James Yorkston :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

The sessions that became The Wide, Wide River, Scottish folk musician, singer, songwriter, and author James Yorkston’s latest album, happened mostly spontaneously.

Assembled in close collaboration with The Second Hand Orchestra, a group of Swedish musicians led by Karl Jonas Winqvist, the album is a career highlight after almost 20 years in the recording space. “The Second Hand Orchestra hadn’t heard any of these songs before the sessions,” Yorkston says. “I flew to Sweden and said my hellos, then we all sat round and set up our instruments. I would run through a song, once, perhaps twice, and simply encourage the musicians to react to what they were hearing. The engineer would press record and – voilà – we’d have a song down. This here album is the result of eight such castings of the net. We all love it—it was a joy to make and is fresh, spontaneous, and full of life.”

Indeed, the collection of songs on The Wide, Wide River is light and gently propulsive, reminiscent of the laid-back camaraderie of Fisherman’s Blues / Room to Roam-era Waterboys.

Always changing up his sound, Yorkston sat down for an admittedly loose set of questions more or less centered on the idea of “collaboration.” Drawing on a handful of submissions by collaborators past and present—including a former Cocteau Twin and one of the world’s best-selling crime writers—our conversation was sprawling, yet focused…much like the man’s best work, actually. | a tobin

Aquarium Drunkard: As you’ll hopefully see later on, the notion of “collaboration” is intended to act as a bit of a red thread throughout our conversation—but before we get to that, let’s first focus on “solo James.” Could you talk us through your process of writing a song?

James Yorkston: Nowadays, it almost always starts from the lyric. I try not to sit down and write anymore; I try and catch ideas as they come to me, whenever they come to me, because I find they tend to be freshest, and they just excite me the most. So if an idea for a song comes, I’ll just pretty much type it or sing it into my phone. Or if I’m in the studio—which I am most days—I’ll get a basic recording done. Almost always, that first recording is what I prefer the most. I don’t struggle to write songs anymore. The only time I really have was in 2003, for my follow-up album, Just Beyond the River. You know the expression: You get your whole life to write that first album…I was 30 years old, and the first album went down well, so I felt some pressure to make an effort on the second album. But since then, I try and not to paint myself into a corner, and I try and just write whatever happens. So I find writing easy… at the moment.

AD: Even in these circumstances, with a full lockdown in place?

James Yorkston: Yeah, even in these circumstances, I find it easy. I can’t get involved with politics. It distresses me too much. I can’t get involved with the nearing…with the forthcoming end of mankind, the environmental apocalypse. [Laughs] I just can’t get involved with these things. I think that I’m in this position where I can make music for a living. And that’s what I have to do, and that’s why I have to concentrate on it. It’s a very privileged position.

AD: So you’ve written a song, and then there comes a time when you have to allow someone else to take a peek through the window at it, be it other musicians or a producer. Did opening yourself up like that take getting used to?

James Yorkston: For the first four albums, I had a guy working with me called Reuben Taylor. And he would do the demos. I’d do the basis of them either in his house or in the studio we had in Edinburgh. I think I always had that sort of protection for those early records. I could take it to one person, and then Faisal [Rahman] and Doogie [Paul] would hear it. These are all guys who were in the Athletes—the name of the first group of players I was working with—in the old days. So I had that kind of buffer, I suppose. Having said that, I’ve just sent a load of songs to Domino [Yorkston’s label] for the next record, and I was pleased when they approved them. So I guess I do still want them to say yes. I don’t imagine it’d be nice if they sent it back and said “no, no, that’s not good.”

AD: You’ve also had the good fortune to have been with a single record label, Domino, for almost 20 years now. That must provide you with a certain sense of stability, working with people you’ve known for a long time.

James Yorkston: I appreciate I’m in a privileged position. I mean, I’ve worked to get here. I’m trying to do exactly what I want to do as an artist, rather than writing songs for the radio, rather than: “Hey, should we get this guy in to produce it, and then maybe we’ve got more of a chance of getting on the radio?” Domino don’t hear a note of the albums until they’re finished. They never come to the studio and say: “Oh, can you put a chorus in here? Or can you put some drums on it?” They don’t do that in the slightest. They only hear it at the end, often after it’s been mastered. So it can’t be changed. That’s the level of support I have from Domino, and I think I’d be foolish not to appreciate that.

