James Blackshaw: Best Hand Forward
On his new album, the British fingerstylist embraces nylon strings, songcraft, and vocals.
British musician James Blackshaw is one of the brightest new voices to emerge in the fingerstyle solo guitar resurgence of the last decade. In 2003 he made his solo debut with Apologia, which he self-released on CD-R and sold at the record shop where he worked in London. Reissued digitally and on limited-edition vinyl last year, the album finds Blackshaw playing 6-string tributes to American Primitive guitarists John Fahey and Robbie Basho, as well as country-blues pioneers like Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis.
By the time he released his second album, 2004's Celeste, Blackshaw had picked up the 12-string guitar and begun to explore gradually unfurling, longer-form pieces with suggestions of raga and British liturgical music, a direction he'd follow on Lost Prayers and Motionless Dances (2004), Sunshrine (2005), O True Believers (2006), The Cloud of Unknowing (2007), and other solo albums.
After years of investigating the 12-string, Blackshaw began to focus on playing nylon-string guitar and piano, and composing small chamber works. This creative shift yielded Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death (2012) and his 2014 score for the silent French film, Fantômas: Le Faux Magistrat.
Containing a handful of smart pop songs, Blackshaw's latest album, Summoning Suns, is even more of a departure. It's the first time he's written lyrics, let alone sung them. But the album's instrumental selections show that Blackshaw hasn't totally abandoned the 12-string guitar and the evocative sounds he creates with it.
PG recently spoke to Blackshaw to learn more about the 34-year-old's creative odyssey and how singer-songwriters like Harry Nilsson and Warren Zevon figure into his musical evolution.
Describe your formative musical experiences.
My mum bought an upright piano when I was little and I used to love playing around with it. I couldn't really get the coordination between my left and right hands, so I'd usually end up just writing a simple melody line or trying to copy something I'd heard on TV or on the radio.
My parents used to listen to stuff like the Rolling Stones and Neil Young all the time, so I grew up listening to music like that too, and when I was 10 years old, I asked for an electric guitar for my birthday. I never had lessons and didn't even figure out how to tune it properly for a while, so even back then I was coming up with alternate tunings so I could just use one finger and play barre chords.
Photo by Tim Bugbee / Tinnitus.
In my early teens, I heard Nirvana and that threw open all sorts of doors for me. I started getting into American indie rock bands, punk, hardcore and some pretty underground stuff. It was like connecting the dots—from one band I might find out about another band because they shared members or they'd done a split 7-inch together. Or I might decide to check out everything on a particular label like Touch and Go, Gravity, and Kill Rock Stars.
I played guitar in a couple of punk-rock bands but none of them really went anywhere—some shows, a demo or two. I even played piano and bass in a couple of more unusual bands when I lost interest in guitar for a little while, but at some point I realized I wasn't very good at playing with other people. I wasn't very reliable at that age and I also had pretty fixed ideas of what I wanted and didn't want to do.
I first heard John Fahey through a friend when I was 16 and was pretty much in awe of how one person can do that with just an acoustic guitar. I even went to see him play in London shortly before he died. But it wasn't until I was around 20 when I was working in a record shop and wasn't playing in any bands that I really started to listen to his records, and I became pretty obsessed.
Through Fahey I heard Robbie Basho and a lot of old country blues too, but I was also listening to a lot of '60s pop and psych, ethnic music, minimalism, and contemporary classical music. That time in particular, while I was working at the record shop in London, I was just listening to so much stuff. I bought a cheap guitar and began to teach myself fingerpicking, trying to incorporate all these different things I was hearing.
Other than players like Robbie Basho and John Fahey, which guitarists are your benchmarks?
I love Baden Powell—my favorite guitarist ever—Elliott Smith, Tom Verlaine, and Wilko Johnson.
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.