Interview: James Blunt to perform at Audley End House & Gardens
Sitting at his piano in his Ibiza home, James Blunt shows me the sunny view out of his window as I join him on a Zoom call.
Although he regularly returns to the UK – and calls it his “home as much as here” – it is on the Spanish island that he has spent the past year, “writing songs and chopping down dead wood”.
“Spain was slightly more hardcore in the lockdown because we weren’t allowed out for the hour’s exercise, but otherwise I think the numbers in Ibiza of the virus have been pretty limited because it’s a very small island. We’re very lucky,” he says.
“I have been recording recently and it’s been an amazing process,” he notes. “I’ve obviously not been able to get together with my band face-to-face, so instead they’ve gone into a studio and I will Zoom them – and also we use another program where I can actually hear what’s being recorded in through the microphones.
“So in my ears I can hear their fingers on the strings, and we go through takes of a song and then debrief each other after each take. I can sing the various parts that we’re recording at a distance and I think I’ll never have to get in the studio with them ever again!”
It’s rather novel to hear from an artist who actually seems to really enjoy recording remotely with others – most seem to miss the studio. But what he has missed is live performance.
“It was really devastating in March 2020, when I was only a month into what was supposed to be a year-long tour,” recalls James, “and we could see the Italy shows ahead of us disappear because they were hit by the virus very hard very early on, which then caused a lot of problems for us. We could see ahead of us five days where we were going to have buses, trucks and crew doing nothing...
“Then as our shows started to fall apart, we realised the whole thing was going to collapse so everyone was sent home – and we didn’t know for how long. That was a devastating experience for everyone and since then shows have been delayed and postponed, delayed and postponed, and we’re now just very bored of that and very excited that we’re hopefully coming out of it.”
After the extended period away, the star is due to take to the stage on Friday, August 13 at Audley End House & Gardens. The show is part of his Once Upon A Mind tour, named after his sixth studio album, released in 2019, and special guests for the evening will be Craig Charles’ Funk & Soul Show and the Hackney Colliery Band.
It will be his first appearance there, and he is looking forward to it. “I’ve seen pictures of the house and I think it looks absolutely amazing,” enthuses James. “I’ve played some of these outdoor venues at incredible houses in the English countryside, and for me the English countryside – there’s not much that beats it in the world.
“So I’m really looking forward to it, and I think with beautiful gardens and a beautiful building in the background, it will be a really special night.”
James has a significant back catalogue to draw on, dating back to his 2004 debut, Back to Bedlam, which was the following year’s biggest-selling album. Its success was bolstered, of course, by the incredible success of the ubiquitous single You’re Beautiful, which went on to be number one in several countries, including the UK and the USA.
“It was a crazy time,” admits James. “I’d just left the Army, I found myself in Los Angeles signed to an independent record label called Custard Records, produced by a man called Tom Rothrock, who is a fantastic producer. He’s worked with Beck and Elliott Smith and Badly Drawn Boy, amongst others, and he and I have worked together consistently throughout my career.
“Then to put this album out and for it to explode in that way was absolutely amazing, and it was a really fun time. And I suppose without that we wouldn’t be talking – it’s been the cornerstone of all I’ve done.”
He says that he has been “really lucky internationally, in that my songs have been played around the world”, adding: “I may get calls from people on weird holidays in Thailand, in tiny little bars, and they say, ‘God, is there no escape from you?!’.”
Despite the huge critical and commercial success of You’re Beautiful – according to an article by The Guardian it had been streamed almost 80 million times on Spotify by 2019 – the song has unfortunately made it onto a few ‘worst song ever’ lists, no doubt thanks to the number of times it’s been played over the past decade and a half.
“I think the song is fantastic and thank God for it, otherwise I wouldn’t have this roof over my head,” says James, “but what I understand is that if a song is played quite as much as it is, then it can become annoying, and we’ve seen that with many a song. It doesn’t mean the song’s annoying, it just means it’s overplayed.
“I feel the same way about burgers; if you gave me burgers three times a day, for 365 days, I’d be annoyed with that and want something different.”
Still, it must be amazing to know that one was responsible for writing a song that’s so well known all over the world? “Yeah, very lucky to have that,” admits James. “People search for that throughout an entire career and I was very lucky to have that on my first album.”
Since its release, the 47-year-old has become one of Britain’s most loved solo artists, working with the likes of Ed Sheeran – who is also godfather to his son – and selling more than 20 million albums worldwide.
His success has earned him multiple Grammy nominations and two BRIT Awards. It has also made him a social media star which prompted, in November, the release of his somewhat suggestively titled book, How to Be A Complete and Utter Blunt: Diary of a Reluctant Social Media Sensation.
It highlights his often laugh-out-loud ability to respond to hateful comments on Twitter with brilliant and self-deprecatingly witty put-downs. “As a result, they’ve given me another book deal, so that was good,” he says, adding that he has limited his time on social media during the past year, in stark contrast to many others, whose use of the medium has increased.
“I normally try and go on once a week, if that,” says James, “because do you know what? I just think the real world is a nicer place.” Elaborating, he adds: “I think it did surprise me when I first started doing music how vitriolic people could be about musicians or actors or people in the public eye.
“And once I’d got over that, I realised why would I want to focus on one or two negative comments online when the real world has got so many more positives? I’m really lucky that I’ve sold millions of albums, or that I’ve toured and played, again, to millions of people.
“Why is it that in an interview I am asked, ‘Hey, does it hurt about the negativity online?’. It’s your and my nature to focus in on those negatives though really, we shouldn’t – we should just go, ‘Those are just one or two weirdos upstairs in their parents’ house, probably with their trousers round their ankles, and are not worth worrying about’.”
The book, James explains, is basically a diary chronicling many of these online exchanges. “I suppose it’s the journey that I’ve had online, with the highs and lows, through my social media presence,” he says.
The book represents another chapter in an extraordinary life which has changed beyond all recognition from his time as a British Army officer, fighting in Kosovo. “I was in for six years,” he recalls, “and I was a child then, it feels like, and it’s bizarre how they send such young people on operations into war, and it really does feel like a lifetime ago.”
The end of this year will mark 25 since James joined the Army. “I’m really grateful for my time in the Army and really enjoyed it,” he says. “Of course, you’re involved with some things that aren’t fun or happy, but they are very real, and in many ways I really appreciated that.
“That existence is perhaps much more rewarding than the music business, where you’re more concerned with what’s ‘cool’ or not cool. It seems perhaps less relevant.”
The last two years of James’s service were spent in London as one of the Queen’s Ceremonial Bodyguard. “So if you saw the Queen in a carriage, I’d be riding along beside her with a helmet and plume and armour and a sword,” he explains, “miked up to the police and trained to protect her.
“And of course it was the time when the Queen Mother died  and so I was one of the guys who stood on the corner of the coffin when she lay in state for a week.”
James Blunt is scheduled to perform at Audley End House & Gardens on Friday, August 13. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit heritagelive.net.