Scottish singer/songwriter YVONNE LYON took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Lins Honeyman about her life in music
A lot has changed for Scottish singer/songwriter Yvonne Lyon (formerly Yvonne Whitty) since her debut solo album 'Horizon Searching' in 2002. A string of well-crafted releases have made sure that the Glasgow-based singer has gone from strength to strength in recent years resulting in accolades from revered music aficionados such as Radio Scotland's Iain Anderson and Bob Harris of Radio 2 adding to an already growing reputation as one of the nation's finest songsmiths.
An original member of '90s Scottish group Land, Yvonne went on to sing on albums by Electrics frontman Sammy Horner ('Celtic Praise') as well as children's songwriter Stephen Fischbacher and then husband-to-be David Lyon on a variety of projects whilst carving out a solo career when Land finished. A talented piano player, guitarist and singer in her own right, it wasn't long before Yvonne employed the services of Scots producer Ross Hamilton to record 'Horizon Searching' before working with Wet Wet Wet guitarist Graeme Duffin and Sandy Jones of Motherwell's Foundry Music Lab to record subsequent albums 'Fearless' (2005), 'A Thousand Questions Why' (2007) and last year's stunning 'Ashes & Gold'.
In addition to her prolific recorded output, a busy live schedule has taken her across the length and breadth of the country and has seen her perform everywhere from tiny pubs, cafes and churches to festivals and support slots with the likes of Patty Griffin, Karine Polwart and Luka Bloom and collaborations with Juliet Turner and Gareth Davies-Jones. Yvonne also manages to find time to run songwriting workshops and has worked with charities such as Tearfund and Glasgow's Yorkhill Sick Children's Hospital.
In 2009, her unique brand of breathtakingly beautiful melodies and thought-provoking lyricism saw her become one of 10 winners in Burnsong, an annual competition that promotes songwriting in Scotland which last year was opened up to artists from around the globe, culminating in a memorable showcase concert at the Scottish Parliament on St Andrews Day as part of the finale for Scotland's Year of Homecoming.
"Part of the prize was being put in a sort of Big Brother house with other winning songwriters," Yvonne explained. "It was lots of hard work and we were given tasks like writing a song a day and performing it the next morning. Although it was really nerve-wracking letting people hear your raw material, it forced me to go through a process that I wouldn't usually go through."
Despite this success, Yvonne admits that creativity doesn't always come easily. "I'd put myself under quite a lot of pressure with the new album, 'Ashes & Gold'. I kept thinking that I needed to make the songs more intelligent or deep and I ended up paralysing myself with a lot of those expectations. I really learnt this time round that bigger and better and more successful is not the aim here - it's about embracing the fact that it's not a weakness to ask for help when you're writing songs."
Yvonne elaborated, "I probably experienced writer's block for the first time with this album. I had to really push through it and face it head on. I put some deadlines in the diary in terms of recording and, while that put me under real pressure, it made me find songs that wouldn't have been there otherwise. It's been a really helpful thing for me to go through."
It seems that Yvonne's own writing process has changed over time and that her recent Burnsong success has refined her skills for the good. Admitted Yvonne, "When I'm writing a song, I get quite a rush of creativity and I like to just run with that. I'm not so good at revisiting things but I've learnt a lot about going back to the re-writing stages and crafting the song." The singer/songwriter is careful to make sure that, despite the pressure of recording deadlines, her writing doesn't become mechanical. "It's difficult to feel confident at certain times in the songwriting process for whatever reason but you have to be brave enough to trust the opinions of those around you."
Wet Wet Wet guitarist Graeme Duffin and engineer Sandy Jones have become renowned for producing exceptional releases in their Motherwell Foundry Music Lab studio by up and coming artists such as Esther O'Conner and Gareth Davies-Jones as well as Yvonne and her husband David Lyon. I asked Yvonne what it's been like working with Graeme and Sandy on her last three albums. "It's been fantastic," she enthused. "When I started working with Graeme and Sandy, I was really nervous because these are people who have got a great reputation but I've developed a great relationship with them over the years. We all work very well together and Graeme and Sandy give me the space to say how I want the songs to sound. I'm so grateful to them."
