This unconventional British virtuoso is shaking up the classical piano world.

James Rhodes doesn’t look, dress or talk like a concert pianist. Seeing him taking voluptuous puffs on a cigarette outside the sushi restaurant where we meet in Sydney’s Surry Hills, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was from an indie rock band. He has slackly trimmed long hair; he wears thick, geek-chic glasses; he flails his tattooed arms when he talks. Only zoom in for a second… The tattoo on his arm reads “Sergei Rachmaninov” in Cyrillic. And the conversation we’re having isn’t about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s about pianists. Great, dead pianists. With a serving of sex and drugs on the side.

Rhodes is an anomaly in the classical music world. He didn’t take up the piano seriously until the age of 28, and he is now recording standard piano repertoire on a pop label, Warner Music. He is their first and only core classical artist. For them he has just released what that industry might call a “concept album”, Bullets and Lullabies, his third studio recording. But before we even touch upon the album, our conversation is whizzing from one great pianist to another, as I try to chart Rhodes’s musical taste. It’s like two dogs sniffing each other’s tails. He doesn’t seem like a classical musician – how can I be sure he is legit?

Me: “So who are you into?”
Rhodes: “Well, Gould first of all. I had a poster of him on my wall all through high school. You can tell I was bullied, can’t you?”
Me: “Have you heard Gould’s Chopin?” 
Rhodes: “What, the Third Sonata?” 
Me: “Yeah, it’s wacky, but it has something. What about his Brahms?” 
Rhodes: “Yeah, weird, not up to much. Who’s your go-to guy for the Opus 10 Ballades?”
Me: “Gilels all the way.”
Rhodes: “So Richter’s never really grabbed you? Yeah! Me neither!”

The eyes of the publicist at the table begin to glaze over. OK, Rhodes really does know his piano music. He’s already done several media spots that day, so his interview spiel is polished to high-grade lexical smoothness. But ask him to choose his favourite pianists and his eyes light up like those of a kid who’s been asked what Transformer he wants for Christmas. Rhodes speech suddenly shifts from andante to presto and you glimpse the manic enthusiasm that has propelled his unlikely career this far. The guy is completely besotted with piano music.  

And he has a knack for making his musical heroes sound like superstars. Take Bach, for instance. “In the few portraits of Bach that exist he looks like this very dour, stuck-up, unemotional, cold Lutheran, incapable of romance,” Rhodes pauses to drag on a cigarette. “But then you dig a bit deeper and you see that by the age of four his closest siblings had died. At nine his mum dies. At ten his father dies. He falls in love with this incredible woman. She dies. Eleven of his 20 children die in infancy or childbirth. This guy was just soaked through with grief. And at the same time, he was a massive drinker, was having sex non-stop and getting arrested for duelling. He’s kind of like a Baroque Keith Richards.” 

Coming from Rhodes, The Lives of the Great Composers sounds like the unofficial biography of a hard-partying rock band; and classical music is their drug of choice (in our conversation he calls Ravel “a substitute for crack”). It’s refreshingly unacademic, to say the least. But it makes sense: Rhodes has never studied at a conservatorium; he was a fanboy long before he had any aspirations to be a concert pianist. Aged seven, he purloined a copy of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto from his father’s CD collection. “I’ll always remember how much it blew me away. It’s like the first time you have sex. But this insane enthusiasm for classical music turned out to be not such a good thing. I wanted to run and sprint before I could crawl. So I taught myself and it was only at 14 that I got a teacher, and then at 18 I stopped for ten years and didn’t play a note.”

Not surprisingly, Rhodes has invited comparison with the other streetwise, troubled classical soloist and been called “the Nigel Kennedy of piano”. The analogy captures Rhodes’s lack of reverence for the subject, but not the depth of his commitment to it. And with Kennedy, doesn’t it always seems like he is the superstar? Rhodes is simply desperate for people to connect with the artform. “What breaks my heart is that in the UK there must be 50 million people who have never heard a Beethoven sonata. And there’s something very, very wrong about that. It’s something that I think we should feel kind of ashamed of.” He’s preaching piano at full ball now – and I’m a believer. But although Rhodes is a fiery-tongued prophet for classical music, there’s nothing to suggest he wants to be its messiah.

Read the full article and album review in the October Piano Issue of Limelight, available from our online store.

James Rhodes makes his Australian debut in October on a national tour. View event details here.