With the release of his fifth album, The Afterlove, James Blunt has managed to keep making music despite being the recipient of perhaps the most unreasonable level of hate from around the world. Madeleine Chapman caught up with one of her favourite musicians to find out how he blocks out the haters.
It’s hard work being a genuine and earnest James Blunt fan. We all have the freedom to love whatever music we want, but if you love James Blunt you better have your defensive talking points ready. I’ll defend James Blunt and his music to my dying day, and happily alienate anyone within earshot when I say that James Blunt is actually just a better version of Michael Bublé.
Being a fan of James Blunt isn’t something that can be taken lightly, and this perhaps explains the continued public sneering at his music; everyone is simply too embarrassed to openly admit that they love something they previously mocked. To which, I say toughen up and put on a James Blunt album like you know you want to.
My love for the Blunt man began about as early as it possibly could have. For his birthday on 14 December 2004, my older brother received a CD of Blunt’s debut, Back To Bedlam. We would ride around in his Subaru Legacy GT blasting his sad songs on repeat. For Christmas that year he jokingly copied the album onto a bunch of blank CDs and gifted them to me and my other siblings. Never one to waste even a joke gift, I played that ripped CD until it skipped endlessly and I had to throw it out.
In March of 2008, I turned 14. My friends at St Mary’s College in Wellington were firmly in the grips of pink/purple/blue Fujifilm digital cameras, white canvas shoes from Number One Shoe Warehouse, and those weird sash belts from Supré. I was so behind the times that I never caught on to such trends which, looking back at my Canterbury trackpants and hand-me-down Ruby hoodies, made me the most fashion-forward teen of 2008. I say all of this to contextualise why I considered my 14th birthday present of James Blunt concert tickets to be the best gift I’d ever received.
Blunt was touring to promote his second album All The Lost Souls, an album that received decidedly mixed reviews from critics and two eczema-covered thumbs up from me. There was no logical explanation for my Blunt love and I didn’t search for it, but it certainly brought about a disproportionate amount of ridicule. This derision followed Blunt for every album release since, including his latest, The Afterlove, released last month.
I’ve listened to The Afterlove many times and I really like it. I don’t love it like I loved Back to Bedlam and All The Lost Souls, but I like his willingness to adapt and modify his sound on every album.
When I was given the opportunity to talk to Blunt on the phone, I panicked. What was I supposed to say to a man whose every song I know word-for-word? Should I tell him that I listened to all of his albums consecutively while on a 15-hour bus trip from Oklahoma to Nebraska last month? Would it be wise to admit my love for an artist who openly ridicules his fans for loving him?
Despite people dragging him, the public seems to love Blunt as a person because of his self-deprecation on Twitter. With that in mind, I had planned some half-serious questions and confessions that I assumed would lead to some zingers from Blunt at my expense. Instead, he was courteous and genuine and quite frankly, very sweet. Because if there was ever a man who had to learn that online hate is best ignored, it’s James Blunt. And while he does what he can to combat the online trolls, in real life he’s just a nice man who doesn’t deserve the insane amount of hate he gets for making nice music that a lot of people enjoy.
The first concert I ever went to was your All The Lost Souls tour when I was 14. It’s still one of my favourite concert experiences.
Thank you, you’re sweet. I’m hoping to get back to New Zealand in early 2018.
I personally think All The Lost Souls is your best album to date so I was quite surprised to see a lot of negative reviews for it, especially after the universal praise for Back To Bedlam. Do you think it, and all your subsequent albums, suffer from a sort of ‘You’re Beautiful’ saturation backlash?
Yeah definitely. I’m not a ‘cool’ musician. I’m not the hip and trendy musician. So with professional reviewers, I think people are sometimes concerned about how they might be perceived when they review music. So for me, professional reviews aren’t really something that I’m too fussed with. At the end of the day, who’s the better judge of music: the guy that is a reviewer who probably wanted to be a musician and isn’t, or real life human beings, people on the street who just get out there and like the music and turn up to the concerts? I’m really lucky to have incredible support from those guys so I’ll take a real life person on the street’s opinion over a professional.
You live in Ibiza and love the clubbing scene. Is this a new thing or did you used to be a guy who’d go out raving then go home and write acoustic songs about choosing between darkness and cold?
