Chapter and verse
Doug Johnstone meets celebrated singer, musical craftsman and all round book fiend James Yorkston to talk perfect page turners, leopards running wild in Fife and the fine art of making great records.
The best musicians and writers have a lot in common. Lonely years spent trying to create something artistic which has a modicum of truth and originality about it, only for it to get routinely ignored as the latest offering from Dan Brown or The Crazy Frog sits at the top of the charts pissing everyone off. So it’s no surprise that writers and musicians often draw inspiration from each other’s work. Such is the case with James Yorkston.
You can tell from his music that the English-born, Fife-raised songwriter is quite the reader. The material across his three albums has been laced with wonderful imagery, wry humour and a delicate wordsmithery, each song a beautifully descriptive vignette of everyday life, yet which leads to deeper ponderings on the human condition.
Yorkston’s recently released third album, The Year of the Leopard, is no exception. In the press release that accompanied it, Yorkston admitted that the title was partly a nod to The Leopard, a novel by Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It seemed the perfect opportunity, therefore, to meet up with the man and ask him about the literature that has meant so much to him, both personally and in his art.
We meet in Bann’s in Edinburgh, and it’s clear from our conversation that Yorkston is in possession of a fierce intelligence, a nicely self-deprecating sense of humour and no small amount of charm. As he whips copies of the books in question from his bag, he quizzes your lowly scribe on each one in a soft but insistent voice. He is forgiving of my lack of knowledge, preferring instead simply to enthuse his way through an hour-long conversation which is both entertaining and illuminating.
Austerlitz by WG Sebald
Sebald is a post-war German writer, and Austerlitz, his last novel, deals with someone searching for their identity in the holocaust aftermath.
‘This is a heavy book to start, I don’t know how to describe it without bringing us down,’ Yorkston laughs. ‘There’s a spirit runs through it that’s so . . . lonesome. He’s not connected to anything, he’s so low and depressed.’ He laughs again. ‘But it’s the funniest fucking book. The humour is so dry, that you’d miss it if you weren’t looking.
‘One of the reasons I relate to this is because, although I’m from Fife, my family aren’t from Fife, and I don’t sound like I’m from Fife, and Sebald’s books are all about not fitting in, about not having people to relate to.’
Yorkston flits through the pages, pointing out the strange black and white photographs scattered throughout the book.
‘There’s a phrase of Sebald’s which I absolutely agree with,’ he says absent-mindedly. ‘“How I wish I belonged to a different nation, or better still, to none at all.” That’s something I absolutely relate to.’
So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away by Richard Brautigan
‘It’s the last one he wrote before he killed himself,’ Yorkston chuckles. ‘He gets called the missing link between the beat poets and the flower power generation. His first novels were pretty amazing, but they weren’t hippy, they were way better than that.’
Brautigan was a distinctly leftfield talent, so what is it about his work that draws Yorkston in, I ask.
‘Like Sebald, Brautigan’s stuff is very dark, but it’s very funny, and his writing is just incredibly fluent and light, you’re right inside the guy’s mind.’
Brautigan became famous early on, then spent much of his career experimenting, and Yorkston is as impressed with his variety as his successes.
‘He’s influenced me because his writing is free, he’s not scared to move on and do different things, which is something I’ve tried to do with my music. Plus he was an outsider, too. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything that’s connected to anyone else. It’s nice to be part of the Fence Collective (the Anstruther-based musical menagerie), but I don’t feel what I’m doing is related to what they’re doing.’
The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
‘I’ve just realised how these books make me sound,’ says Yorkston. ‘This one’s also got a main character who doesn’t feel at home in a world which is changing around him.’
The Leopard is about a Sicilian nobleman who has to hand power away to the middle classes, which doesn’t seem like it would chime with a kid from Kingsbarns, somehow.
‘All these three books are very descriptive of the landscape, they’re almost like travelogues,’ Yorkston says. I suggest that his own work also has a strong sense of place (two songs on the new album have place names in their titles, ‘Orgiva Song’ and ‘Brussels Rambler’).
‘It’s a lot easier to write about somewhere when you’re not there, because you can look back and see the romance. My songs describe snapshots rather than videos. They’re more focussed.’
The Year of the Leopard’s title track being a case in point?
‘It’s a nod to this book, but it’s also about a leopard that’s loose in Fife near my parents’ house. You’ve got to guess this animal isn’t feeling so comfortable with its surroundings either. It must be thinking, “What the fuck am I doing in Fife?”’
The Well of the Saints by John M Synge
Irish playwright Synge dealt with rural Catholic life at the beginning of the twentieth century, and is most famous for The Playboy of the Western World.
‘This reminds me of my childhood,’ says Yorkston. ‘Every summer we used to go down to County Cork, and it was there that I started hearing the warmth of traditional music in pubs. That’s the reason I listen to traditional music now, it’s a direct connection to my childhood. I’ve always had a soft spot for Ireland, although if I lived there I’m sure I’d find it just as frustrating as any other country.
‘The thing I like about Synge’s work is the language and the humour, but he’s also a great travel writer, he wrote a wonderful book about living on the Arran Islands. The language he uses is slightly archaic, and I try and stick archaic language in my songs, because I love the way it rolls off your tongue. There’s a line on the new record, “And you’re quick in my ear like a kist o’whistles”, which is more colourful than saying, “You’re shouting in my ear like a cunt.”’
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
More Italian fiction, this time from a popular contemporary writer who’s recently collaborated with French prog-disco duo Air.
‘This is almost poetry,’ says Yorkston, waving the thin volume around. ‘It’s similar to Calvino but more romantic. It’s a very hypnotic book, and it lulls you into this false sense of security, it’s more about creating a mood than anything.’
I suggest much of Yorkston’s intimate sounds are similarly moody and hypnotic. He thinks for a while.
‘I try to make my music subtle,’ he says eventually. ‘I try to distil everything down. I get rid of the obvious flashing sirens and clanging bells, and try to have something that stands repeated listens. I make it so that it doesn’t jump out and bite you in the face, and I’m well aware that by doing that, 99 out of 100 people just aren’t going to get it. I’m trying to avoid cheap thrills.’
Liquid Room, Edinburgh Fri 22 Oct; ABC, Glasgow, 23 Oct. Year of the Leopard is out now on Domino.