Most musicians would agree that a sense of humour comes in useful in the crazy, surreal, occasionally vacuous world that is the music business.
If you're James Blunt, it's not just useful: it's essential. Blunt is, after all, often referred to as 'the most hated man in pop', even by his fellow musicians – Noel Gallagher (half) joked earlier this year that he had sold his home in Ibiza because Blunt had bought a house nearby, allegedly complaining that he "couldn't stand the thought of [Blunt] writing crap tunes up the road". Paul Weller once said that he would rather "eat his own shit" than share a stage with him, and his name has become embedded into modern rhyming dictionary slang (use your imagination).
Yet while he may be painted as an Alan Partridge-style character by some factions of the media, and is, undeniably, quite posh (“In real life I have a Yorkshire accent but I put this posh one on for interviews,” he deadpans), James Blunt is, whisper it, actually a rather witty chap.
Skeptical? Take a look at his Twitter account, where several exchanges over the past few months have included his re-tweeting of comments such as “Just heard a song, liked it & then found out its James Blunt. Sum 1 give me a lobotomy”, and adding the straight-faced riposte of “Somewhere in here, there’s a compliment”. Another user tweeted “SHOCK NEWS!!! I have actually found myself liking and tapping foot to a JAMES BLUNT song!?!!’ (His reply: ‘You’ll never live this down.’)
“Yeah, I really enjoy Twitter now – it’s taken me a while to find it so, but now I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “I come from the army, where we took the piss out of each other all the time – where, if someone’s taking the mickey out of you, it’s a form of affection. So I’ll take that – be it in the media, or real life, or in the digital world.”
A thick skin and ability to poke fun at oneself have proven equally necessary for the one-time army man, but being scorned and stereotyped by the masses is not something that bothers him.
“I think the moment you put music out there, you have to realise that it’s going to be judged,” he says, shrugging. “Anyone who puts music out is gonna get some praise, and some people who don’t like it. That’s the nature of music, and I’m pretty comfortable with that. I think it sometimes becomes more of a story than a reality. If you sell a few thousand or a few million of something, it means things are going pretty well. At the same time, lots of people say they don’t like it – but there’s a much more positive story there too, which is lots of people are turning up to concerts and buying the albums. Sometimes we focus on the negative. So I’m pretty much at ease with what goes on.”
Blunt has sold more than a "few" million albums – 18 overall, in fact, with 11 of those attributed to 2004's world-beating Back to Bedlam – but he sees no shame in celebrating the fact that he is mainstream.
“Not at all. The consequences of that have been fantastic: it’s taken me on three world tours, I took my touring band in for that second album and made a deep, rich album as a result of their musicianship,” he says with a shake of his head.
“With my third album, I wrote songs for the arena audiences that I might be playing to – 20, 30, 40 thousand people in different places. So you can hear the differences and the growth in those records: from the innocent, indie first album to the more musical, to writing songs to engage a larger audience. In that sense, this new album has been so much more rewarding, because I haven’t written songs for you or for an audience. I’ve tried to put you out of mind and instead I’ve gone on a much more personal journey.”
His fourth, Moon Landing, also puts paid to the chitchat that abounded last year about his exodus from the music industry; rumours of his retirement have been greatly exaggerated (or more likely, taken out of context).
"This is the album that I would have recorded if Back to Bedlam hadn't hit, if it hadn't sold," he explains. "It's going back to a more indie sense of recording. I started with Martin Terefe, who did Jason Mraz and KT Tunstall, in London. We recorded live in a room, so some songs on the album were done in one take, with all the musicians in the same room together. Even the control desk was in the same room, so there wasn't even a pane of glass between producer and musicians.
It was about playing live and capturing the performance. There was no screwing with it afterwards, or touching it up, or using a computer to enhance it in any way. It’s as it is, and it’s honest, as a result.”
To cement his back-to-basics approach, Blunt also rekindled his relationship with producer Tom Rothrock, who produced Back to Bedlam. "I'd be there with a microphone, and I'd say to him 'I'm struggling to connect to an audience that I can't yet see – they're not here in this room and I can't see the whites of their eyes', and he'd say 'Well, y'know, stop singing to that imaginary audience and second-guessing them. Instead, sing to me, the producer, through this pane of glass – or even use the glass itself as a mirror, to be more reflective'. You can't posture and pose to yourself, you can't lie, you have to be more honest, and that's why you can hear that this is a very honest album. Unashamedly so, in many ways."
While Moon Landing is not quite the stripped-back affair that he paints it to be, it is certainly less bombastic and glossy than his more recent albums. At the end of the day, however, it still sounds like a James Blunt album. He baulks at the suggestion that he has played it safe and refused to experiment over the course of his career. Blunt goes electronic? Blunt as the mean metal mutha? Don't count on it.
"Yeah, but The Beatles never did a metal album either, or The Rolling Stones never did a metal album, or Radiohead," he smiles. "So I don't think like that. I do what I do; have I developed and changed along the way? Definitely, and this has been a really nice circle that I feel like I've kind of completed. I was an independent artist to begin with, signed to an independent record label – Custard Records, run by Linda Perry – and I recorded with an independent producer in Tom, who did Beck, and Elliott Smith and Badly Drawn Boy. We recorded Back to Bedlam and it was an indie album; it really was, at that stage. On it, it had a song called You're Beautiful, which took it away from being indie and made it an ugly word called 'mainstream'."
The title of his new album refers to themes running through the album, of capturing the nostalgia of experiences that can only be truly felt once in a lifetime.
“It is old-school and nostalgic, it is reflective of things like first love and a great achievement that we can do once but never replicate, like the moon landings – so there is a sadness and nostalgia to that,” he explains. “I suppose I’ve had that nostalgia and melancholy in a lot of my music. I think as you get older, you can’t say things with the same feeling that you might have done when you first said them. I’ll never be able to say ‘goodbye, my lover’ in the same way, because the next time you say it it’s going to become more complicated, and ‘Adios, my dearest’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? Or I will never find the clarity of words to say ‘you’re beautiful’, because ‘you’re especially pretty’ is not quite the same thing.”
Despite having sung these songs thoudsands of times, he remains resolutely committed to continuing to do so. In other words, there is no prima-donna behaviour in the Blunt camp.
“I’m not one of those people who deny a song and try to hide it; those two songs off that first album are the ones that people want to hear the most at a concert, and I love playing them,” he shrugs. “I get up on stage and I love performing. I throw myself into it completely with every song, and it’s a real pleasure – because if people are going to show up to a concert, I want to make sure that they walk away having felt the song as much as I felt it when I wrote it.
"We singer-songwriters kind of get a hard time because we're slandered with words that we're supposed to be ashamed of – like 'sensitive singer-songwriter', or that your songs are 'romantic'. Those terms are bandied around like they're some kind of slight on you, but y'know what – these are romantic songs, and I am a sensitive singer-songwriter. I'm sensitive in the same way that I was when I was in the army, because I was sensitive to my surroundings; I was a reconnaissance officer, so I had to be aware, conscious and sensitive to everything in my environment. As a songwriter, I have to be the same way. So there's just been a really personal journey of saying 'Yeah, this is where I come from, and these songs are not just for fun, not just for an audience – they're for me'. You can hear that honesty. And honest is all that I can be."