Words: Chris Hynd
For the past half dozen years or so now, Fife's James Yorkston has been creating and releasing warm, lyrical, folk-tinged songs and records. An integral part of the East Neuk's Fence Collective, Yorkston's latest release, “When The Haar Rolls In”, has seen him garner his best reviews to date. Before undertaking a UK tour to promote the new record, Yorkston headlined the latest Fence Club, a regular series of shows put on by the collective, at the Caves just off Edinburgh's Cowgate and I caught up with him before he went onstage.
“When The Haar Rolls In” has just recently come out and this has come out at a time when you've moved back to Fife. Is it a record that was born out of that particular environment?
“I don't think so. A lot of people have made that connection so maybe there was in a way that I didn't think about. Most of it was written before... actually, I don't know if I can say that truthfully... no, I guess most of it was written when I was back in Fife but I don't think so. Moving back to Fife brought a great sense of relief and maybe that did come through on the record.”
In general, how happy are you with the record and the reaction to it?
“I'm over the moon with both. The reviews haven't all been great but the ones I've seen, 95% of them have been very, very good. They've mostly been four stars, a couple of five's but they've all read very well, they've all been positive about the record and how it's a good record you know? Myself, I'm over the moon with it, which is more important obviously. I don't think there's a duffer on it, I think it's a very strong record, I'm really happy with it. You're always judged by your last record and I think my fourth album is easily as strong as any of the one's that have gone beforehand. I'm delighted with it.”
Talking of Fife there, a friend of mine thought that there was a sense of your records being tied to Fife with a kind of nostalgia for the place. Have you ever thought that, is that a fair thing to say?
“Yeah I would but it's not to Fife though. There's definitely nostalgic qualities to them but most of the nostalgia are for places I go to on the road, people I meet. The lyrics are definitely looking backwards but at people or places away from home so it's not tied to Fife but it is tied to memories. On that most recent one, the first song and the last song are about west Cork, I guess the song “When The Haar Rolls In” has lots of references to Fife.”
Linked to that and looking at your records as a whole, do you feel they've followed a path or a trajectory over the years? For instance, do you feel you've become more experimental or more confident in what you do?
“I think the first record, “Moving Up Country”, was a pop record. With the second record, people talk about the second album syndrome and I definitely had it. I love that album, I think it has some of my strongest songs on it but it was a fucker to write. So when “Year Of The Leopard” came along I just had to break out from doing acoustic music so that's why it's got me singing in falsetto, it's got electronica on it, all sorts of different things. That kind of left me free to do what I wanted. I don't think the new record is inhabiting any genre but I didn't feel I had to break out of any genre with this one, that there was any strain with what I had to do and finally because I love what I do and I love my music and I'm very proud of it, taking all of those things aside, I'm very aware that it's uncommercial. It's not experimental, it's just that I don't have to worry about having a hit!”
You've done a couple of things that are a bit more stream of conciousness lyric wise, “Woozy With Cider” on the last record, the title track of this one. Would you be looking to do more things like those?
“I think that you can't look backwards. With my second album I think I was looking backwards a bit as we'd made the first record so good. I became aware about half way through writing the second album that it was just the wrong thing to do, I had to look forwards. I don't really look back. “Woozy With Cider” is a record that a lot of people relate to but can you imagine if this record had an electronica song with me speaking over the top of it?! It would have been really corny - “he's trying to do another “Woozy With Cider!”” It's more important to not pay attention to what you've done before.”
The new record comes in a very beautifully put together box set, with the double 10”, the remix and covers CDs, the works. How did all that come about and is it something you'd consider doing again or is it a one-off?
“We'll see what state the record industry's in in two years time or whenever the next record comes out. There were lots of reasons for doing this box set. One was that we had collected all this stuff. The covers thing started out because originally there was going to be a covers EP, “Tortoise Regrets Hare” was going to be the main track and the b-sides were going to be three covers but I asked five people because I figured two people would drop out and all five came through. I mentioned it to a few other people and before we knew it we had fifteen/sixteen people so it happened really naturally.
“The remixes was kind of similar. We had all these old remixes and a few people got in touch and asked “can I do a remix?”. Again, it just happened naturally and I got in touch with Domino and we were talking about a promo for the album and they just said “what have you got? What can we use?”. I said “I've got this and these seven cover versions” so they came back and said “why don't you finish those off and we can put it out as a box set.” My album sales are going... I have to be careful what I say because it might not be true... but it's looking like that this one is going to sell more than the last one and the last one sold more than the one before. It's only tiny increments, I'm not at Bonnie Tyler status! But, the record business as a whole is selling a lot less and the figures you hear, not from Domino necessarily, albums are generally selling half as many as the one before because of downloading.
