James Yorkston – No Dragons Here
We talk to Scottish singer songwriter James Yorkston, who was an integral early member of the Fence Collective and whose solo career began when John Peel played a demo of his “Moving Up Country, Roaring the Gospel.” Which is exactly where Melz Durston’s feature for us begins…
John Peel pulled the disc from the shadows, lifted it from the shelves, and sent the songs across the air-waves. In 2002, James Yorkston released his debut album Moving Up Country (with production credits to Simon Raymonde of the Cocteau Twins) with his band The Athletes, and took these songs on the road, supporting John Martyn and later appearing at Glastonbury festival in the acoustic tent. He has since released eight albums with Domino Records, working with Kieran Hebden, Steve Mason, Jon Hopkins, King Creosote, and the Fence Collective’s Johnny Pictish of the Pictish Trail and KT Tunstall (to name a few) along the way. His own music, an honest, prolific and sometimes self-depreciating affair; though that deadpan, black humour is never far behind … and, he doesn’t sing about dragons. Ever.
“I’m not a great one for writing about dragons…”
We spoke to James Yorkston about his latest album, Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, and how he decided to cover not the original, but the cover version of This Mortal Coil’s You and Your Sister — amongst other things, including recording (and producing, not least) with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, long-time friend KT Tunstall, a brief period spent busking, and how he has been involved with various labels over the years, but it was his ‘almost decision’ to quit music that lead him to a chance meeting with Laurence Bell of Domino Records … and the rest, as they say, is history.
Or not. Because this week, James continues his tour, returning to Scotland later in October. James Yorkston will also be headlining a special wintery show in London on December 22nd, aptly named Winterville. Ticket links below.
Our cyber-chat can be read after this brand new (as of 5th Nov) video …
Your second album, Just Beyond the River, was released in 2004 and you had Kieran Hebden on board with you. Both Four Tet and Fridge’s compositions have this sort of cyclical, infinite personality … similar to the likes of To Rococo Rot, Orange Can, Boards of Canada and Mogwai. How did you find this merging of your two perspectives and styles? In what ways did working with Kieran expand your own horizons and expectations of yourself as a songwriter — and do you plan to head more in this direction?
Hello. Well, we asked Kieran really as we just got on with him so well. I don’t think any of us were thinking the record would be an electronic record particularly. That record was a tricky one for me as it was the first time I was writing something with any kind of fear of expectation from an audience – previously we’d just done our own daft music for our own daft sakes. So I guess what Kieran was good at was just relaxing us all and allowing us to make the record we wanted without feeling the need to cover it with bells and whistles – or in this case bleeps and squelches.
Music is just music after all.
I’m no huge fan of only liking one genre or another; most people who are interested in music seem happy with whatever warms their ears. I’m the same. I’ve always been a fan of the drone in music. For me personally, that love of the drone comes strongly from listening to the music of some of the great Irish pipers – Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy – but also from Faust and Can and the reams of dub I used to listen to.
I’m always happy to have electronic stuff or anything done to my records so long as it sounds good; we’ve had hours of remixes done throughout the years, plus I’ve dabbled myself – Kath with Rhodes from my last record for example. I like it, but for me, the songs, the lyrics and the melody are more important than the window dressing.
You followed this album up with your third record, The Year of the Leopard, produced by Rustin Man (bassist with Talk Talk, aka Paul Webb), including track Woozy with Cider which was later remixed by Jon Hopkins. Beth Gibbons’ album (also with Rustin Man) Out of Season was very paired down and detailed, both. You could get a real sense of her nuances as a guitarist and vocalist — not overly produced and quite atmospheric — often, in the moments of silence or under-production, rather than the excess of added effects. For me, I can listen to an album that feels minimalistic in its presentation — such as Tanya Donelly’s 2004 solo album Whiskey Tango Ghosts — and it’s an album that dives straight for your heart, in that, there is nothing to hide behind. You can trust the artist and despite the process of recording, and replication — it is real. Who do you listen to and believe in?
Listening to and believing in is something I can relate to, absolutely. Top of my head, Lisa O’Neill, Lal Waterson, Linton Kwesi Johnson – Kathryn Williams is good at it, too. I don’t believe Can, but I love them. Same with a great many artists. People bring different things to the pot though, don’t they? Sometimes nothing will do other than Mingus, but on other occasions he can be as welcome a sound as a reversing refrigerated fish van at 6am.
