James Yorkston – The Wide, Wide River (track-by-track)

James Yorkston talks us through new album The Wide, Wide River, a collaborative effort with Sweden's The Second Hand Orchestra

Feature by James Yorkston | 21 Jan 2021
  • James Yorkston and the Second Hand Orchestra

These songs were recorded over two sessions, both in Stockholm but months apart. For the most part, The Second Hand Orchestra hadn’t heard a note of the songs, and the arrangements sprang up around us bit by bit as people found their wee nook in which to carry the song. I love the freshness that approach has brought to the album.

Ella Mary Leather
Ella Mary Leather was a folk song collector from Herefordshire. This song wasn’t written about her at all, but I liked the lyrical nature of her name, so used it as a mask to protect the innocent party, someone I knew many moons ago.

The song, although opening the album, was the final song we recorded. I remember hammering away on the piano, while behind me The Second Hand Orchestra’s arrangement slowly took place, cranking into place like a mechanical organ. I love the theatrical drums, the way they hold back, coming in only sparingly to emphasise the lyric.

To Soothe Her Wee Bit Sorrows
Before we arrived at the studio, in my head I had this song sounding like a cross between Veedon Fleece and Neu! However, it went off in a slightly different, but no less satisfying, direction. As we were recording, the swelling section in the middle, where the cello and violin take over, was thrilling to hear, although I became nervous – I knew it was sounding amazing and was wary I’d fudge it up before we got to the end of the song.

Choices, Like Wide Rivers
When I asked The Second Hand Orchestra to sing with me on this track it was as though we had opened a whole new palette of sonic colour – a gathering of (very) human voices. They were so soft and harmonious; I was playing along listening, on occasion forgetting to sing myself. I also love Ullis’ violin solo and Emma Nordenstam’s gentle piano.

I sang the song to the band, showed them the chords and retreated to the mixing booth to make myself some sweet tea. As I sat sipping, the band were repeating the song over and over, developing this groove amongst themselves. It was so hypnotic and enticing, I went back through and joined in.

After the vocal success of Choices, Like Wide Rivers, we had an open mic policy where I was encouraging everyone to sing if they found a space. The results are very evident on this track. I love those wee moments when someone or other will pitch in with a harmony, perhaps coming in a little early, or later, but sounding joyous nonetheless.

There Is No Upside
This was the first song of the first session, and I can hear that energy fizzing through The Second Hand Orchestra. Some of my favourite bits of music are those that sound like a live band having fun, jumping through the music as it tumbles forward, working out what’s going on. I’d say this is one of those. I asked Ullis to play solo violin throughout, a nod to the great Linton Kwesi Johnson track Story, for I love that tone Ullis gets with her violin.

I’ve been asked if There Is No Upside is about Brexit. It isn’t, but if the cap fits…

A Droplet Forms
This lyric was written for a collaboration I did with Max Cooper. I loved what he did with it, but wanted to give it a musical backing I could carry myself, so I wrote this little piece. Similarly to Struggle, the band repeated the loop, over and over, finding this slinky little shuffle. It was a luxury, for me, to be able to drop into such a luscious sound. My voice sounds weary, but it suits the music, the lyric. Emma’s perfect, simple piano drops are genius, but there’s nothing about this beautiful piece of music I don’t love.

A Very Old-Fashioned Blues
When I was young, one of the few songs I owned was a 7" of The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon. It’s a perfect pop song, for me. Every now and then I find myself writing a song that follows that verse/chorus/verse format, and this is one such time. The highlight of recording this song was when The Second Hand Orchestra’s voices kicked in with this uplifting, emotional chorus. Through the writing, recording, mixing and mastering of this album, I must have heard this song over 100 times, but their soaring voices still bring up the hairs on the back of my neck.

We Test The Beams
When I first played the band this song I had my eyes closed as I sang. At the end, I looked up and two of the band were crying, caught up with the emotion of the song. It meant a lot to me that they got the story I was trying to portray, and when we went to record they got it just right, leaving plenty of space, responding to the lyric in a thoughtful fashion. I really lucked on my feet with this album. Every single band member was perfect, capable of playing, but not interested in overplaying, just doing their own thing, while helping me and the songs.

The Wide, Wide River is released on 22 Jan by Domino Records