AD: Let’s mix things up slightly now then…For this interview, I did a small bit of research and reached out to a few people who might seem familiar to you, asking them to help me out with a question they would like to ask you. All of them have collaborated with you in some guise in the past.

Johnny Lynch aka Pictish Trail (musician and owner, Lost Map): When I met James for the first time, I think I was aware that he had quite an uncompromising artistic vision. He’s got an eclectic taste in music, but with a very definite sense of what he does and doesn’t like. Collaboration presents both risk and compromise, but can it also help shape an artistic vision? I guess what I’m asking is have his collaborations in recent years changed his perception of who he is as a solo artist?

James Yorkston: Two immediate answers. There’s a slight bit of musical knowledge you acquire. I’ve never been taught music or anything like that. I can’t read music. So playing with Jon [Thorne] and Suhail [Yusuf Khan] in Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, I’ve learned lots of just about music, about terminology, but also a lot about Indian classical music [Laughs]…about jazz and improvisation, and what you can and can’t do. But the main thing I find about collaboration is it refreshes the palate for when I go back to doing solo stuff. Obviously, when you’re working with people, you can produce stuff that otherwise wouldn’t have existed. For example, on the Max Cooper album [2019’s Yearning for the Infinite], I did that song “A Droplet Forms” [original title: “A Fleet Life”]. And I love that lyric. For me, it’s one of my favorites. It’s a small lyric that makes sense for me. It’s one of my favorites, along with “The Brussels Rambler” and “This Time Tomorrow.” It’s just a perfect little thing for me. It probably wouldn’t have existed if Max hadn’t asked me.

But I know what Johnny’s talking about. I can be a real hardnose when we’re working together. I can just say: “That sounds shite! What are you doing?!!” [Laughs] And that… that kind of level of slamming the door shut is something that I absolutely try and keep out of the studio when we’re working. I do try my best just to allow everyone to go forward, because as soon as you’re in the studio, as soon as somebody says “no” to an idea, the atmosphere totally changes. People think: “What if they say ‘no’ again?” And I’ve been at the studio when I’ve been a collaborator, and I’ve come up with ideas, and people have said “no,” It totally holds you back.

AD: There are tracks on your new album, The Wide, Wide River, which you recorded with The Second Hand Orchestra in Sweden, where you can really sense the musicians were moving forward, finding their own way.

James Yorkston: Karl Jonas [Winqvist, The Second Hand Orchestra] and I said we should try and keep it really open for the band, try and give them lots of space. The two things that came up were Veedon Fleece by Van Morrison and Neu! You can also hear that on the track “Struggle,” which became a lot poppier.

AD: This is very evident if you watch the short video – a beautiful little piece of work—you recently made together with Myles O’Reilly, A Touring Tale of Ireland. “Struggle” is much slower there, and when you listen to the album version, it’s spright and up-tempo. Maybe you were preoccupied with other things.

Adrian Crowley (singer, composer, and songwriter): Which do you think is better for skimming stones, and why? Cellardyke sea shore or the shores of Lough Hyne? Also, have you beaten my record of 28 skims yet?

James Yorkston: Which is best for skimming stones? Lough Hyne. Which do I prefer? Cellardyke sea shore. It’s home after all. I don’t think I’ll ever beat 28 skims. That was Adrian’s fluke, last time I saw him. He’ll never let me forget it… After recording in Stockholm, we went to Ireland and toured these tiny venues. I love touring Ireland, I spent a lot of my childhood in Ireland, and I’ve got this real kind of love for the place. I love that video that Myles put together… I think it’s lovely. But, you know, it’s funny talking about songwriting again. It’s the same with you, as a writer, I’m sure. You know when it’s coming out well. Imagine if you had to sit down and write 500 words about the Pet Shop Boys – who are a great band, who I’ve always loved – but if you’re not in the mood… But… but if you are in the right mood, it just flows out. And I was lucky with the text I wrote to go with Miles’ video. It just flowed out, like the best songs do as well.

AD: Right, time for another question by a “guest.”

