My Firsts: James Yorkston | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, June 25th, 2024  

My Firsts: James Yorkston

The Farm Life

Apr 17, 2019 My Firsts Bookmark and Share

My Firsts is our email interview series where we ask musicians to tell us about their first life experiences, be it early childhood ones (first word, first concert, etc.) or their first tastes of being a musician (first band, first tour, etc.). For this My Firsts we talk to Scottish singer/songwriter James Yorkston.

Yorkston has been releasing music since 2001. He put out a new album, The Route to the Harmonium, back in February via Domino. Yorkston recorded the album mainly on his own in the small Scottish fishing village of Cellardyke, which is where he lives. His studio is a loft space that was originally used to repair fisherman’s nets but is now packed with Yorkston’s antique musical equipment. He then took those recordings to producer/mixer David Wrench (Frank Ocean, FKA Twigs, David Byrne) to piece together the final product. The Route to the Harmonium is Yorkston’s first solo record since 2014’s Cellardyke Recording and Wassailing Society, although since then he’s released two collaborative albums as one third of Yorkston/Thorne/Khan and in 2016 he put out his debut novel, Three Craws.

Read on as Yorkston, who was born in 1971, talks about getting attacked in the woods, being banned by his parents from going to gigs, getting drunk at a very early age, the farming life, and the interviewer who thought he was the violin player in an iconic Britpop band (he was not).

First pet?

We had a pair of sheepdogs when we were younger. It started out as oneMacGregorbut one soon became two. Reason being, when we first got him as a puppy, MacGregor had a habit of breaking out of the garden into the fields of the farm next door, then disappearing. It was a little worrying as he was such a young dog and there were sometimes sheep about, depending which field they’d been moved into. One time we were off with my father to the Royal Highland Showwhich is basically an agricultural festival, with prizes for Best Bull, Shiniest Tractor, that sort of thing. When we left, we couldn’t find MacGregor at all, so we presumed he was out chasing a rabbit and left without him. At the show though, we found him, he just ran up to us and began jumping up to us etc.which was a little bizarre, but we figured maybe one of the local farmers had picked him up and knowing we’d be there, taken him along. Or maybe he’d been asleep in the car? MacGregor stayed with us all through the daymaybe an eight-hour stretchwith us feeding him and such. When it was time to leave, we got into the minivan and of course he joined us. It was only when we got home, to be met by a hungry MacGregor, that we realized we’d picked up the wrong dog. Almost identical thoughsame size, markings, sex. My father wrote to the organizers of the festival and called the area vet etc.this was in the mid-‘70s, long before the Internetbut no-one reported a lost dog, so then we had two. We renamed this new one MacPherson as we were hoping he’d become a fearsome guard dog, but he never did. He ended up getting swept out to sea chasing a football and we never saw him again.

First broken bone?

This was ridiculous, unbelievable almost, but my hand still flares up every winter, reminding me of the truth about it all. My brother Harry and I became obsessed with the Monster from [The Legend of] Boggy Creek. You can Google it, easily enough. There were plenty of forests around us, and we used to take the dogs for a walk through some of them, all the time winding each other up, talking about the monster, and maybe there was one in Fife? Now, in the winter, the light here disappears very quickly around 3:30 p.m., and we were often caught out, having to make our way through the remainder of the forest by memory and touch and by following the dogs. One such time we were slowly prodding our way forwards, keeping quiet so we could concentrate on the journey, when this massive beast came down from a branch and whacked me full across the face. I panicked, of course, and swung my fist toward it, hitting the trunk of a tree and instantly cracking one of my knuckles. I can still remember the feel of the initial whack, a kind of earthy smell, a warmth, but with a tear to it, also. I didn’t cry, the pain was more an intense throb than anything sharp, but I couldn’t open my fingers out and when we eventually got home it was clear I needed to go the hospital for an X-Ray, where it was discovered I’d fractured some bone or other. I also had three thin red scrapes across my face, evidence of the beast’s attack, I thought, although my parents said it was probably just a branch. And that may well have been true, but early next morning, with the sun out and clear, we again walked through the same woods, and I was looking all over for this beastie that had ambushed us. At roughly the same spot, I looked up and saw a little owl. It’s rare to see them during the day, but they’re beautiful creatures. He was looking down at me intently. He flickered his wings a bit and said “It you, it you” then flew off.

