James Blunt – Super trooper
Singer-songwriter James Blunt was born, raised and educated in England. And his debut album, Back To Bedlam (out domestically on September 20, via Atlantic), has done quite well for the 28-year-old in the U.K., sailing all the way to #1 on the charts, spawning a #1 hit single (“You’re Beautiful”), and securing him a “Top Of The Pops” TV appearance. But before he could conquer his home turf, Blunt had to travel to several distant locales: Austin, Texas; Los Angeles, California; and even a tour of duty — literally — in Kosovo.
It was in the Lone Star state, during SXSW 2003, that the relative unknown played the gig where songwriter-to-the-stars Linda Perry (Pink, Christina Aguilera, Courtney Love) signed him to her fledgling Custard imprint. In L.A., he spent several months later that year hammering out Back To Bedlam with producer Tom Rothrock (Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy). And Kosovo? In 1999, while serving in a NATO peacekeeping force, he wrote his signature tune, “No Bravery”, with its startling images of a war-torn land: “Old men kneel and accept their fate/Wives and daughters cut and raped.”
Today, Blunt’s career is picking up considerable momentum; Elton John even tapped him as an opening act. His appeal is understandable. He sings in a clear, ringing tenor, often soaring into falsetto. “That came about after a hangover stopped me from being able to hit a high note in my normal voice,” he admits. His polished folk-pop, rendered in a declamatory style reminiscent of David Gray and Luka Bloom, is bolstered by an array of guitars and keyboards, including Hammond, Rhodes and Wurlitzer organs.
Blunt acknowledges that Rothrock played a key role in helping establish his sound. “I wanted to work with Tom because I’d heard Elliott Smith,” he says, ‘”but I wasn’t after [Smith’s] particular lo-fi, raw sound.”
Lyrically, Blunt displays a heartfelt candor that suits his surname on originals such as the confessional “Goodbye My Lover” and the somber “Out Of My Mind”. But don’t expect to see the interior impulses that fuel his songs reflected by his demeanor in person. “I’m a good, traditional Brit,” he offers. “As most of my ex-girlfriends would tell you, I’m pretty emotionally stunted. But anyone who appears that way on the exterior probably has a lot going on behind the scenes.”
He admits that “it’s been bizarre” to find acclaim by baring his feelings so openly. “I do come from this traditional, stiff-upper-lip background. So to be up onstage, singing deeply personal songs, goes against the grain.” He pauses, momentarily. “But all of this talk makes me sound like an incredibly troubled human being. I’m actually very happy,” he insists. Suddenly, one can’t help but notice how closely his speaking voice resembles lovable teen idol Davy Jones of the Monkees.
Born in a Hampshire military hospital, Blunt was educated at a British boarding school, where he excelled in math and sciences, particularly engineering. He didn’t pick up a guitar until he was 14. At the same time he was bashing out his earliest songs, he also got a pilot’s license.
After a stint at Bristol University, Blunt followed in the footsteps of his father and enlisted in the British Army. Quickly attaining the rank of captain, he soon found himself leading 30,000 peacekeeping troops into Pristina. That experience proved invaluable when he found himself facing down huge crowds — like from the main stage at the Glastonbury Festival — a few years later. “If you can stand up in front of a group of soldiers and pretend you know what’s going on, then you can face any audience without being nervous,” he observes.
But again, Blunt is quick to reconcile the dichotomy between his stage and real-life personas. “I’m actually quite a quiet person,” he says. “If you get me at a party, I’m not the one telling the jokes.”
Although he is contented with civilian life, Blunt says he would not be averse to traveling to Iraq to entertain soldiers currently stationed there — regardless of his feelings about the war. “Of course you want to support your troops, whatever they do,” he insists. “Whether you support the politicians, and their choices, and how they deploy those troops, is an entirely different question.”
Until that invitation from the USO arrives, Blunt will be busy with more months of the nomadic existence, this time crisscrossing North America with his keyboard player to promote the U.S. release of Back To Bedlam. “It’s going to be all small shows again, which, is a nice way of doing things, because it’s incredibly intimate,” he says. “When there are far fewer people in the audience, it’s much easier to connect. You can see the whites of everybody’s eyes.”