Blackshaw's good vibrations

James Blackshaw keeps his ears (and strings) open
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  January 26, 2010

LONG-TERM COMMITMENT "Some of my favorite pieces can be three or four hours long. Music like that makes you think to yourself 'What is a song?' "

"I feel like such a hippie talking like this." I've just caught James Blackshaw on his way from the Tube (he's in London) to the evening's show, and it hasn't taken much prodding to get him waxing poetic on his love of the 12-string guitar. "Sometimes I will just play a single string open, allowing the sound to resonate, and within just that one open string, I can hear all sorts of possibilities that will eventually become a composition. It's intuitive and organic — an extension of the instrument itself."

Blackshaw's low-key career has evolved as organically as one of his songs: at 28, the Londoner has amassed a body of instrumental guitar music that defies tidy categorization. What he does isn't really folk, jazz, or new age — and it's far too accessible to be mistaken for avant-garde. Blackshaw, who comes to T.T. the Bear's on Tuesday, uses his individual finger-picking style to create dizzying concentric mantras and gentle melodic panoramas. It's less about writing a catchy song than about letting the sound and the instrument dictate everything.

"I love the sound of strings being played open," he tells me. "It's a very different tonal, almost physical quality that emerges from played strings that aren't fretted. I mean, if you watch a jazz guitarist's hands and the shape of the chords someone like that would play, it's all amazing — but at the same time, they're almost fighting nature, aren't they? I prefer to retune the instrument to suit what I want to do."

Blackshaw's approach balances an outsider's take on modern guitar composition with an adolescence spent in punk trenches. "As a teenager, I played a bit of everything, but not that well. When I started playing on my own, what excited me was what you could do with one guitar — that you could have a bass line and a melody line and rhythm. Really, it all felt like composing on a miniature level."

Blackshaw's sixth album, The Glass Bead Game (Young God), is his most ambitious so far: he refines his emotional whirlwinds while introducing beguiling guest vocal and cello turns. The opening "Cross" begins with a simple reverbed guitar motif, then builds — over nine minutes — into a swirling mass of lyrical melody lines and interlocking guitar and cello, hitting a sweet spot between '70s Steve Reich minimalism and the outsider guitar genius of early-'60s John Fahey.

Both figures were key inspirations, especially in their use of repetition. "I wouldn't say that my music is minimalist, but I've been inspired by a lot of composers who are, and I find repetition interesting. I mean, some of my favorite pieces can be three or four hours long! Music like that makes you think to yourself, 'What is a song? Why does a song have to be three or four minutes long?' I don't believe in repetition for its own sake, but if you listen to something for a motif or pattern that grows and repeats, there's something very organic about it — and I love the idea of music being organic."

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