Sometimes you hear a voice that makes the hair on the back of your neck and arms stand up, but that only lasts for a second. For me this has been happening for years, it happens every time I hear the distinctive, amazing tone of the voice of James Yorkston.
I first came across Mr. Yorkston when I went to a little festival called the Green Man Festival. We’d tried Glastonbury, V and such like but quite frankly it was just mainstream stuff you could enjoy any time. In search of something different, we decided to try the Green Man, a little known festival in a lovely setting near Hay-on-Wye. I think the first one we went to was at Baskervill Hall but it was a long time ago.
We didn’t know anything about anyone on the line up, we looked at names like Adam, 4tet, Tunng, Joanna Newsome, King Creosote and James Yorkston and the Athletes with a shake of the head – nope, not a clue.
Our tent was pitched, our cans of beer and cider (I’m such a classy bird!) were stowed in our rucksacks and we went off to further our musical education. After a few dodgy starts and quick exits from stages, we found a tent where we watched a man wearing a furry dog head mask playing a synthesizer – they were called Fonda 500 and we loved them.
After a while we wandered off, still not knowing who to see or who they were, but for some reason we both decided we liked the name James Yorkston and the Athletes. We found they were playing in the same tent we’d been in and made our way back. The tent was really full and we had to push our way inside. The music had already started and I have to admit to not really listening as we tried to find somewhere to stand.
The first track I remember was St. Patrick (from the album Moving Up Country), the slow rumble of the instrumental opening leading to James and the opening line:
I didn’t sleep at all last night
I thought my heart had mastered the run of these seas
Well that was it, talk about hooked and landed! I was the fat fish on the end of his vocal line. His voice wasn’t perfect, which made it exactly perfect, if you get my meaning. The band played with him, the music getting louder and louder, creating the image of a rolling sea and sending shivers through me.
I awoke with a smart and a look at the phone.
I swear that I would have called you if I’d been sure you were alone.
And doesn’t that drive things home?
Simply beautiful lyrics; no fancy tricks, just a couple of very classy lines that’s all I need to make me fall in love with a song, a voice, an idea and an imagined set of circumstances. It’s not that I’m easily pleased, I just know when I’ve heard something special.
I knew then that I’d be fan for a very long time and now, all these years later I still anticipate anything James does with the interest of an inquisitive puppy.
Born in Fife, James Yorkston was involved at an early stage with the Fence Collective who’s artists include the like of King Creosote, KT Tunstall and The Beta Band. James writes and sings and plays a wide variety of instruments. I loved the Facebook posts from him when he was having a new guitar made. It was an education as I’ve never seen an instrument being loving constructed before!
James Yorkston and the Athletes are just one of many of James’ musical guises. He’s a man of many musical personalities, he’s played with John Martyn and Bert Janch and has had the blessing of John Peel. There’s been the Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, a collaboration with Alexis Taylor, KT Tunstall, Pictish Trail, Emma Smith & Jon Thorne. He’s had numerous albums released, all with their own delicious twist and unexpected turns.
I think however, apart from the Athletes, my favourite reincarnation for JY has been his recent work with Jon Thorne (Lamb) and Suhail Yusuf Khan. With James singing and playing guitar, Jon playing the base and Suhail charged with making the most magical music on a sarangi (a strange little Indian instrument you play with a bow), you’ll never hear anything as lovely. I saw the trio at the Ruby Lounge in Manchester last year. I was spellbound as always, though this time the mix of cultures, sounds and styles of songs and music were just breathtaking.
James has written a book about his life as a travelling troubadour ‘It’s Lovely To Be Here’. It’s a great insight into the often not very glamorous life on the road and gives us a peek into what really happens. It’s not all groupies and fantastic tour buses that’s for sure.
This blog is meant to be about voices and I feel I’ve digressed. I’m not ashamed though! I just feel the need to tell more people about the music I love and to persuade you to listen for yourself so you’ll understand why I’m so passionate about it.
James hasn’t got a ‘simple’ voice, it’s full of emotion, traits, strains and strengths that I’ve not heard from many people. He’s quietly spoken, funny, caustic, sarcastic and tender, especially on certain songs that mean more to him than I could every understand or explain.
He’s not a folk singer, he’s not a man to be labelled as anything. He’s unique, supremely talented and it’s a better place for having him and his storytelling through songs in it.
I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve been to see him. He’s seen us through bad times when John had cancer (he had trouble in the scanning machine as he was listening to James and it all got a bit much, too many good memories!), he’s been with us when we’ve been pissed (Green Man festivals and practically every gig!) and he’s always made us happy.
I’ve got to say that I’m in awe of Mr. Yorkston. If I had half of his talent in anything I’d be so happy. When we go to see him I always want to say this to him but I’m too shy, too worried he’d think I was a gushing, sentimental weirdo. One day I might say ‘hello’, but I’m just kidding myself, I’m too cowardly for that! I’ll just be content to go along, stand and listen and just enjoy.