Some ageing rockstar once said that what he feared most, in a musical sense, was the songwriting well running dry. That’s something that’s unlikely ever to worry James Blunt. He has, it can be said without exaggeration, lived a life that should provide enough material for a dozen albums, with sufficient left over for a couple of screenplays. Sure – that’s what all the singer-songwriters say. But this is a definitively different singer-songwriter.
Take No Bravery, the song that closes his debut album, Back to Bedlam, for instance It was written in Kosovo in 1999, while James was a reconnaissance officer in the British army. On patrol around Pristina, he kept his guitar bolted to the outside of his tank. But in quieter moments, it came out, as he wrote about life as a 22-year-old peacekeeper in the aftermath of one of the decade’s bloodiest civil wars. The rest of his unit ordered him to keep the noise down as he wrote and sang in the post-midnight stillness. He didn’t keep the noise down. ‘No Bravery’ is the only complete song I wrote in Kosovo. I wrote it lying by my tank in my sleeping bag with my boots on. You had to sleep with your boots on. The song is pretty fatalistic. The rest of the album is fatalistic, he says wryly.
But his Kosovan experience is only one aspect of a new artist who’s destined to find his way into a lot of record collections. Essentially, James is a find – an old soul who’s somehow unafflicted by cynicism, a young writer who sounds likes he’s been doing this for years, an angelic voice who’s had a hell of a ride. Elton John, with whom he shares a manager, thinks You’re Beautiful is a modern successor to John’s own Your Song. An astute comparison, because much of Back to Bedlam is reminiscent of John’s early-career best. Meanwhile, Tom Rothrock, who produced the album, sees James as a potential British answer to a couple of other clients, Beck and Elliott Smith. Rothrock had never heard of James until he stumbled across a live track he performed at last year’s South by Southwest, upon which the producer was so smitten that he instantly agreed to work on Back to Bedlam.
What’s odd is that a military family like the Blunts – his father, a career Colonel, has only recently left the army – should spawn a James. As he tells it, his upbringing was the traditional sort that scarcely seems to exist anymore born in an army hospital in Hampshire, he was sent to boarding school at seven, excelled at science and maths, got a pilot’s license at 16 (I can fly anything with a single engine – Tiger Moths, Spitfires), did a spell at Bristol University, and then, because my dad was pushing for it, joined the army. He eventually made Captain, and was the first British officer into Pristina, leading a column of 30,000 peacekeeping troops.
Music, though, has always been his mainstay. Actually, this needs to be qualified. James got into music lateishly, the result of growing up in a musicless house that didn’t possess a CD player. My dad was really practical, and saw music as just noise. The only CD player was in the car, and we had just three CDs – ‘American Pie’, and a couple of Beach Boys ones. When he went away to school, though, he learned piano, then appeared in a school musical, and that was it. From then on, he listened and learned as much as he could. A love of Queen and Dire Straits came and quickly went. Picking up a friend’s guitar at 14, he played along to Nirvana’s Nevermind, and wrote his first song soon after. In so doing, he made himself unpopular with the school housemaster, who knew that music drifting down the corridor late at night could invariably be traced to Blunt’s room. His teen years were a battle between teachers, who were intent on imposing some sort of education, and himself, equally intent on making music his career.
Armed with some dodgy demos he’d recorded, he left the army in 2002 to become a full-time musician (My dad was nervous, because I was leaving a steady job). Said dodgy items were an impressive enough showcase of his haunting voice and exquisitely personal songs to land him both management and publishing deals within months. And then I met Linda Perry [songwriter-producer for, among others, Pink and Christina Aguilera], cos my publishers gave her some songs, and then I went to play South by Southwest, and then she gave me a deal with her own label, Custard Records, James says, still half-dazzled by it all.
He went to California in September, 2003, to record his album, and discovered that being a slightly scruffy English boy in Los Angeles could be very pleasant. Staying at the home of an actress, he spent his days recording with Rothrock, and his nights…well…researching LA’s club scene. With my naïve background, it was like stepping into a devil’s cauldron, he says, in happy reminiscence. He recorded the painfully poignant track Goodbye, My Lover in the actresses’ bathroom, where she kept an old piano.
His current favourite listening is Cat Power and Lou Reed’s Transformer album, and Back to Bedlam has a similarly enigmatic quality. He won’t explain what most of the songs are about, though he does admit that the deceptively bubbly So Long, Jimmy was inspired by Messrs Hendrix and Morrison. As for the rest, he says only, You can get away with murder in a song.
The Heart Never Lies
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