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
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