I’ve always like night clubs and I moved to Ibiza for that reason. ‘1973’ is about the most famous nightclub in Ibiza called Pacha, which opened in that same year. Amazingly, a guy called Pete Tong remixed it and plays it in that same club. But whilst I listen to that kind of music on a night out, it hasn’t been the kind of music that I’ve done in my previous four albums. But I suppose perhaps on this new album I’ve definitely taken different inspirations from music I’ve heard in that kind of scene. So this album is not electronic in any way but it’s perhaps more diverse than the stuff I’ve done before.
Have you found a new audience with this latest album because of its different sound?
Yeah definitely. The first song on this album I wrote with Ryan Tedder [of One Republic] and we said, “come on, let’s be really direct.” And it starts off by saying “people say the meanest things” and it’s really direct in its approach and it’s sound as well. We wanted to have fun with it and not just do what I’ve done before. Because I’ve got four albums and if you want those kinds of songs, they’re there. But this one we wanted to make something a little bit special. So there are some songs that are really upbeat and some that I think will surprise people.
You’ve become known as a bit of a master on Twitter, mostly with how you hit back at your haters with some pretty good one-liners. It seems pretty healthy to laugh at yourself but I once shared some angry comments people had said about me and I got a bunch of messages asking if I was okay. Are there times when joking with your haters is a bit of a defence tactic?
It’s weird. I think if you do music in the first place, you’re gonna get some positives and you’re gonna get some negatives because music’s subjective. So if you really only expect the positives then you’re silly. So I get a few negative things online. I think it’s always worth remembering that online is one thing and there’s a real world out there, and the real world is probably more important. So I do concerts for 5,000-20,000 people and those are people who’ve bought tickets with their hard-earned money and they’ve travelled distances, and they’ve queued up to get into the show and they’ve made a real effort. And they’re in their thousands. Well, they’re even in their millions I suppose, after all the shows I’ve done. Yes, to focus on one or two negatives online is silly. If I do see them I try to laugh at myself as much as at that person. It’s not worth taking that seriously. Not worth taking to heart.
Have you ever seen something that you thought had crossed the line?
I don’t block people. I’m happy looking someone in the eye and saying “Look, I’m a human being. And I think we should probably be nicer to each other”.
I have to ask you about your ‘Postcards’ music video. I’ve seen musicians try to be subtle with their product placements in music videos but you seem to have gone the other way and embraced it with the BMW in ‘Postcards’. It’s a pretty brave move but also makes for a very funny video.
There’s such limited money to make videos nowadays that often record companies will say let’s product place something in the video and that product will help pay for the making of the video. So BMW said would I put the car in the video and the longer it’s in, the more money they would put into the video. So I said let’s just make a full-on commercial where I get out and basically lick the car. As a result, they’ve been loaning me BMWs ever since.
You might be the only artist I know of who openly mocks your own fans for liking your music. Will it ever be cool to love James Blunt?
No, I don’t think so and I hope not. I think even the word ‘cool’ is something I’d struggle with. I’m not a particularly cool person. But I write real songs about real things that’ve happened to me, and people relate to them from their own lives. I’m happy with that.
Did writing songs, particularly on your first two albums, help you process things you’d been through?
Yeah definitely. As a person out of the army, when I started out I was still trying to work out what I was going to do with life. I needed to process that in songs. I suppose in many ways, as a man as well, when I go down to the pub, men don’t really talk about what’s going on in their minds so much. For me, songs were a great way of expressing those kinds of things.
You collaborated more with other songwriters on this album than any of your others. How did you find it compared to writing alone?
I just really enjoyed it actually because otherwise, I’d be in a room on my own, writing a miserable song with the same four chords. To hook up with someone else is just a more fun thing to do. Most things are more fun with other people. So I’ve really enjoyed on this album working with a dream team of people from Ryan Tedder of One Republic, one song with Ed Sheeran, but other people who aren’t as well known. MoZella, who wrote ‘Wrecking Ball’, she and I immediately got along really well in writing terms. I called her up and said ‘I’ve got this idea, I want you to come and have a listen’. And said to her [lyrics] ‘staring at you naked, hotel room in Vegas, I love you but I hate it.’ And she immediately said ‘okay, this is going to be your Wrecking Ball’. And we wrote this cool song called ‘Don’t Give Me Those Eyes’ and it’s my favourite song on the album. I loved writing it and, as I say, without her influence it wouldn’t exist.
