James Elkington writes songs that merge a cryptic natural world with the realm of human affairs. From Chicago, he talks portals and poetry with Gareth Thompson.
Whilst creating his second solo album, Ever-Roving Eye, the songwriter James Elkington kept a totemic reminder of his English roots at hand. A copy of Frost And Fire: A Calendar Of Ritual And Magical Songs by The Watersons was close by throughout, like a companion. ‘Back in 2017, I recorded a cover of ‘Christmas Is Now Drawing Near At Hand’ from Frost And Fire,’ Elkington recalls. ‘I love that album and it never went back in the stacks after that. It was in front of my face for the whole process of Ever-Roving Eye. Not that I was listening to it all the time, but it definitely seeped in.’
Elkington’s homage to The Watersons’ album also extends to a canny use of its typography for the artwork of Ever-Roving Eye: ‘There’s a conscious reference I’m making there. In recent years I’ve become interested in that post-modern experiment of indicating where you’re coming from by how your lettering looks. I’m also a big fan of Ghost Box Records and how they reference 60s and 70s graphic imagery to fast-track you into a certain headspace. Equally I know that Frost And Fire isn’t an album in the general public’s consciousness. It’s not like I’m trying to sell my work by using its typeface. It was really done just for me and my friends.’
If there’s a definite folk-magic to Elkington’s work, there’s also plenty of wry realism besides. A veteran of three decades playing in bands from London to Chicago, he’s built a following in the time-honoured way of gigging and networking. Two outstanding guitar duet albums with Nathan Salsburg were followed by Wintres Woma, Elkington’s solo debut for the Carolina-based Paradise Of Bachelors label whose roster includes Terry Allen, Michael Chapman and Nathan Bowles. Released in 2017, Wintres Woma (or ‘the sound of winter’ in Old English) brought Elkington’s music to a whole new audience. Using the DADGAD guitar tuning once favoured by Bert Jansch, the songs grew out of some madly catchy riffs that Elkington worked up in hotels rooms whilst touring with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco. Vocal melodies were improvised over them, adding lyrics drawn from abstract memories, surreal imagery and folkloric symbols. Indeed, a curious paradox arises from these often pastoral compositions and their preternatural lyrics. In the tangled undergrowth of Elkington’s mind, nothing is ever serene or static.
The press material for Wintres Woma found Elkington discussing ‘a preoccupation with unseen powers at work and other dimensions, both of which show up in traditional English music’. Insisting he’s not in any way a mystic, he does reference a teenage obsession with Hammer Horror films. ‘As you get older you wonder if something almost supernatural is going on,’ he reflects. ‘It’s not anything I felt aware of when growing up – it was more a background vibration then. There’s also some less obvious music concerned with all this too. I’m a huge Mark E. Smith fan and he seemed preoccupied with doors to different dimensions, maybe within his local Prestwich pub! It’s like he’d be able to walk through those doors if he drank enough lager. In England you’re aware of the millennia of existence that preceded you. The weight of history.’
History came to the fore on Wintres Woma via ‘Sister Of Mine’, a warm
Bob Dylan-esque ballad with swoony harmonica. In this potted biog of the Roman emperor Caligula, Elkington croons, ‘Smother the uncle asunder, his struggle in vain/Then entrails were made into garlands to welcome my reign’. If another Dylan comes to mind here, lyrically, it’s no surprise that Elkington is an avid reader of Dylan Thomas, alongside early twentieth century novelists. ‘There was a school of writing a hundred years ago that was more ornamental and detailed,’ he says. ‘The economy of style that writers adopt now probably serves readers better in its directness. But I’m interested in saying things less directly, to paint a mood. There’s a musicality to Thomas’s writing that I also find in Gerard Manley Hopkins, that sprung rhythm. I’ll often choose a word more for the way it sounds than its meaning. Sometimes it can be at the suggestion of the music itself, where you want to make a certain voice noise over a given chord sequence. Then you work backwards to find out what words are needed to justify it. I’m not interested in the diary form of lyric writing, I don’t find it evocative.’
Elkington has been queried more about his lyrics since the release of Ever-Roving Eye. He says, ‘It might be like a style is emerging, or repetitions, which over one record you might not notice. Across two records it becomes more obvious. Wintres Woma was open subconscious material, but with this new one I felt more able to steer the ship. It’s not part of my MO to know exactly what I’m talking about. All my favourite music is stuff that I don’t quite understand, at least on first listening.’
An agile and intricate work, Ever-Roving Eye is also touchy at times, laying out some of its creator’s anxieties. Elkington murmurs ‘There’s an ill-wind ascending the stairs/Climbing the spine of my home’ on the coffee-shop folkiness of ‘Moon Tempering’. Over the bobbing jazz groove of ‘Late Jim’s Lament’ he cries ‘No matter how I drive/I know I can’t outdrive the hearse!’ An idyllic flutiness on ‘Leopards Lay Down’ doesn’t hide the narrator’s unrest: ‘It feels like I got older and old friends kept their youth/What is the key to that dyed-in-the-wool untruth?’ During the title track’s runic roundelay, we learn ‘The womb is filled with wolves for those who wish to see’.
So now, what’s eating James Elkington? ‘I’m actually in a very centred place with my family and the music,’ he laughs. ‘You’d be astounded at how much I gripe! Half the new songs are more like warnings to myself, to remember how good things are. I do a lot of complaining, but the songs publish these complaints and also their replies. I’ve always felt keenly the passing of time and a need to organise better. It’s like self-therapy, but in order for it to work I must be honest about what’s concerning me. Amid the fairly dark imagery there’s usually a solution.’
Elkington grew up in Chorleywood, a Hertfordshire village with easy proximity to London. ‘There was a lot of farmland and an area called the Common,’ he recalls. ‘It had two square miles of rolling hills and woods with a pub on each corner. I spent a lot of my younger life there, playing football or drinking. It felt like the real countryside, but in my mid-teens I could take a train into town and buy Sonic Youth albums. I had the best of both worlds and thought I’d never leave.’ Elkington would later use memories of the Common for his ghostly song ‘Wading The Vapors’, with its squiffy refrain ‘Drinkers rolling home’. American Primitive guitar and noirish strings stir the youthful memories of ‘Greatness Yet To Come’ where ‘A voice soft as moss came from out of the soak/As a young moon got tangled in the branches of an oak.’
‘In my imagination and dream world I return to Chorleywood Common a lot,’ Elkington says. ‘Just wandering through this unlit country village at night, being the only person around. There’s an eerie feeling to that which I don’t get in Chicago. Around the age of thirty to forty you mentally revisit places you knew as a child, maybe as a way of holding hands with that kid. I’m not nostalgic, as what I have today is the best situation I’ve known. But I’m curious about what made me tick as a boy – the TV shows, the books. My songs sometimes evoke that for me too. I love playing my music back in England, because so much of what I write is informed by the place.’