James Blunt: More than just a mass-market romantic?

His debut album became the biggest-selling CD of 2005 (and yes, even he's sick of <b>that</b> single). But is James Blunt really more than just a mass-market romantic? Craig McLean joins him as he tours America

Saturday 17 December 2005 01:00 GMT

It's day 502 of James Blunt's Back To Bedlam world domination tour - a relentless, implacable march to victory that began four million album sales ago in February 2004 with a slot supporting Katie Melua in Dublin. Now, many, many miles later, on a November afternoon in Philadelphia, the radio station WXPN 88.5 is proud to present James Blunt, in association with the agricultural products of Illinois-based conglomerate ADF ("Resourceful By Nature").

From a battered case, the most played, most successful, most virulently contagious British artist of 2005 gets out his favourite 1966 Gibson acoustic guitar. In torn and frayed Levi's, sensible jumper and knackered Asics trainers, Blunt perches on a stool in this windowless bunker. He's short and slight but with a definite hint of bicep bulge. This rosy-cheeked former captain in the Life Guards looks like a scruffy mature student who needs a haircut, and perhaps to do something about those flecks of grey. The only thing bling about the 28-year-old responsible for the biggest-selling album of the year is a gold signet ring on his left pinkie, bearing the family crest of the Hampshire Blounts - the original spelling of his name. (No, says James Blunt, he didn't change his name to appear less posh. "Blunt" is simply how you pronounce "Blount".)

For the benefit of WXPN's listeners, he runs through "You're Beautiful", the neverending ballad of '05, the single even Blunt got so sick of that he had his record company delete it.

I'm sitting a foot away from him as he sings "Goodbye My Lover", the forlorn song that he's pitching into the teeth of the Christmas single storm. I have, I confess, goosebumps. Played quietly and achingly, the song soars. The DJ is equally floored. How did he conjure that emotion, he wonders?

"I blame her, obviously," sniffs Blunt in his clipped, strangely girly tones.

What can we expect from his second album? "I've definitely got some happier things to write about - it won't be a second installment of the misery." Does he keep up with any of his army buddies? Yep, a few "have dropped back in from Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Iraq - it's weird for them to be at my shows". Nope, he's not averse to the idea of playing for the troops abroad. "I'd love to go back to Kosovo - take away the humans and it's a really special place."

Another PR commitment professionally acquitted, Blunt heads upstairs to the on-site live-music venue, the World Café. It's only him and keyboard player Paul "Beardy" Beard performing tonight. The sell-out crowd of 300 rapturously applaud all the songs from Back To Bedlam. He tells them that "No Bravery" is a song from Kosovo in 1999 - as a reconnaissance officer leading a squadron of Nato peacekeeping troops he witnessed atrocities he is understandably reluctant to discuss.

"This is the only happy song in the set so enjoy it," he says by way of introduction to "Wisemen", before explaining that the lyric "semi by the sea" refers to a house, and not a "semi-erection - I'm not a pervert. And it's not a semi-automatic either." Not many people recognise his cover of Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" but he clearly loves playing it.

Sublime tunes and angsty heartache punctured by blokey banter, played by a flirty, poetic action man with a pukka accent: it's a winning combination. The crowd goes mental.

Gig done, it's time to meet his public before a three-hour drive to New York. If James Blunt is tired he isn't showing it; he can get by on three hours' sleep a night, he says. He is the picture of focused equanimity. Might officer-training at Sandhurst have made him disciplined and task-oriented? Or even just better at getting out of bed in the morning?

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"Um, maybe. I was pretty confident that I was capable of doing music before I was in the army," he says. "I'd decided from an early age, I guess..." He stops. He will concede that, having been sent to Harrow aged seven, he's perhaps better equipped than most to be away from home so much. But he knows what people think of his officer-class background, the affluent military family with generations of service behind them. Of the army-funded private schooling and university degree, the stint at Sandhurst and the four years serving Queen and country, in Kosovo and later on ceremonial Royal duties in London. It's not very rock'n'roll, as Liam Gallagher would define the term.

Finally he says, "The answer is: I don't know. But I'm not inspecting their bunks on the tour bus." Pause. Smirk. "Not too often."

TWO T-SHIRTS. One banner. Three breasts (pairs thereof). One declaration of gay love. Four offers of a good time. Camera phones aplenty. One hundred and twenty CDs. If you wanted to construct a crude statistical model of the popularity of James Blunt, you could do worse than hang about after one of his concerts and tot up the things thrust the way of the singer.

In Britain his shows are huge affairs nowadays - on his next UK tour, in February, f the willowy sounds of Back To Bedlam will be wafting round hangars like Glasgow's 10,000-capacity SECC and Cardiff's 7,500-capacity International Arena. The entire tour, almost a month long, is sold out. When your first CD has shifted more than two million copies in the UK - beating Coldplay, Robbie Williams and Oasis - silly numbers abound. Not bad for a record that wasn't even released this year.

More manageable, understandable numbers are to be found in America, where Back To Bedlam came out in October, one year after its UK release. At the bottom of the stairwell in Philadelphia, the latest inductees to Blunt World are standing patiently in the long queue for the artist signing and the meet-and-greet.

The girls come first, young and flirty. Then the boyfriends (there aren't many unattached lads here). Then the more mature women, twenty- and thirtysomethings. Then the weirdos. Then, at the end, after an hour's stoic lingering, the hardcore fans step up. Coming last, they know they'll get more time. Two nurses from Oxford, on a term's placement in Philadelphia, sport homemade T-shirts saying "Blunt" and - ta-da - "Sharp"; across another fan's back it says "No, YOU'RE beautiful."

