With a reputation for live shows filled with impromptu requests and cover, James Yorkston isn’t one for just going through motions as Rodge Glass discovers
It’s no longer news to say a James Yorkston album has been ‘critically acclaimed’ – because they always are. Since coming to John Peel’s attention in 2001, releasing early material through the Fence Collective and moving on to recent albums with Domino, each release has showcased his charming, minimalist sound and a growing poetic sensibility proving he’s one of folk music’s best lyricists. When the Haar Rolls In is another confident leap forward, featuring contributions from musicians Norma and Mike Waterson; following on from Yorkston’s previous collaborations with Four Tet and Rustin Man. This album is also self-produced.
If it sounds like a gathering of friends who happen to be being recorded, that’s because sessions were informal and relaxed. ‘The album was planned out’, says James, ‘but we usually try and leave one or two unfinished before we go in. I never listen to the records once they’re done but I listen to them constantly on the way to and from the studio.’ Hearing songs like new single ‘Tortoise Regrets Hare’ or ‘Queen of Spain’ for the first time, it certainly sounds like the songs are as fresh to the musicians as they are to the listener. This way of working has led to a record that sounds organic, immediate, and strong.
A box set version of the album includes an album of remixes and covers of Yorkston songs by some of his favourite artists. What was it like listening to his own songs played by other people? ‘It was terrifying … and in a couple of cases I had to turn the songs down because they weren’t good enough. But I’m really pleased with most of them. I love the version of ‘Sweet Jesus’, Charlotte Greg’s version of ‘Us Late Travellers’, and Adrian Crowley’s version of ‘Shipwreckers’. It was nice hearing the old songs particularly. It was funny getting them through the post. You don’t know what you’re going to get.’
Not knowing what you’re going to get seems an appropriate sentiment for any James Yorkston project, given that he has built his reputation on trusting his instincts and improvising. Live shows are equally unpredictable and he’s famous for doing requests – both of his own songs and anyone else’s. So will he be doing that on this tour? ‘Oh yes, I’ll play anything anyone asks,’ he says cheerfully. ‘I don’t plan a set list, I just do whatever comes to mind, and I like it when people ask for songs. I love touring, and you have to make the shows fun. Taking requests a really good way of doing it.’ But does the band know the whole back-catalogue? What if you get a request for something you haven’t played in years? He laughs. ‘We work it out. If the other guys don’t know it they just make it up on the spot. In fact, quite often Reuben [Taylor, accordion] remembers it and has to remind me. Sometimes I forget the lyrics but usually it’s okay.’
This relaxed attitude makes each James Yorkston show a pleasure, a real change from artists who plod through the same old tunes, clearly bored, with no mistakes and little inspiration. It’s refreshing to talk to someone who so enjoys what he does, and just happens to make some of the most beautiful, thoughtful, powerful music you’ll ever hear.
Stereo, Glasgow, 29 Nov.