James Blackshaw has received considerable attention for his 12-string guitar work. He has been compared to Bert Jansch, John Fahey, and Leo Kottke, amongst others. He has also been prolific, releasing eight albums in just the past six years. For his ninth record, All is Falling, Blackshaw goes electric for the first time, stretching his intuitive compositional acumen to the max, crafting what is essentially one shifting, slowly evolving piece of music. He sits down with PopMatters for 20 Questions.
1. Last book or movie that made you cry?
I sometimes wail like a baby with colic at things that seem totally inappropriate, and remain blank and emotionless at stuff that’s really supposed to tug at the heartstrings. I’m pretty unpredictable in that sense.
All Is Falling
(Young God; US: 24 Aug 2010; UK: 23 Aug 2010)
I’m pretty sure The Road got me going, a very bleak, touching and effective film. Last thing before that was maybe this Swedish film called Farval Falkenberg. The characters and situations definitely reminded me of myself and people I’ve known. It doesn’t try to force its sentimentality; it’s just very beautifully made.
2. The fictional character most like you?
I can’t tell you how much this question made my head hurt. I’m not sure there are many fictional characters that are not overly romanticized, in either a good or bad sense, that I could truly say, “yeah, that’s me”.
Jimmy McNulty from The Wire reminded me of myself on occasion— problems with authority, a sometimes stubborn single-mindedness about his work that often jeopardizes himself, his own health and relationships with people. But I’m not that bad and getting better. And he’s more handsome and charming than I am.
3. The greatest album, ever?
There’s no such thing, but recently I’ve been thinking maybe Big Star’s first album or maybe Television’s Marquee Moon, purely because I can listen to either start to finish and not want to skip tracks. They’re both amazing.
There’s a lot of classical stuff I could mention, but then I think a lot of it is just recorded music, not something that was conceived as an album in the studio, if you know what I mean.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Battlestar Galactica! I’m talking about the re-imagined series. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever experienced, full-stop. Very complex, mature, multi-layered and thoroughly entertaining. I like Star Wars and Star Trek, don’t get me wrong (especially enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ recent Star Trek reboot) but BSG blows my mind.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I like riding my bike to clear my head before I begin working on music. But also, as weird as this sounds, boredom, frustration or unhappiness has done more for my music than I dare to admit, and I would hazard a guess that’s the same for a lot of creative people. The influence of negative things on my work can almost be greater than the positive, sometimes.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
I’m proud that I’ve managed to record and release as much material as I have, for better or worse. I won’t sit and tell you that I think every single last note I’ve written or played is perfect, because I don’t. But I’m pleased I got the confidence to actually let these things go, as they are. I know a lot of wonderful artists who are really scared to let go of any work they’ve done for fear of how it might be perceived by others.
7. You want to be remembered for ...?
Honestly, it’d just be nice to be remembered for whatever reason, whether it’s my music, being a friend to someone, making someone laugh. Of course, I don’t want to be remembered for being an utterly reprehensible human being who annoyed the hell out of everyone or something like that, mind you. If someone finds one of my records somewhere down the line in 20-30 years time and thinks, “oh, this is pretty cool”, I’d be delighted.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Philip Glass’ work ethic and invention is pretty inspiring. Elliott Smith’s honesty and sensitivity is still for me second-to-none, and I’d place Arthur Russell in that same category too, also for his constant reinvention while maintaining integrity.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
I’m not sure if I’d call it a masterpiece, but I watched this horror film called House of the Devil recently and just thought to myself, “wow, if I were to make a horror film in this day and age, it’d be exactly like that.” It’s just really simple, stylish and perfectly executed.
There are so many things I wish I had something to do with or had thought of first, that’s probably far from even the best example, it just sprung to mind.
10. Your hidden talents . . .?
I’m an okay cook and a better than average chess player, I think. I can fly a kite. I’m not bad at holding my drink.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
I can’t remember the last piece of advice I actually followed—did I mention I have a problem with authority? Actually, David Tibet suggested I should be more open to other people and not keep stuff bottled up inside, if not in exactly those same words. I can’t really tell you why that was extremely important to me at the time, but it was.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
If I owned a dog, that would be my answer. I’d really like an Akita or a Shiba or a Husky, but I’m away too often, it’s just utterly impossible. Maybe one of these days.
Can I state the obvious and say a 12-string guitar? Without it, I have absolutely no idea what I’d be doing with my life right now.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?
I have two pairs of Uniqlo jeans. I really like them. They do shorter leg sizes and I’m not exactly the tallest guy on earth. I also have a couple of pairs of Clarks Originals shoes. Now, jeans I’m adaptable to, but I really would miss those shoes a lot.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Werner Herzog, Charlie Brooker, Jim O’Rourke, Lydia Lunch and La Monte Young. I can think of a lot more, but surely I wouldn’t have time to talk to everyone! I think each one of them could be very funny, offer some great insights and capable of a good yarn.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
I’m a big science-fiction fan, but I really don’t think there’s much to suggest we’ll ever be able to bend the laws of physics to such a degree, from what I’ve read. Plus, popular movies suggest this might not be such a good idea, after all.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
I think spending time with someone you like is a good way to keep things in perspective and calm down. Failing that, a hit man or Prozac would probably do the trick. I don’t like spas, but a trip to Japan would definitely put a smile on my face.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?
I don’t drink coffee or vodka. I basically still have the tastes of a small child, anything too rich or strong just kind of messes with my well-being. I have been known to smoke cigarettes and I do like chocolate, although not often and I wouldn’t call either of those things essential. Soda, maybe? Beer?
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
I’d love to live in Japan at some point, maybe Osaka or Tokyo, but I’d want to learn more than the few bits of pigeon Japanese I already know. I think it’s an amazing country, people are incredibly friendly, the food is out of this world and the culture is fascinating. New York City, Chicago and San Francisco are all incredible places that I love revisiting again and again too, but the southeast coast of England isn’t so bad either!
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Watch out for that missile! Oh, I don’t know, I wouldn’t say I’m ill-educated, but I’m hardly the most well-informed person politically. I am a liberal at heart, but really, things could’ve been a lot worse - there seems very little chance any extreme or radical political party will come to power in this country soon. More support for artists outside of the systems we have in place would be nice. Look to certain parts of mainland Europe in that regard.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m just busy doing a lot of practicing for the tours I have coming up these next few months. And interviews. And messing about on Twitter.