Based in Northumbria, in the north-east corner of England, this all-female folk quartet was formed in 2004 by Rachel Unthank (vocals/cello), Becky Unthank (vocals), Belinda O’Hooley (piano/vocals), and Jackie Oates (viola/vocals). The Unthank sisters were raised in a musical household, with their father George having sung with the folk harmony group the Keelers, and from an early age they were to be found clog dancing at festivals. Rachel, the elder by eight years, started off as a solo singer in the late 90s before being joined by her younger sister. When they decided to make an album in the mid-00s, Rabble Rouser label boss Adrian McNally put the sisters in contact with O’Hooley and Oates. O’Hooley’s jazzy piano playing permeated the quartet’s acclaimed debut, Cruel Sister, but it was the Unthanks’ mesmerising vocals on material by Cyril Tawney (‘On A Monday Morning’) and Nick Drake (‘River Man’) that particularly enamoured critics, with Rachel’s pure singing voice offset by her sister’s husky tones.
During sessions for the follow-up album, Niopha Keegan was brought in as a replacement for Oates. The Bairns was given a wider release through the auspices of EMI Records, as befitting one of the finest folk albums of the century. Alongside stunning interpretations of the traditional ‘Felton Lonnin’ and ‘Newcastle Lullaby’, the album also included an ambitious take on Robert Wyatt’s ‘Sea Song’ and two O’Hooley originals, ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Whitehorn’. With the group’s profile reaching new heights, Stef Conner was brought in as a replacement for the departing O’Hooley.