As a fan of fringe music and science fiction/fantasy, sometimes I feel like an outsider in both worlds. Thus, when I saw British fingerstyle acoustic guitarist James Blackshaw’s latest album “Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death” (Important), I was astounded and amazed.
Blackshaw is my favorite out of all the post-Fahey guitarists and all Faithful SF/F Fans will immediately link the album title to the amazing James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon short story. A closer look at the album revealed pure Metawyrd gold: Blackshaw names all of the tracks on the album after Tiptree stories. So it looked like I had found a kindred spirit! I got in touch with him and he was nice enough to agree to an email interview as below:
Judging from some of your recent interviews, you obviously read science fiction. How and when were you initiated into the genre?
It’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly when and how I became fascinated with science fiction, fantasy and horror. I was pretty obsessed with ‘Doctor Who’ as a child (maybe 9-10 years old) and I used to watch it religiously. I saved up all my pocket money and amassed quite a collection of VHS tapes of older episodes. There was also a British kid’s TV show called ‘Knightmare’, it was a game show using early green screen technology and computer generated graphics and I think that series prompted my interest in swords and sorcery.
My parents were quite liberal in terms of what they let me watch, so I also saw films like ‘Alien’ and ‘The Evil Dead’ when I was still in my teens. I was an avid reader from a very early age too and I think seeing these kinds of TV shows and films and playing video games led me to explore genre fiction. I read Tolkien, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Michael Moorcock and Lovecraft as well as some more recent authors – Clive Barker was a big favourite of mine. I’m 30 now and I
still love genre fiction and film – and playing games – so I guess some things really don’t change that much.
When did you first discover James Tiptree Jr./Alice Sheldon and how did you end up recording an album centered around her short stories?
I only became familiar with Tiptree Jr.’s work fairly recently – a couple of years ago perhaps – although I’d certainly heard the name mentioned before, likely in connection with authors with whom she shared a correspondence with like Dick, Harlan Ellison and Ursula K. Le Guin. I started buying a bunch of books which had won a Hugo and/or Nebula award, including an anthology by Tiptree Jr.
When I finally started reading, I felt a deep emotional connection to many of the stories, which I find quite rare even in good genre fiction – something which may seem quite unusual to say as I think Tiptree Jr.’s prose is idiosyncratic and the themes therein very dark. But I think this frequently bleak and pessimistic yet playful take on the human experience is very much part of the human experience itself – or at least it’s something I can relate to a great deal. And then there’s the story of Alice B. Sheldon’s life, which is incredibly intriguing in its own right.
As I was writing music for my new album in the late autumn of last year, I had no idea – as per usual – as to what the pieces should be titled. The pieces weren’t written about or directly inspired by Tiptree Jr.’s stories in a narrative sense, but there was some kind of abstract emotional relation between the music I was writing and the stories and I felt that it would be a nice tribute to an author who I think is still largely and sadly overlooked.
Aside from Ms. Sheldon’s works, could you name two of your favorite science fiction/fantasy books and two of your favorite shorter works?
For novels, I’m going to go with Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris’ and Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’. Short stories/novellas: George R. R. Martin’s ‘Sandkings’ and Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream’. But that’s really just off the top of my head right now and likely to change at any given moment!
Speaking of George R. R. Martin, do you have any impressions of Game of Thrones (either the books or the series)? Have you read any other works by him besides “Sandkings”?
I absolutely love the TV series and really can’t wait to see the third season. It’s just brilliantly made and the story and characters are constantly well thought out, engaging and entertaining, so much so that I think it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes to what fantasy could and should be like, even people who wouldn’t normally consider themselves fans of the genre, perhaps in a similar way that the recent ‘Battlestar Galactica’ series did. I must confess I haven’t gotten around to reading the books yet, I really should.
I read ‘Sandkings’ in the eponymous anthology of the same name a few years back, but apart from the other stories in that book, I’ve not read any of George R. R. Martin’s other works. I’d like to check out ‘Armageddon Rag’ based on your recommendation, it sounds pretty fun, although I sometimes struggle with musical references in fiction. Seriously, it’s weird, but I’ve read a couple of books where the author is referring to a particular band or scene and it can really put me off, for some reason.
Are there any other science fiction and fantasy authors that you consider overlooked outside of Tiptree? Would you recommend any starter books/stories for them?
I mean, I feel there’s a ton of other authors I like who I haven’t mentioned already, like Roger Zelazny and Gene Wolfe for example, but I’d hardly call them overlooked or underrated. So perhaps to veer off-topic a bit, I’d like to recommend a couple of comic book series to anybody who is into genre fiction or just good story writing in general and maybe isn’t too familiar or never really considered the medium: ‘Fables’ by Bill Willingham and ‘Y: The Last Man’ by Brian K. Vaughan. Trust me, you won’t regret it!
Have you any new musical projects in mind right now? Any musical possibilities that you are considering?
Right now, there should be a new album I made with David Tibet of Current 93, under the moniker Myrninerest, coming out any day now. The album’s called ‘Jhonn, Uttered Babylon’ and it’s David’s tribute to Jhonn Balance. I wrote, performed and recorded all the music on the album, so I was much more involved than I’ve been on any previous work I’ve done with David. I also improvised with Lubomyr Melnyk, who is a stunning pianist and composer and I’m hoping the recordings of these sessions will be released sometime in the next few months.
Apart from that, I’d like to start work on a new solo album soon, maybe after the summer as my motivation and creativity always seems to be at it’s lowest around this time of year. I have no idea what it will sound like, I’m really tempted to throw the rulebook out of the window, so to speak and try something quite different, but we’ll see what happens!
Thanks for your time, Mr. Blackshaw!
You’re more than welcome, it’s been fun talking about something I love other than music for once!
James Blackshaw on tumblr: http://jamesblackshaw.tumblr.com/
Link to “Love Is The Plan” on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Love-Is-The-Plan-Death/dp/B0071JPJHC/ref=ntt_mus_dp_dpt_1
Link to “Love Is The Plan” On Important Records:http://importantrecords.com/imprec/imprec355