Michael Alexander speaks to East Neuk musician James Yorkston about the challenges of lockdown and the forthcoming release of his 10th solo album for Domino Records. It comes as Courier readers are given exclusive first access – via this article – to the latest online edition of James’ Tae Sup Wi’ A Fifer club night featuring Djana Gabrielle, Jenny Lindsay, Rab Noakes and Bell Lungs:
New album – and exclusive first access to latest Tae Sup Wi’ A Fifer
In the early days of lockdown, the toughest thing for East Neuk-based singer songwriter James Yorkston was the cancellation of around 30 gigs and the constant fear that his family, friends and relatives might succumb to the virus.
By contrast, he’s loved how staying at home has allowed him to see so much more of his children.
Not having to fly anywhere has also been great while having access to the ever-changing rocky beach on his doorstep at Cellardyke has been priceless.
But having recently adapted to the pandemic by putting on a number of online Tae Sup Wi’ A Fifer club night gigs using Creative Scotland money – including the latest session exclusively previewed here featuring Diana Gabrielle, Jenny Lindsay, Rab Noakes and Bell Lungs – the former Fence Collective musician who releases material under his own name and as one part of trio Yorkston Thorne Khan, has also been preparing for the release of his 10th solo album for Domino Records: The Wide, Wide River (to be released January 22).
What inspired the new album?
The album came to be after the blossoming of a long-term friendship between James and Karl-Jonas Winqvist, the Swedish music producer, leader and conductor of The Second Hand Orchestra.
Recorded and mixed in Sweden over the course of three days before lockdown, he worked with a selection of musicians Winqvist had brought together, including Peter Morén (Peter, Bjorn & John) and Cecilia Österholm – one of Sweden’s best-known nyckelharpa players.
The studio approach with The Second Hand Orchestra was entirely improvised around James’ songs, and the only song they heard in advance was “Ella Mary Leather”.
In an exclusive interview with The Courier from the East Neuk, James explained how he didn’t want to direct anyone too much but instead, allowed for a “welcoming, instinctive, free-spirited and joyful atmosphere”.
The result is a “soothing, warm and sublime listen”, which also highlights his skills for song writing, collaboration and as a musical conductor.
“Before lockdown, I was offered a show in Stockholm by an old friend,” explains James.
“I thought that was quite a long way to go. It was at the back of a short tour in Germany beforehand.
“The guy said ‘why don’t you stay and do some recording the day after?’ so I thought yeah that’s a good idea.
“These things usually start with ‘we’ll do some of your old songs or some of your covers’.
“But then as it approached I thought, ‘no I’m going to write some new songs’.”
How did the record company react?
James wrote the songs especially for the project before he left Scotland – admittedly changing some of the lyrics last minute on the plane between gigs.
Recording them in a single day with a bunch of highly skilled, attentive musicians he’d never met before, playing songs that had never been heard by anyone else before, he was struck by the positive energy of the project and simply said to the artists – “Just be yourself. Don’t worry about what you think I think”.
Offering the completed works to Domino Records, they said “yeah, it’s brilliant!”– the only proviso being that because Yorkston Thorne Khan had released an album in January 2020, its release would be delayed until 2021.
“Domino only really consider it prudent for me to release one album per year which makes total sense,” adds James.
Impact of Covid
Of course, Covid means he can’t tour the album yet.
While TV show appearances have been offered in Sweden, James is happy to “wait until the vaccine’s out and the risk has come down a bit”.
But musical creativity prevails, and there are themes in the album that had as much relevance before the pandemic as they do now.
Take the track ‘Struggle’.
“Obviously it was written pre-Covid,” says James.
“But I think people can struggle at any point in their lives. I don’t think Covid is the only thing that can do that.
“That’s a song about depression and trying to work out what’s going on in the world and trying to work out who you are to be oneself. I think people have struggled with that a hell of a lot way before Covid.
“I also think things like the internet and social media hasn’t really helped. Because it can be quite an isolating thing.
“In fact there’s another song on that called ‘There is no upside’.
