Not ‘goodbye’ yet, my lover: James Blunt talks ahead of Birmingham show
If music were a contest to find the UK’s best interviewee, James Blunt would be more successful than Adele or Ed Sheeran.
And if music were a competition to identify Twitter’s funniest user, James Blunt would out score U2, Coldplay and The Rolling Stones.
Love him or loathe him, the former British Army officer who rose to fame in 2004 with the release of his debut album Back to Bedlam, achieving worldwide fame with the singles You’re Beautiful and Goodbye My Lover, has been an ever-present fixture for some 15 years.
Though his career has waxed and waned, his lowest ever chart placing was six, for 2017’s The Afterlove, while four of his albums have achieved a platinum disc in the UK. His debut remains a phenomenon that achieved 11 platinum discs in the UK and 40 more around the world as it sold more than 11 million copies worldwide. It peaked at number two in the US while You’re Beautiful was number one in the UK, the US and a dozen other countries. Back to Bedlam was the best-selling album of the 2000s in the UK and is one of the best-selling albums in UK chart history.
At this stage in the game, therefore, Blunt could quite easily slow down, hang out at his favourite ski lodge or chill with his favourite celebrity mates – like a certain Mr Sheeran. After all, he’s got little left to prove. Blunt has received several awards, including two Brit Awards – winning Best British Male in 2006 – two MTV Video Music Awards and two Ivor Novello Awards, as well as receiving five Grammy Award nominations.
And yet in recent times, he’s been more productive than ever. He released two albums in three years for the first time in his career, with last year’s Once Upon A Mind hitting number three on the chart and prompting renewed interest in his career. On Valentine’s Day, Blunt will move back in the UK’s biggest arenas, making the big step up from regional theatres and concert halls with a tour that kicks off at Birmingham Arena. He’ll play around the UK before playing colossal shows in Europe and then a series of summer festivals. And then at the end of the year, he’ll be Australia-bound as he heads Down Under for a major tour of Australia and New Zealand.
He’s thrilled that Once Upon A Mind has returned him to the career heights he enjoyed with Back to Bedlam, All the Lost Souls and Some Kind of Trouble.
“I had great fun messing around with different sounds on my last album, The Afterlove, when I was just having fun with music. This time things happened in a very different way. My dad is unwell and needs a kidney transplant but I’m not a match.”
And there’s a pause because although James has told this story a number of times to a number of different interviewers, the situation remains raw. His father, Charles, a former cavalry officer in the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, taught his son to have a stiff upper lip. But the ex-Harrow pupil finds that tough when discussing the stage four chronic kidney disease that has thrown his family into turmoil.
“I wanted to give him my kidney,” says Blunt, “but I wasn’t a match. My sister wasn’t a match either. And so we are waiting, because all we can do is wait. The NHS has very strict criteria for who is at the top of the list and all the various placings on the list, and because of reasons of age and so on my father isn’t a priority.”
The peril is heart-breaking, though Blunt was taught not to make a fuss. And so he’s poured his emotions into song with Once Upon a Mind being inspired by his great affection for a beloved father. “I can write a song about how I feel but I find expressing emotions one-to-one very difficult. Classic public schoolboy. Not really taught to say out loud what you feel, just taught to get on with it. Which makes it more complicated.
“If I have a subject that I need to write about, then yes, I’m pretty clear and this album has songs about my father. You only get one chance to sing a song to your father. There’s a real clarity in this message. I’m very lucky, we have a close knit family and my father is fit and healthy and I’ve looked up to him all my life.
“When you’re young, you idolise your father. As you get older, you realise they are normal people and you become friends. As he gets older, you see the frailties as well. That’s another shift in that relationship. It’s difficult to deal with. I think the funny thing is I’m putting an album out. I’m not worried about the public or the media. I worry much more to play it to people at home.”
He doesn’t dwell on his father’s reaction to the record. And one imagines that rather than shake hands or nod knowingly, there will have been silent tears. For Once Upon a Mind is a deeply personal and greatly affecting record. Tender and sincere, heartfelt and warming, it touches on that most precious relationship; the one between father and son.
Blunt, of course, has his own family now. In 2014, he married Alexandrina “Sofia” Wellesley, daughter of Lord and Lady John Henry Wellesley, and grand-daughter of the 8th Duke of Wellington. At the Oxford Union in early June 2016, Blunt revealed that he had become a father to a boy, whose godparents are Ed Sheeran and Carrie Fisher. The couple have since had a second son. So while he looks forward with great enthusiasm to his forthcoming tour, there’s also a sense of dread that he’ll be apart from his beloved sons and wife for such a long time.
“I leave my young family behind when I go out on tour for extended periods of time so everything becomes much more personal.
“Going on the road isn’t easy for any performer. I’m heading off to continue following my dream and there are serious consequences of doing that. You go away for 18 months and things change dramatically at home. The pieces they have to pick up at home are huge. There is guilt, loneliness and isolation. To some extent, the record is about that too. It’s for my wife. It talks about that emotion between us, not just when I’m home but also when I’m home and there’s still an ocean between us because of my work.
“Music is a selfish career. But it’s my passion to get up there. In writing these songs, I’m taking a lot of risk. I am saying things you wouldn’t say normally.”
His kids are oblivious to what their dad does for a living. They just know that they don’t get to play with their dad when they might want; that he has to go away for long periods of time when they’d rather he was home.
“The great thing about children is that they don’t know the difference between one job and the next. That’s the way it should be. We should all be seen as level pegging. We oughtn’t to be on a pedestal.”
Thankfully, his wife is strong enough to cope with the prolonged absence. “It takes a strong person to be able to deal with somebody working in music. It’s hard when you’re with somebody and you become embroiled in something just because you were seen standing next to someone else. It takes a tough person to deal with that and I’m lucky to have her.”
And yet to hundreds of thousands of fans, Blunt remains on a pedestral. And the singer/songwriter can’t hide his glee that the wheel of fortune has turned and elevated him back into pop’s super league. The man who was a reconnaissance officer in the Life Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army, and served under NATO in the Kosovo War in 1999, is thrilled to be back on top. He doesn’t envy the supersized success of his pal, Ed Sheeran, but he’s more than happy to be a regular fixture in the top five of the UK chart while performing to more than 10,000 fans each night on tour.
“Things are good. I’m going to go around the UK and then Europe before coming back to the UK for a show at the Royal Albert Hall and then the summer festivals. After that, I’ll be off to north America, Asia and Australia. I’ll be away for a whole year. But the very first night of the tour is Valentine’s Day, so I’m screwing things up at home.”
He’s taken his re-elevation in his stride. After years of playing to intimate crowds in such venues as Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, he’s once more in vast arenas.
“It’s funny because I’ll be playing to 10,000 people throughout the UK. I was in theatres for a long time. But you always want to have a big audience at home. It’s nice to be back.”
Blunt has always been a figure of fun to some and an easy target to others. He realises his public school upbringing and the mainstream nature of his music puts some people off. And so he embraces the challenge when he finds himself trolled on Twitter. So, when Christian Blackman Tweeted: If it wasn’t for Twitter, everyone would’ve forgot about @JamesBlunt. The singer fired back: And the most relevant you’ll ever be is that one time James Blunt Tweeted you.
When Dear Jocelyn Tweeted that James Blunt had enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame and then disappeared, he hit back: It was even less than that. The song was only 3 minutes and 30 seconds long.
Blunt is happy to take on all comers. “I suppose musicians often take themselves quite seriously. I love what I do. There’s a magic to it. I’m grateful that people turn up to shows. But I don’t think I’m any better than anyone else. I have a band from all corners of the country and they keep me grounded.
“We have the same crew and most of the same band for the whole time and you see that we’re a family. People who haven’t been to a show think it will be one man and a guitar and a few miserable songs, but it’s very vibrant. On a tour bus, there are 14 beds on each bus and we pack it out with two buses. It’s a travelling circus, I’ve lived like that for 15 years on the road and it’s much like the Army, except much less dangerous.”
There are many who aren’t fans of his music. Though Blunt’s recent resurgence has shown that there are even more who are. And as he heads back on the road, he considers Once Upon A Mind is probably his most important record since the breakthrough, Back To Bedlam.
“These songs are really important to me. For many years, I have kept something back. Since Back to Bedlam blew up, I haven’t been as honest or open as I might have been. I’ve tried to say things that I thought the audience would like and that’s not very honest.
“With the things that have gone on at home I realised I do this for a reason, which is to be totally clear and totally honest. If you are going to expose yourself do it completely. I’m not holding anything back on this record. Playing it to my father for the first time was a very nerve wracking moment. You go through life and love a parent but don’t always say that. It’s not about being son and father, it’s two grown men saying goodbye to one another. They are raw things to say. I’m glad I’ve been able to share this with my father. He’s a soldier, he’s not going to cry.”