Being blunt is James Rhodes’s modus operandi. “And it gets me into trouble sometimes”, the world-acclaimed pianist tells me from his apartment in Madrid’s chic Salamanca district, where he now spends half the year. “I mean, it seems there are all these weird social constructs on which I don’t seem to get the memo about. I’m never quite sure what’s appropriate”.
Rhodes sounds genuinely excited that his mother will be able to show off a JC feature about him to friends in Hampstead, albeit one that is peppered with the musician’s infamous expletives.
Any time he appears on the BBC, for example, a producer will sit him down and run through appropriate interview etiquette: which words are barred, what jokes can’t be made, which topics can’t be broached… “I mean, they don’t do it to other people, but they do it to me all the f*****g time now”, he despairs.
Perhaps that raw, almost discomfort-inducing honesty developed because Rhodes so often felt silenced. Most recently, in 2014, when his ex-wife, the mother of his child, took out an injunction to prevent the publication of his autobiography, Instrumental, A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music (Canongate Books). In it, Rhodes recounts the horrific sexual abuse he suffered between the ages of five and 10 at the hands of a sports teacher at his prep school in St John’s Wood, and the subsequent depression and breakdowns this led to as an adult. Rhodes entered his first psychiatric hospital at 19.
Rhodes’s ex-wife said she feared the graphic descriptions of the abuse could cause psychological harm to their son, who has Asperger’s syndrome. In a legal case that mobilised wide support from writers, including Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn and David Hare, the injunction was eventually overthrown by the Supreme Court in 2015. Rhodes emerged from court with his old school friend, the actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who called the verdict “a searing vindication of freedom of speech”.
At the time, Rhodes spoke of the “sickening parallels” of being forbidden from talking about his experiences this time as an adult, and his childhood, when his teacher would threaten him not to breathe a word of what was happening.
A new start in Spain, however, has been good to Rhodes, despite the absence of “f*****g chicken soup”, as he fondly describes one of Harry Morgan’s signature dishes. Twice divorced, he now has a new girlfriend. Neighbours knock on his door, ply him with food, ask him to play the piano more loudly… He has even shared a cup of tea and a hug with the mayor of Madrid.
Fire on All Sides is Rhodes’s spin on a self-help book, with tongue-in-cheek affirmations such as, “I am broken, exhausted and my life is f****d. Don’t ever ask anyone for help — I’m safer on my own”, inscribed at the start of each chapter.
From Chopin’s Polonaise-fantaisie to Beethoven’s Sonata Op.110, each section is also dedicated to a piece of classical music that has helped him navigate his depression.
As far as Rhodes is concerned, Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and the rest “invented mindfulness”, and listening to them “supersedes all the myriad other methods I have tried over the years to help calm me down and lift me up.”
“I hope it’s a kind of SOS; that people will read it and think, ‘Ah me too, I also feel slightly alone amongst people’,” he adds
His account of depression is achingly human. “The sheer weight of those shackles, the quiet heroism of simply getting up, getting dressed and out of the house,” he writes, or the description of forcing himself to the Prado, along with hordes of Japanese tourists and bored children, “and the odd individual like me: hot, jaded, remote, joining queues solely for the human interaction, while remaining reassuringly anonymous”.
Abuse instilled in Rhodes a deep sense of mistrust. A litany of people out “to get him” are listed in the book, including “therapists looking for an excuse to section” and “one-night-stands waiting for the right time to accuse me of having forced them to have sex”. It is paranoia of which the author is only too painfully self-aware.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the thought of reading a review strikes Rhodes with terror. “Because what’s the point? If it’s a good review I won’t believe it, if it’s a bad review I’ll want to die”, he answers, aghast.
When it comes to talking about music, his lack of pretentiousness can be refreshing.
“It’s very hard to talk about classical music without sounding like an a******e. It’s like talking about wine,” he quips.
Rhodes, who pitches up to concert venues in jeans and Converse sneakers, tries very hard to avoid doing just that. In the book, he moans about Wagner (“Chubby men and women shrieking at you in German for six hours simply cannot be described as entertainment”), and admits to farting on stage, although “only in the loud bits”.
He is scathing of the classical music industry, “filled with such awful people”, and hates it when parents come up to him, asking him to tell their kids to practise their scales. “I think practise your f*****g scales! Why should [they] practise them? It’s so boring. Who in the world wants to do that?”
“You find a Mozart piece, or a theme to the Simpsons or a f*****g Jay-Z song… But within that there will be scales and technical challenges, but as long as you’re learning a piece while doing it… So long as you have enthusiasm and a passion for it, at that age that’s the only thing that’s important. And that’s what I had, thank God”.
In an industry where musicians often discover an instrument as toddlers, and are seasoned concert players by their teens, the fact Rhodes only picked up the piano at 14 is remarkable. Extraordinary, however, is the fact that, between the ages of 18 and 28, he didn’t touch what he has since called “his miracle cure”, at all.
After leaving Harrow, where he went after his prep school, Rhodes turned down a scholarship to Guildhall School of Music and Drama, in order to go to Edinburgh and study psychology, “of all things”.
Without the piano, things steadily took a turn for the worse, as Rhodes, by then working in London — in the City — self-harmed and took drugs as a way of coping.
In the end, it was becoming a father in his late twenties that made Rhodes change course.
“I did a kind of Amy Winehouse in reverse,” he says. “ I mean I did all the drugs, and all the suicide attempts, and then I started with the music, so maybe that’s the right way to do it, who knows?”
Still, becoming a concert pianist was no walk in the park. “Things went slightly wrong”, says Rhodes, which is one way of describing nine months in various psychiatric hospitals. On one occasion, after escaping from a ward, Rhodes, who has been interested in the Holocaust since he was a child and whose son’s middle name is Primo, after Levi, even got a tattoo on his left forearm, a number which holds special resonance to him,”in honour of Auschwitz victims.”
After five years of practice and various nervous breakdowns along the way, Rhodes held his first public recital at London’s Steinway Hall in 2008. He has since gone on to make seven albums, present music documentaries for Channel Four and the BBC, and become an internationally bestselling author. Rhodes is also a passionate advocate of children’s music education in schools, the poor quality of which “in the country of Britten and Elgar and Delius and Elton f*****g John” plainly horrifies him. “It should be a basic human right to learn an instrument, rather than a kind of dubious luxury of rich kids”, he declares.
Rhodes is convinced that we are all born with some form of creativity, be that “cooking or f*****g tango lessons. As we get older, it gets beaten out of us, by life and divorce and tax and lawyers, and f*****g whatever, all the s**t we have to deal with”.
“There are so many people who stay in s****y, convenient marriages because the hassle of leaving is too much, or careers they just don’t like but the thought of doing something they love is just too risky”.
Rhodes has even written a book, How to Play the Piano (Quercus), which claims to get complete music novices playing Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major in just six weeks. Because, in the end, reasons Rhodes, “you’re not going to be lying, dying in hospital, going, ‘Ah f***k me, I wish I’d done a few more spreadsheets, and sent a few more emails’.
“But you may well be thinking, ‘Oh I wish I’d learnt to play the piano or dance the tango or how to take a really amazing photograph’. It’s never too late.”
Fire on All Sides: Insanity, insomnia and the incredible inconvenience of life is published by Quercus.