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Interview: James Blunt – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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James Blunt – in life, style and demeanor – stands as the perfect antithesis of what could be called the “modern rock star.” With international sales of 18 million records, however, such a statement might be considered quite the paradox.

Blasting onto the music scene behind the massive success of “You’re Beautiful,” James Blunt has toured the world, as well as the contours of his soul. The abrupt and wide-ranging musical and thematic changes on his first two albums, Back to Bedlam and All the Lost Souls, represent the internal and external influences that came to shape his personal and professional lives. Some Kind of Trouble represents a bright, new chapter.

On January 18, 2011, Some Kind of Trouble will find its way to the United States via Custard and Atlantic Records. In the midst of a promotional campaign for this milestone album, James Blunt managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his Kosovo experience, the influence of Linda Perry and the inspiration he has found on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

In your most-recent press release, you noted that you viewed your first two albums as a pair of bookends – action and reaction. So when you look back on the recording experience for Some Kind of Trouble, what immediate thoughts come to mind?

 The reason I thought about the bookend thing is because my first album – [Back to Bedlam] – had a naïve innocence to it, and then the second was the opposite of that. It was much darker, and you can tell by the album title, All the Lost Souls. Then I closed the door on that. I took some time to hang out with friends and live a normal life. This third album for me is magic, because it’s regained some of that innocence, some of the excitement that a teenager might have. And the recording process, for me the memories of that will really be working in such close conjunction with my producer, Steve Robson; because I would go in there every day, tell him what I’ve been up to, discuss those things out loud about what’s going on, and we would sit down and write a song that moment, record a demo that afternoon, work it up a little bit more the day after. The two of us have sat in the same room together for over twelve months. His wife is probably pretty jealous of the time we’ve spent together! [laughing] We’ve become quite a bit close, and the result is something that we love.

 Looking at the credits for all three albums, I noticed that Tom Rothrock had a really big hand on the production side. On Some Kind of Trouble, however, Steve Robson picks up the reigns. As you began work on your third album, what gravitated you towards Steve Robson’s production talents?

 Well, it was a chance meeting, actually. My drummer just introduced me to him. I was supposed to meet him and go out for a beer with the two of them. I turned up a little early, and he was in the studio. He was playing the piano, and he was surrounded by all these great toys; you know, the different musical instruments. And so I just happened to pick up an electric guitar, and we wrote “Dangerous,” the second song on the album. I just, at that moment, knew exactly that, that was the direction I wanted to go in.

 Thank you for that insight! If you don’t mind, please talk about your attachment to “No Tears,” which you have described as the “anchor” of this album.

 “No Tears.” I really love the structure of the song. As a songwriter, I’m really proud of it, but I also like the sentiment. It’s a song that talks about one’s own failings or regrets in life, but it doesn’t say it with a sense of self-pity. Instead, it’s with a sense of responsibility, and so kind of like the phrase, “I’ve made my bed, so I’ll lie in it.” No tears for me.

 As you talk about the failings that may occur in one’s life, how did your father cope with your decision to leave the British Army in 2002. Considering your father’s history and background, how difficult was it for you to make this decision, knowing that he wished for you to have secure work placement and income?

 Well, he came from the Army himself, and that was something he knew, understood and related to. And then when I said I was going in the music business, he gave me some really sound advice which I’m glad for. His said: “You know what? It’s incredibly hard to be successful in the music business. For the thousands of people who look for a record deal, only a handful will get that deal. And of those who have the record deal, only one in ten actually make a profit. The rest make a loss. And so to be successful is tricky.” I said: “Well, dad, you know what? Success, for me, isn’t commercial success. Success for me is the pleasure and the happiness I might get from it; and as long as I’m enjoying it, then I really need to pursue it.” And he said: “Cool. As long as you understand the risks, go for it.” Since then, I’ve been lucky. It’s worked well, and he and my mum have been phenomenally supportive and without that support, it would be a miserable experience.

 Well, I am definitely happy to hear that. When you look over the years, what do you consider to be some of the biggest obstacles that you have had to overcome – on a personal or professional level?

 In the last six years? Well, I think the reason why my second album was quite dark was because it’s a changing world. It’s a strange business, this putting yourself in the public eye, and that loss of anonymity; and I think to learn to deal with that, to be at ease with that, and learn how to, then, start carving your own path in that knowledge. For me, it’s taken a moment, and again, I put it down to friends and family, being close to them and really understanding what I do, and then from then, start to really enjoy it.

 A few years ago, you made the following statement: “fame and celebrity is something that other people have constructed that I’m not really party to.” What steps do you take to make sure that your life remains as normal as possible?

 Well, I think, probably, to do things as I did them before. I hang out with the same people, and I go to the same places, and when someone says, “Where’s your PA [personal assistant]?” and then I don’t have a PA, I am a normal human being. And, “Where’s your security?” No, I don’t have security because that would just isolate me from other people. So I think it’s just outwardly trying to do things as I did them before, not avoiding going to places because there might be paparazzi there, knowing you’re there. Instead, I just have to be natural. It’s other people, then, who become strange. Hopefully within my own circle of friends, we can retain normality.

 I have always been impressed by your charitable spirit and your support of environmental causes, which has seemed to be fairly natural for you. How, or when, did these altruistic principles become instilled in you as a child? And at what point, as an artist, did you say: “I need to use my platform to bring awareness to international issues?”

