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Salty Little Scenes

09 January 2023, 16:00

In The Great White Sea Eagle, James Yorkston and Nina Persson have made a wonderfully loose and bighearted record. They talk to Alan Pedder about the moments and ideas they shared along the way.

It’s St. Lucia’s Day in Sweden, and Nina Persson is on the hunt for some vegan lussebullar, the traditional deep-yellow saffron buns that the country goes wild for every December.

The buns are for James Yorkston, who will soon join her in Stockholm and Malmö to make the Swedish live debut of The Great White Sea Eagle, a charismatic collaboration between the two musicians and Swedish collective The Second Hand Orchestra.

For now, though, Yorkston is alone in a cheerless hotel room just off a motorway on the edge of Birmingham city centre. “Wow, it’s really awful,” he says, laughing as he shows us the rain-lashed view of a busy roundabout right outside his window, the glare from their headlights intruding into the room.

“I can’t complain,” he adds, pulling himself up. “I love the gigs in Birmingham, but I wouldn’t want to live in this particular hotel. If that’s okay.” Surrounded by shelves of books in the study of her high-ceilinged apartment in Malmö, Persson grins into the camera. “Yeah, I think we can fix that for you.”

There’s a lovely, easy friendship between the two musicians that belies the fact that they haven’t really known each other long. Although Persson has worked with many of Yorkston’s contemporaries over the years, outside of her role in The Cardigans, his music had somehow flown under her radar. “It is weird that I had missed out on his acquaintance, both musically and in person,” she says. “He’s been all over the place.”

For his part, Yorkston had been only loosely aware of Persson’s work since the early ‘90s, when he and his Edinburgh housemates got heavily into the second Cardigans album, Life. “I knew that album really, really well, and they were our favourite band for a while,” he says. “It reminded me a bit of Astrud Gilberto. It had this really slinky kind of guitar playing and the extraordinary vocals. But my interest has always been more in traditional music, so I didn’t particularly follow Nina’s career after that” Of course, I’d hear the huge hits and think, ‘Oh, this is amazing. It’s great that band is doing so well.’ I just loved her voice.”

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The idea to get Persson on board came from Karl Jonas ‘KJ’ Winqvist, ringleader of The Second Hand Orchestra and owner of Swedish indie label Sing-A-Song-Fighter. Having hit on a winning formula with their previous collaboration 2021’s The Wide, Wide Sea – Yorkston wrote the songs alone then went into the studio with the band without most of them having heard a note in advance – everyone involved was eager to do more. But rather than just repeat the previous setup, KJ was enthusiastic about bringing a second vocalist on board and emailed Yorkston a list of names.

“Everyone on the list that I knew of was amazing, but I felt I had an actual connection with Nina because I had known one of her records off by heart,” he says. “She was the only one I asked, and there’s no way I would have done it if KJ hadn’t suggested her. I usually feel pretty comfortable with people I admire, but you don’t want to knock on people’s doors and try and sell them cookies. I wouldn’t have wanted her to think, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’”

For all its extra star power, The Great White Sea Eagle isn’t a statement record. There’s no grand concept. Indeed, there’s no conceit at all. It’s simply a collection of lovely, lamp-lit melodies couched in loosely-fitted folk songs – the product of a writing and recording process that seems to have been wholly without ego. “It was a hugely relaxed and joyous thing,” says Yorkston, nodding. “It was just a question of allowing everyone’s creativity to flow through the songs, and to give everyone the freedom to do whatever they wanted.”

Produced by Daniel Bengtsson – who also plays in The Second Hand Orchestra alongside KJ, Peter Morén of Peter, Björn and John, and Emma Nordenstam (sister of Stina), among others – the album explores familiar themes of family life, the great outdoors, and the ups and downs of getting older, but rarely in familiar frames. There’s a wonderful tension between plainness and strangeness at work across the record, served triumphantly by the tandem vocals, each idiosyncratic in their own way.

As we dive into the questions, the two friends are hashing out the last few details for the promo trip ahead. “Do I need to get my hair cut?” asks Yorkston when the threat of a potential TV spot is raised. Persson grins and gestures to the world beyond the screen. “You know what, James? You’re gonna want to keep your hat on all the time because it’s gonna be so cold. Just keep your beard growing and you’ll be fine.”

BEST FIT: Nina, I know you get a lot of requests to sing on other people’s songs. What excited you about the demos that James sent over? What made you want to work on this record?

