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World Music Features

Rachel Unthink And Winterset

By Chris Nickson
Published November 17, 2008

Nominated for a Mercury Prize, the group transcends the English folk music category to become a hit at home and abroad.

Rachel Unthank is very happy, and well she might be. 2008 has been a great year for her and her band, the Winterset. Their hugely-praised second album, The Bairns, has given them an international profile, they’ve toured Europe, America and Australia, and the disc has brought them a coveted nomination for the prestigious Mercury Prize.


The Bairns is the unlikeliest breakthrough. It’s acoustic folk music that revolves around the voice of Rachel and her sister Becky, with every note redolent of their native Northeastern England, even in their accents. But it made 2007 Best Of lists across the musical spectrum in the U.K. Then, having conquered Britain, it was time to take their show on the road, and America was one of the major stops.


“We really enjoyed it,” Unthank enthuses. “I’d never been to the States so it was exciting. We landed in Cedar Rapids and the first gig was in a school hall, so we saw the yellow school buses and football gear. While we were over we also got to see Niagara Falls, which was awesome.


One big question was how the very regional music might travel, but Unthank says

“I think it went okay – the audiences were smiling and clapped, we were pleasantly surprised. We had to explain the dialect and our accents, but that happens in other parts of England, too! But we went to Norway and they understood some of it, the words were the same.”


International success is a long step from where Rachel and Becky Unthank started out. Both their parents were singers, and the sisters grew up in the folk club scene around Tyneside, heavily influenced by the sea shanties their parents sang.


For Rachel, music was the only choice. She was in several bands and even reached the semi-final of the BBC Young Folk Award, but nothing seemed to come to fruition. Al