“So this box set has been really good because we've sold a thousand things that couldn't get downloaded so we've actually brought some money in which nowadays for someone of my size is a reasonably rare thing to happen. Normally I'm subsidised by the bigger bands but who knows what will happen in two years. It's just getting less and less and less and less, people are buying less each week so I've no idea what'll happen.”
Following on from that, part of the lure of buying the box set is the chance to win the golden ticket to have a song written about you and then performed for you. Has that been claimed yet?
“No, it hasn't. I've got a feeling though that Domino know which box the golden ticket is in and they're not going to send it out until... I don't know how many boxes are left, I know we sold about 500 in the first week so there can't be that many left now. If they've got any sense they'll wait until there's about a hundred left and then put it in randomly but I don't know that. I'm selling three here tonight and it could be in one of those, all honestly it could be in one of those.”
Did you like the idea when it was first put to you? Did you think it would work?
“I thought it was a bit cheesy but the record company put a lot of money into recording the album and I thought that if this is going to help in any way, help them recoup some of the money then I'm happy to do it. There's a certain part of me that thinks it's going to be an interesting project, say someone like you won it...”
But I didn't. No golden ticket for me! I had grand plans of you coming round to my house and everything...!
“Exactly, you just never know. You're speaking to someone and trying to write a song, it's a difficult thing to do one way or another. There's that side of it and the other side of it is that I know it's been good for publicity, it's a reasonably good idea, I'm quite happy to do. Right now at least, ask me in a year when I've done it and it's about some nutty guy and it'll be quite different now I've done it!”
As I said to you before we started this, I've interviewed Johnny Lynch and Kenny Anderson for the blog and Johnny described you as a kind of “ambassador” for Fence Records, do you see yourself in those terms or is it just a matter of having the freedom to play songs for and with friends to complement your releases on Domino?
“When I started... you love music you know? I imagine you do, you're doing music journalism and I got asked in loads of loads of interviews which bands do I like and it was very easy and very truthful for me to say the Fence people, you could say Lone Pigeon or King Creosote or UNPOC because it was true. It was honest as well because I wasn't listening to or had a love for a London band, I was getting into the Fence thing, I was really excited about that. When I first started it was really easy to work with Fence because it was natural.
“Imagine you're an artist, you were painting and all your pals were artists doing something staggeringly new and original and somebody would ask you which artists do you like then you could say “oh, my pals!” Because I was playing with them and was so immersed in it, it was the easiest thing to do, talking about genuine talent. I knew that when I sent a King Creosote or a Lone Pigeon CD to whoever I knew I was sending them something really good, it wouldn't sound like an acoustic Oasis or whatever it was really fucking good. Nowadays it's completely different because Kenny is way better known than I am. Now, I play shows that's just me and my acoustic guitar I play whatever I like. Kenny's got so many good songs, Jenny (Gordon, aka HMS Ginafore) is great, Johnny's great but I just do whatever, traditional songs, my own songs.”
I was going to ask about playing with Kenny and Johnny as The Three Craws. I've seen you a few times now and it just looks like an absolute joy to play with those two guys, is that the case?
“Yeah, absolutely. It's funny, when we first started that we did mostly Kenny and Johnny's songs, we didn't do any of mine because I was touring and touring and the last thing I wanted to do was any of my songs. Now Kenny's touring and has become better known we hardly do any of his songs, now we're just doing Johnny's songs but his record's just come out now and it's doing really well, it's almost sold out of the first edition which is really good in today's climate so we're doing less of his one's as well! We're doing more of Gordon's (Anderson, aka Lone Pigeon), more of Jenny's, more traditional songs and more things that aren't our own. It's a great thing to do, to go onstage and have fun with the harmonies and try to trip each other up. I love it.”
A few months ago I saw a piece on The Culture Show on the BBC about the Fence Collective and on it you're interviewed where you say that you don't see yourselves as folk singers/musicians but as songwriters. Is that still an important distinction to make?
