Chosen One: Adrian Crowley & James Yorkston
Interview with Adrian Crowley.
on my wall
on my wall
the colors are bright
bright as ever
the red is strong
the blue is true
some things last a long time
some things last a long time”
—Daniel Johnston, ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’
Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry
Last December marked the release of a special collaborative mini-album between Adrian Crowley and James Yorkston, on the Glasgow-based independent label Chemikal Underground. The much-loved and highly acclaimed singer-songwriters have joined forces to re-interpret the songs of American songwriting luminary Daniel Johnston. ‘My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston’ is a special dedication to the cult American songwriter that brings to mind the similarly affecting covers album ‘The Covers Record’ by Cat Power. A parallel exists between the intimacy and purity of Marshall’s interpretation of ‘Sea Of Love’ (traditional), Lou Reed’s ‘I Found A Reason’, ‘Red Apples’ (Bill Callahan), amongst many others and Yorkston and Crowley’s immaculate renditions of Johnston’s beguiling songbook, including ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’, ‘Like A Monkey In A Zoo’ and ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’.
I fondly recall the moment I first heard the music of James Yorkston. The source of the musical discovery came from my trusted independent music radio program on 2FM, hosted by Jay Ahern – the attentive silence enveloped the room as the static of the radio would transport me to the far reaches of my mind – one Sunday night in early Spring. The year was 2002. This became the year that I developed my obsession with music (there was no coming back from this, I thought) as a song entitled ‘Sweet Jesus’ surfaced beautifully on the airwaves, the gorgeous songbook of Yorkston opened up a whole new world of meaning and possibilities. The debut album ‘Moving Up Country’ – recorded with Yorkston’s formidable band, The Athletes – is one of those utterly timeless folk albums that remains one of my favourite of the Fife-native’s rich body of work. The distinctive baritone shared by Crowley and Yorkston, would serve a reliable companion to the many seasons that subsequently passed, all those years later.
I struggle to pinpoint the moment I first heard Adrian Crowley’s music. Similar to the albums of Bill Callahan (my treasured Smog records such as ‘Knock Knock’, ‘Red Apple Falls’ and ‘Dongs of Sevotion’), the arrival of a new Crowley record would forever be wrapped in a special sense of (long-awaited) discovery. The spell cast by the Irish singer-songwriter’s poetic lyrics and distinctive baritone has remained a trusted constant over the last decade or so, and with each new addition, one is left to revel in its marvel and truly appreciate the creator’s genius. The most recent albums, such as ‘Season Of The Sparks’, ‘Long Distance Swimmer’ and last year’s ‘I See Three Birds Flying’ shows a songwriting talent in full-flight, unleashing artistic treasures with each turn of phrase and heavenly chord progression.
Themes such as longing, unrequited love, pain, torment and internal struggle lie at the heart of Johnston’s deeply affecting songbook. The choice of Johnston songs and running order of Crowley and Yorkston’s collaboration – where each song is wonderfully interchanged between Crowley and Yorkston – creates an enriching journey into the heart of Johnston’s world of song. The album begins with the achingly beautiful ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ (a song I first heard many moons ago, performed live by Jason Pierce and Spiritualized), containing the splendid baritone of Crowley, alone at his piano, and a selection of found sounds (the whistling wind and audio excerpts) adding to the wonderful spontaneity of these recordings. ‘My Yoke Is Heavy’ contains the sublime vocals of Yorkston and the soft strum of acoustic guitar, alongside a plethora of delicate sounds (harmonium and field recordings). A sense of loneliness prevails throughout the “dark deep gloom” of one of many Johnston’s tower of songs: “Your shadow knows / It’s right behind you all the way / Your shadow knows just where you’ve been.”
The intricate arrangement of ‘Hold The Hand’ containing piano, delicate woodwind and Crowley’s mesmerising baritone is one of the album’s highlights. On a later verse, a section of majestic harmonies further heightens the song’s quavering power: “I was on MTV / Everybody was looking at me / I held a hand of the devil.” The piano notes makes way for the folk tale of ‘Like A Monkey In A Zoo’ (one of my all-time favourite Johnston songs) where a sense of urgency and torment engulf the vocals of Yorkston. The instrumentation is enhanced by the addition of percussion and the sounds of chirping birds that brings to mind a vivid sense of child-like innocence and purity (often embedded within the songs of Daniel Johnston).
Side B opens with the stunningly beautiful ballad ‘The Sun Shines Down On Me’ with Crowley on vocals. One of the album’s defining moments arrives when Crowley sings “I’m walking down the lonely road” on the first verse as a torn heart is laid bare. The immediacy of Crowley’s voice transports you to the aching core of a broken heart. A ray of hope is forged on the “empty road” that lies ahead: “And I’m getting closer to hope / That I can carry and take home with me.” The instrumentation of organ serves the ideal sonic backdrop to Crowley’s fragile vocal that brings me back to the Irish songwriter’s touching cover of The Velvet Underground’s ‘The Ocean’ – dedicated to the memory of the late great Lou Reed – performed by Crowley alone on guitar on his recent Irish tour.