First time you had to go to the hospital?

I think I was born in a hospital, but I can’t remember much about it.

First record your parents played for you?

It was probably Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An interesting phenomenon, The Beatles. There are people so obsessed with them, that they see anyone with a more lukewarm interest, such as myself, as a bit of a threat. A friend of mine tells me that some of these Beatles zealots take it even furtherexpecting everyone to adore every uttering from any of The Beatles, solo careers included. So, not liking a Ringo B-side makes one a “Ringo Hater” for example. Me, I’ve kind of cherry picked with The Beatles. There’s maybe a dozen or so songs that I think are exceptional, but the rest doesn’t really do it for me, so I listen to something that does interest me. That’s just common sense, right? I understand The Beatles’ impact on popular culture etc. and in no way am putting them down or saying they’re overrated, it’s just… they’re not for me, certainly not as a whole. It’s strange when people take bands so seriously. I should say though, I’ve always loved Ringo’s drumming. He’s up there with W.S. “Fluke” Holland, for me.

First album you bought?

Twenty Rock ‘n’ Roll Greatest Hits. I guess I was seven or eight years old. My aunt Faith had given me a record token for my birthday. If only she’d known what she was starting. I learned so much from that record, there’s so much energy in the performances, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, some Bill Haley live tracks. I still play the record to this day-Bill Justis with “Raunchy,” Carl Perkins with “Glad All Over.” It really sculpted my tastes. And when I got my first electric bass guitar-a 1962 Epiphone Rivoli that I still use-I learned to play by jamming along with these songs. When I worked out that a lot of them were following the same basic pattern-well, that was my introduction to 12 bar blues.

First concert you went to?

This would have been in 1985, I think, it was The Damned, with support from The Fuzztones. My best friend and next-door neighbour, Mike “Vic” Galloway and I got a lift through from Fife with his mother, who then waited outside, I think, for however many hours. The ticket time said 7 p.m., so we got there early, only to discover that we were “too small” to get in to the downstairs, with its more open dancing/moshing section. Which was fair enough, we would have been 13 or 14 years old. Eventually someone swapped tickets with us and we ended up in the balcony, safe from the unseated braying punks of Scotland. I remember us being the youngest people there by far, surrounded by patchouli oiled leather jackets and Mohican haircuts. Years later, when I finally moved to Edinburgh, I expected it to be as full of punks as this gig had been, but it turned out that most of the punks lived in the surrounding towns and villages and only made their way into the big city for the shows and such. That night, when I got home, I told my mother about everything we’d seen-the fights, the thrown glasses, the crazy clothing-and she banned me from ever going to another gig for the rest of my life. That ban didn’t last too long. I think the next show was Alien Sex Fiend, maybe 18 months later.

First time you got drunk?

Some friends of my parents bought some Strawberry Liquor back from France, and having no idea how strong it was, allowed us a small sip each. As they’d been so relaxed about us trying some, it seemed obvious to my siblings and me that they’d be fine with us sitting in the kitchen drinking as much as we wanted whilst they talked with their friends elsewhere. I can’t remember how much we had, but I do remember walking up the stairs to my bedroom, the walls spinning around me, feeling rather giddy. I would have been maybe seven or eight years old. I’ll be honest with you, even now, 40 years later, I can find myself walking up the stairs to my bedroom, the walls spinning around me, feeling rather giddy.

First job you had?

We grew up surrounded by farms and most of my early jobs involved them, being it picking raspberries or general dogsbody work, castrating lambs, skinning those that are born dead and digging their graves. The first vehicle I ever drove solo was a tractor. I was pretty terrible at it, but of course I would be, having no experience at the time. I never grew into the farming. Parts of it I look back on with humor-herding Highland cattle, these beasts thrice my size at least and me armed with only a stick and a bag of feed-but there was too much I couldn’t get into. I never want to dig another fence post as long as I live. Or castrate another lamb, thinking about it.

