Words by David C. Obenour
Re-entering the studio in early 2021, celebrated Scottish author and folk artist James Yorkston took to the piano in crafting his latest collection of songs. A new approach for him, the results were encouraging and ideas and files were soon shared with collaborator Karl-Jonas Winquivist of Sweden’s The Second Hand Orchestra. Building off their previous work on 2021’s The Wide, Wide River, the two were inspired to seek out further deviations. And after being said aloud, what better deviation could there be than to involve Nina Persson?
The casualness and short-term familiarity of the players to each other and the material (the other members of The Second Hand Orchestra having not heard the songs before entering the studio) speaks to the talent and generosity of each artist. The Great White Sea Eagle beautifully graces this latest collection of songs.
Off Shelf: This is the first time where you primarily approached songwriting by starting with piano. How do you think that affected the songs?
James Yorkston: So many ways. Rhythmically, it pulled me out of the usual guitar shapes and riffs I’ve fallen into these last twenty years. Because I’d never written on piano before, everything sounded new. A lot less stop-starts, more a free-flowing process. And then there’s just the whole randomness of the piano – an instrument I’d never really explored. Just hitting chords at random, and if it sounded good, beginning the process of building a tune around it.
OS: How does the name The Great White Sea Eagle relate to the music? The cover illustration is really striking – did the name or image come first?
JY: The album is named after the track The Great White Sea Eagle. Sometimes it can be tricky to name an album, but this one practically named itself. The title was appropriate to me, the story in that song running through the rest of the album, one way or another. The image was made specifically for the album. I love John Broadley’s art, and he did the cover of our previous album, The Wide, Wide River, so it made sense to ask him again.
OS: What about Nina as a vocalist and artist appealed to you for these songs?
JY: I loved her voice when she was younger, and listening to her newer work, I thought her voice had aged wonderfully. It’s fully her, she sings as she speaks, and that for me is very genuine. I enjoy throwing new ideas into the mix, and Nina worked out perfectly.
OS: How did you become involved with this project? What about it made you want to be involved?
Nina Persson: James and I have a friend in common with Karl-Jonas. He made the first Second Hand Orchestra album with James and he’s the one that asked me to join the project. He sent me a couple songs and I really liked them. I felt that it was a good challenge to work with live takes like they do, to sing in a band not as a front person but more like part of the band. And the music and James’ voice really stood out to me.
OS: Did either of you have any expectations of how the collaboration would go? Were there any ways it unfolded that maybe weren’t how you expected?
JY: I had concerns, of course, but that is natural. Would our voices work together, that sort of thing. But from the first time I sang with her, I felt very comfortable. And really I just wanted her to feel comfortable, valued and welcome, which I believe she did. People work to their best when it’s a relaxed atmosphere like that. It pretty much worked out how I had hoped, to be honest. The final result is so good, it’d be daft to question it.
OS: There are some really beautiful duets on the album. How was it singing with James? What different considerations do you have when singing with a partner as opposed to on your own?
NP: I already felt that we have a similar approach to singing, we’re not equilibrists but we sing quite plainly and want the story and the emotion to be in center. We met once before making the record just to make sure we didn’t clash completely as people and singers and it was great. Our voices really seemed to blend well and we had similar sensibility for when to step in and out and give way for one another.
OS: Outside of Karl-Jonas, the other members of the Second Hand Orchestra hadn’t heard the compositions before arriving at the studio. You expressed faith in them really bringing life and dimension to the songs, what were some of your favorite moments from the recordings for how that materialized?
JY: Probably in The Heavy Lyric Police, when Lina Langendorf suddenly introduced freeform sax into the choruses. Such a buzz for us all. And then, when Daniel began recording the drum kit in the stairwell, to introduce that cavernous reverb… or Peter’s extraordinary guitar solo in Keeping Up with the Grandchildren, yeah… or just about everything anyone did on any of the songs. It’s a joyful thing, recording an album fresh with so many amazing musicians.
OS: This album wasn’t initially conceived as a followup to the previous album with the Second Hand Orchestra, does this album further solidify the project for future releases?
JY: Who knows? We’ll just have to wait and see what happens next, how busy people are, what type of material I’m writing, that sort of thing. I’d love to work with them all again, but life can sometimes have other plans…
OS: You’ve also just published your second novel with The Book of the Gaels. Do you think any of that project, or the headspace you were in when writing it, affected the music on The Great White Sea Eagle? Particularly, I was thinking of the spoken word title track.
JY: Writing prose definitely helps the songs. I believe any kind of writing does so, any sort of creative outlet. The important thing is to write, or create, and not to edit as you go, save the editing for a rainy day. And some days I just want to write prose, when I have no desire to sculpt songs… the two disciplines offer me choice.
OS: How do you think your geography and regular surroundings seep their way into the music you create?
JY: This is a question I have been asked a lot, over the last twenty years. I used to say No, that it didn’t affect what I write, but it must do. The peace and quiet of my surrounds do get in there, somehow. And I doubt I’d be writing about forests and beaches if I lived in an inner city somewhere. Or maybe I would be, but it’d be from a different viewpoint, for sure.
OS: How have the shows been going? In what ways does performing these songs live add new dimension?
NP: I really love it. I have always dreamed of getting to come on tour as a backing singer just to get to sing without also having the full burden of being entertaining and making sure the audience is happy.
JY: They’re a huge amount of fun. So many incredible, exploratory musicians on stage at one time. There’s always bits of music creeping through that I have no idea who’s playing… Shows like that are valuable, and it makes the tours feel like some kind of gang holiday, with a chance in the evening for everyone to show-off, or to “flex” as Nina would say…