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James Yorkston: Scottish singer-songwriter comes to Sheffield

Hailing from Fife, singer-songwriter James Yorkston is a well established Scottish solo artist, first coming to prominence with his debut album, Moving Up Country. A member of the Fence Collective, alongside King Creosote, The Aliens and others, he’s worked with Four Tet, The Big Eyes Family Players and is currently touring with The Pictish Trail and Withered Hand. The debut album of a new trio featuring James, Indian sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan and Lamb double bassist Jon Thorne has just been released. Everything Sacred is an extraordinary musical statement and a wonderfully subtle, clever mix of different styles. Ahead of this new trio’s performance at Yellow Arch in February, I spoke to him about Yorkston/Thorne/Khan and his solo career. How did the collaboration with Thorne and Khan come about? I was doing a TED talk, and after the soundcheck I was just idling away on my guitar. Suhail just appeared around the corner. He had obviously been travelling a long way, so I welcomed him in and we got talking. I asked him what he was going to play. He took his sarangi out and that was that. He just started playing along with me. I didn’t have any set list or anything, so I just said to him, “Why don’t you come and play with me this evening?” because he wasn’t booked to play with anyone. He just said, “Cool man, cool dude,” and that’s it. We just kept on playing together whenever we got the opportunity. There’s a whisky firm called Dewars, and they’ve put a lot of money into collaborations between Scotland and India. They asked me what I fancied doing and I said, “Well, I met this guy Suhail, perhaps we could get him over?” and they were really keen. Has working with Thorne and Khan changed the way you work? Yes, it has. Those guys are amazing musicians and I’m not an amazing musician. I enjoy playing, but those guys are top class, so I really have to concentrate, and just listen to what they’re doing. It’s very different to everything I’ve done before. It really is a collaboration. There’s a lot of wondering where everyone else is going on to and trying to exist in the moment. What’s your music making process? Have your different backgrounds made it difficult? I know what you mean, but I don’t think so. Suhail’s classically trained, he’s been playing since he was eight or something, and Jon grew up in the Manchester jazz scene, whereas I’ve come from the punk thing. But it’s only noise, you know? We just arrive in a room and make a noise together. Music is music, and for me it’s just all about the rhythms and the melodies. When my first album came out, there seemed to be a bit of surprise amongst journalists about some of the disparate instruments that you wouldn’t normally hear together, but it’s just nice noises, and if you like those noises then that’s great. That’s Yorkston/Thorne/Khan - sounds that go together well. On this coming tour we all want to get back to improvising, so there’s going to be a mixture of material that made its way onto the album, plus improvisation. How would you describe what you’re doing? I guess I’d say, if I can get away with it, that I’m a finger-picker and I sing a bit, Suhail’s a sarangi player and he sings a great deal, and Jon Thorne’s a jazz bass player, and we just get together and make a noise. I don’t think of it as a fusion. None of us are trying to do folk music or world music or anything like that. We’re just making music. Improvisation is the key thing. One of the music forms that I love the most is krautrock. When you hear bands like Can and Faust, there’d always be a lot of improvisation and jamming, and I love that. Jon’s obviously from a jazz background, which is the same, and Indian classical music has got a ton of improvisation in it as well. In this trio we have a feeling that we can all do what we like, knowing that the other two will back us up, and we won’t panic if someone plays a duff note. In ‘Knochentanz’, the first track on the album, there’s a point when the guitar sounds like it’s screaming with pain, but those guys kept on going. Do you see yourself as a solo artist or as a member of lots of different bands? I see myself as a solo musician. I love playing with Y/T/K and I love doing this tour that I’m doing up in Scotland at the moment with The Pictish Trail and Withered Hand, but I’m halfway through the next James Yorkston album, and that’s what I want to be doing. Everything just takes up so much time. How do you see yourself in relation to Scotland’s folk scene? I don’t really see what I do as being folk music. For me, folk means traditional music, and I mostly write pop music. I love traditional music and I listen to it all the time, but for me, I’m way more Cole Porter than I am The Child Ballads. I have a huge respect for traditional music and it certainly affects my musical voice, and I do do the odd traditional song, but I am a songwriter, and for me there’s a big difference. If the other side is Justin Bieber, then I’m with Justin. I write pop songs. They’re not very popular, but that’s what I do. How important do you think a sense of place is in the way you work? I feel a connection to the place, of course. I’ve lived here all my life. But I think that music is the only thing that I’ve been able to do that hasn’t shunted me into the great blue. Wherever I was, I would have ended up doing music or at least something creative. I love writing, but music is always the thing that draws me back. When I’m on stage with Suhail and Jon, it’s such a release. It’s such a magnificent feeling that I can’t imagine not doing it. Are there any particular artists that you’re listening to at the moment? Lisa O’Neill, who’s on my record. She’s astonishing. Another person I like is Seamus Fogarty. He’s got such a great voice and his production is great. I know a lot of the time when you mix electronic music with folk music it is just a drum beat underneath, but Seamus does it in such a wonderful, subtle and varied way. These guys, in my mind, are absolute top of the tree, but it might take a little while for the world to catch up. And finally, what’s next? Well, the Y/T/K album came out last week. I’m on tour with The Pictish Trail and Withered Hand at the moment. My club, Tae Sup Wi’ A Fifer, starts in March and my book comes out in April - it’s a novel called Three Crows about three guys living in Fife - and then hopefully recording the next Y/T/K album in June. Then we’ve got festivals throughout the year, and it would be amazing to record the next James Yorkston album later this year, but we’ll see if I’ve got time or not. Yorkston/Thorne/Khan play Yellow Arch on Sunday 21 February. Tickets are priced at £12 and are available via Party For The People. Photo by Linda Jackson )

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