Wednesday 21 March 2018

The folk singer who will play in your living room

Nick Kelly

Thank goodness for James Yorkston. As rock n' roll retreats ever further behind the velvet rope, the quietly spoken Fife folkie is moving in the opposite direction: taking his subtle, slow-burning music directly to the people.

For Yorkston has promised to compose a song especially for the lucky fan who finds the one and only golden ticket planted inside the box set -- limited to 1,000 -- of his new album, When The Haar Rolls In (released here on Friday).

Even better: Yorkston will, distance permitting, actually travel to the home of the winner to perform it.

For fans of the Edinburgh-based singer's music, having him call round to your house with his guitar and banjo slung over his arm and play for you on your living room sofa must seem like the equivalent of inheriting wee Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and shooting through the skies in the glass elevator.

One certainly couldn't imagine, say, Bono or Madonna popping in for a cup of tea and playing you a song they wrote just for you.

Cocooned in their gated mansions, rock stars become ever more remote from their fans as their fame increases.

Once every couple of years, we get to pay for the pleasure of standing in a field with 30,000 other souls and watch them from afar, positioned safely behind the barrier and a scrum of security guards.

But no matter how near you get to the barrier, you're still a world away from the star doing their thing up on stage. Of course, being up there also has comes at a price.

Bob Dylan once complained of how, having become world famous, he couldn't observe anyone any more without himself being observed.

Such a loss of anonymity can be a death knell for a writer.

Heaven knows there have been too many cases where an artist, having risen to the top of the tree, has nothing left to write about other than their own fame.

When stars disappear inside their goldfish bowl and start moaning about their ludicrously charmed life -- as if they've just emerged blinking from a windowless Third World sweatshop after a 23-hour shift -- then their audience usually starts to become a little more 'selective'.

Such down-to-earth anti-rock gestures as Yorkston's are therefore to be applauded. Of course, the folk demi-monde has always been democratic in its nature: the 'come one, come all' openness of the folk clubs, with their campfire sensibility, has always been one of the genre's defining features.

If you can hold a tune and remember the words, then pull up a chair.

And it's a scene whose members support each other generously. The first lady of English folk, Norma Waterson -- seen recently at the Rogues Gallery knees up in Dublin's Grand Canal Quay -- guests on Yorkston's cover of her late sister Lal's Midnight Feast, along with her brother Mike. Yorkston himself emerged from a loose gang of local folk musicians in his native Scotland, who call themselves The Fence Collective. One of these is the highly rated King Creosote, who has toured with Yorkston and guested on his debut album, 2002's magnificent Moving Up Country.

But if Yorkston has aligned himself with folk heroes old and new, he has also found favour with the uber-hip indie rock fraternity: he's signed to the same label as Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand and has toured extensively with the likes of Tindersticks, Lambchop and Beth Orton.

And he's had such notable figures as Four Tet's Kieran Hebden and Talk Talk's Rustin' Man queuing up to produce his albums (2004's Just Beyond The River and 2006's The Year Of The Leopard respectively).

Indeed, the box set of the new album comes with a bonus CD featuring other artists -- including our own Cathal Coughlan and Adrian Crowley -- covering his songs, as well as a CD of remixes by the likes of Four Tet and King Creosote.

T he first single from the new album is Tortoise Regrets Hare, released on September 19, in which Nancy Elizabeth Cunliffe's honeyed backing blend nicely with Yorkston's trademark dry, almost spoken word delivery.

But Yorkston himself is still very much the star of When The Haar Rolls In. The haar of the title refers to the drizzly fog peculiar to the east coast of Scotland that ghosts inland during the summer.

The vagaries of the weather and the human heart usually go hand-in-hand in Yorkston's songs -- you could call it love in a time of frostbite. And the drink is usually there or thereabouts.

A frequent visitor to our own weather-beaten island, Yorkston is set to play the Electric Picnic today at 5pm as part of Donal Dineen's line-up in the Body & Soul area. Well, it's the next best thing to having him play your living room.

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