Simon Raymonde (former Cocteau Twin and owner, Bella Union): James, I’d love you to sing on the next Lost Horizons album. Our new one, In Quiet Moments, is out in February, and if you enjoy it, maybe you would consider collaborating with me? Would be great to work together again. The last time was in a hop kiln in the middle of the Surrey countryside and was a really lovely experience. For me, anyway!

James Yorkston: Ah, Simon! At the end of the Moving up Country sessions, we basically gave him a load of WAV files when it was a complete, yet still very much also an incomplete project. And Simon sculpted it. Basically, he put it together. He mixed it, but he did way more than just mixing it. He kind of brought it all together. And he also gave me a lot of confidence about what it was we were releasing. And so he was a great fellow to work with. He was one of the first people I met in the music business. And the reason I chose to work with him is because he was such a sweet guy. And I thought: “Well, I can be in a room with this guy. I can be in a hop kiln with this guy.” I didn’t sleep at all, because it was such a scary place to be staying by myself in the night. Simon went off to a hotel or something!

But there were ghosts. Have you read any of the stories about the following studio that we went into, Bryn Derwen in Wales? We recorded Just Beyond the River, The Year of the Leopard, When the Haar Rolls In, and Folk Songs. And that was…that was a haunted place. The stories we experienced there were just very scary. We’d hear noises, we’d hear voices, people singing who weren’t there, that sort of thing. And then there was a shaman who came and discovered there were two spirits there. But the most physical thing that happened to me was when I woke up in the middle of the night. Something had grabbed hold of my feet and was pulling me out of the bed. It’s a really peculiar situation

AD: …to which you, of course, replied: “I want more of this sort of stuff. Let’s record a few more albums here!”

James Yorkston: For the next album, Domino had us meet a few different people. Now, all of them were nice enough, but they were kind of a little “music biz.” So when I went to Bryn Derwen, a guy met me at the station, and he’s wearing this stinking jumper and baggy trousers. It was covered in mud and stuff. And he’s just like a farmer from where I live. We got in the car, and the car stank of dog sick. There was this really old dog in the back, going [makes slobbering sounds]… And I just thought: This is my home.

AD: Let’s talk about the new album for a bit. You recorded The Wide, Wide River in Sweden in three days or so, right? How was your approach different to recording this record?

James Yorkston: I’ve done loads of records, so some of them have been very comparable to the way we recorded this one. But The Route to the Harmonium, which was my previous album, was built up over maybe five years in my studio, you know, just bit by bit. One day I would do something, then I wouldn’t go back to that song for three months. And it took a long, long time. It was like a sculpture – just slowly, slowly getting to the heart of the songs. The Route to the Harmonium was me just doing it myself. And loving doing it by myself, every note, every sort of thing exactly as I want. But you do that… the album comes out, and that’s it: gone! The album period now is like two days, if you’re lucky. It just disappeared into nothing. And so Karl Jonas came up with the idea to record together. He said [adopts “unique” Swedish accent]: “Hey, man! Do you want to come and play in Stockholm?” One of us suggested we also do some recording the next day. On that first day, we recorded four songs, and they sounded great. You know, they sounded really good. So that’s why we carried on.

AD: I reached out to Karl Jonas, and here’s his question for you.

Karl Jonas Winqvist (The Second Hand Orchestra and owner, Sing a Song Fighter): What inspired you at the beginning of your career, and what inspires you now at the moment? And what can make you lose your inspiration?

James Yorkston: When I first started writing songs, I was about seven or eight, maybe nine. And we were just writing songs about the village. We’d write songs about the countryside and people in the village, the cows, and the farms. We were just kids writing kids songs. But when I joined my first proper band, when I was about 18 or 19, one of my inspirations was just kind of annoyance—just the thought that I could write better songs than the other guy. I mean, maybe it worked in the Kinks. In fact, it definitely worked in the Kinks. Probably worked in the Beatles as well. You know, that kind of competitive thing. But it didn’t work in our band, because we were both shite! And now…There’s something that’s beautiful about writing a three-minute pop song. Just this tiny little perfect thing. It’s like a gem, you know, something that hasn’t existed and then exists. It’s like some kind of alchemy.

AD: The next two questions I have for you are also about words on the page…

Alasdair Roberts (guitarist and singer): What is your favourite Scottish novel, or who is your favourite Scottish novelist —and why?

