Intimate gigs around Christmas time are usually wonderful things. You can wrap-up warm in your new coat, pull out that favourite scarf and stop off for a hot drink under Christmas lights on your way to the club. You’re often off work the next day, too. But it’s all irrelevant if the singer and songs don’t add to your winter cheer. Fortunately for us, Fife folkie James Yorkston is in possession of a songbook to warm the cockles of your heart. And he’s coming to town. By Alan O’Hare.
The last time James Yorkston, the still-waters-run-deep Fife singer/songwriter, played Liverpool he had to contend with an open-mic downstairs at Leaf on Bold Street. In many ways it was the perfect allegory for the trials and tribulations of the modern musician: plying your trade to a modest but moved bunch of acolytes, while someone tosses off untidy broadsides for free in another room.
Yorkston rose above it on that night and continues to keep his head above water in the music business. 2014’s intimate ‘The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society’ was well-received on Domino, while 2016’s collaborative ‘Everything Sacred’, made with Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan, is one of the albums of the year. But it was in another guise, as an author, that Yorkston really captured hearts over the last twelve months. ‘Three Craws’, his first novel, arrived out of the blue and all wrapped up in the atmosphere and geography of the kingdom of Fife. “It was the easy thing to do: setting the book in the area that I’m from and where I live now,” he says modestly. “It meant I didn’t have to research the landscape, the people or the language… it was all just there inside me. If I had told the same story but set it somewhere else, even west Fife, I’d have got the language all wrong.”
There lies the heart of Yorkston’s gifts: the devil really is in the detail. In his music, it’s the unexpected chord, lilting of lyric or hauntingly honest hammer-on that hit you when your headphones are in late at night. But, in his debut novel, it was the descriptions – of people, place and colour – that rang true. “I see prose as a long form luxury after so many years of distilling language down to song lyrics,” he reveals. “I love writing fiction… it just puts me in a different place, a different and easier mind set. The reaction it got was very positive, too, which was a relief. I had nothing in mind when writing it other than my own amusement, so for it to work beyond that was pleasing.”
It pleases us that Yorkston is back on the road, with a few new songs hopefully, and touring solo before Christmas. He arrives in town next month, so we had a gab ahead of his intimate date at The Magnet…
This is your first solo tour for a little while. Daunting or exciting?
Both. These will be my first full solo shows since December last year, as I’ve been so busy with the book and the trio album, that I’ve kind of let solo things go quiet a bit.
Did you feel you had to step out of that world for a while and do other things?
I’m not sure I ‘needed’ to, but it’s definitely been a positive – I’ve done solo material pretty much non-stop since 2001. Having a break was just what I needed… ‘a change is as good as a rest’ is definitely true here.
‘Everything Sacred’ has found an audience. Tell us about this ‘trio’ album…
It goes without saying that we bring different things to the stage and are learning off each other as we go – Jon has grown-up in the jazz world and Suhail is an eighth generation sarangi player and Sufi singer – so every gig is different and individually we’re always trying to surprise the other two… so it makes for some great shows! There’s no fear about trying something new or pulling songs into odd directions. It’s a beautiful thing.
… as has 2016 ben for you! Are you pleased with the reactions to the album and the book?
Aye, very happy. The Yorkston/Thorne/Khan trio is something I’ve been looking for, for years: a great, improvising band. I love those guys, love sharing the stage with them.
You’re going to make a second record, then?
I’ve actually just been listening to the mastered version of our next album and it’s sounding superb…
Great stuff! What about a second novel?
Yep, I’ll be disappointed if my literary career stops after just two books (note: Yorkston published his tour diaries in 2011). I’m writing away at the moment. Having books and music going at the same time is something that I’m finding most enjoyable – I spend so much time on trains that having a book to write helps make that time more efficient. I can’t exactly take my guitar out and start singing… especially if I’m in the quiet coach!
Do the two inform each other?
Writing the books has refreshed my solo material, yes, and definitely helped to colour in what I’m doing with music. My life informs both art-forms, so I’m sure there are elements of connection… but I don’t think I’ve written songs about any of the specific incidents in the books.
So, there’s new solo music on the horizon, too?
Like I said, the next Yorkston/Thorne/Khan album is finished and we’re looking at a 2017 release. The next solo album is behind that in the queue… so no rush. But, what I’ve got so far, I’m very happy with and I’m producing it myself up to now, with all sorts of interesting instrumentation going on. I spoke with the label about it last week and we have a vague plan – but it’s one that I’m excited by.
Cool. What can we expect at these upcoming solo shows?
It’s been so long since I last did full length solo shows that I can’t really recall what I used to do! So, with this tour, I’ll just look through the last how ever many albums I’ve made and pull out my favourites, see how that goes down. I’ll do the occasional cover and trad thing too, I guess. I’m open to suggestions…
Thursday, December 15th 2016, 8pm
The Magnet, Hardman Street, Liverpool