Ian Maleney talks composing, boundaries and alienation with James Blackshaw who plays The Unitarian Church this Friday with Alexander Tucker and Cian Nugent.
Becoming a master of a particular instrument is a long road. Natural talent is required and putting in the hours of practice to refine that skill is always going to be hard work. Then you have the rebellion phase, questioning what has been learned and trying to find a personal identity in relation to the body of work that lies behind you. In some ways, it’s that last phase which is probably the most difficult but the artists that make it through are always stronger for it. For the past few years, there has been a sense with James Blackshaw that he might be going through that phase. After building a name for himself with some genuinely stunning solo guitar work throughout his early twenties, his last two albums, The Glass Bead Game and All Is Falling – released on Micheal Gira’s Young God Records in 2009 and 2010 respectively – both opened up his style to new forms of instrumentation and structures not present in his work until then. Both albums teetered at the edge of Blackshaw’s abilities as a player and a composer, taking risks and instilling the feeling that the Hastings man was searching for something new.
With Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death, his new full-length, we find Blackshaw integrating his earlier styles with the latter experimentation in its strongest form yet. His trademark finger-picked guitar is back at the fore, though with the nylon-stringed classical guitar taking the place of the more usual 12-string. Other instrumentation is sparse, with the piano playing showing signs that Blackshaw continues to grow in that capacity also. Perhaps most striking is the vocal performance of Geneviève Beaulieu on ‘And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways‘, which will no doubt be as divisive a performance as any Blackshaw has recorded to date. Blackshaw himself remains eager to push back the boundaries that have become associated with him over the course of the last decade. “I think it’s always a good idea to question your instincts and not become too comfortable with the patterns of thought that A, are dictated to you or B, you find yourself in, just through time or through complacency,” he says.
“I’d say on the one hand, I feel very comfortable working with solo guitar, maybe a little too comfortable and I’ve always wanted to push so far within those boundaries, to push as much as I can. There’s always been a little bit of a contrary nature in me and I guess, in some ways, I’m fighting something that comes very natural to me in the guitar. In another way, instinctively I can be a very contrary person and I want to push myself, I don’t know… I wouldn’t say to challenge people – I want people to like my music, I think everyone wants that – but to kind of gently challenge and push within those boundaries a little bit.”
The give-and-take relationship Blackshaw has with the Takoma school of guitarists has been a source of great creative friction for him in the past and his awareness of this is only growing stronger, as is his ability to carve out a personal identity in relation to it. “I think it would be kind of childish not to accept that in a way, you’re part of a tradition or accept the tradition or accept its influence,” says Blackshaw. “I think myself and pretty much everyone I know who does solo guitar, we were or are influenced by John Fahey and Robbie Basho and for some people, the British guitarists like Renbourn and Jansch and Davey Graham and people like that, though not so much me particularly. You have to either sort of deliberately step outside of that, which is something I feel like I’ve done on occasion and I may do again, or you are working within this very strict sort of set of rules. It’s just about finding new ways to be inventive within that and it’s not always the easiest thing.”
Blackshaw has always felt more in tune with the American tradition of guitar players and composers, something which continues to this day. “I guess the biggest difference for me was that I always kind of thought that players like John Fahey and Robbie Basho were much less clean and methodical and technically perfect than some of the players from the UK,” he says. “I always felt like they had a little bit more soul I suppose in a way.”
“I think, a lot of the British players seems to have more of an emphasis on their fretting hand and it seems to me like a lot of the American players are very focused in on their picking hand and their picking patterns, really the root of where everything comes from. That’s definitely been the case for me as well really.”
Blackshaw has described himself as a composer in the past and the title, combined with his inimitable virtuoso style, has lead to some misinterpretation. “I think since I’ve said that, I’ve come to regret it because for some people it has this air of having lofty ideals,” he says. “You say, ‘I compose music‘ and people think that’s placing yourself on the same pedestal as Bach or something, but it’s purely a way of saying that I play guitar and I write music for guitar. I guess if I was to say I’m a guitarist, that doesn’t completely cover the fact that I write my music or something. A classical guitarist who does recitals and plays classical guitar music is a guitarist.”
Whatever he is described as, Blackshaw’s reputation as a guitar player proceeds him and there is something of a return to the guitar on Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death, where it is more central than it has been for several years. As a result, Blackshaw’s plan to take the new songs out on the road involves some work that often goes un-talked about. “I’ve been practising all this week quite vigorously, or rigorously rather. Both of those!” he says. “Funnily enough, I haven’t played any of the songs I’m going to do from the new album live before. I haven’t actually really played any of them since I recorded them back in December so it’s kind of a case of almost re-learning those songs and getting up to speed.”
