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Features / Top-notch songwriting trio to share Mareel stage

From left to right: Withered Hand, The Pictish Trail and James Yorkston.

FANS OF the singer-songwriter persuasion are guaranteed plenty of bang for their buck when three of Scotland’s finest musical craftsmen share a Lerwick stage early next month.

Johnny Lynch (aka The Pictish Trail), Dan Willson (aka Withered Hand) and James Yorkston (aka that’s his real name) will take their three-man show, a sort of more lightsome version of a songwriters’ circle, to Mareel on Wednesday 3 February.

It will be the concluding date of a tour taking in various towns and cities in Ireland and Scotland, including a slot at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival.

Concertgoers are promised an evening of witty reverie, beer swilling, storytelling and song from a trio of like-minded writers and singers sharing something of an indie aesthetic, while each drawing upon different musical strains.

The format is something Johnny and James have toured regularly together dating back to their time as part of the Fence Records stable with King Creosote.

Self-deprecating to a fault, Johnny says the advantage is that, if you don’t like one of them, you won’t have to wait too long before someone else takes the limelight.

Why should people give up the warmth of their homes on a Wednesday night in the middle of winter to come and see them? “If you want to see music and think ‘wow, I could totally do that’…”

More seriously, he believes the setting is a great way “to be introduced to the music of three songwriters, each quite different. It’s just a really relaxed, fun environment.

“So far all the shows have been packed, a lot of really good energy, plenty of drink involved, really good laughs. James has got some unbelievable stories that have to be seen to be believed. It’ll be hanging out with three dudes who just want to have a laugh.”

While he is often dubbed a “folk” artist, The Pictish Trail is really nothing of the sort. Johnny forms one half of “demented” dance duo Silver Columns with bassist Adem Ilhan, and material from superb recent releases such as his two volumes of ‘Secret Soundz’ owe more to the worlds of pop and electronica than traditional.

“I’ve always been labelled folk, but it’s pop – it’s just not Justin Timberlake, not yet anyway!”

James is the folkiest of the trio, a writer of literate songs with great structures and narratives. Run-of-the-mill songsmiths wouldn’t come up with a song title like ‘A Calvinist Narrowly Avoids Pleasure’, after all, while the Fifer’s 2011 book ‘It’s Lovely To Be Here: The Touring Diaries of a Scottish Gent’ is a hoot of a read, shining a light on the often humdrum realities of life as a travelling musician.

“Reading that book, it really did capture what he was like,” Johnny tells Shetland News. “His albums are so poetic, and the book turned out to be more like James’ actual personality.

“He’s like the Larry David of folk music, there’s always something wrong or something he’s got to complain about – that is his entire life! It’s quite funny seeing him interact with normal everyday people.”

A latecomer to writing music at the age of 31, Withered Hand has now released two very fine LPs. ‘New Gods’, a beautifully crafted collection of bittersweet, melodic indie-pop confections, was named 2014 Scottish album of the year by the Sunday Herald.

“His style is much more a classic singer-songwriter,” says Johnny. “Lyrically there’s pinches of Neil Young in there, a little bit more American in his writing, and that’s really refreshing as a listener and a fan.”

It’s not too often that visiting musicians to these parts come from an even smaller island community. But Johnny is a proud resident of the Inner Hebridean island of Eigg, with a population under 90, so Lerwick will be a veritable metropolis by comparison.

He moved there from Fife with his girlfriend, a former music journalist and now a farmer, six years ago and in October they had a baby son, Arlo.

Eigg is now “thriving” having famously been the object of a community buyout back in 1996. It is testament, Johnny says, to “the fact that you don’t have to have the most experienced minds. A good community is one that is open and communicative.”

The buyout occurred in the nascent days of the internet, an “astonishing thing, because nowadays you’d have petitions online, Facebook campaigns, all that sort of shit, but this was in an age when that didn’t exist”.

Travel to and from the island is by boat from Mallaig most days in the summer, and a few times a week in winter, along with a ferry service to and from Arisaig.

He finds the island conducive to writing songs, while he also runs his Lost Map record label and stages an annual music festival in the island.

“Eigg is a weird place, it’s an amazing place. You have to rely on people helping you out. Not everyone sees eye-to-eye, but differences are usually sorted out very quickly. I feel comfortable there, and also feel removed from everyday life which has been really good for my songwriting. [Going back to] Eigg is a big reset button in my brain.”

His record label boasts an impressive roster of alternative artists, including Randolph’s Leap who were a popular attraction at the Shetland Rock Festival last March, and he draws inspiration from working with other musicians.

“The Lost Map label, and Fence before it, are very dear to my heart,” Johnny says. “Being involved in helping other people listen to other people’s music, it really thrills me. With a band that I’m promoting, it’s exciting to hear them on the radio, or read an article, it really makes me feel good.”

  • Tickets to see James Yorkston, The Pictish Trail and Withered Hand at Mareel on Wednesday 3 February are on sale now, priced £18, from Shetland Box Office.