LISTEN TO A FINE INTERVIEW WITH JAMES ON NPR
I'm incredibly pleased to announce that James Blackshaw will now be working with Young God Records for future releases of his absolutely beautiful and spellbinding music. The first such release is The Glass Bead Game. I am - and have been for a long time - a huge fan. James has received a lot of attention lately as a prodigy/virtuoso of the 12 string guitar, but he's anything but showy. He lays out patterns and shapes that subtly shift over time and lead you to a deeply satisfying mental state. Recently, driving around with the car stereo blasting his music I found myself inexplicably weeping. Why??? The music's not sad, or even mournful really. It's just exquisite in an ineffable way, and taps into a place, a dream place, or a pre-thought place, which each of us might recognize was always there inside of us and is suddenly revealed. Like coming home after a painful journey, I suppose...
Listen to James interviewed / discussed / playing live on BBC4 Radio UK recently.
James used to be in punk bands in England, but then he started listening to people like John Fahey, Robbie Basho etc, and I assume soon locked himself in a room for 12 hours a day for several years and just played his guitar constantly. It takes intense discipline and a religious commitment to get to the place where he's at with his instrument - his soulful and kaleidoscopic ever-shifting mantra cycles are, in my view, incredibly beautiful. Just his guitar by itself, with it's swirling overtones, cascading notes and a thousand points of light, is like an orchestra, but now he's started to further orchestrate his pieces with piano, strings, wind, vocals, and the music is positively cinematic, and mesmerizing. The 18 minute-plus gem on this record is Arc, performed on piano with the sustain peddle on full throttle, and the rush of sound created by the overtones-from-heaven, augmented by strings and wind, when played at proper (full) volume, is one of the most thrilling pieces of music I've heard in years. It takes a rare and single-minded courage and commitment to make music with such a powerfully positive force at its' heart, especially in these troubled times. This is healing music that reaches for what's possible, just beyond our grasp. It is STELLAR… James is joined on this record by Joolie Wood (Current 93 and Simon Finn) - violin, clarinet and flute, John Contreras (Baby Dee and C93) – cello. Lavinia Blackwall (Directing Hand) is a classically trained singer and contributed vocals… – Michael Gira/Young God Records
James Blackshaw, "The Glass Bead Game"
Written by Lucas Schleicher
Sunday, 17 May 2009
James Blackshaw has released a number of introspective and genre-defying records since his debut on Digitalis Recordings. He has, however, arguably saved his best work for his debut on Young God. With a couple of familiar Current 93 faces behind him, The Glass Bead Game exhibits Blackshaw's experimental preferences, but also showcases his strength as an emotive and able songwriter.
Why Blackshaw named his album after a Herman Hesse novel is anyone's guess. Strong religous and romantic allusions aside, Blackshaw's music is simply and strikingly hypnotic. Its mantra-like quality is perhaps all that is required to share a name with Hesse's meditation on the intellectual and mystical. But, this hypnotic color is something every Blackshaw record has
featured; his love for the likes of Terry Riley and Erik Satie is not hard to discern and his guitar-playing style lends itself to adjectives like "rolling" and "kaleidoscopic." He has flirted with American folk music and toed the line between classical and modern guitar performances. At a young age he has explored more musical territory than many bands do over the course of an entire career. What differentiates this album from his previous efforts is the quality of the voices added to the arrangements. Accompanying him throughout are Joolie Wood, John Contreras, and Lavinia Blackwall. Flutes, clarinets, violins, pianos, and a stellar vocal performance all
support and deepen Blackwell's already sophisticated and intense approach to composition and performance. It's as if this is the band he has always wanted with him. Together with their talents, Blackshaw sounds more spectral and colorful than ever.
