James Yorkston’s latest album ‘I Was a Cat from a Book’ is his first release of new material since When the Haar Rolls In (2008) on which he was joined by Norma Waterson, Marry Gilhooly, Olly Knight and the late Mike Waterson. He has’t been stilled into silence since then however, quite the opposite. In 2009 he collaborated with The Big Eyes Family Players on Folk Songs (2009) as well as featuring on their follow-up ‘Folk Songs II’ (2012). He published his tour diaries ‘It’s Lovely to be Here’ in 2011 as well as having some of his artwork exhibited in a Fife Gallery. This year also saw the release of a special tenth anniversary edition of his debut album ‘Moving Up Country‘, an album which led to John Peel inviting James and his band ‘The Atheletes’ in for a session in 2003.
As with many artists their song writing often lies at odds with their private lives. The words that eventually end up in a song are frequently called from deep and personal emotions that you would not dream of sharing publicly with a stranger. The making of ‘I Was a Cat from a Book’ was preceded by a mountain of emotions when his young daughter was taken seriously ill in March 2010. In an earlier interview with Domino he explained that the following two years had all been about his daughter’s recovery, the treatment for which appears to have worked. As you would expect, this experience would bring a mix of emotions to any parent which he touched upon: “as a parent, you give yourself over completely to this thing. But you’re not a saint. Those feelings have to go somewhere. I didn’t plan it this way, but there’s a certain amount of anger on this record.”
James very kindly agreed to an interview with Folk Radio UK during which we spoke about the making of the album, from picking the band to his experience in recording it as well as some interesting background…not surprisingly it was from his daughter that the title of James’s album was inspired, from a morning wake-up ritual: “In the morning, she comes into the bedroom and asks me what I dreamt about. I make something up – usually involving a midnight hunger and a sudden invasion of fruit. I then ask her what she dreamt about and she replies “I Was A Cat In A Book”. At that point we have to guess which cat she was. Mog? Firecat Pickles?”
For the recording of the album James took the decision to return to Bryn Derwen in North Wales, the isolation of which has its bonuses…“Well, it’s reasonably isolated and is in a quiet part of the world. The village I live in now is quite big, well, for a village, but I grew up in a much smaller place and appreciate the peace that brings. As Bryn Derwen is a 10 minute walk through a muddy wood to get into the nearest small town, there’s not a great deal to distract you, other than the Co-Op and the scenery. I think if I were to do an album in central London, say, I expect half the band, and most likely me, would pop out each night to sample the bright lights, thus imbuing the next day’s recording with severe hangover. Bryn Derwen is also an amazing studio, Top notch equipment, lovely piano, mics, etc…”
For a number of reasons James didn’t use ‘The Athletes’ for this album which meant he had to cherry-pick a new band from scratch which included John Thorne from Lamb and Luke Flowers from The Cinematic Orchestra. That decision proved to be a pivotal one as there is an instantly recognisable chemistry or empathy at play on this album. The picking of band members seemed fated to some extent but James was not entirely unfamiliar with them: “I’ve known Jon Thorne (double bass) for years now, he played with me on various sessions and such in the past. He was the obvious person to ask, and he suggested the drummer (Luke Flowers) and keyboards (John Ellis). I had other people in mind – in fact, I asked one of the noisy bands on Domino to do it, but they said No so I had to think again. Sarah (clarinet) and Emma (violin) have played with me since 2005 and I get on really well with them both personally and musically so they were always going to be asked… It was a bit of a gamble right enough, but I knew their playing and had asked around as to their personalities. I couldn’t be in the studio with any crazed egotistical macho men.”
The speed and spontaneity of certain aspects turned out to be some of the most rewarding aspects as James explained “John, Jon & Luke reckon they’ve played over 600 shows together in different line ups, so they knew each other so well. It was very easy indeed and I knew from the first 30 seconds of jamming the songs I was in safe hands.”
All of this, alongside the chance to bond over six days in a remote part of North Wales, made the whole process a special one that maintains a vivid live feel throughout the album, it was a demanding but rewarding experience: “It was an intense schedule, but we had a chef who kept us strong and fed and watered. I definitely wanted to keep a live feel. But, we took a drink, most nights, of course. It’s part of the process, the bonding. Also, when you’re eating and drinking and discussing different matters other than the album and songs, different ideas creep into mind about the recording, so it’s worthwhile creatively, too. We also listen to a lot of other music, my iPod on random, so Mingus, Ethiopiques, Willie Clancy, Boredoms, whatever came on. It all mixes in, brings in ideas and an overall feel.
“The whole thing was a joy. Easy work. I guess the one highlight was when we recorded ‘Just As Scared’ entirely live, myself, Jill on vocals, Emma, Sarah, Jon, Luke & John, all set up and recorded in 2 or 3 takes. The sense of achievement and camaraderie is quite something. Very satisfying.”
As you listen to the album you begin to get a feel for how each musician adds that special something into the whole mix, from colour and tone to emotion. On the opening ‘Catch’ Jon Ellis takes a prominent piano lead accentuating the youthful arrogance in the lyrics whilst Emma Smith’s violin offers that reminder of innocence.
There are some surprise guests including co-vocalist Kathryn Williams on ‘Kath with Rhodes’ and Jill O’sullivan (Sparrow & The Workshop) on the lovely and playful ‘Just as Sacred’.
As stated out the outset this is an album of mixed emotions and one of the most moving is ‘A Short Blues’ the lyrics to which are clear and honest:
Lately I find I struggle to keep myself out of the blues
And I hear that a dear old friend had passed,
taken by the same thing that has its claws in you
but I remember times when we had nothing but the sun upon us
‘The Fire and the Flames’ is equally poignant which brings to the fore the inner torment and agony of parent and child.
A faster paced ‘Border Song’ finds the band racing along to Yorkston’s speeding lyrics which reveal an anger and racing fury that builds and bubbles, just a fraction away from a scream of frustration ‘this nothing just a flirt, just a flicker just a taster of what is not to come’.
There is no denying that weighed against the chemistry of the band and the emotional force of Yorkstons lyrics this is one of his best albums to date, a stunningly beautiful album!
What album are you listening to now?
Yesterday on the train home I listened to Bess Cronin, Adrian Crowley, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou and Elaine Palmer.
What are you reading?
A load of things from Wrecking Ball Press in Hull. Vagabond by AP Wolf, a poetry thing by Geoff Hattersly… What else? I’ve got John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone in my bag at the mo’ also and dip into that. The first poem in that book is incredible.
Please tell us a band or artists you’d like to introduce to our readers and listeners.
Lisa O’Neill. An Irish songwriter and singer. Great fun, great wee lass, great songs.
The first public performnce from I Was A Cat From A Book