James Yorkston tends to strike you as a solitary figure. Perhaps it's his songwriting – an often austere palette, that idiosyncratic wit – or perhaps it's those many solo shows, but he often comes across as someone happiest when working alone.
But glancing at his discography, that couldn't be further from the truth. From those early Athletes-fuelled records to the collaboration-heavy 2014 set 'The Cellardyke Recording And Wassailing Society' it's clear that he's open to other voices, to other contributions.
Yorkston Thorne Khan, though, is by far the Scottish songwriter's most unexpected collaboration. Working alongside Suhail Yusuf Khan and Jon Thorne, the trio are able to craft something deeply experimental yet wholly welcoming, sitting somewhere between lush drones, Eastern melodies and a Scottish bark.
The partnership owes its origins to a chance meeting and a spur of the moment conversation. “I got offered some money to do a TED show – these TED conferences,” he recalls. “I didn't really know what it was going to be like, or anything. And I turned up and I did a soundcheck... and I wasn't really thinking. I was just there at a gig. So Suhail just came to the dressing room, and said: 'hi, can I come in?' 'Yeah of course, man!'”
“And I was playing my guitar and he just said, do you mind if I play along? I wasn't trying to show off or anything, I was just strumming away on some chords,” he says. “I was in the kind of mood where I just thought, fuck it! I said, why don't you come and play with me on the show this evening? He actually didn't have anything to do that night. I think he was supposed to be on the next night. It just worked really well. We got on really well as people, so we just thought it would be really nice to do this every time we can.”
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Evolving into a trio with Jon Thorne, the group fuse enormously disparate influences – two are noted for their technical ability, while James Yorkston is able to channel this via some brusk playing of his own. “fFr them to share the stage with me... it's very flattering, but it's just amazing fun!” he exclaims. “I've always loved jamming but I don't have the skills. I can't play 'Johnny B. Goode' for an hour. I can bring in more post-rock influences, and they sit around me. They're not freaking out because I'm not playing a million notes, and I'm not freaking out because they are playing a million notes.”
“It just works really well together,” he sighs. “I'm just lucky. I can only really do one guitar style which is my own style. I'm not a session musician, y'know. I'm just lucky that my one style seems to fit with those guys and they can play around it.”
Eager to lay something down on tape, James Yorkston approached his long-term home of Domino – who were completely supportive. “I phoned up Domino and I said, look, I'm going on the road with these guys, they're an amazing bunch of musicians, I'd love to just go into the studio for a week at the end of it to see what we could come up with. They said, have you been writing? I said, no, we haven't been writing at all, but it's not really going to be that sort of thing. So they just said... sure!”
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I know it sounds strange to say that, but we were still discovering ourselves.
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And off to the studio they went. Attempting to lure such an improvisatory beast into the cold lair of the recording den wasn't entirely straight forward, though, as James readily admits. Sessions took place in two studios – with contrasting results. “The first studio, which has closed down now, was in North Wales. The only problem was that the rain was so ferocious, so crazy, that the instruments got damp. So that's why on that first song the guitar sounds like it's got this horrible vibration in it. That's because the whole neck had bent in the damp,” he explains. “We didn't really know each other. I know it sounds strange to say that, but we were still discovering ourselves.”
Long time Yorkston associate David Wrench came on board, helping the chemistry to flutter into life. “He's very sought after as a mixer, as a producer,” James says. “He's done all my albums, almost. He came on board and we were very lucky. We turned up in a beautiful studio and we caught something.”
When the tapes eventually stopped rolling, Yorkston Thorne Khan found that they actually had too much material. “I think this album is 50 minutes long. But we recorded two hours of material, between the two sessions. There was too much material. Some of it was cut off because it was... shite. Some of it was cut off because sonically it didn't work,” he admits. “I've done a dozen James Yorkston albums and I was really trying to get these guys to push themselves forward. I was saying, come on John, do you have any songs? I could go into the studio at any time and come out with a James Yorkston album but that's not what I wanted us to do, I wanted to push these guys forward.”
Curiously, the album hinges on an Ivor Cutler-penned composition – stretched, pulled and harried to within an inch of its life, 'Little Black Buzzer' is a daring, dazzling, update on the original. “I mean, I don't think you'd really plan to put an Ivor Cutler song on a record!” laughs James. “Obviously, in Scotland he's adored. It's a great wee track. I love Ivor Cutler, I play his music to my kids and they love him, too. Perhaps that's why he was on my mind when we were playing live, because I was thinking of my kids. It was just me improvising, just singing... and I thought, I know! I'll sing Ivor Cutler on this! There was no thought behind it, other than it was what popped into my head. So when we ended up in the studio, we thought we'd do it.”
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One of the biggest problems the trio had was actually deciding what to include on the final album. “It was tricky, really,” he admits. “It wasn't the easiest one to do but in the end the guys – Suhail and John – were totally fine with me programming the album. And effectively choosing the songs. So I got off quite lightly. There's loads of other material and there's a part of me that wishes we'd done a double album, but we didn't. I think it was Domino who said, this is a new thing so don't give people a double album of it. A good really strong single album – and hopefully that's what we've done.”
Out now, the record is a low-key triumph. Absorbing in its musicality, the core songwriting benefits from such adornment; voices mingle, approach differ, and the essential kineticism between the three results in something quite special. It's something the Scottish artist is eager to repeat. “I'd love to do another one,” he says. “I think we all would. We're hoping that at some point we'll go into the studio and record volume two. We've got some quite exciting things lined up.”
For now, though, the songwriter is attempting to piece together another James Yorkston album, while his debut novel will be released in April. “I'm about half of the way through it,” James explains. “I mean, I could go into the studio tomorrow and have a pretty good record. But this year I've got the Yorkston Thorpe Khan album and I've got the book – my debut novel is coming out in April. I've got that and I've got the club I run up in Scotland called Sup Wi' A Fifer and those three things take up quite a lot of my time.”
“I don't really want to rush a James Yorkston album for the sake of it,” he argues. “And I'm really happy with where I am with it. I'm just taking my time with the production, with the songwriting, and just hoping it'll be as good as possible.”
He's a man of many talents, is James Yorkston. A songwriter and raconteur, a solo artist and keen collaborator – oh, and he's a got a grand Ivor Cutler impersonation, when he's in the mood for telling a story. It's the way he tells them, honestly.
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'Everything Sacred' is out.