"Cross," the opening song, immediately communicates that Blackshaw and company are out to impress. With all pistons firing, Blackshaw paints a dramatic, but meditative melodic picture with his guitar. His strings are seemingly caught in a never-ending upward movement, each note intent on elevating the song to a higher and more introspective level. In the background, violins and cellos radiate a steady current of calm hums and ghostly utterances. Then, with just a brief pause, the band begins to weave their disparate melodic and harmonic patterns
together, further enrichening the song's lively character. Each member bends their instrument, wringing from it more emotion than was present the moment before. This pattern continues until Lavinia Blackwall adds her voice to the mix. Wordlessly, she accentuates the song's beauty with eruptions of melody and effortless soul. Her voice seems to steam off of the music, occuring as a natural result of all the activity already churning beneath it. It's a stunning way to start a record and, after hearing it for the first time, I was uncertain that anything could live up to it. Smartly, Blackshaw goes into deep meditation with both "Bled" and "Fix." His nimble fingers create a ton of sound in both cases, but both songs are less showy than "Cross" and both find Blackshaw focusing on simple and direct arrangements. The latter is a brief and lovely piano-based song fleshed out by understated and cinematic string accompaniments. "Key" bridges the gap between all the previous songs and the concluding "Arc," which is as epic as anything Blackshaw has attempted before. It's moderate pace and gentle dynamics pave the way for the epic conclusion that follows.
"Arc" begins as though it were meant to be played at a funeral. Although the tones pulled from the piano are largely major and bright, they eminate an evocative quietude that only
remembrance and yearning can accompany. After a short time Blackshaw's piano erupts into glissandi, as though an epiphany hit him in mid-song. As the piano fluctuates between high and low notes, the song and all of its parts develop a crystalline texture. Each of the instruments begin to blend into one another. "Arc" eventually becomes a mass of glowing sound with different elements peaking their heads above the cascade of music that's been created. The song completely destroys all sense of time and place. Instruments bleed into one another and become disassociated from their source. Whether a particular sound is being made by a voice, an instrument, or a combination thereof can be difficult to determine. Played at loud volumes, it's an absolutely transfixing and ecstatic piece of music capable of procuring an emotional response from the listener. After I heard it for the first time, I found myself with my jaw agape and my breath left short. Something very magical happened when these musicians came together. I can only hope it won't be the last time we see Blackshaw collaborating in such a fashion. It's hard not to talk in a superlative manner about this record; it is majestic and deserving of more accolades and praise than I can possibly write.
"...his first Young God album, “The Glass Bead Game”, continues Blackshaw’s hot streak that has stretched for four or five years now. This one has five longish to epic tracks, two of which feature Blackshaw on piano, a development of the work he initiated on “Litany Of Echoes”….The sound this time is a little fuller, a little more orchestrated, a little further away from the folk/Takoma school tag he was first saddled with, but his grace-filled compositional style remains more or less consistent...gorgeous, pensive...an extraordinary album" John Mulvey/Uncut Magazine (online) UK – advance review of The Glass Bead Game
Previous selected press quotes for James:
"... A veritable solo symphony that's as schooled in uncommon beauty as it is in complex 20th century composition... Blackshaw writes high drama into instrumental music with subtlety and charm, speaking on sentiments and stories without requiring a single lyric... Blackshaw seems fully settled, engaging his pieces and ideas with the unflinching belief of Tony Conrad in 1964 or Steve Reich in 1965... The Cloud of Unknowing carves out a new, peerless space altogether-- one that puts Blackshaw at the top of his class." - Grayson Currin, Pitchforkmedia.com
"In the tradition of "American Primitive" guitarists within which he's often grouped, James Blackshaw cuts rather an odd figure. Neither American, nor primitive, nor as Litany of Echoes begins, even playing the guitar, the English musician is all about upending the expectations we might have from his instrument. Whereas kindred spirits like John Fahey and Robbie Basho looked East for their Raga-inspired guitar diversions, Blackshaw instead sounds more East-Coast: his long-distance guitar tunes recalling NY minimalism, or Sonic Youth, as arranged for chamber orchestra. Mesmerising stuff, and proof that less is often more." - John Robinson, Uncut Magazine(continues over)
