Interview: James Rhodes on ‘playing for his life’

STAND Pianist and provocateur, James Rhodes is a rock star in the classical world with a life story to leave you speechless. But it was a story that was nearly never told

Rhodes came to public attention as the concert pianist who eschewed black tie and stuffy formality for jeans and Converse. Picture: Channel 4

Beethoven is playing on James Rhodes’ Apple Mac. “The last sonata he ever wrote,” he says, fiddling with the volume. “He was stone deaf, couldn’t hear a thing, and there was nothing like this written for the next 50 years. It’s so far beyond its time, you just can’t compute sh*t like that.”

He is slim in a T-shirt and jeans, his unruly hair a kind of fuzzy halo around his head. On the fireplace wall is a black and white photograph of Glenn Gould’s hands. On the floor beneath it, a pile of scores. This isn’t where he lives. We’re meeting in the north London flat where Rhodes practises and writes, fuelled by coffee, cigarettes and chocolate digestives. “You can’t imagine what it’s like to have a clear date in the diary with nothing, no meetings, no interviews, just being here with the piano,” he says. “It’s the equivalent of a two-week holiday in the Bahamas for me.”

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Rhodes, 40, buzzes with a kind of nervous energy. He first came to public attention as the concert pianist who eschewed black tie and stuffy formality for jeans and Converse and speaking directly to the audience between pieces. His performances were gigs rather than recitals, his enthusiasm for the music he plays infectious, persuasive, exciting. There were a couple of well-received series on Channel 4 and a couple of number ones on iTunes, as well as appearances at festivals, in addition to the more predictable venues for classical music. Rhodes is as close to a rock star as the classical world has, not a fabricated, marketed “cross-over” star, but the real deal: talented, magnetic, damaged.

Rhodes’ life has been, is, extraordinary. Born into a wealthy family in London, he had no formal academic musical education until he was 14. It’s why he’s sometimes described as self-taught. He wasn’t able to take up a scholarship to the Guildhall (he went to Edinburgh University instead, although he spent most of his time taking drugs and was asked to leave after a year) and he stopped playing the piano entirely for a decade. There was a stint working in the city making big money, a marriage which foundered but which produced a son whom he adores. It was a chance meeting with the agent of Russian pianist Grigory Sokolov which led to Rhodes jacking in his city job and dedicating himself to studying with a renowned piano teacher, Edoardo Strabbioli, in Verona. It was another chance meeting with a man in a music shop which led to the recording of his first CD. But before all of that there was a love of classical music that not only stimulated him, but which, without being melodramatic, saved his life.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more honest memoir than Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music. I don’t know that there are many people who could bear to look at their own experience so square on, so unblinkingly. “It’s really a book about music,” he says, and that’s true, but it’s a book about much more than that. “I wanted to talk about it and talk about music education and about my wife, Hattie. It’s really a love letter to her and to my son. I figured one day, when he’s much older, he might read it and it felt really important to put on paper why, when he was four, I wasn’t there for a year.

“And to say it to the world – to say I totally own this, I’m not hiding anything, I’m not pretending it didn’t happen. I f***ed up. It wasn’t ideal; it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to and I’m sorry, but what can I do to make it right?”

That this is the question Rhodes asks is more than a little poignant. And leaves me speechless.

Rhodes was raped countless times over a five-year period by a gym teacher at his prep school. He was five when the abuse began and by the time he left aged ten, his life was irrevocably changed. “I went, literally overnight, from a dancing, spinning, gigglingly alive kid, who was enjoying the safety and adventure of a new school, to a walled-off, cement-shoed, lights-out automaton,” he writes. “It was immediate and shocking, like happily walking down a sunny path and suddenly having a trapdoor open and dump you into a freezing cold lake.”

