james blackshaw / interview / article

Crawdaddy Magazine / by J. Poet

James Blackshaw plays acoustic guitar and composes music that draws listeners into a fathomless space that’s both comforting and mysterious.

Crawdaddy Magazine

James Blackshaw’s Minimal Folk for the 21st Century

by j. poet • July 17, 2009

James Blackshaw plays acoustic guitar and composes music that draws
listeners into a fathomless space that’s both comforting and mysterious. He
grew up playing in punk bands, but ditched his electric guitar a few years
ago to start playing a 12-string acoustic. Combining folk finger-picking,
subtle pop melodies, and the repetitive, slowly unfolding compositional
techniques of new music, he forged a deep trance-inducing style all his own.
His music has been called “pastoral psychedelia,” “minimal,” and described
as “Nick Drake meets Leo Kottke.” His wide-open, subtly driving sound
occupies its own psychic and emotional space. The music is too dark and
dissonant for new age, although it can be soothing at times, and too stark
for folk, although John Fahey and Robbie Basho are obvious influences. It’s
also too melodic for the minimalists, although there are hints of Steve
Reich and Terry Riley in the way the music both expands and curls into
itself, suggesting unheard melodies and implied rhythms with its overlapping
overtones. On his latest album, The Glass Bead Game, the overtones are
especially prominent. Blackshaw’s 12-string sounds immense, each string
ringing like a bell, with miles of sonic space between every carefully
placed note.

“When I record, I use open tunings,” Blackshaw explains from his London
flat. “They’re within the root note of a chord, but they’re not straight
open tunings. The bass strings are tuned way down, while the high-end
remains where it usually is. It produces weird harmonic overtones. When I
listen to the playback [during recording], it sounds like the guitar is
playing three or four different parts: Bass, midrange melodies, and counter
melodies that come from the harmonic overtones. With a 12-string, most
people think of a jingly Byrds-type sound, but in lower tunings, the sound
takes on a life of its own and those boomy, low resonant frequencies come
out. You can't drop a six-string from an E down to an A, but with a
12-string you can, even if it’s a struggle sometimes to stay in tune.”

Blackshaw was born in 1981 and was inspired to start playing acoustic by
Fahey’s finger-picking and Basho’s 12-string guitar compositions. He then
incorporated sounds drawn from 20th century classic music, the minimalism of
Reich and Riley, the odd time signatures of Erik Satie, chamber music, and
subtle hints of New York’s no-wave movement. Although the music is acoustic,
it has irresistible power and presence, with cascading overtones that
suggest industrial rock or the symphonic force of an orchestra playing at
top volume. On record and in live performances, his pieces display a
restrained emotional power and a dynamic range, full of stops and starts and
unexpected changes in volume and tempo, which keeps them balanced between
composition and improvisation.

“My music is 99 percent composed,” Blackshaw says. “And I’m not sure I’d
call the other one percent improvisation, even when working with other
musicians. It’s more of a chance-based element that depends on intuition.
There are things within the composition that I don’t ‘fix' —the speed at
which a piece is played, the number of times a section or a figure gets
repeated. It’s not improvisation, like blues lead guitar or a sitar would
play in a raga, but in the way it’s put together so the speed and feel can

On TheGlass Bead Game, Blackshaw’s first album for M. Gira’s Young God
Records label, he continues the piano experiments he started on last year’s
Litany of Echoes. The song “Fix” features Blackshaw’s minimal piano
triplets, playing a progression that brings to mind 1950s R&B, while the
cello of John Contreras and Joolie Wood’s violin complement Blackshaw’s
spare left-hand bass notes. “I actually think [this piece] has a European,
more than an R&B, sensibility,” Blackshaw says. “It combines the minimalist
tendencies of Michael Nyman and Erik Satie’s romantic, classical

“Arc”, the album’s longest piece, is also piano-based, with the sustain
pedal pushed to the floor to produce an avalanche of overtones that slowly
build to an impressive climax. Contreras plays doubled cello lines that
harmonize with the piano’s bass notes, giving the illusion of a large string
section. Joolie Wood’s violin contributes a Gershwin-esque counter-melody,
while vocalist Lavinia Blackwall adds wordless harmonies that blend with the
music to create a phantom chorus of instruments and voices. The dramatic
pulses of swelling energy eventually give way to a quiet coda of piano,
cello, and voice. “The focus is on the overtones from the piano,” Blackshaw
says. “I could have written specific parts for the other instruments, but I
decided it would be more interesting and unpredictable to choose notes at
random. I told Joolie, John, and Lavinia to listen to the piano. I’d signal
when I wanted them to play a note and when to change to another note. It’s
not exactly improvised, but there is a chance element to it. The music’s
density makes it difficult to pick out individual sounds; the ear can’t
determine what’s an overtone and what’s actually being played.”

