Jamie Cullum: ‘Having kids has just made life more confusing’

Jamie Cullum
Jamie Cullum

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Watching Jamie Cullum on stage, leaping around, standing on his piano, cracking jokes with the audience and generally giving the impression he’s having the time of his life, you sense the one thing he’s not short on is confidence.

But despite that appearance, and the fact he’s been releasing albums since 1999, he says it’s only now he feels confident enough to refer to himself as an artist, rather than ‘just’ a musician.

It might not seem a big deal, but to 33-year-old Cullum it’s a significant distinction to make.

‘I used to hear that word ‘‘artist’’ and think it was a really pretentious thing to say,’ he explains. ‘I’ve come to think it means you’re creative for a living and you listen to yourself and follow your heart with your music. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.’

He puts part of this epiphany down to his weekly BBC Radio 2 jazz show, meeting and interviewing many of the genre’s heroes who all have their own little bit of advice to impart.

‘This new album is virtually all my own songs, with a few unrecognisable covers in there – my safe place is more half and half, and it’d make my life easier to do that – but meeting these people shows me that to achieve greatness you have to filter out the chatter and do what you want,’ he adds.

Indeed, it was for his jazz cover versions that Cullum became best known. His hard-to-find debut Heard It All Before, famously recorded for less than £50 – less than a fifth of how much copies now change hands for on eBay – pricked the ears of jazz fans, while Pointless Nostalgic, released three years later in 2002, went gold in the UK.

It wasn’t until Twentysomething was released in 2003, however, that he became a star. The album had five originals among songbook classics such as What A Difference A Day Makes and But For Now and reworkings of more contemporary songs by Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead and Jeff Buckley.

Cullum’s crooning style and obvious piano skills appealed to latent Rat Pack fans, while his cheeky demeanour and ability to look at least 10 years younger than he actually was cemented him as a housewives’ favourite.

It was unclear whether they wanted to listen to his music or give him a spit-wash. Whatever his secret was, it worked, with Twentysomething selling triple platinum – that’s just under a million sales – and peaking at No3 in the album chart.

Nevertheless, since then, he’s developed more of his own style, culminating with Momentum. As he says, it’s virtually all his own songs with two covers, unrecognisable from the originals as they are.

Pure Imagination, for example, will be familiar to fans of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory as the song Gene Wilder’s character sings as he introduces the assembled gold ticket-winners to his Chocolate Room. The film itself is, of course, adapted from a book written by Cullum’s grandfather-in-law, Roald Dahl.

Momentum’s other cover, Love For $ale, is a Cole Porter song set to the musical backing of British rapper Roots Manuva’s Witness The Fitness. It shouldn’t work, but it really does.

The pianist says although he first trialled the song five years ago, he wasn’t working with the people who could realise what he had in his head, so he held off on recording it.

‘When I’ve made albums in the past I felt they had to fit into certain styles or the songs I’d written didn’t show me off as a piano player, or...’ he says, trailing off. ‘I just felt that because I’d written it, it didn’t mean the song was part of a story.

‘This time, if I wrote a song and I felt it was good enough, I decided I wasn’t going to limit myself and leave it off the record. I’ve decided that I don’t have to show every side of myself. My albums were becoming like mixtapes of everything I can do all on one album. Momentum, though, is more cohesive as a result.’

There’s a certain irony in that. Cullum can talk about music from different genres like few other musicians. He spent his early teens obsessed with metal, moving on to rap and hip hop, all the while learning about jazz and blues and keeping up with indie, electronica and mainstream pop.

In deliberately not trying to showcase these various influences and prove his eclecticism, he’s succeeded in making a record that shows what a rounded musician he really is.

‘That’s not lost on me. Perhaps I’d overthought things in the past?’ he says. ‘But whatever I’ve done before, it was all part of the process of getting where I am now. Not many artists get to make six albums any more, not on major labels.’

Whereas previous albums have been written or arranged in studio sessions, given Cullum’s new situation – he’s married and had two children since his last album – time is much more precious than it once was.

Momentum’s Edge Of Something perhaps sums up the change in circumstance best. Lyra and Margot, his two children with wife Sophie Dahl, have clearly had an effect on Cullum, although maybe not quite in the way he expected.

‘People always tell you having kids puts your life in perspective, but no, it really doesn’t,’ he says. ‘It makes everything more confusing, although the change does make life more beautiful. Having kids makes you experience everything more intensely.

‘I’ve always been positive, I’ve always been able to see the better side of things, and having the girls gave me a much rounder take on life, how tough and unpleasant it can be, as well as telling me how beautiful it can be.’

Jamie Cullum performs at the Guildhall, Portsmouth, on Sunday, November 3. Tickets £25-£37.50 on 0844 847 2362 or go to ticketmaster.co.uk. Doors 7pm.