, maybe that’s not true. But, for whatever reason, this felt much more momentous and special. Maybe it was just the atmosphere of the weekend. Whatever. I did it. It was terrifying. I started far too high (nerves), but I got through it reasonably well. People clapped and laughed, and I was personally complemented by members of The Unthanks. Does it seem silly to hold onto those and not want to write down what specifically was said? Probably. But, I’m still not going to do it. It was too wonderfully delightful and slightly embarrassing that I don’t want to crow about it.
After the pub, we headed back to the farm, and had dinner. After dinner there was very intimate concert, which was stunningly beautiful, and we heard a few of the songs from the last CD (which I have to go buy now, thanks for reminding me). After dinner there were games, including the face-to-face competition, a singing variation of the YPT drama game favourite, ‘Honey, I Love You’ (for non-YPT readers, the aim of the game is to get someone to laugh by saying ‘Honey, I love you, will you smile for me,’ said person has to reply, ‘Honey, I love you too, but I just can’t smile today’), which I did very well at, probably due to all that ‘training’ from drama classes all those years ago. I forgot the words halfway through one of my songs, though, and that was the end of me. Ah well.
The evening was spent singing more songs, drinking more wine, until 3:30am. Well, that was the evening for a small group of us, say, 8 people. The rest of the group was in bed, trying to sleep, hating on us 8 for sitting in the common room and singing until 3:30am. It didn’t seem such a big deal until we got in trouble from two of the other workshop participants, who came out in their PJ’s to rouse on us, so we all slunk into bed. We hung around the breakfast tables rather sheepishly the next morning, I can tell you.
Sunday was a particularly short day, just brunch and then one workshop before sending us on our way. I don’t think I’ve mentioned anywhere else, but apart from the band, Rachel and Becky’s parents were helping out on the weekend, their father and mother’s partner were leading a lot of the songs as well. So, when they said it was a ‘Weekend with the Unthanks’, it genuinely was a weekend with the Unthanks – the entire family. We even met Rachel and Adrian’s new baby, who was very cute, very well-behaved, loved the music and stared around at all the new people cooing at him very interestedly. Its just another example of the wonderfully warm, open, community feeling that the weekend had. I think it also a reflection of the type of music that The Unthanks play – there is something about folkies that is very down-to-earth, welcoming, and inclusive. Its very family and tradition orientated. My brother would have you believe that we are all crazy hippies, but whilst there is a bit of cross-over, there is definitely a difference between hippies and folkies. And, I think, though I have nothing against hippies, really, that I do prefer the folkies. They’re a little more grounded then hippies can be.
Anyway, we headed back to Edinburgh Sunday afternoon, and I can’t remember feeling so relaxed and happy in a long while. I was completely re-inspired to get singing again, get out my violin, learn some new songs and find somewhere to perform them. That’s what I’ve been doing this afternoon – teaching myself songs that people told me I should sing over the weekend, or learning ones that other people sang on the weekend and I want to know. I’m working on finding places to sing as well. There’s a freedom and joy in wanting to do it just for the sheer pleasure of it too, and not thinking, ‘this is my career, I have to make money out of it, I have to do it right.’ Lets pray that feeling lasts, and, if I can at all help it, maybe take a bit of that gay abandon and put it into my attitude towards theatre and acting too.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Weekend with the Unthanks

  1. Oh Jen! Joy radiates from this blogpost :0)
    I'm glad to hear you had such a wonderful weekend meeting your unrealistically high expectations!! Hold those memories close to your heart.

  2. Richard

    Hello Jen. I was reading on the Unthanks website about the singing weekends and tried looking online for anyone who had been on one when one of the sites listed was this one.

    I went to see the Unthanks in Middlesbrough last night (19 March 2015) and reading your lovely blog shows that they haven’t changed in the years since you met them. They were warm, welcoming and so friendly even in the brief moment I spoke to them whilst getting an autographed poster.

    It has been a dream of mine to see the Unthanks live for just under a year now as I have had some bad mental health problems and without going into too much detail I nearly didn’t pull through.

    The thing that saved me was an unconventional form of music therapy where my love with the emotional response to music was rekindled and not surprisingly the Unthanks certainly re-stoked the fires of my soul and it would not be an exaggeration to say that their music has saved my life. Of course I was to shy to tell them this and there is no contact information the band themselves on the website, but by finding this website I hope you will allow me the opportunity of expressing my love for this wonderful, beautiful group of men and women who have touched my spirit in a way that I would have not thought possible just under a year ago.

    If you feel that this post is too self indulgent to post I will totally understand it has just been a joy to talk to someone about how amazing the Unthanks are (even if it is just through a keyboard). May they continue forever and May Rachel and Becky inspire the next generation as their father inspired them

    I thank you for your time

    • Hi Richard, thanks for your lovely message and for sharing your feelings about the Unthanks. I certainly felt a similar emotional rejuvenation at the Singing Weekend and if you ever get a chance to go, I would highly recommend it. It wasn’t just the Unthanks themselves, who were so welcoming and warm, but the act of singing together that I found incredibly therapeutic. It’s been a while since I read through this post, so I can’t remember exactly what I said, but there was so much peace to be found singing in a group in simple harmonies. It made me feel so connected and included with the other people on the weekend. I hope you continue to improve and you continue to enjoy the wonderful music of the Unthanks. I haven’t seen them live in a while – I hope I get a chance to soon! All the best, Jen.

      • Richard

        Hi Jenny

        Richard here

        Sign up on their website or look in the tour dates section

        (http://www.the-unthanks.com/)

        they have just finished a tour of the UK promoting the new album ‘Mount The Air’ and are doing many festivals up until September. If you still live in London they are headlining at a one day folk festival called folk by the oak at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire on the 19th July (details in tour dates section of website). I’ve booked my tickets today. If you decide to go let me know as it would be lovely to meet you

        Many thanks for your kind words regarding my progress

        Richard

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