Church bells are the opening tones of ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievance’. Yorkston’s baritone and guitar is joined by an array of chimes, percussion and backing harmonies. What follows next is the album’s penultimate track – and another song steeped in moments of unfathomable beauty – led by Crowley’s baritone and divine accompaniment of guitar and piano. The voice of Crowley effortlessly melts into the ceaseless flow of piano notes and rhythmic guitar notes. The opening verse evokes a vivid sense of longing: “Try to remember / But my feelings can’t know for sure / I tried to reach out / But it’s gone.” As Crowley sings “lucky stars in your eyes”, one feels the sheer magic dispelled by a song’s brilliance. Yorkston’s formidable recording of ‘Some Things Last A Long Time’ serves the fitting close to a remarkable album and loving tribute to the songwriting genius of Daniel Johnston. The song gradually builds into a haven of celestial sounds as Yorkston’s voice comes closer into focus towards the closing moments. Not only is ‘My Yoke Is Heavy’ a fitting tribute to the work of Daniel Johnston but a joyous celebration of the art of songwriting. Some things last a lifetime.
“And when you wake up in the morning
You’ll have a brand new feeling
And you’ll find yourself healing
So don’t let the sun go down on your grievance.”
‘My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston’ is available now on Chemikal Underground.
Interview with Adrian Crowley.
What is it precisely about Daniel Johnston’s music that drew you to his songbook in the first place? Can you recount your first time coming across the music of Daniel Johnston?
When I lived in France a number of years ago, I used to spend a lot of time with two friends of mine there. They had a massive record collection and I’d sit on the floor of their little cottage which had a nice courtyard, and we’d listen to record after record. Sometimes I’d sit their and play their guitar too. I discovered a lot of music in those couple of years. I think that’s where I first heard the music of Daniel Johnston. Either in that cottage or from a cassette — a mix tape they made for me. The raw beauty, fragility and, at once, the power. I hadn’t really heard a sound like that before. Also I got the chills.
I read that the inception of this beautiful project began in 2006 when you performed at London’s The Barbican as part of a Daniel Johnston tribute concert which coincided with the release of ‘The Devil And Daniel Johnston’, the film by Jeff Feuerzeig. The film is undoubtedly a genuinely moving and truly life-affirming film and portrait of Daniel Johnston. I would love if you could recount your own memories of seeing the film and your feelings about it. As a music fan, I remember being really moved by it, but I can only imagine that, for you – as a musician and songwriter – it must have been a hugely affecting experience for you?
Yes, well James was asked to participate and soon after he called on me to join him and also asked a friend of ours Emma Smith to play violin. I don’t think James relished the idea of going out on that big stage all by himself and basically kicking off the show. I was thrilled to be involved. I worked out some spacey guitar parts but then a few minutes before we went onstage I remember being told that I was expected to sing also. Emma gave me a good pep talk and I decided to go for it. It worked out fine but it could easily have gone the other way. That was my first time actually singing those songs and it was in front of about two thousand people…
It has been seven years since I saw the film. But yes, I do remember being very moved. I was particularly marked by the reflections of Daniel’s father. That moment in the film, in particular, when he was telling the story of the light aircraft crash when D decided it would be a good idea to snatch the keys from the ignition and throw them out the window. The love for his son and the cycle of heartache that he lived through was palpable.
What I loved about it the film also is how that sense of ‘community’ present in the independent music scene is very strongly evident. It must be a special feeling bringing this album into the world, knowing that it will undoubtedly introduce plenty of people to the music of Daniel Johnston’s?
I hope that it would help at least introduce a few more people to his songs, certainly. But it is only a little torch that we have made and I don’t know how far it will go in illuminating his songs for others to hear for the first time.
I am also mindful that many existing fans are probably very protective of his work. Rightly so. I tried not to think about any of those things though and to just tried to inhabit the songs in the most natural way I could. Almost without self-awareness, you know? Just sitting in a room by myself at a piano for the most part, and just pressing the red button on the recorder.
Immediately, what’s apparent on listening to this album, is how special both your voices are in singing Daniel Johnston’s songs. It’s such a powerful thing, and I guess it’s like listening to the best examples of “cover” songs, when they’re done not simply as a straightforward exercise but done thoughtfully out of love and respect for it’s author. I’d love to know your favourite Daniel Johnston song and why? Also, keeping on the art of the cover song, so to speak, what are your favourite cover songs that have been recorded and the ones you find most fulfilling?
Thank you. I think both James and I are able to take a song away (if we like it / love it enough) and let it percolate through ourselves so it’s informed by who we are as people. At least we try and allow that to happen, I think.
Favourite covers? Shipbuilding performed by Robert Wyatt springs to mind. But to me that came before the version by its author (Elvis Costello) so it almost doesn’t count. But that is a very tall order for a question…Hurt by Johnny Cash also.
