Emerging from Scotland’s ever creative Fence Collective, James Yorkston has become one of the nation’s most striking songwriters. Capable of crafting dense, folk-inspired songs, Yorkston is unafraid to talk openly and honestly in his songs. On his new album James Yorkston re-visits many of the traditional melodies which have haunted and inspired him. Simply titled ‘Folk Songs’, (read ClashMusic’s review
ClashMusic caught up with James Yorkston to discuss his relationship with the rich river of traditional material running through Scottish music.
What was your first introduction to the folk tradition?
Aw jings! Well I guess folk music, traditional music first started entering my life when we were kids. In summer we used to go down to West Cork, and that’s where I was first exposed to traditional music because we used to go to the pubs and gatherings. There would be a lot of music, although some of it was terrible country and western, kind of 50s stuff. In amongst all that there would be pipers and stuff you know? That was the first time I heard that but that was years ago, when I was like four, five years old. But that’s something I remember.
You then spend a long time playing bass in Punk bands…
There’s quite a gap between those two events, however! That’s true though, I played bass in Huckleberry and Miraclehead – two fine bands. Until I got too deaf and I couldn’t do it any longer.
I take you then have this resurgence in interest in acoustic music?
No, not really. I don’t know about yourself but I don’t really restrict music to genres. It’s either music you like or music you don’t like, and it’s kind of always been like that. I grew up in Fife, where there was very few opportunities to see bands. So I grew up listening to John Peel and Andy Kershaw, loving a huge amount of what they played. So I never stuck to one genre, like “I will only listen to punk”. It’s still a ridiculous thing to do. So I guess while I was with those bands I re-discovered my love of traditional music and acoustic music. It started off with people like Anne Briggs, that sort of stuff.
Is Anne Briggs a particular favourite?
Yeah absolutely! I didn’t know what I was looking for – even now I don’t know what I’m looking for. But it appears to me that what I was looking for was something like the music I had heard in my childhood. That was definitely what I was looking for, but at the time I didn’t have a clue what it was. Anne Briggs – I just got her CD because she looked so pretty on the cover. It’s unaccompanied singing for most of the album but it’s amazing. That was the first English folk music that I got into because before then I had always had a vision of English folk music being quite staid, and quite posh and mannered. It’s not really, not at all. That was what I thought, so I listened to mostly Irish stuff to be honest. When I first heard Anne Briggs music that made a huge impact on my life really.
Have you ever attempted to sing unaccompanied?
Yeah but I’m terrible! I mean my voice is poor. She’s got such an amazing voice, she’s so good at leaving space. She’s influenced and inspired so many of today’s great singers – people like Norma Waterson. She’s influenced me, but we’ve got completely different kinds of voices, she’s got this amazingly pure voice and I’ve got this kind of grumble. I love music and I do my best with the grumble I’ve got to sing music but I realise that I sound like my dad does when he’s sitting at the back of the church singing out of tune with everyone!
How did you actually go about picking the songs you wanted for the album?
It was easy! You pick the songs that come to mind. It’s like if you were picking your favourite football team out of the world’s best football teams. Maybe you don’t give a fuck about football… Well if you didn’t give a fuck you’d probably pick: Pele, Keegan, Dalglish. The big names! There’s a couple, like the two Irish ones, I included just because I liked the lyrics – I found them in an old songbook. They’re easy to do. Some songs have been done countless times, they’re famous, famous songs. That’s why I chose them.
Given the established nature of the song, how do you go about imparting something of yourself onto it?
The way I try and do it is to get to know the song very well indeed. So you’re not stumbling over the words. I try and do the guitar and vocal in one take – so the rhythm of the vocal matches the rhythm of the vocal. So you’re really singing the songs, you getting the rhyme and the sense of time, you’re really in there. Once you’re in there and you don’t have to look at the lyrics and think “What happens next” – so you’re not singing it like a nonsense rhyme. You’re singing it like you’re getting into the spirit of it. It’s almost like you’re telling the tale, but you have to import some emotion. That’s what you do.
How did you go about recording it? Was it live in the studio?
It was a mixture of different things. I recorded a lot of it in the house, then James [Green, of The Big Eyes Family Players] recorded a lot in his house. Then we went to the studio and re-recorded parts live. We used a lot of what James had done in his studio – most of the vocals are from the first take. The vocals were recorded pretty evenly between my house and Jamie’s house, and in the studio. That’s the way all my albums work – ‘When The Haar Rolls In’ was recorded in loads of different rooms. It was a similar sort of thing.
With all the experimentation, is there ever a point where you draw the line in order to preserve the tradition?
Oh I don’t give a fuck about that! Tradition has nothing to do with me. I’m a pop musician! Since my first album I’ve played loads of trad material, but for me while it’s music that I love I feel it’s music that can stand someone like me looking over my shoulder and saying “Perhaps it should have pipes in there, or maybe we shouldn’t have the electric guitar in there”. That has nothing to do with me I mean I’m a working musician, that’s what I do – I just get on with it.
Having completed an album completely of original material do you then feel the need to begin writing original songs?
It’s a hard thing. It’s not something about feeling the need – if I could not do it I probably would. If I had the choice of working in a bank and being perfectly happy, and not feeling suicidal then I’d probably do that. But I don’t really have that choice! So without sounding like an idiot, I don’t think I could stop if I wanted to. Just today I’ve been printing off another set of lyrics to work on the new record, I mean I’m something like eight songs into it. Eight, maybe seven songs into it. It’s just life continuing. I don’t know if I do feel the need to do it, what I feel the need to do is sleep to be honest!
Words by Robin Murray