Interview – Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum’s career so far has been one most musicians can only dream about. At 23, his third LP Twentysomething sold over 2 million copies worldwide and the ubiquitous boy was adored by all.

His latest album Catching Tales released last September has also garnered positive reviews. musicOMH caught up with him in the middle of his recent tour.
With somebody like Cullum, it seems natural to ask if his obviously natural musical ability came from growing up in a very musical family. “It was a musical house – not like the Osmonds obviously – but we had a piano and my dad played the guitar a bit, but it was really my brother Ben who made it a very musical house, he’s the music freak. He played all sorts, from hip hop to rock, jazz, a lot of dance music, and he taught me to be very open minded about all styles, there were no boundaries at all.

“I then became really passionate about bands like Nirvana, and the Chilli Peppers and this moved into getting into hip hop like Pharcyde and Public Enemy, and the jazz came through all this because these bands were sampling lots of jazz tunes. So then I got into Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, and suddenly found I had this very wide collection of music”.

“My brother taught me to be very open minded about all styles.”
– Jamie Cullum on his wide musical taste.

Being so surrounded by music, it would seem a natural progression to want to become a musician, but it seems that Cullum never quite believed that it would be a dream he could realise: “I never thought I could be a musician actually. I mean I was in loads of bands, including an AC/DC covers band, and I played at parties and so and started earning money as a musician from the age of 15. I was never the kind of person though who thought ‘I can do this for a living’ – I wasn’t confident enough. I went to university and had kind of intellectual pursuits without having any specific goals, I wanted to make music, write, draw and paint, be a renaissance man I guess!”.

This initial lack of confidence is a surprise as Cullum is lauded for his energetic and confident performances. “That’s been a very long process. The gigs I was doing 10 years ago were very different from what I’m doing now. I’ve never planned what I do on stage, it’s all very spontaneous, and trial and error over a long period”.

An assumption often made is that Cullum’s career took off very quickly, as he seemed to appear from nowhere and become huge overnight. This isn’t the case however, as Cullum explains: “I made my first album when I was 19 or 20, and sold all the copies I had, selling them at gigs. I was doing demos with other bands and doing showcases, I had lots of irons in the fire. The only game plan I had was when to finish university, which was when everyone else was getting work placements at film companies. I didn’t want to do that.”

“So I thought, why don’t I give it two years to try and be a musician, and carry on doing gigs, having a lot of fun. I then moved to London and played all the time, every night I was either playing or going to gigs. I didn’t think I would get signed, I was just playing, partying and having fun. So it was a surprise when I got signed, but even then it was a small independent label and my advance was only 500”.

“I wanted to make music, write, draw and paint, be a renaissance man I guess!”
– Cullum’s plans before he conquered the easy listening world.

Cullum readily admits that the shift from being a jobbing musician to becoming famous was one that took a bit of adjusting to: “Yeah it was and it was scary because things that get that big tend to fizzle out quickly and so I wanted to make sure that we solidified a fan base by touring loads. We did lots of TV at that time but I also gigged my arse off, and we have a very loyal fan base around the world, and the touring means there is a lasting capacity I hope. I know it won’t be that big again. But I’m not one of those people who walks down the road and gets recognized, I’m quite innocuous. I always throw something into interviews that’s compete bullshit, to see if they write it, and I said in one that because I get recognized all the time, I have to walk around wearing a Darth Vader mask, and they wrote it! I think the whole celebrity culture thing is quite fun though. I buy The Sun once a week to see who’s fellating who!”.

Twentysomething was lauded for its impressive re-working of jazz standards, but Catching Tales appears to mark a move towards showcasing more original songwriting. “Actually, it only has four more originals songs than the last album had. Sometimes it’s a natural progression, sometimes chance, and in this case, it’s just chance. I love writing, but I find it hard, and that’s fun. Although it takes the same amount of passion and difficult tinkering to write a song as it does to interpret one. People thinks it’s easier to interpret a song but if I sit down with someone else’s song or words, I will take weeks or months working out how to play it and make it my own. There are so many people who put out shit versions of shitty old songs and do them exactly the same way – it bores me to tears”.

On the latest album, London Skies is a beautiful example of Cullum’s song writing, “that was written for my girlfriend, who’s Brazilian and she absolutely hated the weather here in England, but I told her that the weather here is as important as the culture. The grey skies are what give English people our sense of humour and irony, our indomitable sarcastic nature”.

“I said in one interview that I have to walk around wearing a Darth Vader mask, and they wrote it.”
– Cullum on the guillibility of the press.

There are some interesting collaborations on this album, Ed Harcourt being one. Cullum’s enthusiasm for his fellow songwriter is obvious: “he’s the coolest guy and he’s nuts, just bonkers, and I love him, he’s such a genius. I was writing with him and had to pop home and by the time I’d changed my pants and got back, he’d written another song. We had an all night mash up and got to bed at 6.00 and the next day I got there at 2pm thinking ‘God, we’re not going to write any stuff’ and he’d already written two songs! And he’s so eccentric, we’ll be writing and he’ll just go and get a Sherlock Holmes hat or cowboy hat and put them on us saying they’ll help us write!”

Robbie Williams‘ former songwriting partner Guy Chambers also makes an appearance on Catching Tales, another collaboration that Cullum is proud of: “Guy is also such an amazing musician, he’s so methodical and inspiring. He’s so much more than writing three minute pop songs and he’s about as filthy as I am too!”

Cullum tours constantly, having just returned from Australia, so it begs the question whether he manages to look after himself when he’s out on the road? “No, not at all. I come back a complete mess, and feel like an old man. When I’m out there I’m, yeah fuck it lets go, but when I come home I’m aching, have injuries, cuts and bruises, constant headaches, wooden leg you know, and then of course, I go back out on tour again immediately”.

With a US tour underway and a return trip to the UK planned for mid-July, it looks as if Cullum will be nursing those bruises for some time to come…

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