First time you got fired?

I got fired from one of the farms, actually, for discharging a shotgun. At a guess, I’d say I was 13 years old? There was a group of lads who’d use the woods for dog fighting, rumor was, they’d come through from Glasgow on the Tradesmen’s holidays. It was unpleasant to encounter. One time, I’d been down there burying the lambs-we had to find places far enough away from potential stream contamination or places visited by domestic dogs that might did them up-anyway, there was maybe two or three dozen people and the unmistakable low yelp sound of dogs getting wound up for a fight. The shotgun, by chance, was in the back of the little buggy we used to get deep into the forest. I think the farmer had been using it on badgers, perhaps. I just put a cartridge in and fired it over the heads of the folk below. I was well hidden, up on the side of the ridge, plus I had the buggy, that was pretty nippy in those circumstances, so I felt reasonably safe. Anyway, they all got spooked and scarpered. I rode back to farm proper. The following day the farmer noticed a shot had been let off-I had left the cartridge in, like a fool-and he wasn’t impressed, so I was fired. Suited me though. Next job was selling ice creams to tourists. Better paid and less illegal dog fighting.

First professional recording session?

As in recording for someone else? Well, there’s only been two, that I can remember. One was a drinks company wanted me to record 18 different versions of one of my songs for their distillery. It was very well paid, but let me tell you, coming up with 18 different versions of a song that only has a very basic four-chord structure is hard work. I was producing it, also, so I had to live through the whole week, hearing these subtly different instrumentals running through the speakers, one after the other. I was lucky, we’d hired in six amazing musicians and they all got into the spirit of things-“How about we do a milk-bottle/pizza box version?”-but it still wore me down. I have no idea if any of it was ever used. I remember being sent the final mixes and instantly deleting the lot.

The second session was when I was flown down to London to record vocals on a charity record. I was flattered that they’d asked me and I agreed to do it for costs. I bought my nyckelharpa down and had worked out a lovely, John Cale/Tony Conrad droney version of the song I’d been asked for, but when I got into the studio and played it for the organizers, well, none of them liked it at all. They played me the original again-a happy, up-tempo song about some sort of animal-and asked me to do a straight copy. I thought the track was awful, but agreed, since they’d spent all that money getting me down. Listening back, in the control room, it quickly lodged itself into my brain as “The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done.” I am fairly sure it was never released, for which I am grateful.

First interview with music journalist types?

It was novel and amusing, at first, to be interviewed. Then it became scary, and now it’s just part of the job. I have to travel to Edinburgh tomorrow to do something for the BBC and my young daughter asked me-“do you get nervous?”-but I don’t, not at all, now. I just pretend I’m talking to my auntie or someone similarly one-step removed from my every day life. It can be amusing still, especially when the interviewer has no clue who I am, when it’s somebody young who has been palmed off with the “Why don’t you go and interview this duff old folk guy?” and then done no research whatsoever. I remember one lady thinking I was the violin player with Pulp. I am not. I am not the violin player with Pulp. I had to gently explain, but she had no real concern, just wanted her 500 words. The other extreme is talking to real fans, people who have interviewed me many times over the last two decades. With these people, the only thing I have to remember is what I told them last time and make sure I’m not unintentionally rude, which is harder than it may seem. But talking to these people is like talking to old friends I hardly ever see, once every four years, maybe, talking about sand dunes and whisky. Not the hardest of jobs.

Support Under the Radar on Patreon.


Submit your comment

Name Required

Email Required, will not be published


Remember my personal information
Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below:

April 30th 2019

I love this song ????

tree service
May 30th 2019

enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me.

gian tapia
August 5th 2020

gracias por todo me fue de mucha ayuda para proyectos que tenia pendiente y no me salia , y gracias a la información de la pagina y algunos comentarios pude resolverlo.