“6.30am is just way too early…”
Those early Gillian Welch albums were great, they came from somewhere believable – Lucinda Williams too. Theatre can be stunning too though, if done well – the Scott Walker albums, Faust as they tour now – great fun. Immersive. And of course, vague, opaque lyrics, if presented well, can be just as alluring. However, a quiet singer songwriter singing rhyming dictionary pish doesn’t really do it for me, however fancy the guitar or pure the voice.
I remember seeing you in the new bands tent at Glastonbury in 2002 — when you had just released Moving Up Country. I think it was John Peel who first aired some songs from this album. What are your recollections from this time, and did you meet with John Peel? How do you look back on that time of your life — in terms of transitioning? Did you ever feel like jacking it all in and returning to a “normal” life of stability? Are much of your songs inspired by your life experiences to date?
Help ma boab, that was a while back. I can barely remember it myself. I never actually met Peel, unfortunately. He was a big influence on me and my musical tastes. I grew up in a tiny wee village – less than 150 people – and there was no music to be heard other than the stuff on the tele – that even then I strongly suspected to be total crud – and Peel.
Later, Kershaw added a few logs on the fire and Janice Long should be mentioned too. I almost met Peel – I was doing a show with Pulp and Peel was supposed to be DJ-ing. When I arrived, our names were on the same dressing room door – so I was pleased, hoping I’d get a chance to tell him how much his programmes had influenced my musical life – but then he cancelled and he was replaced by my product manager from Domino who is a lovely guy, but… well, it wasn’t quite the same as Peel.
That time in my life – when Moving Up Country did so well – was pretty odd. I was lucky that Domino were (and are) such a great label to be with. They protected me from a lot of the stress one may expect. Regarding jacking it in before I signed to Domino, it was precisely me doing that – quitting music – that led me to getting signed to Domino.
Bumping into Laurence Bell of Domino at a gig was fortuitous, but when he asked to hear my songs, I’d already got a decent twelve demos made. Looking back, my life before making a living from music was pretty much a battle with band members, crap jobs and depression. My twenties weren’t fun. Signing to Domino seemed to help things, but on the mental health side I was also employing some alternative therapies, so maybe that played a part in brightening the sky. As for my songs – they are almost all inspired by my life thus far. I’m not a great one for writing about dragons.
You’ve worked with Johnny of the Pictish Trail and also King Creosote. By having a focus that runs in conjunction with your own solo work, are you able to grow as a songwriter or do you try to keep it pigeon-holed so you can concentrate on your own voice and lyrics, when working on your own material? And did you come to work with each other, via the connections you have with Kieran Hebden and Fridge?
We don’t really work with together any more, which is a shame. I loved playing with Johnny Pictish and Kenny Creosote. There were some great years had with the three of us and the Fence Collective, but nothing lasts forever. Kenny would have been asked on my most recent record – The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society – but it’d become increasingly obvious there’d be blood spilt if those twa cheuks were in the same studio.
So I don’t really work musically with either of them now, although Johnny did sing wonderfully on CRAWS. But that was more him coming in as a chum and singing spot-on backing vocals – we didn’t write the songs together or discuss arrangements or anything like that. He has been and will hopefully continue to be a great friend of mine, a good set of ears and a dispenser of interesting viewpoints. I met Johnny through Fence – through Kenny. I don’t actually think Johnny knows Kieran, to be honest. Johnny and I did have plans to do a three-piece record with Steve Mason, whom I’ve known since primary school, but Steve moved to Brighton and Johnny to Eigg, which kind of rum mucked that idea up. Also, we’d never actually asked Steven – he probably would have said no…
I’d work with Kenny again, of course. I imagine we’ll do something together at some point. Maybe when we’re in the East Fife Nursing Home we can upset the biscuit trolley together. He could record the racket it made and release 100 copies on a 7″.
You’re signed to Domino Records — who begun as a very small and independent label — yet are now pioneers of the independent ethic. Do you feel that your experience working with Fence Collective has been a whole other story?
Johnny’s new label is called Lost Map, whereas Kenny continues Fence. Johnny ran a huge part of Fence for ten years or so and his enthusiasm and ideas helped every member of Fence. One of the great things about Domino was they allowed me to continue releasing nonsense on Fence – one of the releases Fence put out was a reel I played on the concertina that I time-stretched to a thirty minute drone. It wasn’t easy listening. That was one of the attractions with Fence – they’d allow you these small whims, these flights of fancy.
