Secret Thirteen Interview - James Blackshaw


The hands of virtuoso and the mind of a poet - an exclusive interview with James Blackshaw

James Blackshaw needs just 12 strings to create beautiful and floating tapestries and narratives of sound with their own turns and twists. His compositions remind me of Symbolist landscapes, where incredible painting skills are mixed with hidden depths and meanings, where secrets and symbols lie within beautiful sceneries. It seems, that James Blackshaw music is like some abstract idea, emotion or dream made real by the combination of virtuosic hands and poetic mind.

Recent collaboration with Lubomyr Melnik was an interesting artistic choice merging Lubomyr's piano and James' guitar into beautiful continuous structures, thus highlighting James improvising skills. The Ukrainian composer and English guitarist created a very organic dialogue of two instruments, where every note is like a drop in the powerful stream of sound. It was another masterpiece added to James contribution list, that already had such dream teams as Sailors With Wax Wings or Myrninerest.

In this exclusive interview for Secret Thirteen journal James talks about meeting Lubomyr in Estonia, the importance of real life and fiction, the process of composing and other things. Take a glimpse behind his skillfully crafted and indepth soundworld.


You recently collaborated with Lubomyr Melnyk. He is the pioneer of continuous music. What similar sensibilities did you find with Lubomyr? How did this collaboration start? What do you think of the concept of continuous music? Do you find your compositions similar to Lubomyr's tapestries of sound? What did you gain from this collaboration?

Lubomyr is an incredible pianist and composer, who I’ve admired for quite some time. I’m really happy that he’s finally receiving some recognition for his work but he’s still largely underappreciated, in my opinion.

I think I first heard his music back around the time I was working on ‘Litany of Echoes’ and I felt like Lubomyr had already made the music I wanted to hear and make at that time, but for piano instead of guitar. We definitely share a great deal of sensibilities, not just in our approach to sonority, but in the state of mind we experience from making music and which we hope listeners experience too.

We first met at a festival in Estonia in 2008 where we were both performing. I started speaking to him at the merchandise table and he was curious as to what, as an English man, I was doing there. I told him I was also playing that night and he came along and watched me. I think something about the performance must have impressed him – he said that I’d created continuous music for the guitar and asked me if I’d like to collaborate. It wasn’t until early last year that we finally found that opportunity.

It was interesting to watch the way Lubomyr composes and plays and I gained the experience of making music more spontaneously and working with a hero of mine. Now I think I’m moving away from that sound, even if only temporarily, but I’d like to think I’d retain some of that sensibility.

How do you compose you tracks? Do you treat them like musical narratives or more like sound sculptures, images, ornaments, repetitive structures? Do you visualize your sound? With what other form of art could you compare your music?

In the past, typically it involves experimenting with tunings. Then I hear possibilities harmonically and melodically within that tuning. It’s more instinctive than anything else. I usually don’t know what I want to make, but I know what I don’t want to make.

I never visualize anything, nor any fixed narrative behind any one of my compositions. I read a book recently on how to write Fantasy novels. This might seem an odd thing to bring up at this point, but one thing I remember reading was an author’s suggestion that you draw inspiration from real life – your personal life or in general – to create this fantasy world, but it’s not enough just to change people’s names and their environment. You try to capture the essence of that person or of that experience and what made it memorable or poignant to you. In a way, as pretentious as this might sound, I think I’m just trying to capture the essence of many different important experiences in my life and translate them into music.

But of all forms of art, I think nothing is more similar to music than film, in my opinion.

"Love is the Plan, Plan is the Death" is the title of your last album. The image on the cover is the picture of some sort of fire and tent in the dark. What is the meaning behind the title? Does the album cover somehow relate to it? Is it a concept album?

There’s no concept but there is an underlying theme and it’s one of resigning oneself to darkness and detachment from oneself. If that sounds depressing, my apologies – it was a very sad time for me when I made that album. The title itself comes from a James Tiptree Jr. story, a Science Fiction author whose work I really love. The music itself is not directly related to the story and neither is the cover art, which is the artist Yu’s interpretation of what the music means. I love layers of abstraction and I fear I’ve just spoiled the mystery somewhat.

What informs your music? Is it some spontaneous, improvised chords, some abstract thoughts, feelings, emotions, experiences? What impulses makes you create?

Books. Films. Boredom. Restlessness. Love.

Some of my favourite films include 'The Conversation', 'Don't Look Now', 'Stroszek' and 'Picnic At Hanging Rock'. Of more recent directors, I'm a big fan of Sion Sono and Nicolas Winding Refn's work. I can see common themes between a lot of the films that resonate emotionally with me, particularly unseen fears and something alien or otherworldly captured in the world in which the characters inhabit and characters who are somewhat detached and isolated from that world themselves. I think the structure and movement of a lot of the films I love have a great musicality to them and also have great scores themselves. When film and music work in tandem in such a way to convey a feeling, it's perhaps he most powerful and immediate form of expression for me.

I read quite a lot and I especially love sci-fiction and fantasy. Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Lieber, James Tiptree Jr, Harlan Ellison and countless others authors have inspired my imagination a great deal. The last book I truly loved was 'The Lies of Locke Lamora' by Scott Lynch which I read for the first time earlier this year.

I can't really explain how any of these things have influenced my music, if at all, but I assume anything that moves, excites me or stirs me into action must somehow end up playing at least some small subconscious part in whatever it is I'm making.

According on internet info you are from London, but based in Hastings. Why did you move to this rural seaside town? Is it a better place to be inspired and create than the urbanistic metropolis? How places and surroundings influence you?

It was initially largely a case of not being able to afford to live in London – one of the most expensive cities in the world – and continue working on music in the way that I do now, so I made the choice to move elsewhere. Now, I like it a lot here. It’s mostly quite and I’m a stone’s throw from the sea. I love visiting London, but I don’t miss the pace of life there. In terms of environment influencing my music, I’m not sure it does really. Music is a very internal thing for me.

What made you to include vocals in your latest album? It was quite an interesting turn having in mind, that the rest of your albums are absent of vocals?

I like Menace Ruine and Preterite a lot. Genevieve said she heard a vocal line in her head for that song, when I sent her the album prior to release and I was really happy to trust her to something great with it. I was also really curious to hear what it would sound like, how it would work in the context of an instrumental album and to throw a curveball, so to speak. I don’t think it’ll be the last time I incorporate vocals on one of my records.

How do you relate with your instrument? Do you have some piece of instrument you are particularly attached? How does it influence your music? What physical qualities are the most important? Why do you find 12-string guitar special and distinctive?

I have a love/hate relationship with the guitar. What else? It’s the instrument I probably feel most comfortable with, but I also can’t escape it somehow. It’s a bit of a trap creatively speaking. Perhaps the instruments I enjoy playing most is the piano, but I am also relatively limited in terms of what I can do as I’m not a great player.

The 12-string is a beautiful instrument, of course. It’s depth and resonance opened me up to playing a style that seemed to suit it and just wouldn’t have been possible for me at the time with a 6-string guitar.

What informs the titles/concepts of your songs and albums? How do you put your pieces into coherent whole? What informs the way you construct your album's concept, tracklist, mood?

It’s all dictated to me by some kind of intuitiveness on my part, for better or worse, but I’m a great believer in not attempting to deconstruct those processes.

More about James Blackshaw: website - tumblr - facebook

About Author

Paulius Ilevicius is a Secret Thirteen journalist, editor and occasional DJ focusing on more dreamy and melancholic soundscapes. Born in post-industrial town of Pavevezys, currently he lives and works in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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