Intensely enthusiastic stuff, for sure. It's early days in Blunt's assault on the western front - this is his first headlining public show in America. But if tonight's reaction is anything to go by, it seems a fair bet that America, too, is about to fall for James Blunt. With Canada, Australia and New Zealand already firmly onside, Japan is the only market in the world yet to go Blunt bonkers. But then, the album only came out there two weeks ago.

James Blunt knows all about marketing and music. At Bristol University, he switched from aerospace engineering to sociology. An attempt to rebel against his military-oriented career path? "I wish I could say yes," he smiles, "but it was just easier, and my mates were doing it. Only six hours of lectures a week." He found sociology interesting because "you could direct it the way you wanted". So, as he'd wanted to be a musician from the age of 14, he pointed the subject of his sociology dissertation towards his ambition. Its title: "The Commodification of Image - Production of a Pop Idol."

Was it research for your music career?

"Exactly. It was [before the TV show] when Pop Idol meant a different thing."

He found sociology useful for songwriting too. "There are some aspects that are relevant to the songs I'm writing. About the way humans interact, the way we are as social beings ... those [topics] are kind of relevant."

But he waves away the suggestion that in some way writing his dissertation helped him get where he is. "It was talking about how the music industry controls image and develops something. But when it comes down to it, I haven't felt like I've changed or controlled anything." The Blunt phenomenon? It's all about his songs, he insists.

He's a wary bloke, James Blunt. When he wants to be, he can be pithy and funny. But while an unfailingly polite host - he lets me hang about his dressing room as much as I like - there's a reserve, a stiffness about him. Even when surrounded by giggling fans he displays steely control. It's hard to imagine him cutting loose. It's like he's still on duty.

Maybe he's just making the most of his success. It seems like he came from nowhere this year, tipping the music industry on its arse and reaching out to untold millions who feel marginalised by most rock and pop music. Who were waiting for someone who knew their way round human interaction and social conscience as well as they did a good tune.

In fact his first gig was in 2000, at the tiny Water Rats pub in King's Cross, while he was still in the army. He played the London pub circuit for two years before being picked up by his management, Twenty First Artists, which also looks after Elton John. More than one record company backed off, fearing he was too posh to push on the record-buying public. It was at a gig at an industry showcase festival in Austin, Texas, that Linda Perry - hit songwriter to Pink, Christina Aguilera and Gwen Stefani - decided Blunt was an artist of sufficient calibre to sign to her Custard label. Even then, Bedlam was on release for almost nine months before "You're Beautiful" began its climb up the charts.

There are other understandable reasons for his standoffishness. He's been slagged off all year, by the music industry, media and musical peers alike, as the epitome of MOR tedium. "I'm standing on stage, singing things that are incredibly personal. Before you know it someone's written a newspaper article saying how meaningless it is - most people will be pretty insecure about that!" He's wrestling with the old conundrum: he's Britain's most popular artist but he craves credibility too.

The tabloids have slithered over his past, tracking down army buddies, doorstepping his parents and digging up the ex-girlfriend about whom he reportedly wrote "You're Beautiful" - Dixie Chassay, a casting director and now paramour of actor Tom Hollander (he refuses to confirm if She's The One). One of the co-writers on Back To Bedlam has been trying to squeeze more money out of him. A tragedy from his younger days was dragged out and the facts twisted to cause him maximum damage.

All in all, it does Blunt's head in. "Some of the things are incredible," he says. "That's where it becomes celebrity, which is away from what you actually do, which is music." It's a fair point, but thunderously naïve. Especially for someone who got a 2:1 for their analysis of pop idolatory, and who's managed by Elton John's people.

THE NIGHT after Philadelphia, James Blunt and full band are playing the first of two nights at the Bowery Ballroom (capacity: 550). The atmosphere is intense and boozy. From the single suitcase that will take him round the world until next September, he selects a new T-shirt. Yesterday he wore ones that said Silverstone and Monte Carlo; tonight he continues the motor-racing theme with Monza. That's about as "styled" as Blunt gets.

Top brass from his UK label are over for the show. Also in attendance is someone who looks a lot like Camilla Bowler, the long-term girlfriend he reportedly split with before allegedly hooking up with one of the Pussycat Dolls. He plays a couple of new songs - "Same Mistake" and "I Really Want You" are more upbeat but still with a crowd-pleasing tug of melancholy. It's a rousing show, and he's as vocally impressive as ever. But he maintains his curious detachment. Even his "funnies" are delivered with little mirth.

"What happened to the girl who got led away by the bouncer?" he asks the crowd. "Did she give it to him?"

"Wisemen" is dedicated to other dignitaries visiting New York from the UK - "a couple of very special friends who have come here - Charles and Camilla!" He might not be joking.

When he was on ceremonial duty at Buckingham Palace, James Blunt had said earlier, it never occurred to him to write a song about his experiences. He prefers to use his songs to talk about his feelings. "I'm not a particularly, overtly, outwardly emotional person," he said. "Like most blokes, you don't like talking about your feelings. That's most girlfriends' complaint about their boyfriend, isn't it? And I definitely fall into that bracket - but I can get it down in a song."

Guarding the Queen Mum's coffin was also barely inspirational. "It's an interesting experience but there's not much you're able to draw from that. It's a very nice coffin, but it won't make you feel anything."

Pause. Smirk.

"But who knows. Give me 40 years and I could be writing rousing national hymns."

It may not even take that long. E

The single 'Goodbye My Lover' is out on Monday on Atlantic Records

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