Jamie cul­lum


We ex­plore the other side of Jamie Cul­lum, the 39-year-old pop jazz artist who doesn’t want to be boxed in

JAMIE CUL­LUM DOESN’T WANT TO BE BOXED IN. If you spend any time talk­ing to him, you’ll find out he likes it that way. The 39-year-old is able to pop leg­endary jazz artists such as Charles Min­gus as well as 90s’ trail­blaz­ing hip hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest into the con­ver­sa­tion. He’s worked on al­bums with au courant hit song maker Phar­rell Wil­liams and played a song on the pi­ano for ac­tor Robert De Niro.

He’s been mar­ried for eight years to for­mer mod­el­turned-chil­dren’s book au­thor, So­phie Dahl (the grand­daugh­ter of clas­sic movie ac­tress Pa­tri­cia O’Neal and chil­dren’s book au­thor Roald Dahl), and they are rais­ing two chil­dren, Lyra, seven and Mar­got, five, in their home in the Buck­ing­hamshire area of Lon­don.

Peo­ple are still talk­ing about your set at SingJazz 2018. What have you been up to since then?

I have been fin­ish­ing off the songs for my next al­bum, while also writ­ing and work­ing on a film project I was asked to be in­volved in. I’m help­ing raise my chil­dren with my wife and try­ing to be a good par­ent as well.

Tell us more about that al­bum.

At the mo­ment, it’s all my songs and it’s prob­a­bly go­ing to re­main that way. On this al­bum, I just want it to be about my song­writ­ing. I’ve been fo­cus­ing on the words as much as the mu­sic. I’ve partly pro­duced it my­self as well so I am not get­ting my hopes up. It’s a per­sonal record, I think, com­pared to the other ones but I am re­ally proud of it.

In your opin­ion, what makes the UK such a good place for jazz artistes such as your­self?

That’s a re­ally good ques­tion. It’ll be hard to give you a de­fin­i­tive an­swer though. I think, for me, it’s the kind of mu­si­cal his­tory that this coun­try has ‒ from rock, to pop, to clas­si­cal mu­sic, to jazz and blues. There’s also the her­itage of the record­ing stu­dios, along with the coun­ter­cul­ture his­tory. There is this great back­ground lay­ered over the years and there are places to go, par­tic­u­larly Lon­don and Manch­ester, to ex­pe­ri­ence the mu­sic and the cul­ture.

Right now, par­tic­u­larly where I live in Lon­don, there is an in­cred­i­ble mu­sic and cul­ture scene and there are com­mu­ni­ties keep­ing things lively. If you think about it, it all goes back to the his­tory we have again, and yet in many ways there’s also some­thing new and vi­brant, and com­pletely trail­blaz­ing.

Who were the jazz artistes you lis­tened to early on?

Early on, it was hip hop, es­pe­cially the jazz­ier side, that in­trigued me. Bands such as A Tribe Called Quest, Aron B and Joaquim, the Beat­nuts, J Dilla, stuff like that. Through them, I came across artistes like Her­bie Han­cock, Ah­mad Ja­mal and Os­car Peter­son. Then, around that time, I saw Harry Con­nick Jr. on tele­vi­sion play­ing pi­ano and singing and talk­ing jazz terms. I thought, “Here’s this young guy, singing and play­ing. He seems kind of cool, I might do that!” He def­i­nitely was an in­flu­ence on me.

In Bris­tol, there was this DJ cul­ture of peo­ple col­lect­ing and find­ing old records. “Oh, this is from a pawn shop and oh, this is an old Duke Elling­ton record and I’ve got Charles Min­gus.” Be­fore you know it, you get hold of th­ese things in char­ity stores. Fifty here, one pound there. I built my jazz li­brary that way, think­ing about this mu­sic as kind of like snip­pets.

It’s a mish mash of so many ex­pe­ri­ences.

