This autumn James Blackshaw released the Holly EP, a brief but remarkable work that adds to an already remarkable discography. Here he speaks via email about how he approaches the practice of composition, and about key experiences that have shaped his views on art. (Photo by Nicole Boitos.)
At what age did you first become interested in music? Growing up, what did music mean to you? How has your view of music as a form of art changed over the years, if it has?
Around the age of 9, my mum bought an old upright piano with the intention of learning to play. She never did, but I used to enjoy playing. I could only really figure out how to use to use a couple of fingers at a time, each hand at a time, but I’d write these little melodies and I quickly managed to convince my parents that I should take piano lessons. I lasted maybe two or three. Of course I wish I’d stuck with them now, but learning scales should be like Kryptonite for any sane, marginally creative person of that age.
It was hearing Nirvana that prompted me to want to play guitar when I was 11 years old. I think perhaps more important than their music itself, they were incredibly important because they led me to find out about all kinds of stuff: Sonic Youth, Hüsker Dü, The Jesus Lizard, Sebadoh, punk rock and the DC post-hardcore scene etc., and I started playing in punk rock bands, hanging out in record stores and going to shows at a very early age. It was just such a rush of discovery and everything seemed to connect somehow. The Internet was barely a blip on the radar, so nearly everything revolved around word of mouth, fanzines and mail-order catalogues. I came to hear stuff like Rachel’s, Gastr Del Sol and even John Fahey by the time I was 16, which seems kind of crazy now to me. And when I was a teenager, it meant the world to me, both on a personal level and through finding friends who I shared stuff in common with because I was pretty awkward and shy.
I eventually ended up working in a record shop when I was 21. I became really obsessed with solo guitar and started learning fingerpicking, bought a 12-string a couple of years later just because I was so blown away by Robbie Basho’s music. I also became really passionate about experimental music, classical music, drone, minimalism, psych and even ran a small mail-order specialising in underground, small-press releases. I think these types of music in particular shaped my listening tastes and my own music and continue to do so.
These days, I feel less engaged with what’s going on musically. Maybe it’s getting older, maybe the thrill of seeking out new things is lessened by the sheer ease with which we can find and obtain things via the Internet. Maybe I’m just less easily impressed or I have tastes which aren’t easily accounted for. For example, I’d love to hear someone make some kind of lush orchestral pop record, in the vein of Harry Nilsson, Judee Sill, Margo Guryan, Bill Fay or Dennis Wilson, but who the fuck could or would finance that in an age where so few people buy records? It’s sad, but not worth getting upset about. Some people bitch and moan about the music industry, but I personally think that’s like complaining about bad weather. There’s nothing we can do to change it, just try to adapt and enjoy the many things in life that are worth enjoying.
What role does practicing guitar or piano play for you? Beyond a certain level, do you find that there is a high degree of correlation between the amount of work you put into writing or playing music and the quality of the result, or is there a drop-off at some point where a composition will not improve with more time? Do you play or write music daily? Has your work process changed since you began releasing records and touring?
That’s a tough question. For me, I personally feel my best work comes from a lot of practice and time spent thinking about what I’m writing, but it’s as hard to know when to stop working on a piece as it is to start one, maybe more so. What’s interesting is I know for a fact that there’s a number of my pieces which people particularly seem to enjoy which were written in hardly any time at all: the song “Running to the Ghost,” for example, or pretty much the whole of the O True Believers album. I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast rule as to whether time and effort equals better quality of music; I just know I generally feel better when I’ve explored all my options both as a performer and a composer.
My work ethic in general has remained the same all these years: I spend big chunks of time where I don’t play or write music at all and big chunks of time where I seem to do nothing but! It’s not something I’d recommend to everybody, but I tend to be like that in many aspects of my life, drawn to one extreme or the other.
Have you started to read and write musical notation, and if so has this helped the composition process for you, and how has it changed the way that you think of composition?
I’d call my ability to read and write music “rudimentary,” haha! I can do it, but it takes me an insane amount of time, so if for example I’m writing string or wind parts, I literally just play it on the piano or sing the part and I’m lucky to have friends who are very talented and know what I mean!
What originally brought about an interest in using a nylon-string guitar for the title track of the Holly EP?
I’ve loved the sound of nylon string guitar for a while, but hardly ever had the opportunity to play one. I like a lot of classical pieces, particularly the composer Leo Brouwer, and recently I started to get quite heavily into some Brazilian guitarists like Baden Powell and Bola Sete, so I decided to pick up a cheap classical guitar and was kind of surprised how much I took to it, given how different it is tonally and in feel from the 12-string.
I think one of your most interesting recent works was “Part 1″ from All is Falling; I was wondering what exactly is happening on the piano part at around the 2:10 mark – are you playing the high, fast turn of notes in a different time signature than the rest of the song? Is this part overdubbed over the other piano line, and is it played with both hands?
Oh yeah, that part was overdubbed, but I think it’s in the same time-signature. In fact, there’s about 3-4 multi-tracked pianos on that piece, dropping in and out.
I was also wondering what is happening, in an instrumental sense, on “Part 8″ of All is Falling – what sort of synth are you using, and are you using many overdubs, or is it just one track?
