Most humans are quite similar and we're just trying to get through the world together. James Blunt talks about touring America, writing songs, and his new life as one of music's most successful newcomers.
James Blunt hit the US touring circuit with more than his share of peculiarities to create interest aside from his big-time debut record and cache of catchy songs. Among them an education, a military background, and a best friend in Carrie Fisher. Blunt's manner is actually of the sort you'd expect from your own best friend -- he's charming and funny, eloquent and honest, and has absolutely no problem calling you out if he thinks you've put a conversational foot wrong. Early in our chat, I asked him how he was feeling as a new artist seeking America's embrace -- was he nervous at the thought of "cracking" the world's premier music scene? He responded: "I don't consider trying to 'crack America' -- it's a really bad term, in terms of breaking other people. It seems really mean. So, I think it should be avoided." His directness had me thinking he'd answered this one before. A lot.
My mistake. Still, it's hard not to think of succeeding in the States in such harsh terms. It can't be easy, and so many of Blunt's countrymen have failed where he has -- since our chat -- succeeded (Blunt's album, as of the new year, was in Amazon's 20 bestsellers). But Blunt's not about harshness. That's obvious not only from his soft-spoken phone manner, but the silky collection of songs that comprise his mega-successful debut, Back to Bedlam. The highest selling UK record of last year and a chart-topper around the world, Bedlam reveals Blunt perfectly. He's a romantic, with all the vulnerabilities of a guy struggling to understand love's machinations. But, too, he's a world-traveler with cross-cultural sensibilities, and a talent for delicate, real imagery ("I kissed your lips and held your head", he sings in "Goodbye My Lover"). He's earnest without being overly sentimental. And, as I discovered him to be, appropriately up front. His "No Bravery" paints pictures of war only a soldier can know, and songs "Out of My Mind" and "Goodbye My Lover" present scarred notions of love to upset "You're Beautiful"'s tenderness.
Blunt has been criticized for his view on love and life: too depressing, too simplistic. There are moments on Back to Bedlam where the blackness dominates, but it's not so much unendingly miserable as explorative. Blunt tackles drug addiction, death, war, family, and infidelity alongside his love tracks. Evolving, then, is the 20-something experience. Or, at least, one man's experience. Is it dark? Absolutely. But is it hopeful? You could say that, too. In any case, it's hard not to cheer Blunt on. He's doing it his way, and he's doing it well. Even if no one ever wants to hear "You're Beautiful" again -- including Blunt.
As he readied himself for his US tour, PopMatters chatted with Blunt about writing, performing, and the meaning of international success.
PopMatters: How are you enjoying all of this attention?
James Blunt: You know, I'm enjoying traveling and playing live. I do music now for my everyday way of life and that I really enjoy. I can focus on the songs and the music and I'm very happy with that.
PM: Are you excited to be roadtripping around the States?
JB: I've been really enjoying traveling the world and going to different countries, seeing places that I haven't seen and meeting people from all over the place. I'm doing that now in the States but I've been doing it in Australia and New Zealand and Scandinavia and throughout Europe. You know, I think it's not about whether you're successful chart-wise, it's about getting out there and learning a bit about a country and enjoying it -- coming home with a few stories and memories. If I can connect with a few people on a musical level along the way, then I'll be very happy with that
You know, I've had a good model for all of this -- a musician called Cat Power. She's not a great success on the charts, she hasn't done much on a chart level, but on a musical level she's an inspiration to many people. She's enriched my life musically and I can only really define her as a massive musical success as a result. If I could have just a fragment of that kind of musical connection with people in the States, or elsewhere in the world, I'd be very happy.
PM: How are you enjoying America -- were you familiar with it prior to this?
JB: I knew New York before this and LA -- it's a huge place and there are many other aspects to it that I'm just getting to see now. I love places like San Francisco. It's amazing and I guess just it's got everything; it's constant really. It's interesting to see so much packed into one country.
PM: How important is it for you to hear good feedback about your music?
JB: Well, I wrote the songs for myself as a way of expressing things that were going on in my mind -- of capturing memories and ideas. So the importance wasn't really an audience at the time. Obviously playing out live can be sort a nerve-wracking moment for the first time, when you're expressing your inner thoughts and ideas. The huge payback was people relating to them in strong way. They feel the same things and have the same hopes and ideas and dreams. The, sort of, payback really is that most humans are quite similar and we're just trying to get through the world together. We're living parallel lives to each and some of that is quite reassuring. Often the world can feel like quite a lonely place and these songs ... people's reactions to the songs that I've written kind of makes you recognize people are going through the same stuff.
PM: What, in your opinion, makes a good song?
JB: Something that captures an emotion that makes you recall the feeling that you had in the first place that takes you back to the idea or the memories form where the song was born. For me -- I find conservation quite limiting, or at least I find it hard expressing myself through conversation but I find being flanked with music, it seems to be more full in a way of expressing what goes on inside the head.
PM: Are you more conscious of an audience now that you know you have one?
JB: No. I write the same way. I think it's the only way to do it. Of course, you could be afraid more because you know people are going to listen to it; critics are going to judge it for some reason whether good or bad. They can say: "Well, you're pretty shallow as a person because of what you've written." That's just the way it's going to be. It's not going to kill me. So I might as well not worry about it.
PM: Have you been surprised with your success in the UK and Australia?
JB: Absolutely, totally surprised me. My ambition was to make an album that I was really happy with -- to document my songs. I wanted to get them out and I wanted to hold up that first copy and say: "Yeah, this is my album. This is the first collection of songs." And then I wanted to try and get enough people to connect with it so that I would then be allowed by my record label to record a second and subsequent albums. And, I guess, to do that [sales need to be] somewhere around about a hundred thousand -- and you know even that figure seems pretty huge. I didn't know whether we'd get there or not -- I hoped. Then it kind of took off and got slightly bigger than that. So, yes, it was a complete surprise to me.
PM: Are audiences responding similarly across the world?
JB: People show their responses in different ways, but generally their reactions are very similar. The songs are not written about specifically where I come from in the world or my type of city or town or the school that I went to. The subjects and ideas are quite broad. And far-reaching, so perhaps that's the reason why people from all over can understand them and relate to them.
PM: Do you enjoy the promotion?
JB: It can be quite hard work. It wasn't in the brochure than I had to get up a five every morning. But it's one of those things -- sometimes its great fun and other times it can be hard work. I enjoy touring more than I enjoy promotion.
PM: What has surprised you most about your journey?
JB: I've been surprised by how busy one can be and how you fit so much into every day. And I've been surprised by how people have connected with the songs. I hadn't expected this kind of reaction from other people at all. All of it has surprised me in some way.
PM: How has your experience been performing with a live band?
JB: It's a relationship. Between me -- or us as a group of musicians -- and the audience is in it just as much as I am. We're going on a little journey for however long the show is in terms of idea and thoughts.
PM: Have you come full circle do you think?
JB: I guess it's bigger than I expected, so I don't think this is what I -- I don't know if this is what I imagined. I didn't think it through like this. So, no, I don't feel like this is destiny fulfilled or anything like that. But I'm very happy for the opportunity and I'm really enjoying what I do.