“Folk is a word that means something different to practically everyone you ask, from the music in the fields passed down from mouth to ear to all the different music that's out there. For me the word “folk” has always meant traditional folk so for me the word “folk” doesn't describe what I do because I write pop songs, even though they're not very popular. One may say it's folk and that's one's opinion and that's fine but it's not my opinion, folk has always meant traditional folk. It's not a big thing, it's not a war cry or anything.”
Obviously, you've covered Lal Waterson's “Midnight Feast” on the new record so I take it folk music will always have an influence in what you do?
“Oh yeah, absolutely. It's more of an influence on me than any other type of music. All these horrific titles of genres you hear, alt-country and new-folk and all that, the only one that I ever thought was good or funny was kraut-folk because I was really into krautrock, Can and Faust, as much as I was into traditional music so for me it worked. At the moment it is a little tricky because I'm working on an album that is completely traditional songs. I don't know what I'll say when that comes out and I'm asked that question but at the moment I really do think I'm a singer-songwriter, as horrible as that expression is.”
I saw you at the Green Man Festival last month and I think it's fair to say you've become a bit of a fixture there, playing every year. This was your first time on the main stage at the venue where it's held now, how do you think it went and were you nervous at all?
“Yeah, I was really nervous. Obviously, we'd played on the main stage at the first one but I actually prefer playing on the smaller stages and I asked them to put us on the smaller stage but they wanted me on the main stage because I've played there every year and they have to mix it up. It's a great festival, I absolutely love it and I'm terrified that one year I won't be asked but I'll be fine about it, I'll take it like a man. It's great fun, but it can't go on forever.”
Did you hear what Kenny said during the King Creosote set after you, mentioning that you played a greatest hits set, of mainly new songs...
“I think his tongue was in his cheek when he said that! You just have to play the new stuff especially if you play a festival every year. That was kind of influenced by Kenny the year before because he played totally new stuff with three or four old songs. I really enjoyed it, I was happy with the performance and thought we did ourselves reasonably proud.”
And again this year, the now legendary Jason came onstage for “Cheating The Game”, how did that all start off and come about?
“The first ever Green Man was in a country house and the main stage was a drawing room! We played a drawing room and it was about five times the size of this room. He kept on standing up and going “PLAY TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH!” and we're like “no man, we're not playing that, there's only two of us”, it was just me and Faisal on the harmonium before he got ill so this guy got up and walked out the room so as soon as he got out the room I started playing it and he got really annoyed, it just went backwards and forwards. Eventually I said “look I'll play it if you come up and do the drums” so he got up and did the silly drums, the “TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH-TCH”. We've done it ever since and had him up playing every year. It's good fun, I hope it doesn't become wearing for the audience because we only do it once a year but I look forward to it because you never know what he's going to do as he's a bit of a jokey character. But, it's not like we're doing a comedy song or something, it's one of our own songs.”
Do you ever see him outside of the festival?
“No, I don't know anything about him! I know his name, I know he's approaching 40 and I know he's got a son called Alfie but that's only because I've met him onstage and he's told me that!”
Finally then, how do you see the next wee while panning out for you? Obviously, you've got a tour coming up with The Pictish Trail and Rozi Plain...
“I'm curious to see whether the great reviews this album got is going to translate into numbers at the shows. I'm curious to finish this next record which is the traditional songs and then I'm going to get on with the next James Yorkston record. That's really the plan, just keep on keeping on. It's great that everyone else on Fence is doing really well now. There's always talk of a Three Craws album or a Fence Collective album, there's talk of the moment and there's been talk since 2001 when we started up. It's the same with this traditional record, I started in 2001 with Domino, it's been on the back burner ever since and now it's almost finished. I've got one of those old projects out of the way so now I want to get some of the others out the way as well.”
With all the work you do, do you ever get time for a break, have time to yourself and just relax and not think about music?
“Yeah, but it's not really like that. Playing is fun, we go on the road and it's good most of the time, it's tiring sometimes. Obviously you take holidays, have a couple of weeks off and recently I've been at home just doing DIY and reaping the rewards in the garden. It's good, Fife seems a very long way away from where the record company are and it doesn't feel as if my nose is to the grind stone. I live a very easy life!”
And some might say that Mr Yorkston has earned the right to those rewards and hopefully the success of “Where The Haar Rolls In” will lead to those rewards continuing. Thanks to James for the chat and for taking a couple of interruptions we had to the interview in his stride. He's a real pro, and a gent to boot. Maybe that golden ticket winner is reading this, I can't think of a better man to write a song for you if it is you!