James Yorkston is at his home in Fife, an amplified voice inside a tiny telephone speaker, but still not loud enough to wake a sleeping child. Which is just as well, because it's Sunday evening and only a few minutes have elapsed since James' two year-old son drifted off to sleep. "For what it's worth, my kids really like the record” he begins, "I've been using it to get them off to sleep in the car. It's proved a useful tool...”
Ten years ago, when James Yorkston signed to Domino Records, there were no small children on which to road-test new material. Instead there was John Peel, who upon hearing James' debut album Moving Up Country, invited James to session for him. There was Bert Jansch, who hosted James' first ever solo show. There was John Martyn, who invited the then unsigned James to tour with him - a rare event indeed. And in the interim, there has been a fanbase which has steadily expanded with every ensuing record.
We all go through the years pressing "refresh” on our existing worldview. James' albums document that process with an emotional acuity that gently dismantles all resistance: the little, life-changing epiphanies detailed on Just Beyond The River (2004), the minimal, midsummer memoirs of The Year Of The Leopard (2006), the stellar musical leap represented by When The Haar Rolls In (2008), easily comparable to, say, Bert Jansch or Jackie Leven at their respective peaks; and, in 2009's collaboration with The Big Eyes Family Players, Folk Songs, a conscious embracing of folk traditions to which James had once seemed ambivalent about aligning himself. Later that same year, James branched away from music slightly when one of the Fife galleries held an exhibition of his paintings, and more recently, Domino published his book of tour diaries, It's Lovely To Be Here. "I just follow my muse,” he says, and hope what interests me will interest other people...”
As a family man now, It must have been a wrench, you say, to leave home and spend days in the North Wales recording studio where – like all his albums – I Was A Cat From A Book was recorded. "I was pleased to be working,” is James' honest response. "As a parent, you give yourself over completely to this thing. But you're not a saint. Those feelings have to go somewhere. I didn't plan it this way, but there's a certain amount of anger on this record.”
Anger is, indeed, occasionally perceptible on I Was A Cat From A Book. Not, however, the sort of anger measurable in decibels. The actor David Suchet once explained the secret to playing a drunk, to wit: "The thing about drunks is that much of their energy is spent trying to seem sober.” The anger on 'Border Song' adheres to a similar sort of logic. It's the sound of reason trying and failing to keep a lid on inchoate fury. James sounds startled by the velocity of words that tumble from him, as his band race to keep up. He's like a man barking frantic instructions to anyone who will listen as he and all his worldly possessions slide down a muddy embankment. "The root inspiration there was a Throwing Muses song called 'Mania',” he explains, "although I'm not sure to what degree I was aware of that at the time.”
The same might be said of the album's extraordinary conclusion. "Feathers are falling left right and centre," repeats James on 'I Can Take All This', sounding for all the world like a man ignoring the advice of loved ones, setting out to face down his merciless maker in search of hard answers. "It's a primal scream of sorts,” says James, "...or as near as I'll get to one, at any rate.” Catharsis alone, of course, isn't enough to create a work of art. And here on James Yorkston's latest set of songs, what nudges many of these moments into greatness is the seemingly telepathic empathy between James and the other musicians enlisted to play on it. 'On I Can Take All This', it's the vertiginous interplay between Emma Smith's violin and the explosive syncopations of drummer Luke Flowers (The Cinematic Orchestra). The arrival of new pianist John Ellis has been a minor revelation. "In the past, I tended to be quite specific about what I wanted played on the songs, but with John, all I did was tell him if I prefer Rhodes or piano, and that was it.”
On the album's opening song, you can hear such faith being repaid immediately. Flowers' sublime piano work confers colour and motion on 'Catch' – a lyrical sketch of youthful arrogance ("we were Brel and Fitzgerald taunting their charges”) tempered with the humility of hindsight. Elsewhere, the atmosphere of mutual trust between James and his band yields similarly inspired results: be it the sun-dazed shuffle of 'Kath With Rhodes' (born of a musical correspondence between James and guesting co-vocalist Kathryn Williams) or 'This Line Says' – a languorous meditation which does its work in the space between the things that lovers say and the things they mean. When James wrote the latter, he sent "a list of words and pointers” to help the string players/arrangers Emma Smith and Vince Sipprell (Geese): "I mentioned certain records such as Histoire de Melodie Nelson [Serge Gainsbourg], but also more lateral pointers like 'A blade of yellow glass blown onto a clear window.' Three weeks later, they sent it back and it was amazing. That's pretty much what you hear on the finished version.”
"The album was recorded pretty much live,” continues James, "with 'Just As Scared', all seven of us were playing and singing along, Jill O' Sullivan (from Sparrow & The Workshop) sharing the duet with me and Sarah Scutt tootling away on the clarinet. It was a great feeling, the spontaneity and trust between the musicians. John, Jon and Luke have played with each other in jazz trios and the like for nearly 20 years. I was in safe hands.”
Sometimes James offered up possible directions; on other occasions, none were needed. When it all comes down, there's very little to say about a song like 'A Short Blues' that isn't achingly apparent. "Lately I find I struggle to keep myself out of the blues,” sings James, to friends whose loved ones never pulled though.
"It's a peculiar thing, being a songwriter, but also being a reasonably private person,” reflects James. "There are certain songs that you write, and the only way that you even allow yourself to write them is by telling yourself that, once they're written, no-one else will ever hear them. You write them to get through a moment.” He knows that it's a necessary deception because some of his favourite albums are predicated upon similarly necessary deceptions: Songs For Drella, Bright Phoebus, Diamond Mine – every one of them raw with emotions and intimacies you wouldn't necessarily share with a stranger in a bar or a journalist with a dictaphone. This is what great art does. And, regardless of whether he consciously intended to do so, this is the challenge James Yorkston has set himself. A challenge, which in 2012 he has met with a record of exceptional beauty.