Music was his saviour, his escape, his solace. Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin in D minor, transcribed for piano by Busoni, was his “safe place”. “Any time I felt anxious (any time I was awake) it was going round in my head. Its rhythms were being tapped out, its voices played again and again, altered, explored experimented with. I dove inside it as if it were some kind of musical maze and wandered around happily lost. It set me up for life; without it I would have died years ago, I’ve no doubt. But with it, and with all the other music that it led me to discover, it acted like a forcefield that only the most toxic and brutal pain could penetrate.”

I’ve never read anything quite like Instrumental. It is profoundly moving and deeply shocking. The truth is, it hits you like a slap in the face. It’s about the healing power of music – each chapter begins with a tribute to a piece of music that’s been important to him, which can be accessed free online – but it’s also about survival. It took Rhodes 25 years to feel able to speak about the abuse he experienced. In 2009, in an interview, he mentioned the abuse he had experienced at his prep school. It was not the focus of the piece, but it was spotted by a teacher who had witnessed the effects of the abuse on the small boy who was in her care. She came forward and with Rhodes went to the police. The man who had raped Rhodes, Peter Lee, was still working as a boxing coach for pre-pubescent boys. He was charged with ten counts of buggery and indecent assault. He died before he could be tried.

To say Rhodes has suffered the legacy of childhood sexual abuse is a totally inadequate way of describing what he’s been through. As he writes, sexual abuse leads to, “multiple surgeries, scars (inside and out), tics, OCD, depression, suicidal ideation, vigorous self-harm, alcoholism, drug addiction, the most f***ed-up of sexual hang-ups, gender confusion, sexuality confusion, paranoia, mistrust, compulsive lying, eating disorders, PTSD, DID [the shinier name for multiple personality disorder] and so on and on and on.”

Rhodes’ book is no misery memoir, but it is unsparing in its account of how abuse has shaped him, how it has impacted on every aspect of his life. And although he’s living well now, off medication, successful in his career, happy in his marriage, its legacy remains.

I don’t know how far into the book I was when I realised that although I know more than I’d ever want to about the perpetrators of child sexual abuse – a side effect of Operation Yewtree – I didn’t know about the victims’ experience. Not really. Not in detail – the panic, the devastating physical consequences, the impact on relationships, friendships and sexual relationships. What Rhodes has written is tough to take, at moments it left me reeling, and it demands the utmost respect. “What feels weird is occasionally sitting on the Tube and people look at me and ask if I’m James Rhodes and I know they know more about me than I’ve shared with anyone until I’ve slept with them at least a dozen times,” he says. “And I know it was my choice to do that and I have no problem with it because I think it’s the right thing to do, but it’s not particularly comfortable. It’s not that I would change it, I think if you’re lucky enough to be able to have a way to talk about things that aren’t usually talked about, you should do it, especially if you’ve come out the other side.”

It was in 2013 that Rhodes was first asked to write his memoir. He wanted to speak about what had happened to him as a child. In a way he was attempting to prove his abuser wrong. As a child he had been silenced, in part at least, by being told that if he spoke about what had happened to him, bad things would happen. If he could write a book, an honest, unsparing account of the truth of what had happened then he would have shown that bad things did not happen when those who have been abused speak out and maybe, even more than that, he would experience the healing power of having his story witnessed and help others who had their own stories. What Rhodes didn’t know, couldn’t have known, was the response that nearly saw the book pulped before it ever reached a reader.

Somebody leaked an early draft and it ended up in the hands of his ex-wife (about whom he is nothing but respectful). She had it for a month before there was any communication and when there was, it was from a phalanx of lawyers to both Rhodes and his publishers, Canongate. The threat was of an injunction unless the book was withdrawn. The basis was that their son – who knew nothing of the book – would suffer emotional distress and psychological harm if he was to be exposed to its contents.

Stopping publication of Rhodes’ book wasn’t the only aim of the legal action. There was also an attempt to impose a gagging order that would stop him from talking about the sexual abuse he had suffered and the harm it had caused him, his mental health issues and the treatment he had sought, his experience of self-harm and his attempted suicide.

