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.
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!
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?
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- 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!