Making an emotional connection - Folk, jazz and electropop collide for Yorkston Thorne Khan
It seems apt that Yorkston Thorne Khan are choosing the Celtic Connections festival to launch their third album. However, James Yorkston isn’t so sure.
“I’d think it would be one of the worst to actually sell,” he smiles. “Jazz double bass, classical Indian sarangi player plus guitar?”
“I suppose it does fit very well for Celtic Connections,” he concedes, “but for me I’m just pleased I’ve got a band that’s unique as (modern folk combos) Lau and Lankum; a band that can stand up alongside all those and be just as creative and interesting and just as new.”
Indeed, Yorkston is the ‘Celtic’ part of this act – although very much a songwriter, he is regarded by many as (alt.) folk royalty – a founding father of the Anstruther-based Fence Collective, he’s also known for his own renditions of much older tunes.
However, although the new YTK release includes a take on Robert Burns’ anti-hunt poem ‘Now Westlin Winds’, Yorkston has cut his reinterpretations of traditionalScottish folk from his solo sets.
“I’m not a traditional folk musician in any way,” he insists. “I play what I like… I like Erasure so I play Erasure songs…
“But if I do Erasure covers on every album people will say ‘he’s the Erasure covers guy’” points out the singer, who actually got to work with electronic legend Vince Clarke last year.
The Fifer is (geographically) quite far removed from his current bandmates – bassist Thorne, and Khan, an eighth-generation musician from New Delhi, who provide that certain ‘something’ that Celtic Connections thrives on, the annual multi-cultural event showcasing Scotland’s wide range of musical influence.
It also offers a chance to showcase the trio’s third long-player, ‘Navarasa: Nine Emotions’ – these ranging from Shringara (love, beauty) through Hasya (laughter), to Shanta (peace). Although it’s not concept album, at least not in the traditional sense.
“The ‘concept’ came during the writing process, “ explains Jon Thorne. “We already had the materials and Suhail introduced the idea.” Khan also brought his “amazing” playing of his classical Indian string instrument, as well as adding to the mutual admiration.
With Thorne living on the Isle of Wight, the trio’s writing process is as unconventional as the music they make.
“We all write individually – which is difficult as Suhail’s currently in New York and James is in Scotland and I’m here – then we improv when we get in a room and see how things progress,” Thorne explains.
However, the free-and-easy writing process is far from being a chore. “After not having seen each other, no matter how far apart or how long, it’s like putting your favourite pair of shoes on,” he smiles.
“And no two gigs are the same – that’s one of the joys of playing with this band.”
“We all love different styles of improv music and that’s what allows it to work,” Yorkston agrees, “John is so into jazz and Suhail’s been learning sarangi since he was two years old so his knowledge of Indian classical music is vast, and I make stuff up… it’s an incredible thing, but I don’t think after this we’re going to do a collaborative album with Rick Astley.”
Thorne has a Celtic Connection of his own – a couple of degrees of separation via folk legend John Martyn take us to his go-to bassist, Danny Thompson.
“He’s the reason why I bought a double bass in the first place,” says Thorne of the man he describes as his ”mentor”.
“What he taught me more than anything was to take prejudice out of music and keep an open mind” – this attitude seeing the bassist working most notably with electronic hitmakers Lamb to more recently with revered folkie Kathryn Williams.
This approach also serves his current outfit well.
“It’s so different from the world I’m used to,” says Yorkston, “and it’s an absolute luxury – I don’t really understand what’s going on half the time, but we all bring compositions and we kind of meld together.
“It shouldn’t really work, but it does.”