In his review of James Yorkston’s latest album The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society (read the review here) Thomas concluded his review with:
Cellardyke ends with a lo-fi, piano and voice cover of Chris Bell’s You And Your Sister, one of the saddest, most tender songs in the history of pop music. It provides an appropriate coda to an album that is replete with delicate, elusive joys and eloquent, autumnal sadness.
He recently got the chance to talk with James Yorston in which they discuss the album, playing festivals and more…
Thomas: The guest musicians on the new record (KT, Fimber, Alexis) come from a wide range of musical backgrounds. Was there a conscious decision to move to more eclectic (and perhaps less ‘folky’) sound? And how was the experience of working with Alexis as producer (bearing in mind that his records have relatively little in common with yours)?
James Yorkston: I guess I was trying to broaden the sound a little, yes. I love producing the albums myself – Haar is one of my favourite of my records – but at the run up to CRAWS, with family and such I simply didn’t have the time to produce an album. Even the demos for this were recorded as guitar and voice, straight onto my phone. Once I decided I needed a producer, it made sense to get someone with a slightly different background to my own. I’ve known Alexis for over a decade as he used to work at Domino Records, so he was an easy guy to ask. As a producer, I guess we got along fairly well. There was the odd bit of language difficulty – myself, Johnny & Kate slipped a little into Fife patois – but once we’d worked that out things ran pretty smoothly. He was a good organiser as well as a good realiser, two things needed in a producer.
T: There are one or two faster-paced songs. Are these a nod to your punky days? I heard that there was a copy of Nikki Sixx’s biography doing the rounds in the studio. Did Mötley Crüe find their way into any of the songs?
JY: No the songs were written way before the studio, before I sent them to any of the band, obviously. The Nikki Sixx and Slash biographies were lying around the studio and we were all dipping into them and laughing away. Helped bond the group, really. The faster songs of mine were included for a couple of reasons, but the main one being to try and counter-balance the more introspective numbers and the songs about Doogie. I wanted the album to have an optimistic feel, forward looking and hopeful. The other reason the faster songs made the cut was Domino heard them and instantly declared them as “singles” which would have made it harder to leave them off the album…
T: What else were you listening to at the time? Where did the idea to cover Chris Bell’s You and Your Sister come from?
JY: I listen to all sorts of music. I think most musicians do, don’t they? Certainly when they get to my age… I revert back to old favourites – Nomeansno, Oumou Sangare , Squarepusher, Scott Walker – but there’s a lot of interesting new things that catch my ear too. I like Elle Osborne, Rozi Plain, David A Jaycock, Mary Hampton, Richard Dawson… the most recent album I’ve really enjoyed is that Connie Converse reissue. ‘You and Your Sister’ was a bit of a fluke; We were mixing the album and I had a little too much free time as I’m no techy guy, so I couldn’t help with things like compressing bass parts and such. Whilst we waited, Alexis and I decided to record another EP of material using his Zoom recorder thing (which didn’t work properly so the idea was scrapped) but as we were looking around for ideas, I remembered this old song which I knew from This Mortal Coil. I hadn’t heard the original and to be honest it doesn’t do that much for me now when I hear it. The This Mortal Coil take though was a hark back to my youth; I loved those albums back then and listened to them over and over.
T: I recently saw you at Green Man. It was a great set, but all too short. But I guess that’s the nature of the beast. Where do you stand on playing festivals as opposed to regular gigs? I sometimes think it must be quite frustrating to travel out of your way with a full band (and crew, I presume) and only get to play a handful of songs in a setting that is maybe less intimate than your usual venues. Or is that outweighed by the privilege of playing such an excellent festival and perhaps getting to see some good bands yourself?
JY: Greenman is a festival that grew up at the same time as me – I think I played at the first 7 of them? And a few times since then, too. So I know a lot of the people involved. It’s a wonderful wee festival for sure. For me now, it has so many memories of people I was very fond of who’ve since passed away and I find that aspect of it a little haunting, but it is still good to be there. I basically enjoy playing festivals. A lot of the time they’re the only time I can afford to take a full band out with me, so it’s a bit of a get together with old friends. Memorable sets for me at Greenman would be SWANS / Fourtet / Lonepigeon… But I sometimes find it tricky to watch bands at festivals, I’m usually too nervous about playing my own set or too tired and drunk having just played.