NINA PERSSON: Sometimes people send over a completely seamless pop song production and be like, ‘Hey, can you add vocals on this?’ And often that doesn’t really spark anything in me, necessarily, even if it’s a fantastic song.

The demos I got from James were totally up my alley. They were just so direct. Really nice words, sort of plain but touching melodies, and a vocal timbre that really spoke to me. It was simply something that moved me and that made feel like there was a point for me to get involved.

I also felt like it would be fun, because James and KJ were actually inviting me to come into the studio and do live recordings, rather than adding vocals remotely. Getting to be there for the recording sessions with the whole band made it feel like I was a co-creator of these songs, in some way. I was excited to be playing along in the moment, and somewhat curious too.

You've both worked with all kinds of people during your careers. Has the process of making this record taught you anything new about the art of collaboration?

JAMES YORKSTON: I don't know if it taught me anything new, but it was certainly very joyous. It reminded me of way back in the early days, when I made two albums with a band called The Athletes. We were all quite young and some of us were slightly worse for wear, and we were all a bit nervous.

Fast forward 20 years and I’m making this album as an older gentleman, and it was just a huge amount of fun with Nina and all these incredible musicians accompanying us. When I’m working on the Yorkston/Thorne/Khan albums, it’s great but it’s quite studious because we’re working on north Indian classical music sometimes and I don’t want to be the guy who fucks it up. Making this record was just a very free-flowing and joyous experience.

Going back to the improvisational aspect, Nina, have you worked like that much in the past?

NINA PERSSON: I mean, there's always some level of improvisation when you're sort of playing around in the studio. In The Cardigans, we’d always kind of mess around until we figured out what we were going to do. So in that sense it’s sort of a rehearsal, and it feels free, but then comes the moment when you press record and then you have to stick to what you’ve decided.

For this record, I think we started recording from the beginning and just kept recording, take after take, until we felt we had parts that we all liked. Then we’d do a couple more takes and, you know, that was that. So that was a new way of working for me, and it has carried on into the live shows, too, in a way. Every show we’ve done so far has been very different from each other.

For me, it’s been really great to be more aware of the listening aspect when playing live. I’ve been so used to an environment in which you keep the form of the song and it’s kind of fixed in time.

Were the songs already changing when you toured together in the autumn?

JAMES YORKSTON: Completely. I mean this in a good way, but there are some real characters in the band, and you wouldn’t want to hold them back in any way, you know?

There have been some great moments on stage where people just decided to do something unexpected. I’d be playing the piano or singing and there’d be a noise coming out of nowhere that I’d never heard before. It gives the band this lovely, rolling kind of feel. It’s like no one quite knows what they’re doing but everyone knows exactly what they’re doing. Everyone knows they have this space to experiment and to go off in different directions.

NINA PERSSON: My whole life I’ve been secretly longing for someone to ask me to go on tour with them as a backup singer or whatever. To be able to simply just sing and enjoy it, and to enjoy watching the band.

As a lead singer, when you don’t play an instrument, it can be very physically exposing and it gets a little lonely sometimes. When the band are all behind me, it’s hard for me to even look them in the eyes. So it’s been awesome to be up there and enjoying seeing people’s faces, to watch James, and to enjoy the audiences’ reactions.

One defining part of the sound of the record is that the songs were originally written on piano rather than guitar, which gives them a different feel. Is that shift something you had been thinking about for a while, James?

JAMES YORKSTON: Well, it’s because of a small series of events. I was renting an old garage that I was using as a studio for maybe 3 years – I recorded my album The Route to the Harmonium in that garage – but I got kicked out because, basically, the roof was falling in. Literally. One more storm and that roof was coming in. So I had to get out.

I posted on Facebook asking if anyone had a studio space I could use, and an actor friend of mine offered a room in their house in exchange for keeping an eye on the place. This was during the pandemic, and they were stuck elsewhere. So I ended up moving my studio into their house for 18 months or so. It was overlooking the sea, and the room had a piano in it. That’s the main reason I went to it, because it was the first time in my life I had easy access to a piano.

So much of what I do is following the path of least resistance. Because, well, why not? I don't really want to struggle to write songs, you know? I'd rather just go down the path and see where it leads to. Also, I started playing acoustic guitar when I was 25 or something, and because I’ve been doing it for so long I do sometimes feel like I’ve done the same thing over and over.