“Somebody asked me if it was about Brexit! I didn’t write it about Brexit but you know if the cap fits!”
Why was the title for the album chosen?
James says there’s two reasons why The Wide, Wide River title was chosen.
The first obvious one is the watery distance between Scotland and Sweden.
But it’s also supposed to be a metaphor about the distance people can put between themselves and the difficulties reaching out to people.
“It’s as though there’s a wide wide river, you know?” says James.
“In that song there’s a line ‘Semaphore your love’ which is saying ‘tell me, show me that you are interested. That I’m wanted’. It’s that kind of thing. It’s about friendship, it’s about love as well. It’s also about love within friendship and love within relationships as well.
“It’s just saying we’re all human and we should be able to reach out to one another. But sometimes there is this wide, wide river between us.”
And what about the artwork?
John Broadley’s artwork on the album cover is also striking.
James keeps a note of any art that’s caught his eye in the past, and having been impressed with John’s fine detail previously, asked him to create a cover that would have all the participants on it.
“He was so easy to work with,” smiles James.
“He just got on with it and got things done. I try to approach these things like music – like anything creative I do when I’m working with a collaborator.
“I’m expecting them to bring themselves and not to think of me as a client.
“I’m approaching them because I value them as an artist or a musician. They’re not to think ‘oh what does James want?’
“They are to listen or look and react as themselves, as artists.
“I think if you do that, and I can get the message through, I find that the outcome is always a lot stronger than if I’m telling people what to play or draw.
“If you’ve been working all your life as an artist or a musician, then you must have something going on inside you.
“I’d rather tap that than just have someone doing an impression of something that I kind of think might be good.
“I would rather that they reacted to what they are hearing than to what I was saying”.
And the future?
The online Tae Sups will continue.
The latest can be viewed here.
But James also hopes to be able to announce some in physical form for 2021 as well.
*New album The Wide, Wide River by James Yorkston and The Second Hand Orchestra is released on Domino Records on January 22, 2021.
More about the artists in episode three of Tae Sup Wi’ A Fifer:
JENNY LINDSAY – One of Scotland’s best-known spoken word performers as well as an independent programmer and promoter of poetry, live literature and spoken word, Jenny’s film-poem, The Imagined We, won a John Byrne Award for Critical Thinking in 2020.
Jenny’s latest work, This Script, both a print-collection and stage-show, was described as “genius” by The Scotsman and praised for “calls to find solidarity in division”.
Now based in Ayrshire, Jenny is working on her third collection, All of This is Ordinary, and her debut play, a reimagining of Julia from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
BELL LUNGS – A Scottish-Turkish vocalist and instrument collector from Ayrshire, Bell Lungs has frequently toured since 2016, and has performed in 18 countries, conducting 90% of her touring by rail, bus and ferry.
Her music takes a freewheeling, magpie attitude to free improvisation, psychedelia, jazz, noise, drone, ambient and folk, creating subtly shifting sound worlds reflecting on natural cycles, environmental disaster and the microcosmic aspects of relationships.
Outside of her solo practice, she composes for dance, theatre, and film, and works as a community musician around Scotland.
DJANA GABRIELLE – A Celtic Connections Danny Kyle Stage Winner and one of the “most note-worthy performances” at the 2019 Kintyre Songwriters’ Festival, Djana is a French-Cameroonian singer-songwriter who has been honing her craft on the Scottish music scene for a few years now.
She released her debut EP, recorded in Glasgow, in late 2015 and toured around the UK and Europe to promote her music.
In 2018, she took on the challenge to write, record and release a brand-new song each month, which earned her a ‘New & Notable’ feature on the American music platform Noisetrade. She is now working on her next release.
RAB NOAKES – A Fifer himself, Rab Noakes is no stranger to a Lang Spoon or the Lang Toon.
He was raised in Cupar, and has been performing pretty much all his life, professionally for the past 55 years.
The popular song has been a constant companion and a considerable driving force throughout his 73 years.
Rab has toured widely and worked with many interesting people.
He has released over twenty solo albums and contributed to scores of others.