T: At Green Man you had a gentle dig at people singing along to songs that hadn’t been released yet. It raises serious questions about whether the prevailing trend for digital music makes leaked material and illegal downloads too easy to get hold of. To what extent do you think the download culture is endangering smaller labels or artists? On a personal level, do you prefer to own physical copies of albums. I would hazard a guess, based on the lavish packaging and stunning artwork of your own recent material, that you attach some importance to the visual and tactile elements of buying and listening to music.
JY: Music has been around a long, long time. It was for less than a hundred years that musicians made money from physical sales of recorded music. Before then of course there were broadsheets and sheet music in general, but things moved on from that and they’ve now moved on from physical recorded product. In one way it’s a shame – my life would be a lot easier if I had a reasonable income from physical sales – but then, making music for a living is such a luxury that I can see beyond that misfortune, especially when one considers the terrors some people are going through in this world. Smaller labels will just have to diversify, think on their feet, be original – bigger labels too. We’ve seen many companies go to the wall. It’s a shame, but if human nature is to prefer to pay next to nothing for music, that’s that. It’s not going to revert because I stamp my feet and why should it? Everything changes. I’m not interested in Spotify and their ilk, I think they are simply a business, harvesting the pennies from millions of musicians and making themselves – at the top of the tree – very rich indeed. In that aspect, the music business is just like any other business in that some people see it as a way of feathering their own nests with bugger of a thought for them below. That’s human nature, that’s ego; My ego is satisfied with making books and records – that’s how I find peace; their ego is satisfied by making huge amounts of money and securing the future of them and their off-spring. Who’s to say one is worthier than the other?
With my own material, I try and make the physical item as beautiful as possible, as something one would want to own, but who wouldn’t do that? Record sales are never going to recover to the extent they were in the Eighties, but that’s no reason to cease caring. If anything, it’s important not to take the piss out of the people who still do buy records. And for me, I think it works – my physical sales actually do much better than my download sales.
T: Some of the audience at Green Man were singing along to the chorus of Fellow Man, not, I think, because they had previously heard it but simply because of the catchiness of the refrain. You have touched on the communal nature of music in your songs (B’s Jig comes to mind). Do you think it’s important in folk music (or any music for that matter) to have that kind of interaction with and participation from the audience?
JY: Well, I don’t consider what I do to be ‘Folk Music’. For me, folk music has always meant traditional music and that makes up less than 10% of my repertoire. As I’ve said before, I write pop songs – they’re just not very popular. Of course though, for any music to “work” it has to interact with the audience in a particular way, it has to draw them in or repulse them or else it’s just ignored. I think an emotional response is just as important as a sing-a-long response. I very rarely have sing-a-long moments, but hopefully the songs share something else – a humanity, perhaps. Maybe that sounds like hippy wank, but that’s the short and long of it, to quote Lou Reed.
T: In an interview with the Guardian a couple of years back you said you’re not a one hit wonder kind of guy, or something along those lines, and for that reason every album you make has to be damn good. But what if a hit did suddenly come along, say you had a song in a Nike advert or a Norman Cook remix or the new theme tune to the Great British Bake Off? If you had one song that virtually everyone in Britain knew you for, would that change the way you made music in future?
JY: Ha. Well, in a way I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t had a one hit wonder in that it’s kept me on my toes, to give every record my best, put everything behind it. I think if I suddenly had a hit single it’d be a blessing and a curse. The money may be good, but the song’d sit like an albatross around my neck, may change the way I write – for a “follow-up hit” – I’d have to play it at every single show, it’d be mentioned in every interview, every review, every radio appearance “And next up we having Folk Singer James Yorkston who had a hit in 2005 with ‘The Terrible Crud’ – I’ll be asking him what he’s been up to since”… Is that worth the initial financial hit? Especially nowadays with it being almost impossible to make any money at all from sales? I’m not sure it is. I suspect it’d depress me to low-heaven. I remember reading an interview with Edwyn Collins, who famously has had two “one-hit wonders” – ‘Rip It Up’ with Orange Juice and ‘A Girl Like You’ when solo. He’d given up playing ‘Rip-It Up’ and only took it on again when ‘A Girl Like You’ did so incredibly well. Maybe that’s the answer. A Two-Hit wonder. Wha’ kens?