 Well, it was definitely when I was out in Kosovo in the war there, in 1999. And the thing that inspired me was those people themselves. Doctors Without Borders were just the most incredible people I saw out there. We had our own security of guns and tanks and things to hide behind, but those guys were out front saving people’s lives, saving civilian’s lives in that man-made disaster, as well as they do natural disasters, too. And you couldn’t help but be blown away by the work that they’re doing, inspired by that. And I thought: “You  know what? If I leave the Army one day, I’d love to get involved with those guys.” And also, now I’m in a job that I can do that, and sometimes it’s really nice to talk about some other people other than myself; people who, I would say, I think are the real stars of the world.

 Since you are what we would call in America an “army brat,” as you have traveled around the world, are there any major themes you have noticed that run through all communities and are common to the human existence?

 I feel real strongly about this, that we often seem afraid of people from different religions and different races, and that fear makes us aggressive and defensive. And yet, at the same time, I reckon as humans we all have the same hopes and the same fears. And so, I’ve enjoyed going around the world, and some people that don’t even speak my language, they still can understand the sentiment in both my heart and my head through the music that I’m playing, that they’re listening to. It’s been incredibly fortunate to be able to have that connection.

 Many artists and producers have found solace and inspiration in Ibiza, where you have taken up residence. What influence has the island had on your musical tastes?

 I love it out there! It’s a really special place. It’s my home. Although it has been my home, London has really been my office, I suppose, where this album has been written and recorded. But of course, their way of life and the music scene has been an influence on me, and I love being out there. It’s famous for its dance music, and I’m down there and listening to that all the time.

 Have you ever thought about losing yourself in an electronic dance music project?

 Well, you know, along the way, I’ve done different things with that. Pete Tong lives in Ibiza with me, as well, and he remixed “1973.” That song was about its most famous nightclub Pacha. It opened that year, and so he played it in there, and I was part of that with him. And there’s another nightclub called Amnesia, and they’ve just taken on a song of mine which I haven’t released, and we’ve put it out there to play on that island. So yes, I do enjoy doing a bit of that on the side.

 Well, I will definitely keep my eye out for that release. As the key, pioneering artist of Linda Perry’s Custard Records, what is the best advice that she has given you over the years?

 She said: “Follow your gut instinct.” And I think I’ve really followed that. I think it’s worth surrounding yourself by talented, good people, and you rely on their expertise, but at the same time to follow your own heart and gut and carve your own path.

 Now that you have learned to follow your gut instinct,  with these past three albums, in what specific way do you think your songwriting talents have improved? Are there certain risks that you took on this album that you would not have taken two albums ago?

 Well, I’ve pooled a lot of different musicians along the way, just really so that I have masses of choices. And for me, I’m thinking of the songs that have grown and developed. These are some of the best songs I think I’ve ever written. But I spend a long time, and this has taken me over a year to do rather than the four months of recording that the other two albums have done. But with that time, it has allowed me to experiment with different musicians and different setups, and the result is something I’m really confident of.

 Although you play multiple instruments, the guitar appears to be your instrument of choice. What musical qualities fascinate you the most about this particular instrument?

 If I’m honest, I think I prefer the piano.   When you hear the piano, it has such a deep rich and deep tone that I love it. The problem with the piano is it’s not very mobile, and so I’m now on the acoustic because it travels well. And it’s the same, again, with the acoustic. I’m only on that, really, because I learned on the electric, and then when I joined the Army, it became difficult to travel with my electric and my amplifier. There was nowhere in my tank to plug in the amplifier, or in the green field to plug in the amplifier. I’ve taken on the acoustic for its mobility. That’s why, also, on this album perhaps, I’ve not been limited by that mobility.  Instead, now that I’m on the third album, I’ve been able to go into a studio and use all those different toys, and that’s perhaps why on this album, the songs are upbeat, and the production is that much richer.

 As a fellow student of sociology, I have always been intrigued by your fascination with the intersection of “commodification” and “pop music culture.” When you look out the contemporary music landscape, what are your thoughts, for better or for worse?

 Well, it’s an interesting time, isn’t it, with music and what people sing about. I think it’s weird the way people view that music is about people’s fast cars and the money they might have, and the fame that they might have achieved. So instead, I enjoy the music of the ’70s, when they were perhaps more socially aware. I think that was a special era for that.

 And when it comes to your personal life, are there any particular things that you have always wanted to share with the public, but never had the opportunity to do so?

 You know, I don’t think so, so much. I’m a pretty private person, and so the thing I always enjoy putting out is the music. I’ve been so uncomfortable having to back that up with talking about myself, so much. I think perhaps even the charitable side has come after that, and has been on the selfish level of a fulfilling thing that brings some kind of more meaning to the kind of promotional work. The self-promotion thing has always come slightly unnaturally to me. Anything else people find out along the way, I don’t really necessarily look to control.

 That’s a fair statement. There is one particular subject that has always had a cloud of mystery hovering over it. You don’t have to answer, but as a long-time fan of “Weird Al” Yankovic, I was always curious to know what transpired in the “parody permission” fiasco.

 I’m a fan of his, particularly the earliest stuff he did, though he got his notoriety and his fame for what were genius moments along the way, and they were really exciting. And for me, I’ve only been flattered by parodies of my own songs.  There are some great ones out there. I have absolutely no problem with Al. I think it’s a huge compliment for what he’s done. At the same time, it’s generally not my favorite of the parodies. I think it was a safe one. It wasn’t as exciting as some others. There’s one really special one which you should look up by a guy called Tom Gleeson, and it’s just really clever. And for me, that was a more exciting one.

 Well, now, the air has been cleared! [laughing] Thank you, again, for this time!

 My pleasure. It was very easy and very nice to talk to you.

For more information on James Blunt, visit his official website: http://www.jamesblunt.com/

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About Clayton Perry