“It’s all downhill after 25″ – so the saying goes. Or is it? By the age of 25, Captain James Hillier-Blount had led the advance of 30,000 British troops into Kosovo.
Three years on, the soldier who put down his gun for a guitar now finds himself a singer/songwriter performing to 30,000 people, along with a critically acclaimed album in the bag, and Carrie Fisher among his good friends.
Mid way through a sold-out residency in London, musicOMH discovered the extraordinary story of one of 2005′s bright prospects…
“I saw my boss who was out with me in Kosovo last week. He just stood there shaking his head and said I looked ridiculous.”
James Blunt is on impeccably polite and candid form. A boarding education at the Harrow school would of course entail such manners and courtesy. And if not, daily bollockings from his drill sergeant at the prestigious Sandhurst army academy effectively instilled it.
“For the first 14 weeks I slept on the floor beside my bed because I spent the day ironing my bed into position: ironing the sheets, the folds, measured with a bible from the bed head. I thought well f*ck it, I’m just going to sleep on the floor.”
The schoolboy army cut is now gone, replaced with a tousled indie mop. The designer stubble is there, perhaps out of laziness than anything else. But this isn’t the archetypal look Bryan McFadden is trying so hard to convince people of.
“Its only been in the last couple of years that I’ve really understood songs, the writing process and crafted songs that I feel happy enough now to put on a record,” Blunt admits. But it is a process which has gestated from childhood. His father, like his grand father, was an army man who cared little for the ‘noise’ that was music. His mother was more open, and allowed Pink Floyd, Beatles and Beach Boys records to populate the young James’ ears.
He had learned the piano by the age of seven and the guitar at 14, by which time he was in a covers band. It was a “terrible” attempt to pick up girls. A few years later it was The Doors and Jimi Hendrix which had him drumming the wheel while cruising in his first motor. The teen Blunt was so infected by the power of the two, that he penned an ode to them which features on Back to Bedlam, his quite remarkable debut album which was received to rave reviews last October.
“Musically I’m having the time of my life, so if I could sustain this, that would be great.” Blunt talks like a man who has just won the lottery. He speaks in quiet, tender sentences, with a genuine air of gratefulness at his ever growing success.
“Making the album in Los Angeles was weird because I’d come back at night and just listen to this album again and again, or the skeleton of the album as it was. You could never turn round to your band mates and say ‘does that sound good or does that sound really bad?’ I definitely struggled with that kind of pressure from not being able to share it with anyone. I would sit in this little cabin I was living in ’till five in the morning listening ’till I was going mad. But what we’ve got as a result I’m really pleased with.”
The ‘little cabin’ happened to be part of Carrie Fisher’s LA home. Blunt had met the actress/writer through his girlfriend who was a Fisher family friend. When Fisher heard Blunt needed a crib to crash at while recording, she duly obliged. One of the more luxurious aspects of the Fisher residence was the piano in the bathroom. It was the spot where Blunt recorded his personal favourite and indeed the album’s standout track; the poignant, Buckley-esque You’re Beautiful. But it was the only song to be recorded out of studio.
“He (Rothrock) has a really quiet way of working. He just sat me down and said ‘What do you want? What do you hear?’ and just let me think about it myself. The greatest thing I think he did was allow me to put my sound on my songs – he enables in that way. It was a remarkable process that he can drag that out of you, particularly me and that it was my first album and I didn’t really know at the beginning what the hell I wanted it to sound like.”
While 2004 saw Blunt play Glastonbury and tour with Elton John and Katie Melua, 2005 looks set to be a busy year for Blunt. The album has just been released in Europe while an American release is on the horizon. Next month will see him embark on his first UK tour. Incredibly, at any time in the next two years the army could call Blunt up while he remains on the reserves list.
“I’d be mildly upset if it was when things were really taking off here and I’d have to pause on music for a while, because I’m currently enjoying life at the moment,” he deadpans. So would you resume the role of Captain Blunt in Iraq?
“I’d happily go out there. Not because I believe in it politically, but if you’re going to get involved you might as well get with your mates and do it properly. I wouldn’t have any fears about doing that type of thing. I really enjoyed my time in the army and it was an amazing experience. It was kind of a big shock suddenly stepping out on your own, and the army – it’s great you can rely on people. You’re not there for a specific agenda. No ones there for money, no ones there for their own glory. You’re very much reliant on other people, and that’s what the army taught me.”
The army experience also inspired Blunt to pen the gritty observation No Bravery while one night in Kosovo. “I’ve seen everything you can think about. It’s like being an actor in a movie. You see death on these levels and you kind of imagine how you should be acting and so you act that way; and then you get back to London and you think that was a really interesting kind of movie that you’ve been in.”
It’s a part of his life experience that Blunt does not wish to forget. But he’s not keen to pen anymore heavy political observations. As for the future?
“I’m really not interested in record sales that much except to sustain myself as a job,” he says. “I mean, I’ve got an album out now and there’ll definitely be another one. Life is short so you might as well live it.”