The album also includes three pieces for 12-string guitar. It was
Blackshaw’s mastery of the instrument that first got him positive reviews
for his impressive technique, driving arpeggios that roll and ripple like
streams flowing from quiet brooks to thunderous waterfalls. “Key” shows his
playful side, with its lighthearted lilt and a melody that hints at
traditional pop. “Bled” opens with fat, burnished individual notes before
moving into lightening fast flurries that recall bluegrass played with a
more lyrical approach. “Cross”, the album opener, is a meditative
combination of Baroque and folk—British and American—with subtle accents
from Contreras on cello and Blackwall adding a chorus of jazzy, wordless
vocals. “The baroque influences are there,” Blackshaw says. “I used to
listen to a lot of folk, American blues, and old-time music like Mississippi
John Hurt and the Carter Family, but I don’t think it directly informs my
music. Still, everything I’ve listened to over the years tends to get mashed
up and amalgamated when I play. Beyond the obvious associations with
classical and baroque composers, I’m fond of the baroque-pop melodies of the
’60s, people like the Left Banke, Zombies, and [Harry] Nilsson. I don’t know
if it influences me, but I love that stuff quite a bit.”

One thing that strikes you about Blackshaw’s music is the way his guitar
floats through an almost infinite sonic space. “I’ve made all my records at
John Hannon’s studio,” Blackshaw explains. “It’s not elaborate, but he’s a
talented engineer and very open-minded. We use Logic (a digital recording
program) and record into a Mac, then transfer that onto reel-to-reel tape,
then transfer that back to the computer for a kind of fake analog sound. The
warmness of the sound is in the gear. I don’t know John’s secrets, but we do
use a subwoofer speaker as a guitar mic and that picks up the low
frequencies and boosts them. They’re usually only heard if you put your ear
against the guitar, but this kind of mic [technique] boosts the low end to
produce that big sonic space.

James Blackshaw’s Minimal Folk for the 21st Century
by j. poet • July 17, 2009
“Since I’m not making pop records, I can keep the focus on the music and the
mixing. The only limit I impose on myself is time. The basic tracks are done
in one take, no overdubs. Then I listen to the playback and start to hear
where other parts could potentially go. Then I’ll play the pieces for the
other musicians and give them a direction. I may have them play a line I’ve
written or give them an instruction: ‘Play staccato here, or a glissando or
vibrato.’ I can hear what I want and, while I’m not the best at articulating
it, we get there eventually. On The Glass Bead Game, there are unexpected
directions in the arrangements and some improvisations that we kept. I’m not
a total control freak.”

Blackshaw’s titles for his music and albums tend to be enigmatic and poetic,
while his extended pieces demand careful attention from his audience, what
composer Pauline Oliveros calls “deep listening.” “When you take away the
expectation of songs with lyrics and a vocal melody, it opens up the
possibilities of the instrument,” Blackshaw says. “I love playing live, and
I love the ambiguities in a piece that leaves it open to interpretation. I
like endurance in both playing and listening. If you let your boundaries go,
it’s easier to get involved with the music, in long-form pieces especially.”

Blackshaw produces his trademark ringing tones on the 12-string without
picks, using just the long fingernails of his right hand. “I have friends
who have their nails acryliced or put super glue on their nails, but I’m
lucky. They're my own nails and they’re pretty long, maybe an inch on each
nail, and they rarely break. I’ve only had a few scary nail incidents. About
a year ago, I was in an airport. I looked down and a nail was hanging off.
It’s a quite serious matter. I could have used a fake nail, but I was able
to find some superglue. Why they sell superglue in an airport is still a
mystery to me, but I glued it back on and it held till the nail grew out.”

Blackshaw grew up in Bromley, a neighborhood in the Southeast section of
London. Nothing in his background suggested a future in music. “Most of my
friends couldn’t stand the music I liked. In the ’80s to mid-’90s, they were
into commercial dance pop. I was 16 before I met people who were into the
things I was listening to. There was an alternative radio channel, XFM, that
played Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and Afghan Wigs, and punk bands like Black
Flag, Minor Threat, and Hüsker Dü. In my parent’s collection, I found the
Stones and Nilsson.”