“Everyone acknowledged there was no invasion of privacy, no libel, it was specifically about my past and yet I wasn’t allowed to talk about it,” he says. “It was ludicrous. If it hadn’t had been so serious I would have laughed, but I literally wouldn’t have been able to tweet, ‘I’m off to see my shrink’ because they weren’t only trying to stop me from talking about mental health, but about the treatment of mental health too. You couldn’t have made it up. I’d find myself talking to friends and they’d be looking at me a bit like you are, just totally baffled.”

It’s true, listening to Rhodes explain the ordeal he’s been through, it seems like a gross offence on top of his existing trauma. It’s clear that he’s still reeling from what’s happened. Both Rhodes and Canongate ended up in the High Court as co-defendants. The judge found in their favour and ruled the other side had no cause of action. Rhodes thought it was over. But it wasn’t. There was to be an appeal. The case was ordered to trial and an injunction put in place. The 10,000 books printed sat in a warehouse. The serialisations and translations were cancelled and Rhodes was effectively silenced. “It was my worst nightmare because everything that they said to me as a kid, which was if you talk about this, bad things will happen, came true. I talked about it and bad things did happen. I still haven’t quite processed that.”

The legal proceedings in court were grim. Rhodes was compared to a husband knowingly infecting his wife with Aids. “I was open mouthed,” he says. “There are no words for it. People say the lawyers were just doing their jobs but there’s some semblance of morality that would stop you from reading out the police evidence statement of a six-year-old boy getting raped in a mocking tone, scornfully. It was as if to say, ‘look at this toxic material he wants to put out there’. What do you do with that?”

Several times as we speak, Rhodes remembers words that were used against him in court. “Timebomb” is one. He almost flinches as he says it. His lawyers appealed the Court of Appeal’s judgment and five judges heard the case. After four months of deliberations they delivered a 68-page judgment which overturned the decision of the Court of Appeal. They wrote: “The only proper conclusion is that there is every justification for publication. A person who has suffered in the way that the appellant has suffered, and has struggled to cope with the consequences of his suffering in the way he has struggled, has the right to tell the world about it. And there is a corresponding public interest in others being able to listen to his life story in all its searing detail.”

In a way, he’s already got the proof that this judgment was right. He sees it in the reaction of readers, the endless stream of e-mails and tweets and letters that he receives. “Hundreds, thousands,” he says, “and heartbreaking – me too, me too, me too. It tells me that it’s every bit as much of an epidemic as we fear – another school, another celebrity, another case from 30 years ago. It’s just hundreds of thousands of walking wounded.”

He admits that he’s got to be careful about going too far down this route, thinking about it too much gets too dark. It is the legacy of the abuser, the decades of life after the abuse which are overshadowed by it. But it’s the reason that speaking out feels vital. He draws a parallel to the way in which Stephen Fry (a friend of Rhodes) helped reduce the stigma around mental illness when he made a documentary about bipolar disorder. “That did more for mental illness than 30 years of public information stuff. Until people start to say this happened, if they have even a semi-public voice, then slowly it will start to become, not the norm, but OK and then people who can’t talk out might have the strength and courage to do it.

“If it took me with famous friends and a few quid in the bank and 24 lawyers and teams of psychiatrists and psychologists and meds and an amazing wife 14 months to be able to tell the truth about my own life, what the f*** is someone going to do from Rotherham or some estate somewhere?” He’s already done an event at the Hay-on-Wye book festival, which was “rammed”.

“I like the signings afterwards because people are often like me too and I know sometimes without them even saying anything, they just give me that look.”

For a lot of those people, even if it is only in a shared look, this will be the first time they’ve revealed their experience.

“There was a mum and daughter who came up and the mum just started crying. She said they were going to the police next week to make a statement. The daughter was really trying to keep it together. Can you imagine? I thought it was amazing that she was there with her mum and they were talking about it together.” He pauses. “It is as real as it gets.”

Instrumental: A Memoir of Madness, Medication and Music is published by Canongate, priced £16.99. It is also available as an ebook. James Rhodes will appear at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 30 August at 9:45pm. For tickets, priced £10 (concessions £8), visit