T: I recently compiled for a blog a list of the top sixty musical acts from Scotland. It started as a top twenty and grew, and even with sixty I had to leave out some biggies. There has been an incredible music scene (or rather a network of music scenes) based in Scotland for a very long time, with a lineage going back from people like you and Alasdair Roberts to the likes of John Martyn, Dick Gaughan, Vashti Bunyan, Bert Jansch and even further to Hamish Imlach, Jean Redpath, Alex Campbell and the 50s folk revivalists, not to mention the scores of post-punk and indie bands that have come out of Glasgow and Edinburgh in the last thirty-five years. For somewhere so small in terms of population, Scotland has produced a remarkable array of talent. Do you think there is a simple explanation for this, or is it a combination of factors?
JY: I don’t think that’s a hugely impressive list on a number of population Vs number of acts sense. Scotland has roughly the same population as London and look how much has sprouted from London these last 64 years, if you’re going back to the 50’s. Scotland is just like anywhere else – maybe a little colder than average, but I don’t subscribe to any mythical reasoning as to our musical output – aside from the Irn Bru in the porridge, of course. I used to say, and still agree, that part of the reason Fence produced so many acts of reasonable quality and individuality is that we were so far from the London and Glasgow music scenes that we had space to grow in; make mistakes, find confidence – but that must be the same all over the world; little pockets of undisturbed talent, perhaps sparking off more reticent performers to join in, perhaps attracting others to the area, to explore the scene…
T: For me one of the standout songs on the new album is Broken Wave. I guess creating a song like this presents a different set of problems to writing a song about romantic love or Christmas or butterflies? Is it fair to say that the hard part is not necessarily writing the lyrics (the material is right there: raw, immediate and unforgettable) but in performing and perfecting the song in the studio without being overcome with emotion? I have found myself in tears listening to that song, and I didn’t know Doogie. The act of polishing a song like this, doing take after take, tweaking things here and there must be pretty tough.
JY: Yep, it’s a sad ol’ song, but the sad bits were Doogie’s diagnosis, deterioration and death. Writing a song is easy compared to that, it barely touches the sides. When we rehearsed it, we only managed two run throughs as Emma and myself were crying like bairns, but come the studio it was easier – partly as we’d bawled the evening before. Also – and I recommend this to all song-writers of potentially tear inducing songs – I purposefully wrote a guitar part which requires concentration throughout, so I can’t really lose myself in the song. But, it still creeps up on me and gets me or nearly gets me almost every time we play it. We don’t rehearse it anymore, really, it’s a little too painful, despite the analgesic guitar part. Poor ol’ Doog. It’ll be interesting on these upcoming dates how that song works; will it get me every night? Or become as standard and un-feeling as a tired wedding band singer accompanying the bloated father-of-the-bride as he takes on My Way?
Interview by: Thomas Blake
James Singing The Recruited Collier (not from CRAWS album)
Feathers are Falling from CRAWS
18th September – Cyprus Avenue, Cork
19th September – Cleeres, Kilkenny
20th September – Working Man’s Club, Dublin
21st September – Roisin Dubh, Galway
25th September – Dingwalls, London (feat. James Yorkston/Alexis Taylor/KT Tunstall/The Pictish Trail/Jon Thorne/Emma Smith + support)
James Yorkston (duo shows with Jon Thorne on double bass):
7th October – Deaf Institute, Manchester
8th October – Fibbers, York
9th October – Bodega, Nottingham
10th October – The Harley, Sheffield
11th October – Arts Centre, Reading
12th October – Komedia, Brighton
13th October – Louisiana, Bristol
14th October – Leaf, Liverpool
James Yorkston solo:
26th October – Red Suite, Dundee
28th October – Lemon Tree, Aberdeen
The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society is Out Now via Domino Records
Order via: Amazon