James Rhodes, ‘the Jamie Oliver of the grand piano’, heads for Greenwich Theatre for an evening of beautiful music and frank discussion in October

Words: Ben West 

James Rhodes’ occupation as a globally successful concert pianist – despite having little formal musical training and only focusing on his music about seven years ago – is testament to his exceptional talent.

In 2010 he became the first classical musician to be signed by a major rock label, Warner Brothers, and his first album shot to the top of the iTunes classical chart. This is all in the face of a life plagued by depression, eating disorders, attempted suicides and mental institutions – triggered by being sexually abused over a five-year period by a teacher at his prep school.

The experience is harrowingly documented in his book, Instrumental: a Memoir of Madness, Music and Medication, which the Mail on Sunday called ‘the publishing sensation of the year’. Publication was only permitted in May after the Supreme Court lifted an injunction his ex-wife had sought to have the autobiography banned for fear that their 12-year-old son could be psychologically harmed by the graphic detail. With its profound implications for free speech, James was supported at the trial by David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Stephen Fry and his old school friend, Benedict Cumberbatch.

James Rhodes (photo by Kate Baker)

James Rhodes (photo by Kate Baker)

On 17 October, James will discuss his controversial book and perform some classical piano pieces at Greenwich Theatre.

‘It’s a book about love and about music,’ says James. ‘It’s a memoir, and talks about my life, some of which is wonderful, some painful. One of the best things for me is that I chose a Spotify playlist to go with the book. They are pieces not usually chosen or heard – unlike those terrible box sets of the same old popular classics.’

He’s not visited the theatre yet and I explain that Greenwich is a wonderful venue, where the audience sits around an open thrust stage, allowing for a really good connection with the performer.

‘Oh, that’s great,’ he says. ‘I love that the event is going to be in a theatre. I’m horrified at the segregation of classical music, and indeed all music – you have classical concert halls, classical music shops… The music is the most important thing. Most concerts stop at the concert and music and tend to forget the audience. But to me, introducing the pieces, talking about these composers, the original rock stars, and what goes into writing the music, is important too.’

It’s a bit of a shock when he divulges that he listens to Absolute Radio in the car. World-class classical musicians aren’t supposed to listen to commercial pop radio, are they?

‘My wife is very much into rock and electronic music and has introduced me to a lot of stuff,’ he says.
He laughs when I ask what gives him more pleasure, playing or listening to music: ‘I can’t answer that – they’re different! It’s like asking a footballer whether he’d rather watch a great game or play five-a-side on a Saturday. They are different things. All I know is that playing and listening to music gives me goosebumps, I can escape.’

James is very unlike the stuffy middle-aged concert pianist stereotype. He’s usually dressed down in something trendy. Indeed, the cover of his practically autobiographically named first album, Razor Blades, Little Pills & Big Pianos, looks more indie band than classical pianist. But when I suggest he must be reaching a younger audience because he dresses trendily, he almost explodes: ‘It’s irrelevant! I don’t think it’s vaguely important,’ he says. ‘When did we start thinking it important to wear f*cking trendy trainers? I play in what I’m comfortable in.’

When did we start thinking it important to wear f*cking trendy trainers? I play in what I’m comfortable in.

Even so, he has been dubbed the ‘Jamie Oliver of the grand piano’ because of his desire to bring classical music back to the masses, and indeed recently said of the TV chef: ‘What he has done is to make cooking easy, accessible and fun. I can think of nothing better than doing the same for classical music.’

What is he most proud of? His musical ability? His standing up for free speech? His breaking down of taboos around subjects like sexual abuse?

‘Out of everything, I’m most proud of my son, and any father I hope would say that. Professionally? I suppose being able to bring difficult subjects into the open. It’s not been comfortable, but I have a semi-pubic profile to be able to talk about these things. I’ve had thousands of messages from people since the book came out, some saying their son, husband or whatever has been through the same sort of things, and they’ve said “thank you”. I am also proud that I survived the trial. It was an appalling 14 months.’

After such a whirlwind of a life, how does James see the future? ‘Oh I don’t know,’ he says. ‘Being married, trying to be the best husband and father, staying out of trouble, staying out of hospital. Focusing on what I love: my wife, my son, music and writing.’

Tickets for Instrumental: an evening with James Rhodes are £18.50. See greenwichtheatre.org.uk