Tuesday, 29 December 2009

48. Surf Song, James Yorkston (2004)

A rainy day in Anstruther, a quiet fishing village on the southern lip of Fife, a bag of vinegary chips on a car bonnet. It doesn't look like mid-summer, and the haar – the Scottish sea-mist – is rolling in forcefully, into our hair, onto our buttoned coats, onto our cold, white faces. James Yorkston is laughing between bites of warm potato, taking me on a little tour of the lovely seaside town where he comes from, to where he has just moved back, telling me not to tell his wife what he had for his dinner. Later, we'll nip to the pub and meet her, heavily pregnant and smiling like a Cheshire cat, at the end of an art fair in nearby Pittenweem, and I think this isn't the way that interviews are supposed to be, but I'm glad that it is – and also how lovely it is to find out that a person who wrote one of your favourite songs of the last ten years is a gentleman, a scholar and a sweetheart.

The first time I heard James Yorkston, I was with Scottish Jude. She had come down from Dunfermline with her red hair and her blue eyes, all shyness and silliness, breaking hearts without knowing it. At first, we were like two sharp-clawed kittens, and then we became friends, and then she moved into the Green Lanes flat I shared with Welsh Dan, on the corner of Clissold Park, full of glitterballs hanging off kitchen cupboards, empty bottles in the fruit box, and drying racks baubled with different coloured underwear.

I remember Jude's CDs tinkling through the kitchen, and James Yorkston's being my favourite, especially a track called Surf Song which shone out at me like a lamp from a lighthouse, bathing me in its beam. It was like all my favourite songs – simple and everyday, but full of tiny details that held a curious loveliness within them – beginning in the quiet corner of a quiet harbour bar, and a conversation between a boy and a girl getting to know each other.

"You told me of your life, and what had brought you here/And we watched the evening tide", he sings, the air alive and electric. Then the atmosphere grows gradually, builds to a fever. "You asked me of my past/And I told you all the truths/I kept hidden inside/What did I have to lose?" – those last six tiny words saying such huge things.

And then come the words that get me every time. "You said you would not hear/Of my life spent with some lady/Who cut deep in my heart/When you'd barely even scratched me" – then that pause – "but I smile and say it's early days."

We two Judes went to see James play soonafter, and at the end of the show I ran up to the stage, bolstered by a misty heart, wet eyes and many plastic pints of cider. I told him how great he'd been, adding for some reason or other that my friend was from Dunfermline which was, you know, quite near to where he was from. James thanked me politely but shyly, desperately trying to hide from a mad, drunken fan, I'd wager – especially because I'd also told him how I loved the lyric about the woman taking off all her clothes and diving into the sea, the photos he'd took of her, and how he joined her in the surf. Three years later, I didn't remind James of the time I'd embarrassed myself, but I did tell him how much I loved Surf Song, and he was happy to hear it. Away from the stage, and on comfortable home soil, he knew the message was meant.

And in the Guinness-fugged evening that followed I remember a friend of his telling me how good James' wife had been for him, how he had suffered sadness in his past, and how she had pushed him on. It made me think of Surf Song again, the way it described those moments in our lives when we know that everything is on the brink of sudden, massive change; how we are, out of nowhere, on the edge of a precipice; and how that realisation feels. When I left the next morning, James texted a lovely, sweet thank you for the interview, and I wished him and his wife luck for the birth of their baby, hoping that Surf Song was about the two of them.

A month later, my phone bleeped with a text telling me their baby had been born. The next April, I was back in Scotland to review the Homegame Festival, and there they were, his two girls, his little daughter gaga-ing happily as her dad played us a song on his banjo in Anstruther Town Hall, standing proudly before the cream buns and teacups, smiling broadly at her. It was a simple, perfect moment, and after the gig finished, I went back to the seafront, now bright and blue, and thought about what music can capture, and what it can do. I felt the haar rolling out as I did so, and the sun pouring in.


  1. Just beautiful! I have just discovered "Surf Song" , a lovely song.
    I contacted James for help with the chords, and he generously replied and sent me an email with help on how to play it.
    A gentleman indeed!