JAMES BLACKSHAW/THE GLASS BEAD GAME/Review
Knoxville Daily Times / by Steve Wildsmith
The way guitar prodigy James Blackshaw sees it, there isn't a lot of difference, really, between his teenage years as a punk rock musician and the sweeping, ethereal arrangements he plays now on his signature 12-string.
Knoxville daily times
Guitar prodigy James Blackshaw ruminates on spirituality, repetition
By Steve Wildsmith
of The Daily Times Staff
June 18. 2009 10:45AM
The way guitar prodigy James Blackshaw sees it, there isn't a lot of
difference, really, between his teenage years as a punk rock musician and
the sweeping, ethereal arrangements he plays now on his signature 12-string.
Granted, his current repertoire doesn't boast the same angst and aggression
that it did when he shredded in various British punk bands, but there's
still a little work required to get into both genres, he told The Daily
Times this week.
"I played in punk rock bands up until I was between the ages of 14 and 19,
but at the same time, I was interested in a lot of different kinds of
music," he said. "Obviously, punk rock, a lot of the time in nature, is kind
of quite an aggressive music, but it also has a kind of experimental quality
to it. It's not easy music to listen to for a lot of people."
The turning point for Blackshaw came at 16, when a friend introduced him to
the music of John Fahey. Born in 1939, Fahey was a world-renowned guitarist
who pioneered the steel-string guitar as a solo instrument. He died in 2001,
but Blackshaw got to see him perform before that, and in Fahey's music the
young guitarist found a kindred spirit.
"I got interested in listening to stuff that's left of center and outside of
the box," he said. "Listening to guitar music like that and hearing somebody
play one instrument that way, there's just kind of a raw energy to it."
At the same time, Blackshaw was furthering his own musical education while
working in a record shop. He discovered classical and world music and began
to write longer pieces of original composition, tinkering with the notion of
"I remember playing in a band when I was 17 or 18, and that this guy who was
playing in the band with us who was into all of this prog rock and these
quick changes," Blackshaw said. "He was an incredible musician, but he would
play one thing in a certain time for a minute, then change things very
"It was kind of ADHD, and I remember I was playing piano in his band, and
I'd want to play something longer -- for at least five minutes. That's when
I realized I had this predilection toward repetition."
On "The Glass Bead Game," released last month, Blackshaw navigates through
five songs of rich beauty. On first listen, they shimmer like mirages in the
desert -- never quite in focus, surrounding by a seemingly endless expanse
of melody that cycles over and over. By the 18-plus minute closer -- "Arc"
-- the record's beauty reveals itself. Like the desert, an abundance of life
is found in the shadows -- little flourishes that lift each song over the
overall tapestry that Blackshaw weaves, encompassing whispers and echoes and
drone and feedback for an emotionally resonant work of art that's not as
staid as it might seem.
"There's a lot of chance elements within making a song like 'Arc,' for
example," he said. "The piano part is fairly composed, but I mean, even that
was done live in one take, so it's never going to be exactly the same again.
Sometimes, I think I don't realize what it is I'm doing until I've recorded
it and listen to it again, and I go, 'Oh, I had no idea it sounded like
that.' Sometimes, it feels like I'm playing and not really listening to it."
Perhaps it's the repetition, or the soothing soundscapes that his music
evokes -- but on disc, it's easy to get the idea that Blackshaw allows the
music to transport him to some ethereal plane, a place beyond earthly
thought or concern where music is as easily captured as a lung full of
oxygen. It's almost spiritual, in a sense, even though Blackshaw is quick to
avoid categorizing himself as such.
"I think I'm quite an easygoing person and calm, but I think that's only
part of the picture," Blackshaw said. "I'm like anybody else -- I have ups
and downs, and I'm not this genteel, Buddha-like person. I still get sad or
annoyed, but I think some people do have this weird perception that I seem
to be quite spiritual, when actually I'm sort of not, particularly."
At least, not in the religious sense of the word. But there's definitely
something greater at work when Blackshaw composes -- a dreamlike state, or a
trance, that comes over him. There's no conscious thought, no plan -- just
his instruments and his muse in the driver's seat.
"When I'm writing something or playing something that feels emotionally
resonant or has some kind of depth to it, I don't really think about
anything," he said. "It's kind of like a nothingness. The idea of that has a
negative connotation for some people, but I think for me, it's a feeling of
quite a positive thing. I mean, I think about a lot of things, but it's more
"I don't tend to think of an image or a specific person or a time or a place
or a landscape; nothing like that. It's just a general feeling that I can't
quite express. I think if it ever gets too specific -- if I can't get past
the image -- I'll be thinking about that and not the music somehow. The way
that I compose is quite spontaneous -- in a way, it's like improvising and
playing until I find something and it sticks.
"I find that when I write, it comes from a pretty vague, abstract place in
me, and you might say that's my sense of spirituality," he added. "It's
vague and abstract, and I don't quite know what it is, except that I believe
something, I guess."