Writing on the piano felt very open and inviting. It was all brand new. There was no voice saying, ‘Oh, you’ve done this, you’ve done that.’ It all felt fresh, and I really enjoyed that.

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How about you, Nina? Do you relate to that in some way?

NINA PERSSON: Yeah, I mean, as a vocalist, there's only so much I can do except for dive into new types of material and work with new people. I guess that’s my way of expanding, to just keep doing new things like this project.

I also think absence is great for singing. It’s really good to cleanse myself of impressions and manners, and that speaks to me as a lazy person, very much.

You recently dipped into singing jazz for a short tour with Martin Hederos and Nils Berg in Sweden. Is that something you’re going to be doing more of in the future?

NINA PERSSON: I don’t know. I really loved doing it, because I love Martin and Nils, who are fantastic, and I feel like I would do anything again with them. But I also feel like I don’t have to dress it up as jazz. It’s one thing that people have sort of been encouraging me to do, and I couldn’t just turn it down without having tried it.

Now that I have, I feel like I can say no, it’s not my thing. All I want to do is to sort of cut out all the [noodly jazz noises] and to straighten out all the harmonies. Like, all I want to do is to go in there and destroy the jazz.

James, it is true that you avoided all the sharps and flats when writing the songs? That you just stuck purely to the white notes?

JAMES YORKSTON: Well, if you hit the white notes, it just seems to sound in tune [laughs].

Honestly, I only know the basics of the keyboard. Like, I know what a C chord is. But beyond that, I’m not very good at it. I don’t want to be one of those guys who says, ‘I don’t understand music, I’m just a natural,’ but when I’m in the studio with The Second Hand Orchestra and they know all the notation and everything… well, I’ve never been any good with that, so for me it’s just about the songs.

I think that approach really lends a sense of brightness to the album. It almost sounds Christmassy in parts. I’m thinking particularly of the song “An Upturned Crab”.

JAMES YORKSTON: I also think the song “Mary” really sounds like Christmas. It just has that really lovely back and forth kind of feel that I associate with the sound of Christmas. But it’s certainly not the kind of Christmas song you hear in the supermarket, which often just sound like the writer is desperate for a hit.

"My whole life I’ve been secretly longing for someone to ask me to go on tour with them as a backup singer."

There’s a perception that with Swedish music in particular there’s often this combination of very strong, bright melodies with not so happy lyrics, and it seemed to me that some of The Great White Sea Eagle does sort of operate in that tradition. I don’t know if you would agree with that in any way.

NINA PERSSON: That's what we've always been told that we're doing in The Cardigans. It’s supposedly something Swedish when people analyse it, so it might be true. It’s hard for me to say.

JAMES YORKSTON: I can kind of see that. It does feel like an optimistic album.

It’s a funny thing, making a record, as Nina obviously knows and I’m sure you yourself can imagine. You write the song, you demo the song, and it takes a while to even get to the stage where you’re in the studio and recording the song. Then comes the mixing and choosing the final versions. Then the sequencing, the mastering, and listening to the masters.

So, you know, I’ve listened to that song “An Upturned Crab” hundreds of times, and I still love it. I still absolutely love the album, and at this stage it’s not always like that. I don't want to shoot all my other stuff down because I love it – I’m talking maybe one song once every blue moon – but with this new one, I just think it’s a really well sequenced, well balanced album, and a delight to listen to.

At the same time, I don’t expect it’s going to be turning many heads or anything like that. It’s just another beautiful, beautiful record. There’s a lot of beautiful records out there.

You’ve talked a bit before about the dark humour in your songs, and I feel like that’s something that’s also quite present in The Cardigans’ music, and also in your solo stuff, Nina. Is that something you feel you both share, a similar sense of humour?

NINA PERSSON: I'm drawn to it, and it’s something I appreciated in James’s lyrics, and in his personality. He’s very funny. He’s someone that I enjoy being around, and I think his is a good, comforting sense of humour.

JAMES YORKSTON: I don’t try and sneak dark humour into my songs, it’s just the way they come out sometimes. But certainly, between myself and Nina and the band, there was a lot of laughter.

You mentioned the album sequencing earlier, and I wanted to ask about the song that kicks off the record, “Sam and Jeanie McGreagor”, which is quite an unusual opener. It’s kind of cryptic, kind of heavy. Can you talk a bit about where that song comes from?