I love Marissa Nadler’s version of Famous Blue Raincoat by Leonard Cohen. That’s one I’ve been listening to a lot over the last couple of years.
I love the arrangements and various sounds you use which serves to create such an enriching soundscape throughout the eight songs. They serve to create that wonderful sense of spontaneity and kind of childlike and innocent mood which perfectly offsets the deeply affecting words and songwriting of Daniel’s. Sound recordings (chirping birds, for example) also add to create this effect. What did this process involve and what elements make up these sounds in the first place?
Yes, that was the aesthetic that was there from the beginning. And the element of fun was a feature too.
It’s true there is particular effect of the juxta-positioning of sometimes harrowing lyrics with playful sounds.
I must explain a bit about how the record was made. You see, we weren’t actually in the same room for any of the recording. We both just recorded parts at home and then sent the raw material to the other to add more parts. We both used what ever instruments and things we had around us. I, for instance, did most of my recording in my attic where I have an assortment of oddities. I borrowed my (then) five-year old son’s things too sometimes and made all kinds of racket with a set of Chilean spurs and an old super 8 camera. I also ended up taking a mini disc recorder to a mountain village and recorded some church bells and rainfall. All these things found their way onto the record. Oh, and I remember sticking the microphone out of the skylight of my attic to try and capture a magpie that was cackling away on the roof.
Please take me back to your most recent record, ‘I See Three Birds Flying’, Adrian; one of your crowning jewels in a rich body of work. I love the unique world the record immerses you into – like any great songwriting records – where ‘The Starlight Hotel’, ‘Alice Among The Pines’, ‘Lady Lazarus’, are just some of the imagery and characters inherent in the enlightening journey. I would love to gain an insight into the space and time in which you wrote this record please? Also, the creative process involved. I apologize as this seems such a criminally general (and over-simplistic) question. It never ceases to amaze me how your songs are so effortlessly interwoven together that forms one large cohesive whole, steeped in unfathomable beauty.
Gosh, that’s nice of you! Well I mentioned that attic earlier and that’s where I wrote the songs for ‘I See Three Birds Flying’. Two of them, ‘Fortune Teller Song’ and ‘Alice Among The Pines’ happened in the same evening. Sometimes there is a kind of magic hour there where everything goes silent, just before it gets dark. And afterwards I sometimes find myself sitting on my chair with just the blue glow of the skylight and the stars coming out. I spent a lot of time there capturing the songs. I suppose I just found my way into another world and didn’t know where I’d end up. It’s a very solitary thing which usually I need to contrast when I leave that frame of mind. Incidentally, the album was actually delayed somewhat in it’s completion. I had planned to go into the studio in the Summer of 2011 to start the recording but I suddenly fell ill. I had/have been suffering from some kind of mystery illness and then all of a sudden I was struck down with pneumonia. I called Steve from the hospital to cancel the recording. I ended up being kept in for 8 days and spent the rest of the Summer finding my feet. I remember having a notebook in my bedside locker writing bits and pieces in the hospital. Maybe if it wasn’t for that diversion, the record may have not turned out the way it did. I don’t know if that gives you any insight but those are the circumstances from where the album came.
You kindly shared with us some tour diaries of yours from the not-too-distant past. Are there any moments of your recent travels that you’d like to recount please? I imagine Europe and the act of traveling must be a wonderful source of inspiration for your own songwriting?
In the last twelves months or so, I don’t think I’ve ever travelled so much with my music. I love to take photographs of where I go too. Not necessarily of well-known landmarks but anything, even the close up of a sticker on a lamp post in Oberhausen or a parked car in a leafy street in Utrecht. The pictures take me back to that moment. Again a very solitary experience. I pretty much did 50 or 60 gigs by myself, being my own tour manager and merch guy…I got to meet a lot of amazing people, be it at the gigs or just on a HiSpeed train.
People really brought something to my experience where ever I went.
I remember talking to a lovely girl in Dresden, her name was Kristin, I told her how nice everyone had been to me (I had just spent a week or so crossing The Netherlands and Germany.) Her deadpan reply made me laugh, she just said, “well, with music that you make did you expect everyone to be cross with you?” I put that in my diary the next morning on the way to Cologne.
Can you share with me please any ideas you have planned for the follow-up to ‘I See Three Birds Flying’? Also, what records have you been listening to most these days?
Ah, let’s see. I discovered this great record this summer, released earlier this year: and album called ‘Still Smiling’ by Blixa Bargeld & Teho Teardo. I think it’s incredible. The strings are great…the arrangements, the overall sound and the writing is sometimes bonkers. I also remembered how much I love the sound of German. Blixa is in fine voice, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him sound better. It’s beautifully recorded too. That’s the album of the year for me, so far. There are others too.
As I write, I’m mentally preparing to go into the studio tomorrow to start a new album. I have a lot of new songs and just feel it’s the right time to get on that horse again.
‘My Yoke Is Heavy: The Songs Of Daniel Johnston’ is available now on Chemikal Underground.