You’re Beautiful made James Blunt a global star. He spoke to Chris Broom about his new album and how his old army friends help keep his feet on the ground.
When James Blunt hits the Wickham Festival next week, it will be something of a homecoming for the massively successful singer-songwriter.
He grew up near Andover, and was born just over the county border in Tidworth Military Hospital.
‘Wickham Festival is quite exciting for me,’ says the Goodbye My Lover troubadour, ‘because it’s my home area. I come from Hampshire, and most of my family are still around there, so literally all my family are coming down, it’s my home gig.’
The headline show on Wickham’s first night comes towards the end of a busy summer playing festivals all around Europe, as well as American and Australian tours earlier in the year.
He says: ‘It’s very full on. The promotion of this album started in August last year and I’ve been in a new city every day, and this goes on until March 2015.
‘But I’ve got a really fantastic band and fantastic crew and we’re going to some amazing places.
‘You don’t really hear about the European festivals, you hear about Coachella in America and Glastonbury – which I’ve done three times and it’s incredible fun – but some of the ones in Europe are brilliant, so I’ve been doing lots of them.’
James has been promoting his latest album, his fourth, Moon Landing, which saw him reunite with the producer of his mega-selling debut, Back to Bedlam.
Released in 2004, that first album’s success took many by surprise – it sold more than three million copies in the UK alone and became that decade’s top-selling album in this country.
Wickham is often described as a folk festival, but James is their most commercial booking to date.
‘If you had taken Back to Bedlam and not thrown it into the charts, you would have said it’s perfect for Wickham Festival, it wasn’t mainstream, it was a guy and an acoustic guitar,’ says James. ‘We define something as pop, but if you listen to the rest of the songs on there they’re not pop, they’re quite stripped back.
‘They were recorded in a studio with me playing lots of instruments quite badly with the producer Tom Rothrock. Perhaps that’s why it caught on because it sounded quite different to what else was in the charts at the time.’
A great deal of Bedlam’s success can be attributed to one song though – You’re Beautiful, the number one smash that still divides public opinion with it routinely appearing in polls of annoying songs.
But James says he doesn’t resent the reputation the song has: ‘I find it strange that people think I wouldn’t enjoy or appreciate that song or find it in any way a negative. Everyone wants one big song, and that was it. For me, it’s the cornerstone of my career, it’s a foundation that allowed me to do this.
‘Instead of doing what I anticipated, which was a tour of north London, I’m on my fourth world tour. I’m very lucky to have that song.
‘People buy tickets and expect to hear songs they know. I’m on the Moon Landing tour, so I’ll play things like Bonfire Heart, and Heart to Heart, but they expect to hear songs like 1973, Goodbye My Lover and You’re Beautiful, and if I didn’t give them that...’ he laughs at the idea of his fans rioting.
‘I think if one song gets played to death, it gets annoying, and eventually you start associating that artist with the same word. But I don’t look at myself and wonder where it all went wrong.’
But Moon Landing has given him his most positive reviews in some time.
‘It’s been really nice to have that warmth of reception in my home country,’ he explains. ‘I get a good response in other countries, but I do get a bit of grief here.’
Although James now calls Ibiza home, he hasn’t spent much time there lately.
‘I was only there for a day really after the end of the last world tour. I came home, did the laundry, and then was off to Los Angeles to start work on the next album.
‘Moon Landing was a year in the making, I was locked in a studio.
‘For that last world tour, I was writing songs for arenas and writing with an audience in mind, so I was picking up an electric guitar as you want to fill it with sound. Having done that, and had great fun, I wanted to do something more personal this time.
‘I wanted to write songs for myself and engage with music as a passion rather than a job. And having written these songs that meant so much to me, I had to go and find the man who was there before the audience, and that was (the producer) Tom.’
Before he was a global popstar, James was in the army. He served as a captain in the Life Guards, completing a highly-charged tour of duty in Kosovo.
‘A lot of my friends are still serving, they keep me pretty sane. When I think I’ve got a tough job I speak to them and realise what it’s like to have a proper job.’
And referring to his role as patron for the charity Help for Heroes, he adds: ‘I think the work that something like Help for Heroes has done is to make us realise that we voted in our politicians, so we are responsible for sending our troops to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and so it is our responsibility to look after them when they come home in the immediate and the long term.
‘Through something like Help for Heroes, the public have been able to show their great support that our soldiers deserve.
‘Musician or pop stars, call us what you like, I don’t think we’re role models in anyway, I don’t think we’re any more experienced or knowledgeable than anybody else. I talk about myself an awful lot. It’s grounding to talk about people who do infintely more.’
...the tuk-tuk he bought.
It’s awesome, it’s such a great way to get around, and in a sunny climate it’s highly recommended. And when the music career takes a nosedive, I can move into taxi driving.
...turning 40 this year.
Because I’m in Los Angeles a lot, I have access to the best plastic surgeons in the world, so I’m not that worried.
...his use of Twitter.
I just wouldn’t be on Twitter if I wasn’t a musician in the public eye. My label wanted me to do it and I didn’t have anything sensible to say, really. Seeing what people write with the confidence of writing from the shadows and in their bedrooms, I thought I would engage with them and have a laugh.