James Yorkston: Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It’s basically about an area between Fife and Aberdeen, a sort of fictitious area where the landscape is changing. It’s set around 1910, and it runs all the way through the First World War. The book is about the struggle with the land, and how the new machinery and stuff is coming in and everything is changing. And then realism: The First World War comes along, and people are taken away and killed. It’s an extraordinarily moving book. And it’s written in Scots tongue, which was very unusual at the time. It’s been a hugely influential book on Scottish literature. I first read it at school, and I thought it was terrible. But then, when I read it once I was out of school, I kind of became obsessed with it. It’s the first part of a trilogy, and I’ve got them all just set on my bookshelf there. Musicians like Alasdair Roberts, Karine Polwart, the guys in Lau, and then the young players coming through like Brìghde Chaimbeul, the great pipe player from Skye…One of the best parts of my job is that I get to see these people live quite a lot, you know? And hang out with them. I think Alasdair is masterful. I really think he’s an extraordinary interpreter of traditional song. Hats off to him.

Jon Thorne (bassist and composer, Lamb and Yorkston/Thorne/Khan): What fictional character would you like to meet in real life?

James Yorkston: Jon is a lovely guy. He’s so full of warmth and enthusiasm. But he’s obsessed with comics. He’s obsessed with Marvel and things like that. And we’ll go on tour with Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, and Suhail and I will be in our hotel rooms rehearsing or resting, and Jon will be out with his telephone, looking for the nearest comic book shop. And then he’ll come back and be all like [adopts gruff English accent]: “Oh guys, I’ve bought all this!” And he’ll have all of these posters of Spiderman. And we’ll go [laughs]: “Oh, OK…You got a poster of Spiderman. That’s cool, Jon, yeah!”

AD: Maybe I should change the question slightly to which comic book character you’d most like to meet.

James Yorkston: [pauses] You know, a lot of the time in interviews, you get asked the same questions. And there’s always an answer that you’re kind of ready to trot out. No one has ever asked me before which comic book character I’d like to meet! [laughs] I’ll say Captain Haddock from Tintin. He’s a comical character. He seems to enjoy his whiskey. And it might be nice to stay in Marlinspike Hall for a few months.

AD: Here’s an equally left-of-center question sent to me by a fan of yours.

Ian Rankin (best-selling Scottish crime writer, especially known for his Inspector Rebus novels): In a brief sentence, how would you describe your collaborative music to an alien who has just landed on this planet?

James Yorkston: We are experienced musicians in control of our instruments. We sit in a room, listen to what the other people do, and react.

AD: That’s two sentences, but I hope Ian will cut you some slack.

James Yorkston: Ian’s a great guy. And he’s an avid supporter of the Scottish music scene. He never allows you to send him things for free. He always buys copies himself. He’s always tweeting about new releases. 

AD: Finally, I doubt many people know you co-host 46–30, a semi-regular podcast with a friend, Stephen Marshall, who runs Triassic Tusk, a small record label and store, and is co-owner of a local brewery in your part of the world. Can you tell us a bit more about the podcast?

James Yorkston: The James Yorkston thing, everything is minutiae – I really put a lot of effort into it. 46–30? We put in zero effort. This is us relaxing. It’s just two friends sitting down and talking nonsense. We’re just horsing around, we’re just laughing.

AD: My last question for you is actually from Stephen.

Stephen Marshall (owner, Triassic Tusk Records): Anne Briggs, Linton Kwesi Johnson, and Can are in a pub brawl Who do you jump in to assist?

James Yorkston: [Laughs] Well, I know who would win. Anne Briggs would win, without a shadow of a doubt. Those people, they’re the same people that I’ve said throughout my life, in almost every interview, have been the biggest influences on me. Hearing Anne Briggs… She was the one who made me want to sing. I just thought if I could sing like her, it’d be an amazing thing. Of course, I can’t. I can’t sing anything like her. Linton Kwesi Johnson—what he was doing with his lyrics was way beyond anything I’d ever heard. Can, of course, and then the other one D’Gary, a Madagascan guitar player. He was the reason why I bought my first acoustic guitar. He was the reason that got me playing acoustic guitar. I love those guys, and I continue to love them—and Oumou Sangaré and Michael Hurley and Lal Waterson and Burning Spear.

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