Route Master: James Yorkston on his new album

Eighteen years into a ferociously diverse career, James Yorkston returns to his solo roots for his most searingly personal album yet

Feature by Joe Goggins | 15 Feb 2019
  • James Yorkston

"I’m no David Bowie, and I’m not trying to be. The person I’m best at being is James Yorkston."

The thing is, it’s been a while since James Yorkston has actually been James Yorkston, or at least the version of himself that his fiercely loyal fanbase has come to know. He’s spent the better part of two decades marking himself out as one of Britain’s most singular and idiosyncratic songwriters, meticulously crafting his own brand of folk, one that’s defined by its instrumental diversity, structural ambition and wry lyricism. More recently, though, his creative restlessness has led him into uncharted territory.

His last record as simply James Yorkston was released four-and-a-half years ago, although to describe it as a solo effort would be disingenuous; The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society was less an abstract concept around which to base an album and more of an actual fellowship. Its members included long-time Yorkston collaborators Jon Thorne and Emma Smith, as well as Alexis Taylor of Hot Chip (who produced the album), KT Tunstall and Pictish Trail – the latter two both one-time labelmates on Anstruther and Cellardyke’s Fence Records.

This embrace of the spirit of collaboration felt like a turning point for Yorkston, and he’s spent the intervening years out of his comfort zone. The two albums he’s released since have been truly cooperative affairs, working with Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan as part of an improbable but impressively symbiotic Indian-jazz-folk trio. Yorkston Thorne Khan takes three clashing styles – Khan plays the bowed sarangi instrument, while Thorne is a virtuoso on double bass – and marries them in a handsome, if unlikely, alchemy.

Yorkston also found time to write and release his second book and first novel, the warmly-received, blackly comic thriller Three Craws. He’s still in talks about putting out a third, and has a fourth sitting on his hard drive awaiting completion. He chipped away at Three Craws during breaks from his Yorkston Thorne Khan duties, with the three-piece touring the world. "You’re happy to be getting back to the solitary nature of writing alone when you’ve spent so much time in other people’s company in cheap hotels," Yorkston notes drolly.

Only now, though, is that solo work finally bearing musical fruit; with both The Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society and 2012’s I Was a Cat from a Book involving an accomplished cast of musical associates, it feels like a long time since we’ve had a truly independent effort from Yorkston. That’s precisely what his seventh LP is, though. The Route to the Harmonium was conceived and recorded almost entirely – "95 percent, I’d say" – at home in Cellardyke, a sleepy fishing village on the coast in his native Fife. "It’s so far away from London, Glasgow, Manchester – those main musical centres – and nobody really gives a fuck what’s happening out here on the East Neuk. That means there’s complete freedom.

"I’m 60 yards from the beach. I go to bed at night to the sound of the waves, rather than rolling traffic in the distance. Other than the school run, there's nothing stopping me from spending all day writing. When you’re in a studio in London, there’s an element of clock-watching, of making sure you use every minute of your limited time productively. This album is very different; it’s been brewing slowly over four years."

It’s a record sharply forged in Yorkston’s own image, both as a musician and as a person. The sonic fearlessness that has slowly become his calling card since his 2001 debut, Moving Up Country, is present in abundance, with implements as obscure as dulcitones, autoharps and nyckelharpas helping to weave the album’s musical tapestry – as well as the titular harmonium. Lyrically, he reflects with considerable intensity and quiet theatricality on the loss of three close friends to suicide. My Mouth Ain’t No Bible, for instance, is an increasingly tense imagined conversation between Yorkston and one of the three. "A lot of this record is about those friends taking the big flip," he says over the phone from Cellardyke, "and how much it hurts those of us left behind."

The glacial pace at which The Route to the Harmonium gestated allowed Yorkston plenty of scope to be his unconventional self. "I was thinking back to my second album, and how there was a real pressure to sit down and actually write songs, the same way you might drystone a wall or something," he laughs. "There was no expectation like that on this one. If I was working that way, there probably would’ve been a lot more songs about heartbreak, but as it is, I’ve ended up talking about being swept out to sea and having the seaweed crawl over me. There never would have been tracks like The Irish Wars of Independence if I hadn’t let the writing flow naturally, with the songs slowly adding up every time I had a free month."

That might be the influence of having turned his pen to prose with Three Craws; writing fiction, he explains, is "a different kind of flood". The Route to the Harmonium sees him return to spoken word on three tracks – it’s an approach he’s flirted with before, particularly on one of his biggest hits, Woozy with Cider, but it's never felt as vital to the conveyance of his ideas as it does on this record. The device electrifies My Mouth Ain’t No Bible, lends The Irish Wars of Independence a soft menace and imbues Yorkston Athletic with an endearing, rambling wit.

"I didn’t give it too much thought," he explains. "As a writer, you're trying to respond to the art, rather than wondering what’s going to go over best on 6 Music. If I'd been thinking commercially, I would’ve been doing Woozy with Cider ever since, because I’ve had countless electronic tracks sent to me over the years with requests for spoken word vocals. By my middling standards, that song was pretty successful. I’ll often try and talk through the lyrics when I'm writing to see if it fits, but I’ll only go that way on the recording if it brings something to the song. That's what’s happening on My Mouth Ain’t No Bible and Yorkston Athletic – it’s energised them, and kept them from being too emo."

Musically, too, The Route to the Harmonium is quintessentially Yorkston, and quite literally an amalgamation of everything that’s gone before in his career in instrumental terms. He has such an eclectic collection of curios, gradually accumulated over the years, that nobody but Yorkston could’ve made an album that sounds precisely like this. "With Domino supporting me, I’ve got a small budget, so there'd be nothing to stop me from paying to bring in a string section, or a drummer, or a pianist, or a bass player. That’d be very easy, but those people would inevitably bring their own certain flavour to the record that would detract from what I’m trying to do as James Yorkston. I wanted this record to be very personal, musically as well as lyrically.

"It’s me playing all this road-battered gear with crazy histories – the harmonium's from 1916, and the nyckelharpa was handmade in 1983. I’m still using Chris Isaak, which is my guitar that I’ve had since 2001 that has that Wicked Game wangy sound to it. All of it adds up to this very distinct junkshop orchestra thing that I absolutely love; the thick, woozy sound of the brass reeds and the concertinas, the monosynth, the nylon string guitar, Chris Isaak. It all blends to create something beautiful, and when a lot of the songs are about friends who have passed, you want to present their story as invitingly as possible. You don’t want to accompany them with a tin can rattle."

When he takes The Route to the Harmonium around the UK in May, though, Yorkston will have to strip things back considerably, with no plans for an extensive backing band – "maybe a double bass player and one other person." This far into a career in which he’s only ever marched to the beat of his own drum, Yorkston knows his following have come to expect reinvention. "I’d rather see Michael Hurley or Jonathan Richman or Bill Callahan solo than with a band. I've been around long enough to know where the real magic is – in the words, in the melodies, and in the personal connection."

The Route to the Harmonium is released on 22 Feb via Domino
James Yorkston plays Summerhall, Edinburgh, 2 May; Oran Mor, Glasgow, 3 May; Airdrie Town Hall, Airdrie, 4 May; Harbour Arts Center, Irvine, 23 May; Tolbooth, Stirling, 24 May