From The Cedar Box - James Blackshaw

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From The Cedar Box
James Blackshaw
Written by Marissa Nadler

I met James Blackshaw at the Tin Angel in Coventry, England in 2004, where we were both booked on the same bill.  It was one of my first tours outside of the United States and it was one of James' first tours as well. Even in the early years of his career, his music was already intensely beautiful.  I count myself lucky to have met such an inspiring artist at this intimate venue in the middle of England, and am happy that we have stayed friends over the years. James is often described as a 12-string guitar virtuoso, though piano and six-string guitar have featured prominently on recent releases. His guitar playing style manages to have a effortlessly organic sound, regardless of the intricacy of the parts. 

James new record, Love Is the Plan, the Plan Is Death will be available on April 24 via Important Records, and James has been kind enough to talk to me about it. 



M- Track three off of Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death, "And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways" is a lyrically driven song. You had a composition on your last full-length record that had some vocal counting in it, but I've never heard one of your songs go so far in this direction. Who is singing? Hearing this reminded me of when you played me Salangadou off of Basho Sings. There is this tragedy in Basho's voice when he sings about a mother having lost her child that is similar to the vocals on your song. They both have an intense passion and a deep mournfulfulness. I have read that this record is inspired partially by the work of sci-fi writer James Tiptree, Jr., also known as Alice B. Sheldon. Did you feel the desire to include lyrics as a way of more directly tying the record to its influence? 

J- My friend Geneviève Beaulieu sang the vocals and wrote the lyrics to "And I Have Come Upon This Place by Lost Ways". It was originally written as a piano instrumental, but we had discussed the idea of collaborating together in some capacity for a while and Geneviève really connected with the music and was inspired to write words and sing. I was and still am blown away by what she did with it, I can hardly imagine it now without her voice! It wasn't a very planned out thing and I've always been a little scared about the use of words in my music, as I've always liked the ambiguity within instrumental music, like it doesn't have to be tied to any particular place, time, person, or specific set of imagery, but I think it just sits together perfectly. I didn't really think of the literary connection between Alice B Sheldon and me using voice and words in this way for the first time and Genevieve's lyrics take no direct influence from the author, but it's a nice coincidence.

M- This kind of ties in with the first question. Do you see yourself collaborating with more vocalists in the future or was this a one off?

J- I'd love to do more work with vocalists and for the effort to be more collaborative. I adore the sound of the human voice and would enjoy the challenge of making more music that interweaves with voice and more traditional lyrics in some way. I mean, some of my favorite music in the world is just brilliantly written singer/songwriter stuff, like Jackson Browne, Harry Nilsson, Judee Sill, Arthur Russell, Big Star... I like a lot of pop music!

M- How is this record inspired by the writings of Alice B Sheldon? For those unfamiliar with Sheldon's work, what would you recommend as an introduction? 

J- I've always used (or as I sometimes like to say, "lovingly misused") references to other works of art in my titles in a very weird and abstract way, in that the works themselves heavily inspired me during periods when I was writing the music, but there's never meant to be any direct connection between my music and the works themselves. I did a similar sort of thing with 'The Cloud of Unknowing' and 'The Glass Bead Game' and again with 'All Is Falling', which is a reference to Bas Jan Ader, a visual artist from The Netherlands who made a lot of films in which he literally fell over and later disappeared at sea. James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym of a woman named Alice B Sheldon who wrote short science fiction stories, but I would use that term very loosely or at least say for anybody who thinks that genre-fiction can't be deep and thoughtful, her work deals a lot of with loneliness, isolation, identity and gender. I'd highly recommend people check out any good anthology of her stories - a recent one called 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever' is a great start - and also look into 'The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon', a biography by Julie Philips, even if you don't know her fiction, as she had quite a fascinating life!

M- Does guitar playing still have the element of mystique for you? Correct me if I'm wrong but this is nylon stringed guitar? Also, is this a six string rather than the 12 string guitar that you have become so known for? It has a darker, sadder, and more earthy sound to it when the brightness of the steel strings is taken out of the mix. Why did you choose nylon strings? 

J- I think it's kind of sad but inevitable that if you do something a lot it will begin to lose it's mystique and that's definitely slightly true with the 12-string. As much as I love it, I've recently struggled to find anything new to say with it! The new album is all nylon string guitar and it's the first time I've used it on an album. I've really loved the sound of classical guitar for a long time, Brazilian players like Baden Powell and Bola Sete being big favorites of mine. I bought a classical guitar for the first time since I was about 18 years old just a couple of years ago and amazed myself by just how fresh and rejuvenating it felt to play. It's an entirely different instrument in many ways which also changed my style and technique a bit by default. I agree, it's a little darker and earthier, but there's something very precise and also incredibly human and expressive about the sound of a nylon string guitar.

M- Is there usually one tuning that you will use for an entire suite of songs on a record? On this record, do you use more than one tuning? 

J- I've done a couple of albums where I stick to only one tuning for the entire duration, but the tuning is different for each song on this record.

M- It's really nice to see your guitar playing making a strong comeback. Your last full length release was a beautiful record mostly led by piano. Do you feel equally at home on both instruments? 

J- I wish I felt as comfortable at the piano as I do playing guitar! That said, I owned my first real piano for a while - a 20's Baldwin Spinet - and was playing every day, I just loved it so much, and I think my playing got a lot stronger as result.

M- Do you think you have to play guitar every day to be a real player? Do you practice every single day? 

J- When I first started out, I played for hours every single day, but I haven't done that in years. I think everybody reaches a plateaux at some point naturally and for me, I feel pretty comfortable with my playing, I kind of have what I need to make the music that I want to make. I try not to leave huge periods of time between playing though, because if I do, I become utterly convinced that I'll have forgotten how and can become pretty anxious!

M- The chord progressions on this record have less elements of the sunshine of some of your earlier records and more darkness in them. There are some sinister moments. Also, you can hear your labored breathing on some parts of this record. I really like the intimate, raw production. Were you in a really dark place when you wrote this record? 

J- Haha, yes - the breathing is quite noticeable, mostly me exhaling air loudly like I'm sighing or something. It's just a sort of bi-product of the way we recorded it and it could have been prevented or removed, but I actually felt it sort of lends itself to the intensity and intimacy of the performance, so we kept it as it was.  I can't and won't for the sake of other people's privacy mention details, but I was also under a lot of pressure and going through a very, very sad and stressful period in my life when I wrote it and when I was in the studio recording it. I like the album a lot, but it reminds me of that time. It felt like something I absolutely had to make to stay alive and maybe that sounds dramatic, but at the time, that really felt like the case.

Everyone, keep a lookout for the new record!

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