James Blunt is back with a new, deeply personal, album dedicated to his family. Grace Hammond talks to the candid singer-songwriter about his remarkable career.
James Blunt is back with his sixth album, a “deeply personal” record written for his family. The troubadour and Twitter take-down king opens up about why he wanted to go to such a poignant place for his album, Once Upon a Mind, and why he is somewhat fond of social media despite its negative connotations.
For all of his self-deprecating jokes and comical comebacks on social media, Blunt is convinced we’d all be happier if it just vanished.
Although he is widely adored for his hilarious Twitter take-downs and witty zingers, the singer-songwriter reckons the online world has fooled us all into thinking that life isn’t as wonderful as it actually is.
“I’ve been on five world tours, I’ve played to thousands of people and they pay good money and they’re so positive and excited, and they sing along to songs that mean something to me because they connected with them in some respect in their own lives,” he says.
“It’s such an incredibly positive feeling, and they are people from all walks of life, all corners of the world, strangers standing shoulder to shoulder in a way that a politician could only dream of.
“Yet I’m always asked, ‘Hey, how are you dealing with all this negativity?’ And I go, ‘What negativity?’ And it’s all only online, and online isn’t real.
“The real world out there is really, really positive. The online world seems to be quite negative.
“We should all just chuck our smartphones out of the window and look each other in the eye and we’ll probably have a much happier experience of life.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t see the benefits of the online world from time to time. “I use it occasionally, take the p*** out of myself, and then go back to doing something normal and real,” he says.
Taking the mickey out of himself has truly become one of troubadour Blunt’s favoured forms of self-expression, using Twitter to communicate who he really is to his fans.
As well as a new album, Blunt’s next tour takes to him to Hull’s Bonus Arena in February next year. It will see him return to Yorkshire, a county he says he has a genuine fondness for, as he told The Yorkshire Post in a previous interview two years ago.
“I used to live in Strensall. I was there for a couple of years when I was younger. York was the nearest big city,” he says. “There was an army range there and when it wasn’t being used we would run about there. The countryside around there was incredible.”
Following his years in the Household Cavalry, Blunt’s chart-topping debut album Back To Bedlam in 2004 was a fan favourite, consisting of popular hits You’re Beautiful and Goodbye My Lover, securing his place in as one of the best British music stars of the 21st century.
Despite his global success and shifting millions of records, the former army officer became a bit of a punching bag for the press and music snobs thanks to the ubiquity of his gooey, romantic, radio-friendly tracks.
He now uses that disdain as ammo to keep his 1.9 million Twitter followers entertained with his sardonic wisecracks, giving the platform a different flavour away from Brexit, Trump and trolling.
One of his most popular recent tweets was a reply to a non-fan who wrote an expletive-laden message. The Brit Award-winner’s withering response was shared more than 17,000 times.
Speaking about his mischievous headline-grabbing retorts, Blunt is as candid as he is in those 280-character Twitter posts.
“What I normally do is, if I’m just about to tweet, I read it out to the people around me, and if they say, ‘No way you can’t say that’, that’s when I press send,” he laughs.
Blunt, 45, doesn’t use his humour as a shield, though, it is real. He really is as naturally funny, honest and frank as he appears.
He’s perhaps less funny – but just as honest and frank – on his sixth album, Once Upon A Mind.
A “deeply personal” record, it was inspired by his family, mostly his unwell father and his wife Sofia Wellesley and their two children.
“It’s not really for fans or an audience or radio or the record label; I wrote my album for my family,” he confesses.
“My father has been unwell, he has stage 4 chronic kidney disease and is waiting for a transplant... he needs a kidney donor and I’m not a match.
“And that was a real wake-up call as a family because this man has been so fit and healthy, he doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, and really shocked us to the core, so I’ve been writing songs for him.”
Blunt sings about his relationship with his father on the poignant ballad Monsters, while on his single Cold he laments having to leave his wife and children at home for long periods of time while touring.
“My father and I, we love each other and he’s been the most amazing father to me all my life and we know the bond that we have, but if you have a limited amount of time with that person on this Earth, then there’s some other things that I, as a songwriter, feel it would be a good time to say.
“That’s why the words to Monster say, ‘I’m not your son, and you’re not my father, we’re just two grown men saying goodbye, we need to forgive and we need to forget, I know your mistakes and you know mine.’
“Those are kind of risky things to say because you hope they’re not misunderstood or taken the wrong way, but they say something deeper than just ‘I love you, you’re my father, I love you as my friend as well’.”
He adds: “But at the same time, at the other end of the scale, I have a new young family, and so I thought of life playing out in front of me. And with that circle of life, that’s a real huge inspiration to write this album.
“I go away on tour for extended period of time, up to 18 months at a time, leaving that little family behind and with that comes loneliness and guilt and isolation, not just on my part but sometimes on theirs too.
“So I haven’t been writing for the audience. I’ve been writing for the people I leave behind at home.”
Blunt says he is not afraid to be vulnerable with these songs, adding: “I’ve always enjoyed standing up on a stage, and you do expose yourself, you expose your fears as well as your hopes and your failings.”
However, while uninhibited in his cheeky tweets, he is aware he has taken some risks with the new record. He’s not just exposing himself, but his personal relationships, too.
“If you’re going expose the inner workings of a relationship and then get on stage and sing about it, then yes... you hope you don’t hurt the people at home,” he admits.
“There’s no point in just writing fluff, really. But I’ll be nervous when those people are there in the audience, definitely.”
Unusual path to fame
James Blunt’s path to fame and fortune has been an unusual one. His father was a colonel in the British Army Corps and Blunt spent his childhood living in Cyprus, Germany, Hampshire and Yorkshire and started writing songs as a teenager.
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.
He spent six years in the army and served as an armoured reconnaissance officer during the Balkans conflict, before leaving in 2002 to pursue his musical career.
His debut album Back to Bedlam proved to be an astonishing success, selling 17 million copies worldwide, spawning hits such as You’re Beautiful and Goodbye My Lover.
Once Upon A Mind is available from October 25. He plays Hull Bonus Arena on February 16.