Be­ing a jazz mu­si­cian arms you with the skills to go in mul­ti­ple lanes. You learn about im­pro­vi­sa­tion, about the blues, rock and roll, funk, R&B, etc. You learn great tim­ing and how to com­mu­ni­cate with other mu­si­cians. It’s a great train­ing ground. I’ve played with every type of band imag­in­able. I’ve played gui­tar with rock bands. I’ve played in hip hop bands. I’ve played with pop bands on the pi­ano and key­boards, done some back­ing vo­cals for soul bands.

Speak­ing of which, you’ve just worked with Yamaha pi­anos to put pi­anos in spa­ces all over Lon­don.

Yes, I’ve been an am­bas­sador for Yamaha for oh, 15 years and it has been putting th­ese pi­anos in train sta­tions around Lon­don to en­cour­age peo­ple to play.

It’s an in­ter­est­ing thing that you are as­so­ci­ated with. Is it some­thing that is work­ing out, cre­at­ing a “is it art or is it mu­sic or is it some­thing else” con­ver­sa­tion?

Yeah, it’s fas­ci­nat­ing. It’s great that you can just start play­ing in a tube sta­tion and bring mu­sic to a pub­lic space. It brings a sense of com­mu­nity, a sense of fun and a re­minder that we are all in this world to­gether.

Have you ever done it? Im­promptu?

Yes, I did one at King’s Cross in Lon­don. I went down and did a lit­tle im­promptu gig and peo­ple stopped, then left [the pi­ano in the sta­tion] and said, “Right. Here you go. Ev­ery­one sit down and play.”

Now that pi­ano is be­ing played every day by hun­dreds of peo­ple, which is great.

Dur­ing the sum­mers, do you take your fam­ily with you on tours? We’ve done lit­tle bits and bobs of that. They’re com­ing with me on a cou­ple this sum­mer but I’d like to think that they will come to more. They’re pretty com­fort­able and they like trav­el­ling. They’re very good kids, so I’d like to think we will do that more. If I come back to Sin­ga­pore, they’re def­i­nitely go­ing to come with me.

How has be­ing a fa­ther changed you and your mu­sic?

If you have kids, it changes you in every pos­si­ble and im­pos­si­ble way that you have ever and never imag­ined [laughs], in ways you didn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect.

Ob­vi­ously, it takes away some of that self­ish­ness that you could have in just doggedly pur­su­ing your own am­bi­tion and chas­ing what you think your life should be. You start to re­alise how much of an ef­fect you have on those around you, and you have to think less about what works just for you. That does change you as a man. It forces you to make more mean­ing­ful de­ci­sions.

I’m not go­ing to waste my time any more. If I’m away from my kids and do­ing stuff, I want to make sure that my time away from them counts. You re­ally start to whit­tle down, to carve away at ev­ery­thing, make it count for not be­ing at home.

With your wife So­phie in­volved in books and art, and you in mu­sic, it must be a tremen­dous house­hold for your chil­dren. Have they started to re­act to this?

Yeah, I think we down­play it be­cause I want them to dis­cover it on their terms. So what we do is we ex­pose them to great lit­er­a­ture and mu­sic, whether it’s The

Bea­tles or Nina Si­mone but I don’t want them to feel like, “Oh, Mommy and Daddy know lots about this.” I want them to dis­cover that cu­rios­ity with­out feel­ing like it comes with the bag­gage of what we bring to the ta­ble. It is some­thing you need to fall in love with your­self.

Speak­ing of books and mu­sic, what are your other pas­sions?

I love read­ing. I have a great pas­sion for it, when I have time, mostly when I’m not mak­ing mu­sic or I’m just with my kids, hang­ing out. I love to cook as well. I can cook a proper and beau­ti­ful Sun­day roast ‒ roast chicken, roast po­ta­toes, pud­dings, roast beet­root with horse­rad­ish, parsnips and honey car­rots. I quite en­joy eat­ing and drink­ing with friends be­sides read­ing great lit­er­a­ture. I like sim­ple plea­sures ‒ not mak­ing things so com­pli­cated. I’m re­al­is­ing that more and more as I get older.

I un­der­stand you love Ja­pa­nese cloth­ing brands. How would you de­scribe your style?