I wondered how getting a high profile musician and producer such as Graeme Duffin on board came about. "We approached him," Yvonne clarified. "We'd done a gig at Glasgow's Destiny Church with Graeme's daughter Esther O'Connor and met him afterwards. We felt it was the natural thing to push the door and see if it opened. I went round to his house and played some of the tracks that were to be on my second album 'Fearless' and he agreed to produce it. At that time, they were just building the Foundry Music Lab so we recorded that album in the basement of his house. I suppose it was a transitional time for them as well as us."
Although album releases have helped Yvonne develop as an artist, she recognises that the times she spends playing her songs to a live audience is of prime importance. "I guess you could live without having your songs on disc but the actual connection with people is the biggest thing for me - whether it's sitting with just a guitar or with more folks involved. It's not always easy and I'm aware that making that connection with the audience is not something that can be taken for granted. Each audience is different but I love finding out where people are at and doing songs that will hit home with them. It's a great feeling when you go somewhere where people don't know you but they come away saying that they love your songs and that the songs really spoke to them. It's an amazing privilege."
I asked Yvonne if, as a Christian, she felt pressured to communicate the Gospel at secular gigs. "While I came from a place where you had to sing about Jesus - I grew up on Larry Norman and that kind of music which I still absolutely love and see the point of - I don't know if that's necessarily for me. I've always felt the need - or maybe the call - to be the bridge between the two worlds. I feel my role is more to point people to truth and beauty. I am a Christian so, for me, the truth and beauty points to God but I am very aware that the sort of live platform I have is not the place to preach. I've been there and done it and I don't think that's what my role is. I know that's what other people do and that's right for them but not for me, but I do think there's a place for it all."
With songs like of "The Reckoning" and "Feel The Light" on the new album written specifically for the people of Cambodia who suffered within the walls of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, as well as working with a variety of charities, there is a thread of social comment that weaves itself through Yvonne's work. "It's been a subconscious thing," stated Yvonne. "When I was 18, I went out to Romania and that changed my life in terms of how I viewed justice and social issues and how that fits with faith. I recently got asked by Tearfund to go out to Cambodia and that really ignited in me again the need to connect music more with social issues. To write songs in response to what was going on out there was a real privilege and was definitely the right thing to do. I've always felt moved to ground all the creativity inside me with a need to serve and to be mindful of social issues."
Whilst the outside world might view invitations by well known organisations such as Tearfund, alongside appearances at the Scottish Parliament, as something of an overnight phenomenon, it's clear that Yvonne's success has been a long time coming. "When I was about 16, I started writing songs never thinking I would do this for a living," she explained. "It wasn't until I joined Land that I got the chance to sing publicly and be part of this eclectic group of musicians."
Despite Land's limited success, her time within in the group obviously formed a strong foundation for her solo work and had a profound effect on her as an artist. "I was only about 18 when I was started with Land and we got to work with Steve Butler from Lies Damned Lies in Heaven Studios and then to record with legendary producer Calum Malcolm (Prefab Sprout, Hue & Cry amongst many others) which was just crazy!" laughed Yvonne. "To have these opportunities at that age was amazing and I'm so thankful. If it hadn't been for Land, and in particular Steve and Lynne Knott who headed it all up, I wouldn't have developed a lot of the confidence and belief I have in what I'm doing today."
During her time with Land, Yvonne met David Lyon, who was to become her husband and former member of seminal Celtic rock outfit The Electrics and a revered songwriter in his own right. "David has been a real motivation for me and has very much been alongside me, supporting and encouraging me," said Yvonne. "We try to invest time and energy in each other's music in different contexts as we appreciate the value of both. I'm learning heaps from David in terms of songwriting. I'm biased but he has a really fresh voice in terms of lyrics and writing for the Church. There's a healthy competition between us and, when each of us is writing, the other gets the bug too."
With things most definitely on the up, I finished by asking Yvonne what her plans for the future were. "I'm not very good at making long term plans," she confessed. "I like to just set my sail and see where the wind takes me! Having said that, David and I have been thinking recently that it's not about doing as many gigs as we can but doing the gigs that we want to do and playing the places we want to play.
"Collaboration with other artists is also important and that's something we'll carry on doing," continued Yvonne. "In terms of more albums, who knows - we'd always like to create music and be out there doing it. We're constantly reassessing that balance of music and community - we don't want to do all this music and get to the end of our years and wonder if we'd missed the point. I reckon there are still lots of songs to be written though!"The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.