On my radar: Rachel Unthank’s cultural highlights

The folk singer on Laura Veirs’s podcast about music and motherhood, Willy Vlautin’s band the Delines and the unexpected joy of book clubs

Rachel Unthank was born in Ryton, Tyne and Wear, into a musical family. In 2005 she and her sister, Becky, released their debut album (as Rachel Unthank and the Winterset), Cruel Sister; its follow-up, The Bairns, was nominated for the 2008 Mercury prize. In 2009 they became the Unthanks, and since then have released eight more albums, including Mount the Air, which won best album at the 2016 BBC Radio 2 folk awards. Their new triple album, Lines, released on Rabble Rouser on 22 February, is inspired by Emily Brontë, female war poets and fisheries worker Lillian Bilocca.

1. Podcast

Midnight Lightning

Laura Veirs.
Laura Veirs. Photograph: Ollie Millington/Redferns

Laura Veirs is an American singer-songwriter who I like; she is also a mother, and on the podcast she interviews lots of women who are also mothers and musicians – the ones I’ve listened to are Kristin Hersh, Rhiannon Giddens and Rosanne Cash. It explores the relationship between family life and having a career in music: issues like the practicality of who looks after the children. The theme of maternal guilt comes up a lot. I think that’s something all parents have in common, whether they’re musicians or not. For me it’s like a mirror into my own life.

Winter by Ali Smith

2. Fiction

Winter by Ali Smith

I never thought I’d be in a book club. I thought it might be a bit combative, but some of my close friends started one and I’ve found that I love it. I get introduced to new books, and I get to engage with my friends in a different way rather than just catching up about jobs and relationships and children. At the moment we’re reading Winter, which I’ve nearly finished. Ali Smith’s writing is very compelling – it has a lot of forward momentum. I feel like I whizzed through the pages because she propelled me along.

3. Gig

The Delines

Amy Boone and Willy Vlautin of the Delines.
Amy Boone and Willy Vlautin of the Delines. Photograph: Burak Çıngı/Redferns

I’m looking forward to seeing the Delines live – I’ve never seen them perform. I got into their music because I really like the writing of author Willy Vlautin, who is in this band. They’ve got a new record out called The Imperial: each song is almost like a small novel, and the title track is crushing. Vlautin has real empathy for the characters he writes, and it’s heartbreaking and sad but really warm and beautiful. Amy Boone is the singer: she really inhabits the songs, and it feels like they are her [own] trials.

4. Art

Heather Phillipson: The Age of Love

From Heather Phillipson’s The Age of Love.
From Heather Phillipson: The Age of Love. Photograph: Courtesy the artist

This is an exhibition I went to at the Baltic in Gateshead. I went when I was Christmas shopping and it was like a blast of fresh air – it just swept away all that overbearing Christmas atmosphere. It was a dark, cavernous room with flashing images of insects mating, and a screen with a giant luminous cat. There was dance music playing, and it took me back to being a student in Glasgow and going clubbing in the arches underneath the train station. I really enjoyed it. It was such an immersive experience.

silly sisters album cover Maddy Prior and June Tabor

5. Album

Silly Sisters, by Maddy Prior and June Tabor


This Christmas I treated myself to a proper record player: I put it under the tree, wrapped it up. My mum, as a present, gave me some old vinyl that we used to listen to when we were kids. I hadn’t heard this album for many years, and it was amazing to hear it again, to hear their voices entwined together. That must have infiltrated me at a young age because it reminded me of my and my sister’s approach to singing, even though I maybe didn’t realise it until now. It didn’t sound dated, it sounded really clear.

6. Book

North Sea: A Visual Anthology, by James Attlee

From North Sea: A Visual Anthology by James Attlee.
From North Sea: A Visual Anthology by James Attlee. Photograph: Thames & Hudson

Me and my sister have been surrounded by folk songs all our lives, so our world was full of stories of the sea, things like selkies and sea shanties. I’m continually drawn back to the sea; I love to walk on the beaches in Northumberland. I found this in my local independent bookshop, Forum in Corbridge. I described a present I wanted to get somebody: the owner gave me this and it was so perfect I keep having to buy it for people. It’s full of beautiful photos, paintings, poems, song lyrics. Each time I come back to it, I see something different.


Kathryn Bromwich

The GuardianTramp

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