When James Rhodes plays the piano, his head lolls forward from his thin shoulders and his eyes strain to focus on nicotine-stained fingers that trip and whirl across the keys. His hair is fashionably tousled. His cardigan sleeves hang loose over stick-thin arms. On the left wrist is a tattoo of a date in the style of “the Auschwitz prisoner numbers” that he claims to have had done while on the run from a mental hospital. On the right is a thick, dark Cyrillic tattoo that reads “Sergei Rachmaninov”. Like the great Russian, this is no ordinary classical musician.
Through his six-album deal with Warner Brothers to his own prime-time music show on Sky, Piano Man, Rhodes has quickly established a reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting musicians. His first album, Razor Blades, Little Pills and Big Pianos, reached No 1 in the iTunes classical chart in May 2009.
‘‘Rock star on a Steinway’’ is just the latest label to be attached to the 38-year-old concert pianist, who is close friends with Stephen Fry and last month performed a recital at the Royal Albert Hall. Previous sobriquets include abuse victim, schizophrenic and suicidal manic-depressive.
As he says himself, “the road to happiness is rarely even”. Now, five years after he was sectioned and spent nine months on suicide watch in various secure mental institutions, Rhodes has decided to retrace his footsteps for a television documentary.
The Channel 4 programme, to be shown later this month, shows Rhodes returning to a psychiatric unit for the first time since his release to explore the therapeutic effects of classical music. He wheels his piano into St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, home to around 600 psychiatric patients. The programme focuses on four, with whom Rhodes smokes, swaps stories and discusses life on the outside.
His plan is to perform a specially selected piece of music to each patient in the hope it will resonate with them and aid their recovery. But as he spends longer in the 1830-built asylum, it is clear the exercise is as much an act of therapy for Rhodes as anyone else.
“Memory is a really difficult thing for me,” he says at one point in the documentary. “I’m sure there are memories, I just don’t have many that are rosy and peachy and wholesome.”
Rhodes started learning the piano at the age of seven, but stopped when he was 18, and did not play again for 10 years. He turned down a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and instead studied psychology at University College London. After graduating, he took up a job in the City in the “belief that making hideous amounts of money would make up for the loss of my abandoned career as a pianist”. He married an American writer and the couple had a son.
In 2004, he quit his job after rediscovering his passion for music. But soon after his first major classical recital in 2006, he experienced a catastrophic breakdown.
Rhodes suffered horrific sexual abuse at school. “It was regular and relentless and caused all kinds of damage,” he says. “When my son reached the age I was when it started, suddenly everything seemed to fall apart. Having a child changes everything, and emotionally I couldn’t quite deal with that. I wasn’t ready and things spiralled pretty rapidly out of control, with self-harm and depression and general madness and craziness until I ended up in a locked ward.”
Rhodes was eventually sectioned after he phoned his wife from a grotty Paddington hotel, where he planned to slash his wrists and lie in the bath. She persuaded him to meet her at the station “to say goodbye”. There, he was ambushed and taken to a psychiatric unit. “Maybe I should have seen it coming,” he says.
He is still consumed with “astronomical levels of guilt” for his son, who now lives in America. “I see a photo of him and I’m on the floor in tears because there is nothing that will make up for that.”
Rhodes is one in a long line of classical musicians to have struggled with mental health issues, from Robert Schumann, who died in an asylum in the 1850s after attempting suicide, to his own hero Rachmaninov, who spent years battling depression. But he seems to possess a real belief in the power of his experiment. He says he was put on the path to recovery when a friend smuggled an iPod into his psychiatric unit, containing a piece by Bach.
However, he stresses: “I’m not naive enough to think when you’re in hospital and off-your-face on meds that you’ll listen to a piece of Bach and it will fix everything. Because, of course, it won’t.”
Still, the concept is not a new idea. Even in the chaos of Britain’s Victorian asylums, many operated their own orchestras with brass, wind and wood sections. During the now discredited experiments with hallucinogenic drugs on psychiatric patients in the 1960s and 1970s, music was used as a trigger for different moods. In 2007, the neurologist Oliver Sacks published his book Musicophilia, focusing on the powerful effect of music on the brain. Only last month the Royal College of Psychiatrists launched its Minds in Music project to promote discussion of the healing powers of the arts.
“We would certainly advise that if you want to help people, exercise and music are essential to that,” says Dr Peter Byrne, consultant psychiatrist at Newham University Hospital. “They are not the icing on the cake. They are the cake.”
At the end of the documentary, we are told that two of the patients have now left the hospital, and another hopes to be discharged soon. Rhodes leaves as he arrives, swathed in a smart black coat and tight trousers, unshaven, smiling and willing to talk with brutal candour about the issues he has battled on his way to becoming a classical music star.
He walks out of the psychiatric unit a free man. But his shadows continue to follow close behind.
‘James Rhodes: Notes from the Inside’ is on Channel 4 on July 24, 10pm