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James Blackshaw

James Blackshaw
24 March 2011

Photo by Kirstie Shanley

James Blackshaw creates a spiritual headspace rarely attempted or achieved in popular folk music. Maybe ambient music, or shoegaze — but given a few moments to establish itself, Blackshaw’s songs cultivate an environment completely within itself. On All Is Falling Blackshaw speaks in waves and cycles of instruments and genres. Twelve-string guitarist is no longer the adequate descriptor — Blackshaw has entered the realm of modern composer. For now, that seems like an adequate way to put it. Despite having no musical training, his intensely minimal pieces are often described as spiritual, hypnotic, and beautiful. We chatted about his progression as an artist, and how he arrived at All is Falling.

Where are you now, and where exactly have you situated yourself?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: I'm currently in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The first show of my North American tour with Mountains starts tomorrow in Chicago.

In your down time in the States, are you more looking forward to doing particular things, or seeing certain people?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: Touring means there's never enough time to do many of the things I'd like to do, but I'm happy if I get to eat in a couple of good Mexican or BBQ restaurants, which are two types of food we either don't really do well in the UK; visit some record stores, bookstores, comic book shops, etc. Seeing old friends is always a big highlight for me. There are a lot of people I know and love scattered around the US and Canada. Mountains are good friends of mine and I love their music very much, so I'm really stoked to be traveling with them. I'm hoping to see my friend Genevieve who plays in Menace Ruine in Montreal, Meg Baird and my friend Nicole in Philly, Rob Lowe in NYC and many others along the way.

Catching up on where you’ve taken your music the past few years, the past three albums have allowed instruments other than guitar to take lead melodies in songs. Have you been trying to change how people perceive your compositions by not being exclusive with guitar work?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: I just want to keep things interesting for myself. I'm certainly not trying to change how people approach my music or what they think of it. I just love adding different timbres and exploring different possibilities outside of guitar that playing 12-string solo doesn't allow. I've definitely been arranging more for other instruments, but it's not to distance myself from guitar - maybe rather looking at the music itself and my compositions as a whole and not allowing myself to be boxed in by that. I've never been particularly fetishistic about any one instrument - they're just tools or means to make music.

What gave you the courage to start incorporating more instrumentation?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: Probably a fair degree of naivety on my part, but I think I approached learning guitar and recording some of my earlier albums in a similar way. I've hardly ever known what I should be doing or the correct way to go about it. I love a lot of contemporary classical music, had absolutely no experience or training in arranging for strings, or winds, or what have you, but I felt like I wanted to incorporate those sounds anyway. It was trial by fire in many ways, but I also learned a lot from some of the great musicians and friends I'm lucky enough to know. Their trust and respect in my abilities and willingness to help me make the kind of sound I want to make has been incredibly encouraging to me.

Before you started putting major emphasis on piano, string arrangements and vocals, you’ve said there was a level of abstraction in transposing classical and orchestral ideas into guitar compositions. Do you feel like you’re still trying to execute the same type of ideas you might have had years ago with new instruments?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: I think I'm part way there. I'm not sure I'll ever truly be able to make the kind of music I want to make and be genuinely 100% happy with it. But for me, if I'm at least mostly happy with a piece, that's close enough. I think there's always going to be a level of abstraction. If I write something and it becomes too obvious to me for whatever reason, then it usually gets discarded. Writing solely for acoustic guitar in some ways made it easier to put some kind of distance there, in the sense that it's kind of hinting at what's not there. When you color those spaces in with other instrumentation and make it apparent to people what else might be there to be heard, it can kind of spoil things in my opinion, so now the biggest challenge is to reign things in and still leave something there to be imagined while simultaneously adding more color.

You didn’t really do much to differentiate track titles on All is Falling. The album is divided into parts of “All is Falling, Pt. 1,” “All is Falling, Pt. 2,” etc. Why not attach additional textual meaning to each track?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: At the time, I just wanted it to be music for music's sake. Even the title of the whole piece is quite ambiguous to me and the cover art is little more than a color field. I'm not trying to be willfully dense, but I just don't believe in my heart that music needs some additional context or meaning attached to it by the artist, unless that's what they truly want. Again, it kind of comes down to nothingness or negative space, two things I'm really interested in. Most listeners are smart enough - they don't need to be told if something is supposed to be happy or sad or beautiful or poetic or dark or nihilistic or whatever.

What puts you into the mood to work?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: I think seasons play a big part in my creativity. Making music in the summer? Forget it! There's something about Autumn and Winter which immediately seems to find me in a more creative headspace. Other than that, watching a good film, reading a good book or listening to new music that is in some way inspiring always makes me want to respond in some way. And encouragement and positive feedback about previous work always helps me, just to know that some people out there care and might be interested in whatever you do next.

Time for music recommendations. Who is the last artist that impressed you in a live setting? Or whose work do you find yourself revisiting?

JAMES BLACKSHAW: Confession time: I rarely find the opportunity to go the live shows anymore, and when I do, it's often just to meet friends, catch up and have a nice time. The last few records I heard this year that I really enjoyed were Victoire’s Cathedral City, Oval’s O and Jon Mueller’s The Whole.

Please explain the following tweet: "My Glasgow trip wouldn't be complete without at least one narrowly avoided beating. Fun show though."

JAMES BLACKSHAW: I was joking around mostly. Glasgow's actually a really great city with a ton of incredibly lovely and friendly people living there. I hope nobody takes the stuff I say on Twitter too seriously! That said, I played a show in Glasgow recently and to cut a long story short, one particular security guard at the venue seemed to take a rather obviously tongue in cheek comment I made quite seriously. After said comment was made and I accidentally spilled his hot cup of coffee, let's just say he wasn't very happy indeed and I hotfooted it out of there pretty sharpish; coward that I am.

Read Michael Toland's review of All Is Falling.