James Blackshaw - Biography
James Blackshaw is a twelve-string guitar and piano player from London with flawless technique and an amazing compositional ability. The subtle power and flowing beauty of his long instrumental pieces have made him a cult hero in the United States, while in his own country of England he has gone largely unknown.
Blackshaw was born in 1981 and was inspired to start playing by John Fahey’s American Primitive guitar sound. He incorporates a wide musical palette including sounds drawn from 20th Century classic music, the minimalism of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, the odd time signatures of Erik Satie, chamber music and subtle hints of New York’s No Wave movement. On record and in live performances, his pieces are finely balanced between composition and improvisation, with a restrained emotional power and a full dynamic range full of stops and starts and unexpected changes in volume and tempo.
Blackshaw seldom speaks of his private life or early musical history. He does admit he grew up in London and listened to a lot of ’60s pop—The Zombies, The Beatles, The Left Banke, Neil Young, and Harry Nilsson—as well as the obvious guitar records of John Fahey and Robbie Basho. Though his arrangements can be complex, he can’t read or write music and tours as a means to an end financially.
When Blackshaw emerged at 23-years-old, his distinctive sound was already full-blown, as evidenced on Celeste (2004 Celebrate Psi Phenomenon UK/ 2008 Tompkins Square). Celeste was first offered as a self-released CDR in a limited edition of 80 copies, and it includes two compositions: “Celeste I” for 12-string guitar and “Celeste II” for 12-string guitar and electric organ. The music unfolds in unexpected directions with hints of raga, flamenco, folk, and British church music.
Blackshaw followed-up with Lost Prayers & Motionless Dances (2004 Digitalis Industries UK/2008 Tompkins Square) another CDR in an edition of 200 copies. The interplay between harmonium, 12-string guitar overtones, raga-like drones and his dexterous finger picking creates music of startling originality.
Sunshrine (2005 Digitalis Industries UK/2008 Tompkins Square) was another limited edition, although this time there were 1,000 copies made in England. “Sunshrine” is a complex suite influenced by Indian music with a swirling multi-layered interplay of sarod, harmonium, organ, bells, bowed cymbals and six- and 12-string guitars. The other track, “Skylark Heralds Dawn,” is a short, folky guitar tune.
O True Believers (2006 Important) is a more straightforward 12-string guitar album, with four extended pieces that roll and flow like an old river on a warm summer evening. Blackshaw put out Waking Into Sleep (Kning Disk UK) in 2007, and it was another limited edition. The album is a recording of a live gig in Gothenburg, Sweden in May of 2006, with Blackshaw performing a “greatest hits” set with selections from his first four albums played solo on 12-string guitar.
The Cloud of Unknowing (2007 Tompkins Square) showed Blackshaw emerging from his influences with compositions that hint at Celtic folk, raga, country music, the Arab continuum, and free jazz. Dissonant accompaniment by violinist Fran Bury adds a skronk-like air to the closer “Stained Glass Windows.”
Litany of Echoes (2008 Tompkins Square) compliments Blackshaw’s piano with Bury’s violin and viola on several tracks, while his solo 12-string work on “Echo and Abyss” and “Shroud” is transcendent.
Blackshaw released yet another enigmatic opus, The Glass Bead Game, on Young God Records in spring of 2009, which gained him critical praise.