Ah, youth. That special time when a lad can spend countless hours honing his guitar- and piano-playing skills and exploring the splendors of minimalist composers, free jazz, '60s psychedelia, drone, myriad ethnic music, and the innovative folk guitarists who recorded for John Fahey's Takoma Records.
That's not how you spent your youth? Huh. Well, while you were squandering your adolescence on video games, TV, sports, internet porn, and meaningless hookups, English guitarist/pianist James Blackshaw was busy becoming one of the most accomplished musicians on the instrumental head-music scene.
Born in London in 1981, Blackshaw has loosed a profusion of sublime releases since 2004, both under his own name and in collaboration with Jozef van Wissem in Brethren of the Free Spirit. He could retire now at age 27 and still saunter into the pantheon of all-time solo-guitar greats.
On albums such as The Cloud of Unknowing, Litany of Echoes, and Sunshrine (all available on Tompkins Square), Blackshaw creates mellifluous, meditative compositions imbued with a deep spiritual quality that suggests a pastoral sort of yearning. It seems as if his aim is to cast a spell on the listener, to induce peaceful feelings. But Blackshaw denies such utilitarian ends; nor does he have the listener in mind when he straps on his 12-string, tickles his piano, or picks up his glockenspiel or cymbala.
"I think if I was trying to make music to intentionally induce feelings in others, that would be kind of manipulative and insincere," Blackshaw writes via e-mail from London. "All I can hope to do is write things that move me or seem relevant in some way and hope that other people pick up on that, experience something similar. It's a kind of catharsis, for sure, playing these pieces. But while I'm writing, it's almost like I can't even consider the end result and what that might or might not achieve. The process is almost as important.
"I also think that the pastoral/spiritual quality you speak of is almost born out of a life that feels opposite to that. It's a dream of sorts. I'm a city kid, and my mind and my feelings are often quite turbulent and mixed up, and it's a little way of coping with that."
While Blackshaw's guitar style has its florid moments, it is rooted in the Fahey/Robbie Basho school of wringing maximal emotion from economical fingerpicking. One can also hear the hypnotic repetition of Charlemagne Palestine and Philip Glass in Blackshaw's work. Clearly, Blackshaw favors le note juste over flamboyant virtuosity.
"[Minimalism] just made a lot of sense to me, still does," Blackshaw says. "I think my earliest exposure to that stuff was probably something weird, like hearing Philip Glass's music used in a TV commercial or something. It's funny how little bits of something that was once considered incredibly difficult and subversive and not widely accepted have crept into the mainstream over the last couple of decades, and half of us are probably not even aware of it.
"I will say that I can't bear pretentiousness and art that seems obtuse and difficult purely for the sake of it. A lot of noise and improv stuff feels like that to me. But the composers who are cited as being minimalists or downtown—Reich, Glass, Young, Chatham, Palestine, Riley, Monk, etc.—most of their music just seems very sensuous and ecstatic to me: in repetition, in its length, in the exploration of simple tone, and in drawing on a wealth of different musical traditions from gamelan, African music, rock, European classical music, etc. There is something very hypnotic and moving about the music those people and many others like them have made."
In addition to those traits, Blackshaw strives—and succeeds—to achieve a kind of placelessness with his music; he aims to write songs whose geographical origin is untraceable.
"I like ambiguity," he admits. "I guess I'm influenced by a lot of stuff, and it all ends up in one big melting pot. I'm also terrible at copying styles or other people's music and sounding authentic. I think even if I tried to write a piece that sounded like it was from somewhere or some specific time, it'd end up sounding like something else entirely."
Blackshaw's prodigious productivity continues apace in 2009. He's working with goth-folk occultists Current 93 and collaborating with multi-instrumentalist David Coulter (who's worked with the Pogues, Joe Strummer, Lydia Lunch, and many others), and further solo recordings beckon. More immediately, Blackshaw's next full-length, The Glass Bead Game, will surface this spring on Michael Gira's Young God label.
"It's a little darker in tone," Blackshaw says. "More strings, more accomplished piano pieces, some wordless vocal parts... It just feels like the next logical step to me, not a huge leap, but I think it's the work I'm most proud of to date."
See? Sometimes youth is not wasted on the young.