KT Tunstall appears on the majority of your latest record: The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society. Her debut Eye to the Telescope obviously did very well and marked her out as a really talented, positive performer. Since then, she has moved in different directions — and ultimately this has taken her on the path of film scoring and soundtracks, and a career in Hollywood. You’re obviously very rooted in your native Fife and must feel strong ties to your home. Do you feel that some sort of unspoken understanding comes from collaborations between artists who have that grounding too, and who grew up in similar surroundings to yourself? In your opinion, is music very much a reflection of both your own inner psyche but also a reflection of external goings-ons and experiences?
Kate was just one of us, she was just playing shows in Fife, then in Edinburgh – and then she overtook us all somewhat and became rather successful. But she’s lovely and down to earth. I’m not surprised she’s moving into soundtracks, that last album of hers was beautiful, but she wasn’t plugging for the pop market – she was making a record for the sake of the music, not the business. So her moving into soundtracks is just another pointer to her own individualism. She’s doing exactly what she wants – more power to her.
When we worked together on CRAWS, Kate, me and Johnny were very relaxed in one another’s company. Aside from anything else, we used the same, sometime rather coarse, language, but we also joked about daft things from home, that sort of thing. She was very good studio company, full of ideas and laughs.
My Fife home and surroundings obviously influenced the lyrics and that is what introduces most people into music like my own – the narrative, the ideas, the patois… I mean, a love song is a love song and that should be universal, but the speech patterns, the accents, the attitude, be it self-depreciating or more outgoing – that all flavours the song, of course. Do the fields surrounding the village where I live now influence the songs? The beaches on my doorstep? Well yes – as they appear in the songs, directly mentioned. As I said, I don’t really write about dragons…
Talking of KT, she has busked a lot — inevitably, some cities in the UK (and the world) are more welcoming to busking musicians than others. How might busking, for you, have helped you to establish your own songwriting and performance? Where in the world have you travelled to, and been struck with the culture and attitude towards street performance?
I have busked a little, but I’m too shy for it really. I find it excruciating, as a performer. I lived in Edinburgh for twenty years almost and that city had its fair share of buskers – throughout the festival, of course, but the rest of the year also.
I did see a great busker in Dublin once though, I was on tour with some American guys – Denison Witmer and Josh Tillman – and we were walking to a restaurant. Perched in this snicket was an oldish guy dressed as a cowboy, playing guitar and growling his way through some old standards. The natural reverb of the snicket, plus his voice and playing – it was quite a thing and I can remember him well all these years later.
Chris Bell’s song, You and Your Sister, is on your latest record. 4AD Record’s Ivo Watts-Russell, started up This Mortal Coil – a musical project featuring 4AD vocalists and musicians including the Cocteau Twins, Kim Deal and Tanya Donelly amongst others. When choosing how to pitch your own cover version, did you have a definite idea at the outset — or did it evolve and come to be, as you got into the project? Which cover songs have inspired you, over the years particularly — and who do you imagine yourself covering next?
I had only ever heard the This Mortal Coil take. I didn’t know Chris Bell’s original at all – I’ve heard it now of course, but I didn’t particularly take to it. This Mortal Coil were one of those bands from my youth that I adored and listened to intently. Recording You and Your Sister for CRAWS was an accident though, really. We hadn’t planned on it, I was just sitting at the piano idling time away whilst JG (the engineer) was getting a mix down. For whatever reason You and Your Sister came into my head and I recorded it there and then on my phone. That version is the version on the record, taken straight off my phone then mastered at Abbey Road. I guess I liked the space in my version, but then I can barely play piano, so it was never going to get too complicated…
Who would I like to cover one of my songs? Anyone with a decent voice, really. I guess my favourite versions thus far have been by Charlotte Greig, Rozi Plain, Nancy Elizabeth (When the Haar Rolls In). I’d love Adele to try one of my own, I think she’s got a braw voice on her, that girl.
The tour continues:
- 24th October — The Lighthouse, Glasgow
- 26th October — Red Suite, Dundee
- 28th October — Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
- 1st November — Soy Festival, Nantes, France
- 2nd November — Vondelkerk, Amsterdam
- 22nd December – Winterville, London
All words by Melz Durston. More writing by Melz on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive.