Rachel Unthank: soundtrack of my life

The Unthanks singer on morris dancing as a child and a teenage fixation with Faith No More

The Unthanks are a traditional, though unique and idiosyncratic, folk outfit from Northumberland fronted by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and managed by Rachel's husband Adrian McNally, who also produces, arranges and plays with the band. They have made four studio albums since 2005, including The Bairns, which was nominated for the Mercury prize in 2008. Diversions: Vol. 1, a collection of live recordings based on the music of Antony and the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt, is released on 28 November. "A common theme for me is the joyousness of music," says Rachel. "It's been at the centre of our lives from the word go.


Ashley Hutchings, Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, John Kirkpatrick, Barry Dransfield - Morris On (1972)

My earliest memory of being played music is listening to this album of traditional morris dancing tunes and songs. My parents used to put it on for me and my brother on a Saturday morning so they could go back to bed and have a lie-in. We would basically dance around the living room and it would make us happy. We did a lot of dancing when we were growing up. My dad's a rapper sword dancer, and Becky and I clog-danced as well. We were involved with dance teams from a very young age.


The Keelers – On the North Sea Ground (1998)

My musical experience growing up was predominantly with live music, especially singing. My dad is in a group called the Keelers, who sing a lot of robust, powerful sea shanties, and we went to a lot of festivals and singarounds. As a young child it captured my imagination to be let into this world where adults sang and told stories to one another. I think it really informed the way Becky and I sing harmonies. On the North Sea Ground [an album the Keelers later released] has a lot of songs on it that we effectively stole and rearranged for our own albums. They've been a constant resource when we're looking for new material. There's a grit about their music and a sense of performing for your life. I used to listen to this album when I was at university. When I felt a bit homesick, I'd listen to my dad singing.


The Voice Squad – Many's the Foolish Youth (1987)

We used to have a tradition in our family where, when we sat down to eat, we'd always take it in turns to put some music on. It had to be something that everybody would enjoy and this is one of the albums that we'd listen to a lot. The Voice Squad are three men from Ireland who sing in really close harmony. We'd see them at Whitby folk festival and places like that. The harmony work has really influenced Becky and I. There's something almost choral about it, even though they are traditional Irish singers. The melodies are so beautiful and the band is so in tune with one another they seem like one voice.


Faith No More - The Real Thing (1989)

I never really left folk music behind, but I did have a little teenage rebellion where I turned to grunge and rock music. I listened to lots of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. Faith No More in particular were really alive and vital; there was almost a violence to their music. It was exciting listening to them as it was so different to the music I grew up with. I also had a massive crush on Mike Patton, the lead singer: a very sexy man.

The music informed the way we dressed. I'm from a small town on Tyneside so we stuck out like sore thumbs. People used to call us "hippie witches" but we wore it with pride. I thought it was brilliant. I wanted to be different. It was that cliche – you wanted to be different but of course you all looked the same.


Robert Wyatt – Rock Bottom (1974)

This album marks the time when I got together with Adrian. He opened up a whole new musical library for me. It was really exciting to meet somebody and find music that you didn't know about. He used to be nervous about playing new kinds of music to me, because artists like Robert Wyatt are quite unusual. He'd give a little speech before he put the album on, but he didn't need to worry because I never come to music with a closed mind.

When he played me "Sea Song" for the first time, it captured my imagination. There are real links with the style of music we grew up with and an authentic sense of storytelling, both through Wyatt's lyrics and the unusual musical landscapes that he creates. I feel like he doesn't hide behind anything: it's all there for a purpose.

The first time I heard it was in my living room, just sat at home on an evening in, probably with a glass of wine or two. We were sitting down, talking about music and he'd put it on saying, "Right, I'm going to play this." It represents my and Adrian's relationship as well, which has always been very grounded in music. We met at a folk festival and we're on the same wavelength musically, which is reassuring.


Sufjan Stevens – Illinoise (2005)

This is my all-time favourite album. Sufjan Stevens's music is so exhilarating. Every time you listen to it you can hear something new. There's a joyous abandon to his music that's simultaneously mixed with sinister, murderous tales.

When I was pregnant we went to Australia on tour and Sufjan was playing in the Sydney Opera House. We were all totally jetlagged but at the same time so excited to see him. Then when we came home he played in the Sage, Gateshead. I was very pregnant at this point, but I love to see him perform live because he's so celebratory.

We played the album in the hospital when I went into labour. We took a number of albums but some of them just felt too dark or wrong to have on. But Sufjan was something I enjoyed listening to while I was in pain.


Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell – Kite (2011)

When I first brought George, my little boy, home from hospital in June, we had a bit of time to ourselves but then Jonny and Lucy moved in and started finishing their album. We'd be in the next room hearing it all. I was changing his nappies and singing along, so he's heard all of these songs, although some of them did end up with his name in them and slightly changed. There's just so much depth and resonance to the band. Jonny's not afraid to be completely and utterly romantic, but then tell their stories as well. There's such a gravitas to the album that always surprises me and, coupled with the purity of Lucy's absolutely beautiful voice, there's something so charming and endearing. You fall in love with them musically.It feels like if you're charting your life with music, then that's the most recent experience that's attached to me. They dedicated their album to George, I'd forgotten that, which is really nice. But that's not why I love it – that's just an extra bonus.

Listen to this playlist on Spotify


Interviewed by Sam Price

The GuardianTramp

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