Now we’re talk­ing. I re­ally love Ja­pa­nese brands like Un­der­cover, Neigh­bour­hood and Wacko Maria. Some­times I walk out of the house wear­ing ev­ery­thing Wacko Maria ex­cept my un­der­wear [laughs]. I think I am able to own my style now. You know, as a 39-year-old man. I think that comes with the con­fi­dence of age. I’m more con­fi­dent in my­self. I re­alised you can ap­pre­ci­ate clothes the same way you can ap­pre­ci­ate a great watch or cam­era.

A decade ago, I didn’t re­ally have a sense of per­sonal style. Now, I would say it’s mostly black, some rock­a­billy type shirts, short sleeves, boots, jeans and a great jacket.

That’s pretty much what I wear day in and day out, at the mo­ment. Jeans, a great T-shirt with in­ter­est­ing colours and a nice rock­a­billy shirt in black. I am wear­ing my hair short th­ese days.

You men­tioned watches. What do you like about them?

I like vin­tage watches. I have a small col­lec­tion of them, bril­liant watches from the ’60s. I love beau­ti­fully made things and I en­joy look­ing at other peo­ple’s watches. I don’t know whether I would call my­self a watch guy but I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate watches, that’s for sure.

Is there any sym­bol­ism present in vin­tage watches that you think ap­plies to your mu­sic?

I am fond of ar­tis­ti­cally made things that are built to last, whether they are cam­eras, watches, cars, art, etc. Things that were meant to be around longer than most hu­mans. It’s not about be­ing ex­pen­sive. I don’t like things that are over-en­gi­neered, so to speak. I pre­fer them to be fully op­ti­mised and have a time­less feel and I hope my mu­sic is like that.

Talk­ing about over-en­gi­neer­ing, what do you think about smart­watches and me­chan­i­cal watch­mak­ing?

Well, watch­mak­ing is an art form and th­ese days, no one needs a watch, which is what makes it all the more won­der­ful for a man to wear some­thing that isn’t just jew­ellery but ac­tu­ally an item that achieved a huge amount of beau­ti­ful ex­per­tise in en­gi­neer­ing. If you think about it, this tiny thing on your wrist is the sum­ma­tion of thou­sands of hours of ex­per­tise in de­sign, artistry and clever en­gi­neer­ing. It’s a bit like mu­sic, re­ally.

You’ve been in mu­sic for about two decades. Have you had a high­light in your ca­reer?

Yeah, work­ing on the theme song for the Clint East­wood film, Gran Torino. It felt like the pin­na­cle of my ca­reer at that time to have penned its lyrics. I was given the script by Clint East­wood, and his son Kyle [East­wood, a jazz mu­si­cian him­self] was the one be­hind the movie’s score. I just ran with the mu­sic that Kyle had al­ready come up with, and wrote the lyrics to the song rather than let my­self be over­ruled by the enor­mity of the sit­u­a­tion.

That turned out well, but to have that come off as well as it did was mat­ter of tim­ing too. I don’t think I would have been able to do the song if this had hap­pened two years be­fore it did, as I wouldn’t have had the con­fi­dence nor right ex­pe­ri­ence.

When the op­por­tu­nity came, I was re­ally warm­ing to the idea of be­ing a song­writer more than any­thing else, so it helped me work to­wards my song­writ­ing as­pi­ra­tions. That re­ally helped the sec­ond part of my ca­reer. It’s the thing I had wanted be­yond ev­ery­thing else in my pro­fes­sional life.

Is there any­thing else within the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try that you might be in­ter­ested in?

Not re­ally. I love movies but I don’t want to act. To be good at some­thing, you need to work at it for a long, long time. You can jump around and do many things in any in­dus­try, and you can get great joy in meet­ing peo­ple. But, as far as the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try goes, I want to be a bet­ter song­writer and mu­si­cian. Th­ese are my goals.

As if you haven’t al­ready achieved that.

Oh, I have an idea of where I want to be. I just haven’t yet. I am nowhere near where I want to be. AM

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