While Blackshaw describes the songs as “pretty set”, saying they’ll sound quite like they do on the record, there will be one important difference to the recorded versions. “I think I’m actually going to play all the songs on 12-string and not on classical guitar like they are on the new record, for a few different reasons,” he says. “One of the biggest reasons would be that classical guitars, they’re not really made to be re-tuned a lot between songs and all of the songs are in different turnings. I was just finding that it was like an impossible task without asking an audience to sit there for a good ten minutes while I’m trying to constantly get a guitar in tune. I guess that kind of happens with the 12-string anyway! But at least the 12-string stays in tune for the length of a song or whatever but classical guitars are kind of finicky. I think if it was in one tuning I’d be fine. I guess that’s a problem I didn’t really know I had until this week. The songs sound pretty good on a 12-string anyway, I’m quite happy. I had never even tried that before.”
The recording of the new LP was done in Chicago, where the professional studio setup and associated costs meant for a somewhat pressured environment. Rather than make for a stressful or rushed final product, Blackshaw insists that those pressures force him to focus on the task at hand that he might not do otherwise. “I really like it actually. It is more pressured but I think that pressure is quite good for me,” he says. “I think it’s good for me to have a set period of time where I need to make the album and I also don’t have to be too involved with the recording process myself because I can get distracted by it. I’m really interested in recording and interested in sounds and I’ve noticed that when I try to record things at home, I can get really obsessed with sitting there and trying to get things to sound right before I’ve even finished playing the song. So it’s good to step out of that and let someone who knows what they’re doing take care of that. That pressure is good for me as well, I think if I had infinite amounts of time available to me, then I would second guess myself a lot and never quite be happy. Somehow having those limitations actually feels like part of the process for me. So I’ve always liked going into studios and doing it that way.”
One of the most unusual features of the recordings is the presence of Blackshaw’s heavy breathing, clearly audible on several of the songs. While it can be disconcerting at first, the human quality of it grows to be rather calming and grounding over time, giving the listener a real sense of the person involved in playing this immensely complex music. Blackshaw says the choice to leave the breathing in was intentional and something he came to really like about the recordings. “It was just a case where we sat there and listened to it and I think both me and Andrew, the engineer who recorded this in Chicago, decided that we both actually kind of liked it,” he says. “We could have gone back and re-positioned the microphones or have me reel it in a little bit, maybe put me in a surgical mask or something! I figured people would pick up on it because it’s fairly noticeable and I figured some people would probably like that as some kind of unintentional product of hearing someone in a room and other people would be really distracted by it and not like it at all! They’d be like, ‘What the fuck? I don’t want to hear someone breathe on a record!’. Ultimately, I kind of like the fact that it was a very human element and to keep that in there and it’s not a machine making the music, it’s a person who is breathing. I always liked Glenn Gould, the pianist. On some of his recordings you can hear him whistling and singing along to little bits of piano and you can hear him breathing heavily. I just thought, that’s great you know?”
The album title and many of the songs titles are taken from work by American sci-fi author James Titpree Jr. The author’s work in genre fiction was often hard-edged and dark, dealing with themes that appealed to Blackshaw when he was working on the album. “I guess the sense of loneliness,” he says. “Of alienation, of anxiety, you know the sense of identification, like identity issues, all sorts of things that at the time of writing struck a chord with me.”
While it is difficult, for obvious reasons, to trace a direct influence on Blackshaw, the perceived boundaries of genre fiction line up well with those of the solo guitarist and the ability to push at those limitations is something both he and Tiptree have in common. “It is definitely writing that transcends, as most of the really good genre fiction does, these stereotypical ideas and boundaries that people assume it might have,” says Blackshaw. “I think her work is very dark and her style of writing is almost like beat poetry to me or something. There’s a weird quality to it, a very poetic quality to it.”
Blackshaw’s wish to let his music speak for itself is also something shared with the pseudonymous author, known to her family and friends as Alice Bradley Sheldon. “She remained basically anonymous really and took on this pseudonym and was able to express herself and some of these ideas within the confines of this genre writing. I don’t know why but that was a really great idea to me,” says Blackshaw. “I loved her use of words, the titles of some of those stories, and I just kind of, you know, stole them!”
As ever, he seems to be searching for something that will last, something unconfined by expectation or style. Blackshaw’s innate modesty comes to the fore and his understanding of the relationship he has with the artists that have gone before him, of all forms, once again becomes key. With that in mind, the “stealing” of Tiptree’s titles begins to mean something quite different. “I wouldn’t say it’s for lack of imagination on my part, it’s really that I’ve largely preferred, in some ways, to keep myself out of my own music,” he says. “To use my own words colours it too much. The few times I have done that, I often look back on them and I don’t like it. The titles sometimes won’t mean anything to me now or they’ll mean things that I wish they didn’t, in retrospect. I kind of like the idea that if I’m using other people’s words, I’m using something that means something to me but taken from someone else so it has a timeless quality.”
James Blackshaw, Alexander Tucker and Cian Nugent play The Unitarian Church this Friday, 11th May. More details from Skinny Wolves.