Blackshaw had been given an electric guitar for his birthday, but didn’t
pick it up until he started listening to the Stones. “I didn’t know how to
tune a guitar, and the piano lessons I had when I was eight were incredibly
boring. I think I lasted three or four lessons before I quit. I like
unschooled musicians and composers. If you don’t know the right and wrong
way to play, you have to invent your own way to find things that sound
good.” Blackshaw started on guitar by creating his own tunings. “I could
slide up and down the neck with one finger and make the chords to play
‘Louie Louie’ and ‘Wild Thing.’

“Between 14 and 17, I played in punk bands. I wrote songs, but they were
pretty bad, teenage, three-chord stuff. I slowly got into progressive, arty
punk rock bands.” At 16, Blackshaw dropped out of school. “My parents were
thrilled,” he says laughing. “Eventually, they came to understand there was
actually a course I was on, but if things had worked differently, I could
still be working at Kentucky Fried Chicken. With my education, my prospects
probably weren’t good.”

He landed a job in a record shop and started to expand his musical palette.
“I lost interest in punk, but it led me to ’60s psychedelic music and the
ethnic music that influenced it, including raga on the obvious level, since
the Beatles used elements of Indian music. That led me to the Fluxus
movement, which led me to John Cage, La Monte Young, and the minimalism of
Steve Reich and Philip Glass, then onto John Fahey and Robbie Basho. Fahey
started me finger-picking and Basho interested me in the 12-string guitar,
but that’s only part of the equation. There’s other stuff I found
exhilarating, not just in the technique, but in the ideas behind the music.”

Blackshaw’s first album, Celeste, came out in 2004, in a limited edition of
80 copies. It was made about a year after he “went acoustic.” The two
extended compositions, one for 12-string and one for 12-string and electric
organ, unfold in unexpected directions with hints of raga, flamenco, folk,
and British church music. Lost Prayers & Motionless Dances was an edition of
200; his third, Sunshrine, was limited to 1,000 copies. It was influenced by
Indian music with interplay of sarod, harmonium, organ, bells, bowed
cymbals, and 12-string guitars. “The albums were made for a small,
self-sustaining underground community of musicians and listeners,” Blackshaw
explains. “People trusted the labels that released the music and collected
everything they put out. It was all under the radar and we never sent any of
them out to press or radio.”

O True Believers was released on Digitalis Industries, a bigger indie, in
2005. It picked up good reviews and started getting radio play. His next two
studio efforts, The Cloud of Unknowing (2007) and Litany of Echoes (2008),
were released in the US by Tompkins Square. The label also reissued his
first three records. “The press was good and I started getting better gigs.
I had no manager, no booking agent, and no publicist. After the record store
went out of business, I moved back in with my dad for a while, but the music
built slowly by word of mouth. I was lucky, because everything I played and
recorded was done because it pleased me. By the time a proper record label
wanted to sign me, I’d already put out five albums without any help from the
music industry, so I was in a good position.” For a while, Blackshaw was
better-known in the US than the UK, but that’s been changing in the last
year or so. He’s slowly emerging from the underground, and his current
prospects look good.

“I’m not rich, but I’m making a living playing music and making albums, so
everything is great.” Blackshaw toured the States this past May, after The
Glass Bead Game was released, and is looking forward to expanding his sound
with new instruments and textures while allowing the music to continue
unfolding at its own unhurried pace.

When he’s not touring, composing, and recording his own music, Blackshaw
collaborates with Current 93, the avant-folk band founded by David Tibet.
He’s also one-half of Brethren of the Free Spirit, an acoustic duo he
started with Dutch lute player Jozef van Wissem. “I met Jozef when I was
asked to put together The Garden of Forking Paths, a compilation of people
from different backgrounds and nationalities who played solo stringed
instruments, focusing on the idea of minimalism rather than improvisation.
We got along well and did a record; All Things Are From Him, Through Him and
In Him. It includes pieces Jozef had written that I deconstructed and put
together again, and some of my pieces. Jozef’s music is sparser and less
melodic than mine. I think he took one step toward my approach, and I took a
step in the other direction and adopted some of his more subversive ideas.
The title track was very repetitive and endurance-based, for the performers
as well as the listener. We just kept playing it until it was too painful to
carry on.”