JAMES YORKSTON: There was a period in my life, quite a long time ago, where one of my children was extremely ill and we were sort of tied to the hospital for 3 years or something. They are fine now, but I did find that lots of very old friends just completely dropped off the radar. It was that thing where people just didn’t know what to do or to say, and some would even cross the road rather than speak to us. That was very upsetting, and it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t really leave you.

I spent a lot of time with my son, and we go on huge, long walks together. We are always laughing and joking and making up songs together, so there’s always this flowing kind of creative state. On one of those walks we were in a park where there’s a bench that says, ‘In memory of Sam and Jeanie McGregor,’ and that became a song. I just thought it was such a lovely pairing of names, and I used the song to sort of describe the situation I had found myself in all those years ago, but from the other point of view.

When Nina started singing it, it just gave the song so much more weight. Especially when she sings the line, “James, Sam needed you.” At first I was like, ‘Why would you put something like that on the album?’. It seemed like a foolish thing to do. But the more I listened to it, the more I liked it as an opening song. Maybe it’s because I’m not on it, but there were so many reasons to keep it that way.

NINA PERSSON: I think it's really nice to start a record with a song that doesn't have an intro, that just goes boldly into the story. And quite a bold story, too, I think. I want to describe it as punk, but either way it's wonderful. A sort of harsh beginning, I like that.

JAMES YORKSTON: I think it is punk. Punk, to me, was always about doing your own thing, and that's pretty much what I've tried to do all the way through my career. Maybe punk is a word that people take too literally, but I take it to mean just a very free and open way of working.

It makes sense to me. I mentioned “An Upturned Crab” earlier, which has a chorus about missing key moments of your kids’ lives because of work. I guess that’s something you both can relate to.

NINA PERSSON: Oh, a lot. I certainly haven’t toured as much as James after having my son, but I have still been travelling a lot and so has my husband. How do you sort of justify that? How do you talk about it in a song?

I really thought it was nice to have a song that talks about something that feels very current. I really appreciate there was a time when all I wrote about was rough love, being brokenhearted and all that. But, obviously, we are at a different stage in life now, and it felt really interesting to be able to sing about this kind of middle-aged issue and to have it still be sort of intriguing.

I’ve been thinking that I really need to look into the newest Hot Chip record, because there’s a song that goes, “Ain't it hard to be funky when you're not feeling sexy?” Suddenly, it’s like I really want to hear what people have to say at our point in life, when they’re not trying to sound too sensible or to be too much like [adopts serious tone] ‘This is what I’ve learned.’

JAMES YORKSTON: I think that's a great breakthrough point as a songwriter, when you realise that you can write about that stuff. For me, personally, the most interesting songwriters are those who write about those small moments in life, like Lal Waterson. Obviously, a lot of the songs in the folk tradition are like that. They tell stories.

But then the danger of singing songs about an upturned crab is that you're not going to get many teenage kids into your music. [disgusted teenager voice] What’s this old man singing about?

There are definitely some advantages to getting older. Nina, it seems to me like you have reached a point where you are only doing the things you want to do and that you find interesting. Projects that are very different from what your fans might expect. Do you feel a lot freer in your expression now?

NINA PERSSON: Yes, I do. And of course I also feel like I have this privilege of being able to do only what I want, and not what the market would be hoping for me to do or asking me to do.

JAMES YORKSTON: What do you think the market would want you to do?

NINA PERSSON: The market wants me to do a lot. But they especially want me to go on TV and on the radio so that I can sell more copies. Maybe you know the Swedish TV show Så mycket bättre? It’s a show where artists old and new come on and do cover versions of each other’s songs. It’s hugely popular, and a lot of people who’ve been on it have really had a boost in their careers.

Every year since it started, I’ve had someone asking me to be on the show. This year I had own my record company wanting to have a meeting about it. It’s like they have a five-year plan for me, and it’s always based around doing that show. Like, first I make a record accompanied with the TV show, then we make a new Cardigans record, and then I do a solo record in Swedish, and then, and then…

I had that exact meeting a couple of years back, and I was about ready to kill myself. That's the perfect way to approach me and make me never want to talk to anybody ever again.

JAMES YORKSTON: Yeah, you were twitching as you said that.

NINA PERSSON: [laughs] You see? I feel a bit of rage there. But I think I might also be second guessing and showing my prejudice. It might very well be that if I made a record, I would be very happy that the market would like it. But I am a little burned, I think, from having been in that game before.

