James Blackshaw: A One-Man Orchestra James Blackshaw is best known for his lush, symphonic compositions. His impressive technical virtuosity enables him to make his 12-string guitar sound like an entire orchestra. Blackshaw talks with Guy Raz about his musical style and his latest album, The Glass Bead Game.
NPR logo

James Blackshaw: A One-Man Orchestra

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105986417/106027219" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
James Blackshaw: A One-Man Orchestra

James Blackshaw: A One-Man Orchestra

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/105986417/106027219" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

(Soundbite of song, "Cross")

GUY RAZ, host:

James Blackshaw is the new champion of a seldom-challenged crown. He's a master of the 12-string acoustic guitar, and his compositions are minimalist, trance-like, not the sort of style that's usually written about in the music press. But to read some of the rapturous reviews out there, you'd think James Blackshaw is primed for super stardom.

Rolling Stone, that old bastion of rock criticism, writes: Blackshaw is one of the best and most original instrumentalists in the new acoustic renaissance; and pitchfork.com, a snarky and sometimes unforgiving indie music site says, Blackshaw's finessed his 12-string acoustic guitar into a veritable solo symphony.

(Soundbite of song, "Cross")

That's a piece titled "Cross." It's from James Blackshaw's new CD, "The Glass Bead Game." Blackshaw came through Washington, D.C., and he joined me with his 12-string in NPR's performance studio 4A.

(Soundbite of song, "Cross")

That's James Blackshaw in NPR's performance studio 4A, with an excerpt from a piece called "Cross."

James Blackshaw, welcome.

Mr. JAMES BLACKSHAW (Guitarist): Thank you.

RAZ: You came to the 12-string guitar relatively late. You're 28 now, and really only in sort of your late teens did you pick up a 12-string. Is that right?

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Not even, actually. I was, I think, maybe about 21 when I picked up the 12-string. Yeah, I really only started finger-picking guitar for a year or so earlier to that. So I really didn't play guitar in this style when I was a teenager.

RAZ: I mean, you got your start in music the way a lot of young musicians do, in a punk band. What happened to you between punk and 12-string compositions?

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Actually, you know, I think like a friend of mine, who was also kind of playing punk-rock bands, is kind of into more experimental music. And when I was 16, he played me John Fahey, and I sort of found, you know, when I was working in a record shop, I started getting really interested in listening to the kind of '60s American minimalists, avant-garde music and contemporary music and stuff like that. And it all just kind of amalgamates and comes together somehow…

RAZ: There is a description I read. Somebody described your music as guitar as orchestra. It's almost got that church-like quality at times, as echo and resonance. Is that what drew you to the 12-string guitar?

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I fell - I mean, I started off finger-picking a six-string guitar, and really, my style was totally different. When I picked up the 12-string, it was like an immediate shift in the way that I played and playing the open strings much more. So the instrument really rings out, you know, like holding the sustain pedal down on a piano. I mean, I really love early music, liturgical music. I love the sound of bells. I love the sound of things just kind of ringing out and not really decaying, you know. And yeah, totally, I really - it really drew me to the 12-string.

RAZ: There's another beautiful piece on this CD called "Key." Can you play some of that for us?

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Sure, absolutely.

(Soundbite of song, "Key")

RAZ: That's James Blackshaw performing "Key" in NPR's performance studio 4A.

I've read that your playing style actually causes pain in your - physical pain when you play, and you've actually cramped up at shows.

Mr. BLACKSHAW: It can do. And it doesn't - I mean, it doesn't happen all the time. I guess there's so much kind of rapid kind of movement in my right hand, my picking hand, that it's - yeah, sometimes, you know, you do just kind of cramp up, and it's pretty weird having to play through shows like that. And it's kind of like a strange endurance test, and I say that in a good way. I really kind of like the idea of endurance within music.

RAZ: And it's not just a physical endurance but presumably more than that.

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Sure, it's a mental endurance as well. I mean, it's kind of like if you're running, and there's kind of - there's a point where, you know, it's getting difficult to breathe, and - but if you kind of go through that point, actually, it becomes quite easy, and I kind of feel that sometimes. You need to just kind of allow yourself to kind of go with music sometimes. It can be really kind of cathartic, you know?

RAZ: That piece you just played is so emotive. Do you ever find that people at your shows sometimes just close their eyes or just start tearing up or sort of react to it in a way that it just surprises you?

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Yeah, absolutely. It has happened. It's really incredible to be able to have that effect, whether they feel they're able to kind of show their emotions or even if they just want to kind of shut out and blank things out for a while. I think that's, you know, that's really great.

Some people sort of talk about there being like a - almost like a sort of cinematic element to what I do, having an image or something in their head, and I think that's really great, and it's really interesting, so…

RAZ: I have read you might be interested in scoring a film. I mean, I gather you're a fan of horror films.

Mr. BLACKSHAW: I'm a huge fan of horror films.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Do you ever see yourself scoring a horror-film with a 12-string guitar? Could you make that sound scary enough?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BLACKSHAW: I'd like to try. You know, maybe not. It's quite a sweet-sounding instrument, but I'd love to. Yeah, I think people are quite surprised when they find out I like horror films. But, yeah, that would be really - that would be a lot of fun.

RAZ: James Blackshaw's new CD is called "The Glass Bead Game." It's out on Young God Records. He joined me here in NPR's performance studio 4A. James Blackshaw, thanks very much.

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: And would you mind leaving us with one more piece before you go?

Mr. BLACKSHAW: Sure. This song is called "Bled," and it's from "The Glass Bead Game."

(Soundbite of song, "Bled")

RAZ: You can hear James Blackshaw's full performances from Studio 4A at nprmusic.org.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.