12-string transcendence

We don’t tend to think of folk music as the dominion of virtuoso guitar players—but when James Blackshaw plays, it’s hard not to take notice.

We don’t tend to think of folk music as the dominion of virtuoso guitar players—but when James Blackshaw plays, it’s hard not to take notice.

The British musician is at the forefront of the burgeoning “free-folk” movement, and his delicately arranged instrumental guitar pieces are both moving and epic, utilizing open tunings and chord phrasings that transcend genre. Since 2004 he’s released album after album of beautiful, stirring music and built a name for himself as artist of the highest caliber.

The Vanguard caught up with Blackshaw after a flight from San Francisco to Seattle, where he played last night with Sir Richard Bishop and Earth (they’ll be in Portland tonight). Here’s what he had to say about genre tags, the evoluton of his music and its connection to spirituality.

Ed Johnson: Which medium do you see as more valuable for your music, recording or playing live?
James Blackshaw:
I don’t see either one as being more valuable or any less valuable. I always kind of primarily think of myself as somebody who records albums, and that writing and recording process, if I’m being honest, is the most important thing to me, because it’s a process of kind of creating something and solidifying it.

But yea, playing live is obviously incredibly important too. I find that it’s in turn something that I love doing. But it can be … you’re exposing yourself a little bit and putting yourself out there. It’s really kind of interesting to see what people’s reactions are. I’m always kind of genuinely surprised and thankful when people come and talk to me and say they enjoyed the music.

EJ: Because your music is instrumental, with no lyrics to latch onto, the message is obscure. Is there some specific idea that you’re trying to communicate?
Not particularly. One of the things I’ve always liked about music that is instrumental, and classical music—not to say I don’t like stuff that’s singer-songwriter or whatever—is the ambiguity of it. People can really kind of take from it what they want, or, y’know, nothing at all.

In my life as well, I’ve never really been the kind of person who wanted to force my ideas onto anybody or force anyone into things they don’t want to do. I feel quite lucky that there seems to be a lot of people that get something from it. It can be quite different from what I thought it to be, but it’s still valid.

EJ: It’s seems like a lot of reviews of your music mention the fact that you’re in your 20s—like people in their 20s shouldn’t be liking this type of music or something. But you are kind of at the forefront of this recent movement in the last few years, “free-folk” or “psych-folk” or whatever. Why do you think this sound is more popular now?
I’ve not done some sort of study into this or anything, but my guess is that most things that are considered to be “musical movements” by the press and other people are just weirdly coincidental. It did seem like there was a lot of people all of a certain age group kind of making music with acoustic instruments. But I think a lot of that stuff falls under a blanket of music that is really incredibly different but it’s been grouped into this kind of “freak-folk” or “new-folk” or whatever.

EJ: You release about a record a year, how do you see your evolution as a musician?
I think it’s like anything, you don’t really see it happening. I think looking back … when I first started making this type of music, it was very new to me and a lot it was just kind of feeling around in the dark.

But there’s a natural progression. When you make one record a year, there’s never … I never intended to make huge leaps each new record I make, it’s just kind of something that naturally unfolds and develops. I do think I’ve become less fixated as the guitar itself as an instrument and more focused on composition. I’m writing music. For the last two or three albums, my interest in classical music has really sort of took hold.

The record that’s coming out in May [The Glass Bead Game], on Young God Records, about half of the album is me playing piano with some friends on the cello and things like that. There’s no guitar on those tracks at all. I’m kind of interested in developing that idea, the ideas that I had for guitar, y’know, for the music itself, pushing that into other instruments and areas.

EJ: So do you want to be seen more as a composer, rather than a guitarist?
Oh, no! I don’t really differentiate between the two. I am a guitarist. And I do write music. And guitar is still primarily my first instrument. So it’s not like I don’t want to be seen as a guitarist, because I am. But it’s interesting, when the new album comes out it could involve a rethink of how I tour, if I play the piano or with other people or not.

EJ: Something else that gets brought up a lot in relationship to your music is this idea of spirituality. How do you think that concept relates to what you do?
Well, some of my album titles kind of have connotations to religion and spirituality. I think there’s definitely a relationship, for lack of a better word, between spirituality and music in general. And there always has been.

For me, my music doesn’t have a religious intent. I just find these parallels really interesting, these kind of elements of endurance and patience and perseverance and being in touch with yourself in some way that goes beneath the surface, these are things that are important to me.