James Yorkston and The Athletes | WIG107 | Released: 16/06/02
"I played in Galway once and this girl come up to me afterwards and asked, ‘Have you ever had a relationship that went well?’ Cheeky wee. . ." James Yorkston
James Yorkston surveys the songs that make up his beautiful, freewheeling debut album, ‘Moving Up Country’, and notes that several of them chronicle the fall-out of love. But there are just as many concerning the fall-in as well.
“I never try and write, when it comes out, it comes out, and that’s most likely when you’re in the pits of despair or feeling the joys of spring, which is pretty much what’s here. There’s a lot of reminiscing on this album, some of it happy, some melancholy.”
Born and raised in the Fife village of Kingsbarns - a make-your-own-entertainment kind of place - James has been following musical pursuits since the age of 8. He followed a girlfriend out of the village to settle in Edinburgh at the age of 17, inspired to see the world, and write songs, by his love of music like Madagascan guitarist D’Gary and folk singer Anne Briggs.
Six years ago he joined Edinburgh garage-punk band Huckleberry, then, three days later, also landed his first solo gig. “Someone came in to my friend’s record shop asking if they knew anybody who could support Bert Jansch and my mate said, Yeah, James’ll do it. I had a week to knock my songs into some sort of order. I was absolutely terrified.”
He fed the hard-core side of his soul with Huckleberry for a few years until the lure of his acoustic muse – and a fear of deafness – finally won out. He sent off two tapes of a song called ‘Moving Up Country, Roaring The Gospel’, one to John Peel, and one to John Martyn, seeking a support slot at an Edinburgh gig. Peel played the tape on air, which led to the Bad Jazz label releasing a single and Martyn offered James the support slot on his entire 30-date 2001 tour. Soon after, James signed to Domino Records, who released his third single, ‘The Lang Toun’ to great acclaim in March 2002.
Now, at last, here’s his first album. It’s a tremendously assured record, full of rich but subtle arrangements sculpted over many hours, James and his musicians sometimes spending weeks on one demo, before re-capturing the final versions comparatively quickly. The bulk of the album was recorded in four weeks in a cottage near Hawick in the Scottish Border’s, far enough from other people so that the band could play on into the wee hours, which they invariably did. “I wanted it to feel spontaneous and organic,” says James, “and I wanted it to have a consistent feel, using the same basic group of instruments to thread all the songs together.” The album was mixed by former Cocteau Twin, Simon Raymonde, who has caught exactly the warm, human sound James was after. “I’m really happy with it. There’s not a bad song on here, it’s fucking great!”
So here’s James Yorkston’s brief introduction to each song on ‘Moving Up Country’:
In Your Hands
A bonny wee song. I wanted it to go on the beginning because it’s pretty chilled, and it has that line in it, ‘It’s lovely to be here.’ No one had heard it before we went down to the cottage. I pulled it out of the hat and we just built it around the guitar line. I don’t think it’s a delicate song, I think it’s confident and wry, but not trying to be anything other than a nice little thing to say hello.
This is one of my favourites, it means a lot to me. It describes a period of my life that was absolutely shit, and then in the third verse, happiness arrives. I recorded a version on four track originally: vocal, guitar, concertina and mandolin. I wrote the lyric one night before I went to sleep and I woke up the next day and read it back, and usually when you do that it’s awful, but I looked at this and thought, Fucking hell, that’s superb!
I stumbled across the lyrics for this in a notepad on the way to my friend Kenny’s house where we recorded this version. We had Kenny singing alongside me and playing accordion, and his brother Gordon shaking things and pitching in with a harmony every now and then. I wrote it about a girl I met while on tour in Ireland. I find coming up with melodies on the guitar fairly easy, but I never sit down to write lyrics, they either come off or they don’t. I have notepads everywhere, in my pockets, with my guitars, beside my bed. I try and avoid revising the lyrics, I just hate songs where you can hear the machinery working, that sound contrived, middle-eights that go up a key and all that pish. I don’t do middle eights.
Tender To The Blues
I felt really fucking dodgy using the word blues in a title but I figured that it’s about responding to the blues rather than having them, though it’s quite bluesy in a way, like that Jackson C Frank song, Blues Run The Game. It’s about having your nerve-endings on the surface. The chorus is saying: I’m not a fool, I’m just suffering. I know a lot of people who have related to it when they’ve been splitting up with someone.
Moving Up Country
“Well look who’s getting involved.” This was the song that started it all. There was no master plan, it was the most recent song I’d finished, as simple as that. I sent it to John Peel because I thought he’d like the title and he played it, and then I got the support slot with John Martyn. It’s about Dublin.
Cheating The Game
You could say this is the album’s first cheerful one, though the lyrics aren’t particularly sunny! But it has a really nice feel. Faisal’s brushy percussion part is what makes it for me, I love the banjo too, and the looseness of the double-bass and the slide guitar. One or two people have said it sounds quite Trad American, and I suppose it does in a way.
I Spy Dogs
This is about when I saw a band play in a café in Paris. Everything in the song actually happened. The band were godawful, the worst fucking band in the world. The singer was looking at us all night in the same way that a sheep looked at me once before I ran it over, ‘Eh… Help!’ It was like the end of The Fly. The girl I was with and I were just laughing. And we used to dog-spot as we were walking around, so the title’s pretty literal.
6.30 Is Way Too Early
This is a favourite. I wrote it the Christmas before last and it’s exactly as it says on the tin. It’s about being in County Cork at Christmas. I like the harmonica, which gives the whole thing a slack feel, like Ron Kavanagh’s version of Sloop John B.
The Patience Song
This is probably the oldest song, about three or four years old. It was written about being in love. People seem to like the chorus, I like that chord change, I was really lucky to stumble across that. Even though I love this song I wasn’t going to put it on the album - we had so much material to choose from - but Simon Raymonde insisted. He’s an absolute diamond, one of my two favourite people in the music business. I knew I’d get on with him as soon as we met, because he had this really cool shirt on, black with a crimson pattern. That’s one of the main reasons I worked with him.
I Know My Love
This is a trad/arr Yorkston. It’s an old folk song which I first heard on an album called “The Shape Of Scrape” by Elisa Carthy and Nancy Kerr, that came out about 7 years ago, a wonderful album, the best either of them has done, I reckon. I was half way through putting together an album of traditional tunes for the Fence label before I signed with Domino. That album never happened, but, when we were doing this album, one night I said to the band, Let’s do I Know My Love. I talked them through how it went and we did it on the first take at 3 in the morning.