Though James Blackshaw is known for his 12-string playing, he’s recently been gravitating toward his nylon 6-string Cordoba Clarita. Photo by James Blackshaw.
Why does the 12-string guitar speak to you?
Twelve-strings can have this big, resonant sound that’s rich in overtones. This initially lent itself very well to the kind of music I had in mind, accentuating the drone-like element when a lot of the strings are played open. You can also tune the strings down really low and get this amazing bass sound. But lately, I have to say I like the clarity of the 6-string acoustic guitar more, where every note feels much more separated and less blurry, for lack of a better word.
Do you approach the 6-string guitar differently from the 12-string?
I find my fretting hand is much more active when I play 6-string guitar. As a result I think the melody tends to become more pronounced. Also, especially with the nylon-string, I think my playing becomes softer and a bit more spacious.
How does your work as a pianist influence your guitar playing?
I used to play 12-string a bit like playing the piano with the sustain pedal held down—lots of open strings, never really bending the strings—and using similar kinds of chord progressions and arpeggio patterns. But I feel like I’ve been trying to get away from that recently and appreciating the guitar more for the instrument it is.
Tell us about your compositional process and how it’s evolved over the years.
I used to be very interested in long-form pieces, compositions that could last 10 minutes or more and were more about tone and texture. Because these pieces demanded a certain kind of patience and endurance—of both myself and the audience—they had an almost hypnotic quality. These days I feel more drawn to writing short pieces that are more melodically immediate—something you can connect with straight away.
Until now you’ve worked exclusively as an instrumentalist. What was it like to sing on Summoning Suns?
It was the most challenging thing I’ve done in a very long time and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it. It’s not like I’ve never sung before—I often have in the privacy of my own home over the years—but doing it on a record, doing it in public … terrifying! It’s also quite difficult to write lyrics and work them into a vocal melody, not to mention singing and playing guitar at the same time. It’s easy to underestimate how tricky that can be. I’m very proud of the results and now that I know I can do it, I’m less apprehensive and just excited to do more of the same.
The nonstandard tuning you used on “Nothing Ever After”—C–F– A#–F–G–A#—creates a haunting atmosphere. Do you work with a specific set of altered tunings or come up with new ones to suit the song or composition you hear in your head?
I’ve always experimented with different tunings. I’ll just tune until I find something interesting, some kind of harmonic or melodic possibility I hadn’t quite heard before, and then I’ll start writing around that tuning. The tunings aren’t totally random, I have some small amount of intuition about what will and won’t work, but I usually have no idea about what I’m going to do when I first sit down to write.
The tune “Confetti” calls to mind the pop records of Jim O’Rourke. Do you count him as an influence?
Oh, definitely, and I’m flattered by the comparison. Eureka and Insignificance, in particular, are two of my favorite records, and I also love his work with Gastr del Sol, but it wasn’t my intention to totally assimilate his music. There are a lot of other influences at play within that song. I was also thinking along the lines of Nilsson and the Jack Nitzsche singer-songwriter record, coupled with the kind of dark, sardonic tone of Warren Zevon. Judee Sill and The Millennium also spring to mind.
Get a close look at James Blackshaw’s formidable picking hand in this high-definition live footage.
How did you come to work with Nilsson’s daughter, Annie Nilsson, on the record?
I’m a massive Nilsson fan and have been for many years. I’ve loved his music my whole life and still listen to his songs probably more than anybody else. I’m even working on covering a few Nilsson songs sometime in the near future. I used to post a lot more on Twitter and quite frequently posted videos of Nilsson, quoted lyrics, etcetera. I noticed Annie had “favorited” one of my tweets one day and I dropped her a line saying, “Hey, I love your dad!” and she wrote, “Me too!” We got chatting and I found out Annie and her husband, Jared, are fans of my music. We kept in touch infrequently for a few years. She’s just a great person. When I started working on Summoning Suns, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to ask Annie if she’d like to sing on some songs, as I’d heard her cover of “Gotta Get Up,” and I really love her voice.
Did you write out all the arrangements or was it more of a collective thing?
I wrote the string and wind arrangements with help from my very talented friend Charlotte Glasson. I basically played all the individual parts on the piano for her, and she notated the parts and we figured out together what was and wasn’t working. The piano, pedal steel, banjo, additional percussion—that was all the work of the members of Mori Wa Ikiteiru, a brilliant Japanese band. I gave them free rein to do what they wanted once all the other parts were recorded.
Quite a sophisticated sense of harmony is apparent throughout the record—and your work in general. How did you develop this?
I’m not sure! I think maybe because I knew from the beginning that I wasn’t writing solely for acoustic guitar, and I just left more space for all kinds of harmonic possibilities to work their way into my music.