James Blackshaw: Upholding a Rich 12-String History

Though he’s been hailed as a twelve-string-guitar virtuoso for the better part of five years, James Blackshaw didn’t really graduate to the Jedi class of contemporary instrumental artists until this past spring, when he made his much anticipated debut on Michael Gira’s Young God Records.

Gira (Swans, Angels of Light) would go on to praise segments of Blackshaw’s The Glass Bead Game as “the most thrilling pieces of music I’ve heard in years,” which is kind of like David Lynch telling you that your movie blew his mind.

“Working with Michael [Gira] has been great,” Blackshaw, 28, says from his home in London. “I don’t want to sound like a sycophant here, but I genuinely trust and respect him — as an artist, as a label boss, and personally. He has been incredibly supportive and encouraging, especially with my ideas that are not guitar-centric, which is something I’ve been striving to develop for a while. He’s someone who definitely gets my music and has for quite some time now.”

In fairness, Blackshaw’s music hasn’t always been the easiest thing to “get.” During his days as a record-shop clerk in London, Blackshaw developed his unique sound in large part by absorbing and assimilating anything and everything of interest that crossed his path — be it minimalist classical music, British folk, American jazz, electronic experimentalism, and even Indian raga. All he needed was an instrument ideally suited to bringing his amalgamated concoctions to life.

“It was hearing [American steel-string guitarist] Robbie Basho’s twelve-string playing that inspired me to pick one up in the first place,” Blackshaw recalls. “I loved the sound, and I was just starting to finger pick six-strings around that time.

“Almost immediately, I sensed there was something very unique and beautiful about the instrument; it felt right to me. I felt the overtones of the instrument very physically for the first time while playing guitar, and I sensed that a lot of these disparate musical ideas I’d been having could somehow be adapted for twelve-string guitar. My technique and style of playing changed very quickly as a result, with my fretting hand becoming far less busy and working more with the open strings.”

With no formal training, Blackshaw credits “a lot of free time” between record-store shifts for his eventual virtuoso status — a fact that might unfortunately give new hope to the world’s legions of guitar-playing record-store employees. Nonetheless, Blackshaw deserves kudos for turning his passion from a mere hobby to a life’s work.

“I haven’t had a day job in a while,” he says. “It is a struggle, though. I still find it hard to believe I have a career in music at all. I have no ambitions or goals, other than being able to continue doing what I’m doing right now. Well, I suppose there are a few things — like writing music for a film, perhaps.”

Technically, The Glass Bead Game doesn’t qualify as a film score, but that’s only because no one has made a movie for it yet. Everything else about Blackshaw’s seventh studio album delivers on the scope, subtlety, and emotional ebb and flow that a great drama demands.

“I think the time during the writing and recording of this album was actually one of the most emotionally turbulent and unsettled periods of my life,” Blackshaw explains. “I can’t help but hear some of that undercurrent of sadness and restlessness about the whole thing, but maybe that’s just me.” (Laughs)

Though he now features the piano as a much more prominent part of his mood-setting arsenal, Blackshaw’s new material still includes plenty of extensive, mind-bogglingly complex fretboard tickle fests on the twelve-string — earning him comparisons to acoustic-guitar legends like John Fahey and Leo Kottke. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Blackshaw, though, is how his seemingly improvisational finger-picking acrobatics are, according to the man himself, never truly left to chance.

“I really don’t improvise,” Blackshaw says. “The pieces are very fixed in my mind by the time they are being recorded, but I think they can sound quite spontaneous, because they are often put together in that way. I never sit down and think, ‘I want to write a piece that sounds like this, that will be structured like that, and for these instruments.’

“I usually just sit down at the guitar or piano and play, and [usually] something — maybe just a chord sequence, a pattern, an overtone, a melody, or just the tuning itself — will grab me and inspire me to go on from there. The whole thing just seems to grow organically.”

The same could be said for Blackshaw’s career, which is only likely to reach greater heights as Young God’s new guitar god continues to expand his boundaries.

Leave a Comment