This is quite a new sound for you compared to your earlier work. Do you plan to stay along this path?
I think I’ll hopefully continue to be quite diverse with it. As you would have listened to the whole album, the back half of it is definitely not pop. It’s still deep, and hopefully rich, in song structure. But yeah there are a couple more diverse songs in there and yeah I’ll probably do the same.
Your lyrics are always pretty easy to connect to your life at the time the album was released. On this latest one, was ‘2005’ [“All I do is apologise for a song I wrote in 2005”] a deliberate attempt to say your piece about ‘You’re Beautiful’?
It’s just weird. Again, I’m really lucky to have had an incredibly commercially successful song in ‘You’re Beautiful’ and most musicians would kill for that. But when you do have a huge hit like that, I get asked negative questions about it. “Are you tired of playing it?” or some people who hear it too much – because it was played a lot on the radio – associate words like ‘annoying’ with it. But millions of people bought it and millions of people loved it, and still do. And if I do a concert then people who bought tickets hope I’m gonna play it and I’d be a fool not to play it. So it’s strange how a huge success can garner negative responses. So I think I was again just laughing at that.
You had an astronomical hit in ‘You’re Beautiful’ that would almost be impossible to replicate. But if you could choose, which song of yours deserves that same level of success?
It’s a really interesting thing because something like ‘You’re Beautiful’ is a really great radio song. Radio’s a very specific medium and they like things to be quite bright and shiny and probably upbeat, and some of my songs are not that. They’re slower and more gentle so might not work on radio. Some of them I think are better songs but it means they probably won’t get the same acclaim. On my second album, on All The Lost Souls, I love ‘Same Mistake’. I think it’s one of the stronger songs I’ve ever written and I love it. But it doesn’t work on radio.
I was weirdly hoping you’d say ‘Same Mistake’ actually, to validate the ridiculous number of times I’ve listened to that song. When it comes to some of the more ‘pop’ songs on this new album, you can hear a little of your collaborators in them, like Ed Sheeran. Was that from you hearing their work and loving the sound or did that happen organically?
No, we’re just messing around really. I have one song with Ed on this album, one song he and I wrote together, and yeah of course, as a result, you can hear, stylistically, his influence on that. Ryan [Tedder] is really diverse in what he does and we have great fun. I really enjoy working with him because when I can play a couple of ideas to my record company, and they’ll say ‘go with the safe one, it sounds like what you did in the past’. And I’ll play it to him instead and he’ll say ‘okay get on the plane, I’m getting on the stage in a few hours but come and meet me now. Because the other idea that sounds completely different, I can tell that’s what you wanna do and that’s what we should be doing. And if we’re having fun doing it it’s going to sound fun too.” That song is called ‘Lose My Number’ and, again, it’s one of my favourites. It’s really different to what I did in the past but it sounds awesome.
You seem to have pockets around the world where you are extremely popular and others where you aren’t so much.
Yeah, I think that’s not necessarily something I want because you’d like to be huge everywhere and selling everywhere. But it’s probably quite grounding in many ways that in Central Europe – Germany, Switzerland, Austria – a song can go through the charts and sell really well and everyone really love it. And then in another country the same song won’t do as well. And then you think to yourself ‘does that mean the song is any worse or not? Or did it just not get the air time or life?’ It’s probably healthy to have a little bit of balance.
I often find myself defending you to someone who got sick of ‘You’re Beautiful’ and never gave you another chance. What song do you think I should be recommending to people to change their minds?
Tricky. I dunno. Off the new album I would say ‘Don’t Give Me Those Eyes’ because I’m pretty sure it’s a really solid song. But I’d take your opinion on it too.
Well ‘Same Mistake’ is my favourite song of yours but it’s quite grim. So maybe ‘Miss America’.
It’s definitely a pretty well-constructed song and you can sort of hear instances of Elton John in it, maybe.
Was it written about Whitney Houston?
Yeah, I was thinking about Whitney Houston. She had just died so I had her in my mind.
I’m being told to wrap up but thank you for your time and for your music.
No, thank you and thanks for being one of the bravest people in the world to admit to being a fan of mine.
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