If I remember rightly, I E-bowed a 12-string electric guitar through a volume pedal and a tremelo pedal, occasionally changing notes, the settings on the tremelo pedal and bringing the volume up and down. I then overdubbed another track doing the same thing and my friend Charlotte recorded two saxophone tracks, just listening to the drone and playing long, sustained notes over the top. It wasn’t edited and no effects were added in post-production, so it was all pretty spontaneous.
It seems that your melodies and chord progressions almost always move symmetrically, one phrase counterbalancing another, bringing about a very beautiful form of tension as a result; there is a real beauty on “Transient Life in Twilight” from the O True Believers album that seems to come from variations in the initial phrase, for example – the way that around the 3:12 mark a shift in harmony changes the whole tone of the piece. Do you visualize the shape of the melodic line, or the shape of a chord progression, or do you just have more a sense of how you would like the piece to sound and trust your instincts?
I think everything I do is very instinctive and rarely something I pre-empt, I just know what feels right to my ears or moves me in some way. And maybe it’s cheesy to some people, but shifting from major to minor keys in unexpected places is just one of those things that work so well in music. The way one chord leads to another is one of the more important details for me. With the exception of pure drone, which I think demands a very different kind of attention from a listener, a lot of music that stays in one key just sounds very flat and lifeless to me.
What music has most interested you lately? Are there many works from other forms, such as painting, film, or literature that have struck a chord with you recently?
According to my iTunes, these are the last few artists I added: Baden Powell, Alan Licht, Jack Nitzsche, Roberto Cacciapaglia’s The Ann Steel Album, J Dilla and a lot of David Shire’s soundtrack work.
I’ll be honest, I’m kind of a geek, haha! The last book I read was Speaker For The Dead by Orson Scott Card. I read a lot of comic books and I’m obsessed with the series Fables. I love sci-fi, fantasy and horror. I haven’t seen any good films in a while, except for Drive, but with amazing TV shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Boardwalk Empire showing, I probably spend too much time in front of the TV as it is. I don’t know if any of this stuff has had a profound impact on my work, maybe not, but I’m convinced that there’s as much wonderful stuff to be gleaned from what some people call “low-brow culture” as there is from high art.
In a related question, it seems like you are influenced by an aspect of Elliott Smith’s work that is often overlooked, that is, the compositional aspect itself – could you talk about the effect that he has had on you?
Wow, where do I begin?! I think Elliott Smith was really on another level when it came to making pop music. His music was often catchy yet rarely obvious without trying be overtly challenging or weird for weird’s sake. His innate sense of harmony, melody and attention to detail just made him an extraordinarily gifted songwriter. I also think he was a really stellar guitarist and lyrically, I know there’s been many times in my life where I’ve just connected so much emotionally with his words. It’s terribly sad that he’s no longer with us because there’s no one else who makes music quite like him, but what’s worse is that I’m sure there are some people who can’t see objectively how fucking good his music is because of their preconceptions about who he was as a person. I don’t know how much he’s influenced my own music or not, but his music has been a massive inspiration to me.
What is the process of touring like? Is it enjoyable, or stressful, or both?
Both! The thing I love most about touring is meeting people and it’s also wonderful to travel the world and see so many places, even if half the time it is just from the window of a van and then eight hours stuck inside a club, haha! I wouldn’t swap it for the world, but it can also throw you off balance and it can get very lonely. All the things you take for granted at home – washing your clothes, taking a shower, checking your e-mail, watching a movie, eating what you want to eat when you want to eat it – can become mammoth tasks. And it can put a lot of strain on friendships and relationships, being away for big stretches of time. But man, I have met so many wonderful people, had so many great times as well as terrible ones and after a few months at home, I miss it like crazy!
Did the idea of your music change to you as you started releasing records and people began showing support for your work? Was this a confidence boost?
Without people’s enthusiasm and support, I have no doubt I would never have written and recorded so much music or toured like I have. I’ve always just tried to write music for myself as I find it very cathartic, but of course knowing other people will listen to it and decide for themselves whether it’s good or bad has an effect on me. I just try to do what I feel like the right thing to do is, I don’t try to pander to anybody but I genuinely hope people will like it, I’m not out to alienate anyone. Sometimes I think I have – I think there are some people who’d just wish I’d just keep on plucking that 12-string and cut it out with all the other shit, haha! Who knows, maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not, but if it’s not what I want to do, then I’m not going to do it, I’m sorry. I do feel incredibly grateful that there is an audience for my music and I just hope people will take a chance on me if I choose to explore different concepts and ideas.
Do you have advice for musicians who are just starting out, but would like to release music in the future?
If you love making music or genuinely find some sense of achievement or therapy in it, just stick at it and I genuinely feel you will know when the time is right to record and release something. Talk to people with similar tastes and interests, don’t be afraid to send it out to labels – I honestly believe that most people who make people with good intentions and for the right reasons will find a place for it somewhere.
Where would you like to see your work go in the next ten years?
I have no idea! I’m just finishing up writing a new album. Recording and getting it out will be the next step. If I’m still able to do that in ten years time, I’ll thank my lucky stars. There’s still a few ambitions that I’ve yet to fulfil, like scoring a film for example, but mainly I just want to continue what I’m doing, nothing more and nothing less.
James Blackshaw’s websites are here: