PLAY­ING IT UNCOOL

James Blunt is still scorned by crit­ics for his biggest­selling hit, the sen­ti­men­tal bal­lad You’re Beau­ti­ful, but he’s fight­ing back with hu­mour, hu­mil­ity — and suc­cess, writes Jonathan Dean

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

On De­cem­ber 13 last year, James Blunt tweeted: “If you thought 2016 was bad — I’m re­leas­ing an al­bum in 2017.” Twit­ter has been the launch pad for a makeover for the singer, with peo­ple who thought he was bland dis­cov­er­ing he is ac­tu­ally very funny. Four­teen days af­ter that tweet, Car­rie Fisher died, and noth­ing felt flip­pant to him then. She was god­mother to his baby.

He ad­mits that will sur­prise some. It clearly means a lot to him, tears form­ing as he talks about his late friend. “The sad­dest thing is that my son will never get to know some­one I thought was the most spe­cial per­son,” he says.

The odd cou­ple met be­fore his de­but al­bum. When he told Fisher he was record­ing it in Los An­ge­les, she said he should live with her. So he moved into the Fisher-Reynolds com­pound, record­ing his top 10 hit Good­bye My Lover us­ing a pi­ano in Fisher’s bath­room. Deb­bie Reynolds wouldn’t al­low him within 20m of her when she didn’t have make-up on.

“Fisher was my Amer­i­can mother, and a real in­spi­ra­tion,” he con­tin­ues slowly. “My first al­bum was called Back to Bed­lam be­cause I lived in a mad­house with her. She put a card­board cutout of her­self as Leia out­side my room, with her date of birth and date of death on her fore­head. I’m try­ing to re­mem­ber what the date was, be­cause it was around now — and I re­mem­ber think­ing it was too soon.” He saw her at the end of last year. “She went out with a bang, as she was back in movies. Maybe it was a great time to go.”

It’s tough to rank Blunt’s most ridicu­lous mo­ments. As if be­ing in the army and hav­ing his de­but be­come Bri­tain’s big­gest-sell­ing record of the noughties weren’t enough, there was a daft per­for­mance on Ellen DeGeneres’s US chat show. “Me, Justin Bieber and Ellen formed a band,” he says, beam­ing. They did a cover of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way to the tune of Blunt’s mega bal­lad You’re Beau­ti­ful. On Se­same Street, he ser­e­naded Telly Mon­ster with the same song, al­beit an oc­tave lower be­cause the pup­pet couldn’t reach his pitch. “He was just way more manly than me,” the singer dead­pans.

Then, last year, it was re­ported that Princess Beatrice had cut Ed Sheeran’s face while pre­tend­ing to knight Blunt. “I don’t know what you’re talk­ing about,” he says flatly. He gig­gles. So it’s not true? “Look, I don’t know what Sheeran’s made up to get pub­lic­ity. Maybe the guy’s des­per­ate to sell records.” Are you deny­ing in­volve­ment? “At­tempted de­nial.” Later, while ex­plain­ing how he taught Sheeran to ski in re­turn for the younger man teach­ing him how to write songs, he mock-snaps: “Well, if he wasn’t in the f..king way, I’d be a knight by now.” So it is true? “Al­legedly.”

We meet in a pub near a home he owns in west Lon­don to talk about his new al­bum, The Afterlove, partly writ­ten with Sheeran. Blunt’s voice is plummy and he is dressed neatly in a but­toned-up cardi­gan. He is po­lite and, as gleaned from Twit­ter, self-dep­re­cat­ing to an ex­tent that’s rare in any pop star, let alone one with Brit Awards, Grammy nom­i­na­tions and 20 mil­lion al­bum sales. “We should do the im­por­tant bit first, which is or­der­ing, be­fore I bore you shit­less,” is an open­ing gam­bit over the menus. “This al­bum will get ter­ri­ble re­views” is what he says of what he is pro­mot­ing.

The Afterlove, though, is more in­ter­est­ing than any­thing he has done be­fore. We’re not talk­ing high-charged elec­tro protest punk. In fact, there’s noth­ing that would sound out of place on a slightly risque Cliff Richard al­bum. Yet the mu­sic is club­bier than the gui­tar-and­pi­ano set-up Blunt is known for, and stand­outs Love Me Bet­ter and Lose My Num­ber dance nicely on tidy house riffs. An­other co-writer is Ryan Ted­der, who has worked for Bey­once.

Blunt is ner­vous about how his fans will re­act. “Some would just like an al­bum full of bal­lads,” he says. It’s a good idea to put tick­ets on sale for the tour be­fore they hear the new ma­te­rial, then. “Ex­actly. It doesn’t mat­ter if they don’t turn up, as long as they’ve bought the ticket.”

There’s a com­ment un­der the YouTube video for Good­bye My Lover where some­body has writ­ten: “Rest in Peace Darling ... I cry my­self to sleep.” Say, snidely, what you want about Blunt’s mu­sic, but con­nec­tion is what songs are meant for, and one of the tracks on the new al­bum, Some­one Singing Along, seems to be about that close re­la­tion­ship with fans. It’s not. He was writ­ing about Don­ald Trump (“Some­body’s gonna build a wall / Then smash it with a can­non­ball”). He does agree, though, that it is mind-blow­ing when peo­ple use his words to sound­track their lives. Their let­ters to him (the pos­i­tive ones) are kept in boxes in the at­tic.

Blunt, who owns a restau­rant with for­mer Eng­land rugby player Lawrence Dal­laglio and mo­tor­cy­cling cham­pion Carl Fog­a­rty, is the cen­tury’s least cool pop star. An old Har­ro­vian, born in 1974 to a mil­i­tary fam­ily, he mar­ried Sofia Welles­ley, grand­daugh­ter of the 8th Duke of Welling­ton, in 2014. He’s the sort of star who says “Cred­i­bil­ity went out the win­dow with the first al­bum, let’s not try to get it back”, be­fore sug­gest­ing that the only way to al­ter per­cep­tions would be to use his “ur­ban name, JBlo”. Ac­tu­ally, one of his new songs sounds like For- eigner. The record is shot through with his sig­na­ture self-dep­re­ca­tion: The Afterlove’s first line is “Peo­ple say the mean­est things / Yeah, I’ve been called a dick”. An­other track, about You’re Beau­ti­ful, goes: “All I do is apol­o­gise for a song I wrote in 2005.” This is as self-ref­er­en­tial as the most in­ward-look­ing Kanye lyric, but with a wit that makes its writer like­able, not ego­tis­ti­cal.

He re­ally is un­like any other mu­si­cian. There’s no weird­ness a la Cold­play’s Chris Martin. He’s not ea­ger to please, like, say, singer­song­writer James Bay, and he’s not at all loud, like most of them. He’s some­one who talks so lit­tle about mu­sic that I ask if a tweet — “To be hon­est, I don’t even re­ally like mu­sic” — was a joke or not. “Yes, that’s a joke,” he says, just about po­litely. “I love you had to check.”

Maybe it’s the army, maybe a stiff up­per lip from his up­bring­ing (“Maybe”), but ei­ther way, de­spite the mad­ness that whirls about him, he re­mains calm in his celebrity storm, one that

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