James Blunt: Back from bedlam

How did ex-soldier James Blunt go from serving in Kosovo to playing gigs? Tim Cooper finds out
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The Independent Culture

Not long ago Captain James Blunt was serving with the Household Cavalry in Kosovo. Now he's a pop star with a gold record and an even brighter future. It's not often you get to see an unknown musician hit the big time before your very eyes. But when Blunt performed at Shepherd's Bush Empire in April, it was obvious that something unusual was going on.

For a start, the place was bursting at the seams - a bizarre occurrence for someone without a hit record to his name. Secondly, there were teenage girls thronging the front of the stage. And thirdly, everyone was singing every word to every song.

The only odd thing is that Blunt has managed to remain such a well-kept secret for so long. His debut album, Back to Bedlam, was released last October and failed to dent the chart for the next six months. A couple of singles came and went with similar results. Yet there he was, in front of a sell-out crowd of 2,000, with the whole lot singing his songs back to him. "It's really exciting watching it grow," says Blunt. "You write the songs for yourself and suddenly there's a room full of people singing them back to you. It's fantastic and a bit humbling."

Two days after Shepherd's Bush he was on stage at Rome's annual May Day festival in front of an even bigger crowd, estimated between 600,000 and 800,000. And the same thing happened again. "I thought they wouldn't know who I am, but they were all singing along to 'High' because it's been featured in a TV ad in Italy," he explains when we catch up with him in Turin. He's still on a shoestring budget there, playing small clubs across Europe, sleeping on the tour bus. But his album has gone gold and last week reached the Top 10.

Blunt's gradual ascent has broken all the rules of record company marketing and promotion, much as it did for fellow singer-songwriters David Gray and Damien Rice, with whom he has been compared. So how has it happened to this unassuming young man who went to one of Britain's most exclusive public schools, Harrow, and after finishing his degree at Bristol University, spent four years as a Life Guards officer? Apart from a unique back story, he's got all the right connections: Elton John's management, Beck's record producer, Madonna's publicist, Linda Perry's record label. He's been getting some serious TV advertising, touring like crazy - and it can't hurt that he's easy on the eye.

He followed his father into the army, because that's what the male Blunts have always done, and was sent to Kosovo where the atrocities he witnessed inspired him to put his feelings into song.

After ending his tour of active duty, Blunt volunteered to spend his final six months on ceremonial duty in London in order to get his musical career under way. By day he would march around Buckingham Palace, and at night he would take his guitar to pubs and clubs, trying out the songs that became Back to Bedlam. It earned him valuable live experience, made him some key contacts and gave him a head start when he finally left. Within weeks he had been taken on by Elton John's management company and negotiated a songwriting deal with EMI.

He then hired a band to travel to America with him for a showcase performance at the South by South West festival in Austin, Texas. In the audience was Linda Perry, the songwriter-producer with the golden touch (Pink, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani), and she signed him up to her label, Custard.

Soon she hooked him up with producer Tom Rothrock, whose work with Elliott Smith (and Beck, and Badly Drawn Boy) she considered an appropriate match for Blunt's intensely personal songs.Once the album was completed, Blunt went out on the road and has not stopped for 18 months. There were live dates with Katie Melua, then stadium shows supporting Elton John, who has in turn supported Blunt by offering advice and publicly describing "You're Beautiful" - Blunt's new single - as a modern-day "Your Song". The final pieces in the jigsaw were a TV advertising campaign with Woolworths and a contract with one of the industry's most influential publicists, Barbara Charone, whose clients include Madonna and Elton himself.

"There was a conscious decision not to hype James because we believed in his talent and wanted people to discover it for themselves," says Charone. "Marketing can only get you so far without substance. Nobody knew who James was when he supported Elton last summer but since then he's made it by word of mouth. People are buying his record, liking it and telling their friends. And of course it doesn't hurt that he's cute too."

Back to Bedlam' is out now on Atlantic Records.