Ahead of his seventh studio album, James Blunt has more inspiration than ever.
Yesterday (August 2) Blunt released Beside You, the first single from Who We Used To Be. Due via Atlantic on October 27, it follows his Top 10 best of compilation The Stars Beneath My Feet (2004–2021), which has 118,465 UK sales to date (OCC).
The singer’s last studio album was Once Upon A Mind (122,241), which hit No.3 in October 2019.
“I’m having fun and it’s nice to be putting music out,” Blunt began, his usual relaxed, sunkissed look enhanced by the fact that he is on holiday in France when we speak.
“I think Mick Jagger used to have a house near here…” he continued. “Anyway, I suppose this is quite a release for me because I put a greatest hits out during the pandemic and once you’ve done that, you’re free to do whatever you want to do, which is great.”
Describing Beside You, which was produced by Manchester collective The Six, as “a really fun song, a bit more upbeat than people might expect from me,” Blunt said the track takes influence from his affection for Ibiza.
“It is kind of dancey,” said the singer, who splits his time between the White Isle, Switzerland and the UK in what sounds a fantastically lavish arrangement. “I live in Ibiza and I’m a regular in the clubs, but I suppose I don’t normally do that kind of music and put it out myself, but it’s a pretty song.”
Blunt completed work on Who We Used To Be over six months, commuting into London to work with a cast including Jonny Coffer, Red Triangle, Jack & Coke, Steve Robson, Amy Wadge, Rick Boardman, Jimmy Hogarth and Mike Needle.
“It all went really smoothly,” he said. “You’d almost think you should’ve run out of ideas by this stage, but actually I’ve had a tonne to write about. I suppose you reach stages in your life where, rather than writing about yourself, there are so many other people to write about, [whether it’s] what they’re going through or their relationship with you. I’ve had masses of inspiration, some of it great and some of it very, very sad, but all of it has made writing and recording an album very easy.”
All the while, even when he’s off cycle, Blunt’s knack for never straying too far from the cultural conversation has remained intact.
His social media (“X? Should we be old school and call it Twitter?”) presence is reassuringly comic. Responding to actor Eddie Marsan’s recent admission of being embarrassed when no one recognised him on a speed awareness course, Blunt posted, “Mine was on Zoom, and I thought I’d got away with not being recognised, til the instructor asked people if they could think of ways to keep calm whilst driving. Someone suggested listening to some James Blunt, and everyone pissed themselves.”
Blunt has been going viral, too. This year’s American Idol winner Iam Tongi set the internet ablaze after auditioning with Blunt’s track Monsters. Blunt would later perform it with Tongi at the final, resulting in a clip that took over TikTok. And then there’s the old Foo Fighters interview snippet in which Dave Grohl calls Blunt “the craziest motherfucker ever in the history of music”.
Whatever you think about the singer, his presence remains indelible. He’s planning a memoir, while his debut album Back To Bedlam (3,435,398 sales) turns 20 next year. As he made clear before we left him to his afternoon in the sunshine, there’s plenty of life in James Blunt yet…
Does the new signal signpost the sound of the rest of the record?
“No, it’s a bit of a mix, a whole range. People have always known me for pretty miserable, slow songs, and if they are uptempo then they’re guitar-based. There’s always a range on my albums, but here it’s a bit more extreme, some beautiful piano tracks, some guitar tracks and some more upbeat ones.”
What subjects were you tackling? On the last album you wrote about your father suffering from illness…
“I have kids and you see the world in a different way when you have children. You have aspirations and fears for them and you reassess your own position in the world. That’s something I write about a lot. We have aspirations as a family too and I write about those. A song like You’re Beautiful is about me walking past a person for a second in my life and writing about it. The songs I write now are probably much deeper and richer because they’re about a lifetime of living with someone, creating a family. They’re rich, deep songs in their meaning, perhaps bigger than songs I’ve written in the past in that way. Also, as a family, some of the aspirations you have aren’t reached or are taken away from you and we’ve had some very sad moments that I’ve written about that have captured when things haven’t necessarily gone our way. They’re the highs and lows of real life.”
Can you go into that in any more detail?
“I think I’d rather let the songs do the talking. It’s one of those frustrating things, I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable talking about the actual aspects of my life, but the songs are very, very personal and I prefer to let them do the talking. I’m trying to think what’s on there now, have you seen the album tracklist?”
Yes, there are some sad-sounding titles there…
“Now that I look at it, there are some really sad songs on there, I thought it was going to be a really happy album! [Laughs] There’s one called Saving A Life, which is about the frustration of seeing someone who is damaging themselves and the feeling of uselessness at not being able to help. I Won’t Die With You is a song about getting older and still having a thirst and excitement for life and seeing others around you give up. Dark Thought is the song I always wanted to write for Carrie Fisher, but never got round to writing for her while she was alive. That’s taken me a few years to write. It was about the moment I went back to her house after she had died and knocked on the gate. The Girl That Never Was will speak for itself, it’s a very sad song. But then there are some really sweet ones. I’m not supposed to use the word beautiful in any song, but track two is called Some Kind Of Beautiful and it’s about someone I’ve lived with and loved and the excitement I still feel for them. No matter how many years go by, that excitement is only greater. There, I found a positive one for you!”
