“I LOVE pop music, don’t get me wrong. I love a well-put-together pop song. But there’s a real beauty and excitement in exploring what’s going to happen when you just go into a room with someone and you don’t really know what anyone’s going to bring to the table.”

Near the end of our conversation, James Yorkston is summing up what for him is so often the starting point. The musician, songwriter, Fifer, is no stranger to collaborating with new musicians and surprising everyone, including himself.

“It can be thrilling,” he says. “It can be a disaster as well, of course, but it’s something I love to do.”

In short, when it comes to James Yorkston, uncertainty is a mission statement. Or experiment is the default setting, if you prefer. If anything sums up Yorkston’s fascinating, meandering two decades and counting in music it’s that willingness to not do what he did before.

There’s a temptation even now to peg Yorkston as simply a folky singer-songwriter who offers up songs full of sea frets, bruised hearts and woozy rhythms. And there is something in that. But it underestimates his love for stretching himself and his music.

That desire might be most obvious in his involvement in Yorkston Thorne Khan, the Indian-folk-jazz fusion trio he plays in with sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan and bassist and composer Jon Thorne. But, really, collaboration is often his modus operandi. Over the years he has worked with everyone from Four Tet to Norma and Mike Waterson, after all.

HeraldScotland:

James Yorkston with The Second Hand Orchestra. Photograph Nadja Hellstrom

It can certainly be heard on his new album The Wide, Wide River, the gorgeous, warm, often joyous and, yes, at times woozy, offering on which he is joined by Swedish musicians The Second Hand Orchestra, led by Karl-Jonas Winqvist.

The result may well be the first great album of 2021.

It’s still December 2020 when we speak on a cold clear day in Cellardyke where he lives. A week before Christmas at the end of the strangest of years.

The Wide, Wide River was recorded before coronavirus became a clear and pleasant danger and is the result of a way of working that has since become impossible.

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It grew out of Yorkston’s friendship with Winqvist. Yorkston was touring Germany when Winqvist invited him to play a gig in Sweden. To make the journey worthwhile they added in a recording session. Out of that grew the collaboration with The Second Hand Orchestra, a group of musicians which includes cellist and pianist Emma Nordenstam and violinist Ulrika Gyllenberg. Peter Moren of Peter, Bjorn and John fame and nyckelharpa player Emma Nordenstam were also involved.

Yorkston brought along the bare bones of tunes and lyrics and the music was then largely improvised in the studio. It gave birth to an album of infectious, rolling songs that offer a new texture to Yorkston’s palette.

“It did feel as though I was playing with a rock and roll band, which is kind of missing from my career,” Yorkston suggests, “because I’ve never really had a band who played like that.”

The pleasure for him was the distinctive new flavours the Swedish musicians added to the mix.

“Sometimes with musicians, especially if they’re nervous, they want to play as many notes as possible to show everyone that they can play a lot of notes. There was none of that at all. Everyone there was my favourite type of musician. There was no huge ego going on. They just wanted to fit in and make the music as good as possible.”

Take a song like There is No Upside, he says. “It’s a real rattle bag. I can hear myself going out of time with the drums and I can hear that it sounds like a band tumbling its way through a song. But it sounds amazing to me. I love the energy.

“That was generally the vibe of it. I was encouraging them all to be themselves and they are very creative people, so it was joyous really.”

As is the result, for all the darkness that sometimes inhabits the songs. The words of Struggle, a song written for his children, are nakedly honest, for example.

HeraldScotland:

James Yorkston. Photograph Gordon Terris

“There is an honesty,” he agrees a little reluctantly. He finds talking about lyrics tricky. “But Struggle is a song about depression. I’ve lost a handful of friends to depression and … Well, the answer is in the lyrics. It’s saying, ‘I’m here for you, but there is something inside that I can’t control and if it all goes wrong don’t blame yourself.’ That’s basically what it’s saying.

“I feel I have to be able to write from the heart. I think as a creative person you have to be open to everything that comes along and the worst thing I think one can do is shut oneself off.”

Like everyone else, of course, he spent much of 2020 shut off, geographically at least. Gigs and festival appearances were lost, and he also had to cancel eight of the regular Tae Sup Wi’ A Fifer shows he has organised in Kirkcaldy in recent years (though he was able to arrange a couple of them online).

As for the rest of last year, how was it for him?

“I feel a bit guilty saying it, but I’ve had an absolutely wonderful year. I’ve got two children and a wife, and I have loved being at home with them. It’s been a gift for me, especially when the kids were not in school. We borrowed our neighbour’s dog, and we went on massive, long walks every day along the beach and through the forest.

“It’s been a fantastic year for me and I’m dreading the next airport. I’m dreading going on the next three-week tour. I’m dreading that gig in India. They will come and I will do them, and I will be happy to do them because I’m grateful for my work and it’s lovely to do music for a living. But at the same time this year has been fantastic for me.”

This year, 2021, sees the 20th anniversary of his signing to the Domino label, I remind him. He has been working as a gigging musician for two decades and counting now.

He was thrown in at the deep end at the start of the century when he was offered a tour with the late John Martyn, which proved, umm, challenging.

“I had done, I think, two solo shows before and basically it was a sink-or-swim situation. I was given the tour and I was told I could travel with them. And then I couldn’t travel with them, so I had to find my way around from place to place. I was told I could stay with them in their hotel, and then I couldn’t stay with them.

“It was all this bullshit, most of which, I think, was coming down from John’s manager or ‘damager,’ as Danny Thompson called him.

“So, it was a tricky experience. But, you know, by the time we got to Ireland – we did three weeks in the UK and then a week in Ireland – I was a completely different musician. I’d done 21 gigs or something with them and 21 gigs really polishes what you’re doing. I was a lot more confident and more at home. So, it was good, but I had to learn very quickly on that tour.”

Yorkston, of course, then made his name as part of Fife’s Fence Collective alongside Pictish Trail and King Creosote and, he says, his love of collaboration can be traced back to his Fence days.

“I used to love the gigs with Kenny, Johnny and me. We would know the songs, but the songs would change every single time we sang them. There was the thrill of not knowing what I was going to do, let alone what anyone else was going to do. When it’s working well it’s a great thing.”

The new album emerges into a world where touring opportunities are, sadly, greatly restricted. He would love to tour with The Second Hand Orchestra if the pandemic and economics allow.

“Before Covid we were looking at things. It’s a lot of effort involved in getting half a dozen people over from Sweden, but, yeah, if we can, we’ll do it absolutely.

“But we couldn’t afford to do more than four or five shows. No one can donate three or four weeks of their lives to my art. Obviously, the easiest way for me to tour is in Scandinavia because that’s where they all are. We’ve got our eyes open for things over there, but they’re struggling under Covid at the moment the same as us, so …”

HeraldScotland:

James Yorkston, December 2020. Photograph Gordon Terris

The future, inevitably, is a little bit out of focus. Who knows what will happen in the months ahead? But Yorkston knows he wants to keep going forward.

“It’s funny you mentioned the 20th anniversary with Domino. I can see that, but I don’t want to do anything about it. I just want to get on with new stuff.

“We put out the 10th anniversary of [the 2002 album] Moving Up Country. I can see why it happened, but it felt like it was the wrong thing to do. I just want to do new things.”

Not the end then, just another beginning.

The Wide, Wide River comes out on Domino on Friday.