Singer-songwriter James Blunt returns to Yorkshire next month. Chris Bond caught up with him to talk about his pop career, life as a soldier and that song.
In the late summer of 2005 it felt as though you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the quavering tones of James Blunt singing You’re Beautiful.
His paean to love and loss (reportedly inspired by an ex-girlfriend) was the third single from his debut album, Back to Bedlam, which had been released the previous year to almost universal indifference.
Songs, though, can make or break careers and nine years ago the world, or at least legions of adoring female fans, couldn’t get enough of James Blunt. In a matter of weeks he went from being a struggling musician to a household name who was top of the pops.
You’re Beautiful became the soundtrack to countless first dances at weddings up and down the country and lit the touchpaper of his music career.
Back to Bedlam proved to be an astonishing success, selling 17 million copies worldwide, while two of the singles it spawned – You’re Beautiful and Goodbye My Lover – sold 20 million copies.
Since then Blunt has produced three more albums, finished three world tours, enjoyed four number one singles and won more music awards than you would care to shake a stick at, including Grammys, Brits and a couple of Ivor Novellos.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for the former squaddie turned singer. Just as too much chocolate can make you sick, so overexposure on the radio can turn a catchy tune into Chinese water torture.
Blunt has sometimes been described as the Marmite of the pop world, either loved or loathed by the radio-listening public, and certainly fame can be a fickle mistress as he found to his cost in 2008 when he was voted more irritating than traffic wardens. Ouch.
Just two years earlier he’d picked up the best pop act and best male solo artist at the prestigious Brit Awards. He could have easily slipped away into obscurity having made his fortune, but Blunt, despite what his detractors might say, is a talented musician and while he’s perhaps not scaled the colossal commercial heights he reached nearly a decade ago, he’s been busy ploughing his own musical furrow.
His latest album, Moon Landing, proves that he still knows how to write a decent song and is in the middle of another world tour which has brought him back to Blighty.
Last month he performed at Dalby Forest, along with Paul Weller and Deacon Blue, as part of the Forestry Commission’s popular annual outdoor concert series, and in a few weeks time he’s playing at Doncaster Racecourse.
It’s a gig he’s looking forward to. “It’s a great day out and it works brilliantly because people can have a day at the races and then watch a concert,” he says. “This is the biggest production I have ever taken on tour, but it looks fantastic and I hope people enjoy it.”
The racecourse is also a venue he’s familiar with. “I’ve been there before as a punter when I used to live in Yorkshire,” he says, referring to the fact that he lived for a time in York when he was younger.
His Moon Landing tour coincides with his fourth studio album, released last autumn. It’s a record about love and longing, and the realisation of time passing and the need to make the most of it.
“There’s just something romantic, old-school and lonely about the moon landings,” he says. “A nostalgic memory of something huge that we can hardly believe we once achieved, and for some sad reason, can’t achieve again – like first love.”
Older and wiser, Blunt sounds like a man who is more comfortable in his own skin now. “I’m not trying to prove anything. I haven’t been trying to second-guess the audience or over-thinking things. I’m a songwriter and I’ve got ten years more experience from the first album,” he says. “This is the album I would have recorded, perhaps, if Back To Bedlam hadn’t sold anything.”
But although he’s bringing his new tour to South Yorkshire he’ll still be performing the hits from his growing back catalogue. “I know what people want to hear, they want songs they know, they want to hear 1973, Wisemen and You’re Beautiful. And as the old adage says ‘give ‘em what they want.’”
This brings us to You’re Beautiful. It’s harder to think of a song that divides opinion quite as much as this, something that Blunt understands. “It’s entirely rational when one song gets played a lot, ‘ubiquitous’ was the word used. It becomes annoying and I can understand that,” he says.
But while the song has brought him plenty of stick it’s also been a blessing, a fact he’s smart enough to recognise. “I’m now doing my fourth world tour, which is an amazing experience musically, and it’s allowed me to do my hobby as my job.”
His mammoth tour started in Shanghai on New Year’s Eve in 2013 and by the time it finally draws to a close in March next year it will have visited nearly every continent on Earth.
Blunt, who turned 40 earlier this year, has already enjoyed a remarkable music career, one that grew from unlikely beginnings. His father was a colonel in the British Army Corps and Blunt, who was born in a military hospital, spent his childhood living in Cyprus, Germany, Hampshire and Yorkshire.
“Like a lot of children, my mum forced me to do piano lessons which I hated,” he says. But where his mother failed, a school friend succeeded in getting him interested in music. “Someone showed me how to play a few chords on the guitar when I was 14 and that was it. I started writing songs and quickly realised I wanted to be a musician.”
But while Elvis Presley famously put his music career on hold in order to join the army, Blunt did it the other way round. He had been brought up surrounded by the routine of army life and was encouraged to pursue this path as a career.
He went to school in Harrow and after studying sociology at Bristol University he completed his education at Sandhurst, home to the Royal Military Academy.
This might sound like a strange move for someone who harboured dreams of becoming a musician, but because the army had sponsored his education he needed to pay them back. “I owed them their time but I couldn’t pay them back if I didn’t have a job. I was still writing songs and I thought I could be a musician afterwards.”
He signed up to the army for four years and was commissioned as an officer in the Life Guards, attached to the Household Cavalry. After six months training in Canada he was sent to the Balkans in 1999, serving as an armoured reconnaissance officer. While posted in Kosovo during the Nato bombing campaign, Blunt strapped his guitar to the side of his tank and led the first squadron of troops into the capital Priština.
He wrote the song No Bravery while serving in Kosovo, although music was far from his mind for much of the time – he was based in a region that had been ravaged by a bitter civil war. “It was a very dangerous time and it was a desperately unpleasant place. It was very sad to see what people can do to each other,” he says.
In the end Blunt served six years in the army before leaving in 2002 to pursue his musical career. But he hasn’t forgotten his military links and continues to support Help For Heroes, of which he’s a proud patron. “We vote in politicians and they send our soldiers to war zones around the world, therefore I believe we should take responsibility to look after them,” he says.
Back on civvy street Blunt was snapped up by Custard Records and travelled to Los Angeles to record Back to Bedlam (he stayed with the Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher who suggested the album title).
It was in 2005 “when it all kicked off”, as he puts it. “You’re a normal person doing a job and then you suddenly get thrown into the media spotlight and public glare.”
Back to Bedlam went to the top of the album charts in 18 countries, was nominated for five Grammys and the singer-songwriter became the first UK artist since Elton John to secure a number one in America.
It made Blunt famous and, you assume, set him up for life. But this level of public scrutiny can take its toll. “I feel much more at ease now,” he says. “Would I want it again? I don’t know. It’s a double edged sword.”
He points to the title of his follow-up record, All the Lost Souls. “It says a lot about where I was at the time. That was me being thrown into the public eye, which I really didn’t warm to. By the time I got to the third album I was much more relaxed and I started writing songs for arenas.”
If he’s relaxed he also appreciates what he has and what music has enabled him to do.
“I’ve been very lucky and four albums down the line I’m doing my fourth world tour and I’m fortunate that some of my songs are still played and heard today. I’m really enjoying things right now, but it’s good to be back home and to feel the warmth of your own country again.”
• James Blunt is appearing at Doncaster Racecourse on August 16. For more information visit www.doncaster-racecourse.co.uk or call 01302 304200.