Irish roots and London soul: An interview with Yvonne

As a general habit, leaving one of London’s most promising rising songwriting stars waiting for half an hour at Camden tube station is not advisable. Genius has not time to waste, right? It is even worse that it happened to be the very start of autumn and the darkening city skies had begun their creeping gloom almost overnight, and the winds were starting beat a brave roar through the early evening market.

But that’s what I did. Yvonne, who is launching at her soul-folk EP at The Gallery Café this Saturday, was left hanging around waiting for this douchebag of a scribbler to make a show. It is to my eternal gratitude that Yvonne is about as laid back as anyone can be. A London girl from Irish stock, she doesn’t go in for diva antics. As she herself says, she might be serious in her songs, but she’s a light-hearted person in reality.

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Endless Soul is a beautifully crafted, resonant and accomplished piece of work. If you were sharp enough to pick up a copy of her first outing The Rare One EP, you’ll already know that Yvonne has an ease and gentle power in her songwriting. Definitely imbued with folk influences, she creates dimensionality and atmosphere in each of her songs, very much in the vein of Laura Marling or Nick Cave in her narrative ability, but she able to capture complex and often dark emotions in quick bursts of lyrical and musical feeling.

However, the most obvious and striking difference between Endless Soul and The Rare One is of course, the band. But the journey from acoustic folksinger to soulful rock was gradual, and came in the form of a pristine white Telecaster.

“I have always been an acoustic fan,” she says, “and I grew up with acoustic music. But recently I have begun to realise how much I loved rock music. Since I met Kunal (founder of Chaos Theory) and worked with Chaos Theory, he’s exposed me to all this other kind of music.

“I think because all I felt I could do was acoustic, I stuck to it.”

All that changed when a guitar salesman persuaded her to think the unthinkable.

“As soon as I picked up my Telecaster I was in love. I was in Denmark Street in a guitar shop and this guy in the shop kept saying, ‘try electric, try electric’, and as soon as I touched it, I thought this is the guitar for me. I love the sound and it just has something a little bit different.”

It’s easy for folk singers to get stuck in their ways. Ever since Dylan went electric the shift from acoustic to an amplified sound has been a controversial topic for musicians with a background like Yvonne. None of that seemed to phase her though.

As she explains: “I think it was a good change though. I think I was almost making a point about sticking to the acoustic stuff. I didn’t want to change, I wanted to stick to what I knew. It’s quite a bad attitude, because as soon as I branched out I was like, ‘where’s this been all my life?’”

One you make the shift from being an acoustic artist to an electric one, and once you shift from pure solo to working with a band, a great many things change. For Yvonne the changes were wholly positive, and opened up previously locked doors for her as an artist.

“I think I was on a bit of learning curve with my general attitude towards music. It made me branch out a lot more, and just have a more open-minded attitude. I always did have an open mind but it made realise how much I was holding myself back, and how much is out there as well.”

“I loved it,” she says. “The first time I really collaborated was in the studio. And I had to sort of play with a bass and drums. And I had never really done something where I had connected with someone so much, I had never played music with someone else before. Music is the one thing I love so much, and we were making this music together. It’s such a shame I had never really tried it before.”

So what changes when you go from writing for yourself, to being the impresario of a full band? As Yvonne explains, she actually had to rein in her excitement, as the creative possibilities were opening up all over the place.

“I had guitar, drums, bass and a piano. Which I liked, but I didn’t want to do too much. I am a soloist so I didn’t want to lose that.

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“At first, I was talking to Pete (the producer of the EP is our live recording artist Peter Junge), and I wanted to go full blown, you know like a kind of fantasia kind of thing. Pete was definitely up for the suggestion, but I think we both mutually thought, we didn’t want to go too far. Go step by step.”

Yvonne’s voice is layered with legendary allusions – from soul girl groups to Marc Bolan. It’s all in there. She reminds me of a song maker in the Ron Sexsmith vein – humble, but quietly visionary.

“We when it comes to music, Janis Joplin always had this quote – ‘music is feeling’,” Yvonne explains. “I am completely misquoting her by the way, but when I write, I am getting everything out of myself. When I am really pissed off, or anything like that.

“Basically my songs are about people that I love, who I have had to let go of in some way. So those feelings are what I am letting out, the sorts of things that you wouldn’t say on a day-to-day basis. Songs relieve me of all that important stuff.”

For Yvonne it seems that music is much more than just trying to work out your own feelings. Her songs are multi-layered and beautifully complex. At the same time they are brimming with intelligence and human feeling.

As Yvonne herself explains, her music is about communication.

“When people listen to music I think they are trying to connect with something. I mean you have the stuff that’s in the charts and it is what it is. People listen to that and they just want to have fun.

“But when you actually listen to a new song as a really big music fan you really do want to connect with something. It’s almost like the musicians are saying ‘I am going through it, and we all do’.

“That’s what music does for people. If I think of all the bands that I love, they all do that, and I think it is important for musicians to do that.

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“That’s what music is to me. I like bands if I just like the song, but I love bands if I can connect with their stuff, and they make you think, yeah they have just put into words what I have been feeling for the last five years, in just a few minutes.”

Such an approach to music and songwriting makes Yvonne unique. There are many out there trying to communicate but few are able to do it with such ease and natural articulation. As a songwriter, Yvonne seems to have inherited something from a bygone era, when pop songs were works of art in themselves, more than just forms of wall-paper and entertainment.

It’s not so surprising when she reveals her heros.

“Neil Young is a big influence for me. Janis Joplin is just my ultimate. Like when I was thinking of going for a full blown sound that’s what I meant, I eventually just want to morph into Janis Joplin!”

But like every true songwriter and artist, Yvonne does not limit herself. She is very grounded in her time and place, and Endless Soul is far from being a retro homage to a mythic golden age. Influences and inspiration are to be found everywhere for Yvonne, and she keeps a keen eye on modern music as well.

“I love the best of everything. I love rap music. I don’t listen to it as much as I would like to. I like Jamie T, and Cypress Hill. I like the fun side of rap. I don’t like the serious side of rap. But when it comes to folk music I like the serious sort of stuff. So it’s quite strange. I don’t know if I would call rap an influence, but it’s there.”

I mention Laura Marling. The Rare One seemed to resonate on a similar frequency to Marling, but as Yvonne herself says, there is a little more punch in her own songs.

“I really like Laura Marling. I think she is probably softer than me. On my first EP, I think she was quite influential.”

It would be remiss, however, not to mention another key aspect of the musical heritage of Yvonne’s songwriting. Being London Irish she grew up steeped in Irish traditional music. She is a folk singer first, and she has carried over that authenticity and honesty into her electric work.

She explains: “Stuff like The Dubliners. That’s what I started with, that’s what I grew up with as a kid. And that’s probably where it all came from.

“I would sit and listen and played the fiddle back when I was really young. I have got memories from when I was younger, being this high, being around my dad and surrounded by Irish men playing accordions and all that. I love that stuff. The Dubliners are on my every-day playlist.”

You’d think that an artist that has been through so many creative changes in the space of a year would be thinking of giving it a rest once the new EP is out there. Not so with Yvonne. Bafflingly enough, she says she has already written a new album’s worth of songs, and is itching to get out an tour Europe.

“I loved it, I really loved it,” she says. “I am really excited to do it again really. Start a band and start doing some gigs with them. I haven’t actually got a band yet. I wanted to get all the sort of nitty-gritty stuff out the way. Get the EP launch out of way, and then I can start thinking about all of that stuff.

“So yeah a tour, and keep gigging. But after I have launched this EP. I am really proud of it. But once that’s done, onto the next thing.”

Interview by James Black