The Young‘Uns: “there’s great tragedy and despair, but also hope”

by James Hendicott
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The Young‘Uns, comically, are no longer young. The folk act from Stockton in County Durham almost stumbled upon their genre of music and its storytelling traditions when they walked into a pub, found an ongoing session, and became regulars. Soon they were participating, too, the youngest of an ageing crowd, hence the name.

Years later, now edging into middle age as multiple winners of BBC 2’s Folk Awards, the trio’s latest album continues their recent theme of modern storytelling. Tales told on their latest record ‘Tiny Notes’ (out next week), see them explore the story of Lyra McKee and her Derry shooting, and Paige Hunter and the notes designed to prevent suicide she has spent years sticking to Sunderland’s Wearmouth Bridge, as well as many more.

“I think folk in England is very much an unknown sort of quantity really,” frontman Sean Cooney explains. “Traditional songs in pubs and folk clubs are an underground thing, or certainly were 20 years ago when we discovered it. It was a revelation. We had no idea that there were songs from the North East of England, or that people sung in a Teesside accent. To hear songs about where we came from was such a life changing thing. It never occurred to us that it could become a career, but it was something we wanted to do, something local and precious.”

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“It was a natural progression. For years we tried to preserve the old local songs, and I felt like they taught us so much about love and life and loss, comedy and tragedy. There came a point about six or seven years ago where we consciously started trying not to write songs about the history of the North East of England.”

The result was their modern incarnation, a band that carries heavy folk traditions, but gathers modern stories and retells them, often tragic tales produced with the permission of those they are depicting.

“Now it’s stuff that’s moving me today,” Cooney says. “Within the stories that we tell, there’s great tragedy and despair, but there’s always some hope in there. The title track ‘Tiny Notes’, inspired by Paige Hunter, who saved thirty lives in Sunderland by leaving little hopeful notes on the bridge, it’s full of hope.”

“It’s easy writing songs about the past, because all the people in it are dead, obviously. It’s a strange and beautiful thing to write modern stories. In this album, we’ve got a couple of songs people requested themselves, like a song about Tim Burman, who died in the Lockerbie bombing, was requested by his sister, which gives a lovely personal connection.”

“Others are stories that we’d seen in the news or the media, and when embarking on these kinds of songs, really personal songs, it’s not something we do lightly. ‘Tiny Notes’ took about three years of thinking about it before I decided to have a go at telling this story.”

“There’s been lots of times where I’ve thought about writing a song and then not, because it didn’t feel like the right thing to do. We take great courage in most of the stories being shared, and used many times, by the people involved. That feels like what folk music always was.”

“We take steps to approach the people concerned, and thankfully they’ve all given their permission to sing it. On one case, with three dads raising suicide awareness, we went and met them one day while they were walking through Cumbria on a mountainside, and performed for them. There’s a longer piece that we’ll release in the next couple of weeks. Those are really special moments.”

The Young’Uns play the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire on the 20 of May, tickets are on sale now.

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