Your last studio album came out in 2019. How do you feel about getting back on the horse?
“It was a strange time to put music out. The album came out in October, then I went to tour it and it was supposed to be a year-long run but instead I only got one month into it and the band, crew and myself all had to go home because of the pandemic. Then the tour after that was supposed to be a greatest hits tour, but it was just all the previous dates rescheduled in a not especially efficient or effective way. The pandemic stole one tour and destroyed another one. So this is our first time back in and it does feel like a very, very long time since I’ve been on the road in a normal way. I like to get on the road, stay on the road and travel around, rather than play shows here or there.”
So you will be heading back out again then?
“Nothing is announced at this stage, but I’ve never put an album out without going on the road and I definitely would be excited to do that. I’m playing Radio 2 In The Park in Leicester [in September], I’ve done that a tonne of times in Hyde Park but they’re doing this really great thing where they’re moving it round the country, which is really exciting. I love London but everyone knows the further north you get the better the audience is going to be.”
You’ve been doing the odd performance in Ibiza this summer, too though?
“Yeah. They don’t let me in the normal door of a nightclub, the only way I can get in is to sneak in through the back door and jump on the stage and sing.”
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“Exactly. I moved to Ibiza for the nightclubs and I really do love the music and the clubs themselves, so I occasionally get the call up to come and sing. It’s always fun.”
Do you pay much attention to the music industry when you’re away from it?
“I’m not especially good at it, no. I see what’s going on a little bit, but not avidly. There are lots of reworks of so many songs from the past now, it’s such a saturated world but it’s an exciting one as well. It feels like you can do and get away with almost anything, try new things and people are open to them. It’s a melting pot.”
The industry is talking a lot about the live business now, particularly ticket prices and environmental concerns around touring. Do you plan to wade in now you’re back doing promo?
“One would hope that the least you could do is look after your fans and get them along at a decent price to something they will enjoy and not be taken for a ride. You’d hope that was the case with the various promoters. If not, we’re all going to lose out in the long run because people will just put their foot down and not come. In terms of the environment, I follow it avidly and fear for it hugely, but can I preach about it? Absolutely not. But do we try on our tours [to be sustainable]? Absolutely. It’s something I talk about with my manager and tour manager all the time. It’s something I’m definitely troubled by.”
Since your last record, you’ve got into TikTok. What do you think it adds to a release campaign?
“I’m a TikToker, that’s almost [become] where I hear my new music. I don’t know where it is in the charts necessarily, sometimes I don’t even know what songs are called, but that’s where I hear most of my music in many ways. In February I was out having a drink with friends and someone sent me a TikTok and it was of Iam Tongi singing my song on American Idol and not only had the performance on TV blown up, but it had blown up on TikTok. That’s how many more people discovered it and it was a sweet birthday present for me. Then, he gave me the call up to perform with him at the final and it was amazing, deeply moving. He won American Idol, his father had just died and we were singing a song about my father, who’s still alive. We went through a little rollercoaster on TV, but it wasn’t just the show where it had exploded. It was all across the world on TikTok and social media. Their relevance is absolutely up there now isn’t it? Most people who’ve seen that clip don’t live in America, haven’t seen it on TV, millions and millions of people have seen it on social media.”
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How would you sum up your own approach to social media?
“I’m not a great poster, I only do it occasionally and, as ever, it’s not that serious. My gyrating isn’t up to much and my physique isn’t up to much either, so I’m just an idiot on TikTok occasionally. On Twitter, I very rarely go and look up what people might be saying about me. I have to remind myself once a month, ‘Oh God, I haven’t posted anything, let’s see if anybody has said anything ugly enough to reply to.’”
The story of the speed awareness was a good moment…
“It was also a true moment. There I was on the driving course and it’s three hours with the instructor and other people who had broken the law, like myself. At that moment on a screen, you’re just hoping they don’t recognise you, the temptation to wear some dark glasses and change the name at the bottom of the picture is there. But I stuck with ‘James’ throughout, no one made a comment and it was fine, I thought, ‘Hey, I’ve got away with it.’ Until the last 30 minutes when the instructor asked if anyone had any suggestions about how not to speed, keep calm and not get upset while you’re driving. That’s when someone suggested listening to a bit of James Blunt and suddenly I realised that everyone had known exactly who I was for the whole three hours.”
Did the course work?
“At this stage I’m still on the right side of the law, yes.”
That’s great to hear. Finally, in the Foo Fighters interview clip, Dave Grohl called you the craziest person in rock just based on your eyes…
“He’s met a few, he’d know. We have actually met, many, many years ago, we did a joint afterparty in Sydney. It was after they’d played the stadium and I’d played the arena. It was in a hotel. Michael Gudinski had put it on. I’m releasing a book in October and so I won’t say it here, but the details of that afterparty are in the book.”
So Dave’s comment is based on…
Do you think clips like that support the idea that you inhabit culture and draw attention, sometimes without meaning to?
“I mean, you know, it’s one of those things. For better or worse, I poke my head up from time to time…”
PHOTO: Michael Clement