JAMES YORKSTON: It must be a very strange situation as an artist, where there is a huge wave of expectation. I think one of the things that I appreciate most about never really having a fluke hit is that the only real expectation is that I just carry on doing my own thing. I’ve just been able to concentrate on the art, and that, for me, has been hugely, hugely valuable.

NINA PERSSON: I do feel like the last years have been super rewarding, because even though I haven’t made a record I feel like everything I’ve done has felt like the right thing. People have totally shown up and people have expressed that they liked what I’ve been doing, so I don't really feel a huge need to go down any other path. I'm loving my work.

"So much of what I do is following the path of least resistance. I don't really want to struggle to write songs, you know?"

Let's talk about “A Sweetness in You”, which I gather you wrote, James, while thinking about your friend Scott Hutchison from Frightened Rabbit. It tells a story in a way that you don’t often hear in songs. To speak about depression and the suicide of a friend, and to frame it in the way that you do, is quite special, I think. Was it a hard one to write?

JAMES YORKSTON: I try not to say no to anything in the studio, and I feel exactly the same about lyrics when I’m writing songs. There’s a phrase I use a lot when I’m talking to people, which is to trust yourself as a writer but also trust yourself as an editor. While you’re writing, just keep it going and don’t stop. Try to stay in a free flow, and you can go back to edit it later if you need to.

So, “A Sweetness in You” wasn’t particularly hard to write. I didn’t sit down at the piano and think, ‘I’m going to write a song about Scott today. It was just hours of writing and somehow my feelings for Scott and for the situation came out. You know, I can absolutely understand why people commit suicide. I can understand, 100%. And it’s a tricky thing to talk to your children about.

NINA PERSSON: We had a good friend kill himself and it was a horrible event in our lives. But it was also at the exact same time that we found out that we had gotten pregnant finally, on the third attempt of IVF, so it was a really weird situation to have those contrasting feelings.

When our son was born we gave him our friend’s name as his middle name. It felt like a really important to do for us, but later we realised we really had to talk to our son about this person and what happened to him. So that line in the song, “Do I tell my children that life isn’t for everyone?”, I find really striking.

What made ‘Hold Out For Love’ stand out for you as the first single?

JAMES YORKSTON: I just wrote that in the car as we were travelling to a café, and then when I got home I recorded a demo very quickly and sent it to Laurence [Bell], who’s the head of Domino Records. The album was finished at that point, as far as I and everyone else thought, but Laurence thought it was a really good, quite catchy song that we should maybe put on the album.

It’s such a simple, undemanding song, and it kind of reminds me of a gospel or blues song. Just very simple, not overthought. And it reminds me of that kind of pop music, too.

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At the opposite end we have the title track, which is a very atmospheric, spoken-word piece that talks about that time when your kid was ill. Obviously, as you said before, an experience like that stays with you for a long time. Do you feel like it’s something you will always write about, because it was so profoundly changing?

JAMES YORKSTON: Yeah. As I was saying before, I wasn’t thinking about writing these things, they just came out. And I think that does show how much of this stuff does hang around in people’s consciousness for years, even decades afterwards. Not just for me, for everyone.

I remember the day I write about in the song very clearly, and in fact I go back to that forest quite a lot now with my son. The last time we were there we saw a buzzard in the trees, which is a much smaller bird of prey than a great white sea eagle, but it really reminded me of the whole experience.

I wrote “The Great White Sea Eagle” as a piece of prose and I was very happy with it. If I had sat down and thought, ‘I’m going to write about that event,’ and especially if I knew I was then going to present it to a bunch of Swedish musicians, I think it would have been an impossible thing to do. But because I approach everything I do without that fear, because I know that no one ever has to hear it, the story was able to be written.

It was great to record it with The Second Hand Orchestra and Nina. Everyone knew what to do, and what not to do. I think it would have been very easy to crush a piece of work like that with too many ideas, but, as it was, everyone was happy to sort of be in the background.

There’s Nina singing harmonies, Emma’s beautiful cello playing and Peter’s guitar adding a sort of sadness and atmosphere. I think it’s a lovely piece of work, and I hope that when people hear it they can feel the emotion behind the story.

The Great White Sea Eagle is out 13 January via Domino Records. A 13-date UK tour follows, starting 31 January in Fife.

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