"There's an indecent ease to James Blackshaw's guitar playing. His fingerpicking mantras are as melodic as a music box, gliding through dizzying tempos like clockwork... Such is the silky control he exherts over his instrument, Blackshaw often sounds more like a court harpist than a backwoods strummer." - Derek Walmsey, The Wire
"The hypnotic arpeggios at the heart of James Blackshaw’s acoustic guitar playing reflect strong influences from outside the precincts of folk music: minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, and some of their precursors, like Erik Satie. Mr. Blackshaw, a British autodidact still in his mid-20s, fingerpicks his 12-string Guild with an immersive focus befitting such heady allusions. At its best, his sumptuous new album, Litany of Echoes, conveys a stark and ancient feeling, like something handed down through the ages...." - Nate Chinen, The New York Times
"Twenty-seven-year-old Brit James Blackshaw has lately emerged as a major force in the world of instrumental guitar, his epic, austere compositions and unpretentious 12-string technique perching him somewhere between John Fahey and Robbie Basho... Downright beautiful stuff." - Jonathon Cohen, Billboard Magazine
"The most gem-like overlooked album this year is neither hairy nor scary; rubber-necking into the great unknown isn't high in its priorities. But it is preternaturally beautiful. O True Believers by 24-year-old guitarist James Blackshaw features 10 fingers and 12 strings and, frankly, urinates all over whatever will be the Mercury Prize's token folk nominee next year. Blackshaw is British, but virtually no one has heard of him outside the US folk underground; he deserves ticker-tape parades. His style derives from the Takoma school founded by John Fahey, but that is all detail. Blackshaw's got it all: skills to hyperventilate for, and instinctual loveliness in spades." - Kitty Empire, The Observer
"One of the best and most original instrumentalists in the new, acoustic renaissance" - David Fricke, Rolling Stone Magazine
JAMES BLACKSHAW SHORT BIO:
Initially inspired by the guitarists of the 60’s Takoma label to teach himself fingerpicking, James Blackshaw writes long-form pieces primarily for solo 12-string guitar and piano that are heavily influenced by minimalist composers and European classical music and which use drones, overtones and repeating patterns alongside a strong inclination for melody to create instrumental music that is both intelligent, hypnotic and emotionally charged.
Born in London in 1981, Blackshaw has so far released six solo studio albums, one live recording and has also appeared on numerous compilations in the last five years. "O True Believers" (2006, Important Records/Bo’weavil Recordings), "The Cloud of Unknowing" (2007, Tompkins Square) and "Litany of Echoes" (2008, Tompkins Square) have received huge critical acclaim from printed and online publications including Pitchfork, Billboard, The Wire, The Observer, The Times, Uncut, The New York Times, Rolling Stone Magazine, The Onion, Magnet and Acoustic Guitar Magazine. "The Cloud of Unknowing" was also listed as one of the 50 best albums of 2007 by The Wire (no. 24) and Pitchfork (no. 34). His latest album, "Litany of Echoes" was listed as Uncut Magazine's 13th Best Album of 2008.
Blackshaw has recently signed to Michael Gira's Young God Records label (Devendra Banhart / Angels Of Light /Akron/Family / Lisa Germano / Swans etc...)and his seventh studio album The Glass Bead Game is to be released in May 2009. Blackshaw is currently a member of Current 93, Brethren of The Free Spirit (duo with Jozef Van Wissem) and performs live with Pantaleimon. He has toured extensively in Europe, US and Japan, playing approximately 200 shows since 2005 in a broad range of environments from sold-out 1,000 capacity venues supporting Jose Gonzalez to intimate church shows and institutions such as The Douglas Hynde Gallery in Dublin and The ICA in London. He has featured on National Public Radio in the US, BBC Radio 2 and performed live on VPRO television in The Netherlands.
James Blackshaw Discography: "Celeste" CD (Tompkins Square) 2008 - originally released by Celebrate Psi Phenomenon in 2004 • "Lost Prayers & Motionless Dances" CD (Tompkins Square) 2008 - originally released by Digitalis Industries in 2004 • "Sunshrine" CD (Tompkins Square) 2008 - originally released by Digitalis Industries in 2005 • "O True Believers" LP (Bo'weavil Records) & CD (Important Records) 2006 • "Waking Into Sleep - Goteburg 27.05.06" CD (Kning Disk) 2006 • "The Cloud of Unknowing" CD/LP (Tompkins Square) 2007 • "Litany of Echoes" CD (Tompkins Square) 2008 • "The Glass Bead Game" CD/LP (Young God Records) 2009