Singer-songwriter discusses his relationship with Ed Sheeran, his social media presence, and his new album
James Blunt’s fifth album, The Afterlove, finds the “You’re Beautiful” singer-songwriter reaching into new territory. It started off with a 5am conversation with his producer, Tom Rothrock, at Burning Man Festival, where a discussion about retirement came up. Instead, the former reconnaissance officer decided to take a new direction because, as he says, “if I just repeated myself I might as well be dead.”
Blunt recently received an Honorary Doctorate for Music from the University of Bristol, which he found amusing, remarking that it’s something he doesn’t take too seriously and that, “I only make my family call me Dr. Blunt.” And it’s his dry wit that have garnered him much attention over the last few years.
“I’m trying to laugh at myself on social media because why would I focus on those negative guys? They’re at home. They’ve made no f***ing effort. They’re at home alone in a dark room, probably with their trousers around their ankles writing something negative, and I don’t think they should be taken that seriously,” he says of the few discouraging comments he gets on Twitter – a platform that the singer-songwriter has shined on. And, in reality, that’s true. Despite all and any negative criticism, there are far more people buying Blunt’s albums and tickets than there are people cursing his creations.
Nonetheless, after the negative backlash that came from his first global hit, “You’re Beautiful,” Blunt found himself closing up in his songwriting, “I kind of closed up and wrote more ambiguous lyrics.” Luckily, Elton John came along and introduced him to Ed Sheeran, who reminded Blunt that writing “as open as possible” is his job, even if that makes him uncomfortable.
Looking back, Blunt couldn’t be prouder of the track that turned him into a worldwide sensation, and he has no qualms about its importance, “without it, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.” He also knows, “it’s so easy to talk about the people who say that didn’t like it, but actually it sold in f***ing millions!”
Blunt still finds himself obsessing over the negative comments, but he is able to move on and joke about it. A trait, like his enjoyment of alcohol, he shares with someone he has a “common bond” with, Homer Simpson. And, more importantly, he enjoys what he does and finds it gratifying for all the right reasons, “in a world where there aren’t many opportunities to meet strangers, music seems to bring them together. It’s been a huge honor and a pleasure to have that as my career.”
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with James Blunt to discuss his new album, The Afterlove, his relationship with the song that propelled him into fame, and find out just where his sense of humor came from.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking today because your new album The Afterlove is coming out. So how is the mood in camp?
James Blunt: It’s pretty excited on this end. This album, I took twice the length of time I normally do, two years. Normally I write 25 songs for an album, and this one I wrote over 100 songs. And from the early on the label kind of recognized that I was really enjoying what I was doing and the level and the standard of the songs were definitely a step up, and using the experience of four previous albums.
But also, although success in the States has been muted, it’s been doing pretty well around the rest of the world, and so I think it afforded me a little bit of freedom to enjoy myself. I think that really became clear when the producer of my albums, Tom Rothrock, and I were at Burning Man at 5 in the morning and he said, “James you know, you could retire now. It’s been a pretty good journey,” and that kind of made me think, “Yeah,I could retire,” but what that really means is if I’m going to do something, I need to do something really special and very much for myself, and something I’m really proud of, and the label kind of picked up on that.
So everyone is excited and it’s a bit more of a diverse album than I’ve done before, but it’s definitely confident and bold and we will see whether people like it.
CF: When you announced your new record, you made some self-deprecating remarks, was that because you were a bit anxious around album release?
JB: No. I mean listen, what I mean is just fundamentally you have to be a brave person, a brave critic to buy a James Blunt album, and I don’t believe I know anyone who is that brave. But I get it, and I’m chill about it. I’m not the one who has to keep their job, so I fully understand that. So that’s what I expect from it, but I’m fortunate, I have supporters around the world who will hopefully keep me in business on this end.
CF: The album is full of somewhat modern love songs. You touch on subjects from drinking and relationships to lost phone numbers. What inspired your more modern approach to the writing of a love song and how has your view on the matter changed since marriage?
JB: I don’t think my, whatever you would call it, relationship status has affected they way I produced music necessarily. Of course there are some subject matters I’ve sung about which then affected my home life. But I just didn’t want to repeat what I’ve done before.
I’ve done four albums, if you want an album that sounds like those albums then they are there to listen to. I’m really proud of them, and I’m very lucky to have had supporters who have got those albums, but if I just repeated myself I might as well be dead.
To not change in any way, you do slowly die, at least inside. So I wanted to something fresh and new and exciting that excited me, you know, why bother making something unless it’s exciting for you? It’s not like it’s entirely different, but it’s definitely more diverse and it’s got some really exciting songs on there that the people who I make my music for will hopefully be excited by or surprised by.
CF: You worked with Ed Sheeran on the record, including on the track “Make Me Better”. What does Ed bring that is unique to the songwriting process?
JB: He said, he really loved my first album because it was incredibly direct, its lyrics. And that he felt it would be good to try and do that again, because I suppose with the kind of intrusion of that first album, intrusion into my private life… things like that, I kind of closed up a little bit, with the kind of visceral attacks I had on myself after that first album, which, yeah I kind of closed up and wrote more ambiguous lyrics.
He said, “Come on that’s your job. You’re a songwriter, so let’s write the lyrics as open as possible,” in a way that makes me quite uncomfortable, and so the song we wrote was a song called, “Make Me Better”. I find it so open and so direct, it definitely makes me uncomfortable.
CF: Well that’s good. I feel like uncomfortableness is where you… David Bowie said something about walking out into the ocean and as soon as your feet can no longer touch the ground, and you feel uncomfortable, that’s when you know you’re doing something right…
JB: … Yeah, exactly that and a real lesson, and I really enjoyed the process. And it’s the same with Ryan Tedder. Ryan said, “Common,” well I supposed Ryan and I did it more mutually, a kind of, “We should be bold. We’ve messed around. We’ve done some fun stuff,” “Bonfire Heart” off the last album was a sure fire hit everywhere other than the states. And so we thought, “Let’s be bold where we start out.”
So we start off an album by saying, “People say the meanest things. I’ve been called a dick, I’ve been called a so many things…” and it’s pretty bold, a pretty ugly way of starting an album in many ways, and I suppose I’ve been called worse than that, and so we thought we should confront it head on and then have humor and irony, which I suppose I haven’t shown in many songs before, people think I’m just an incredibly serious person, which I’m not.
So we’ve got a little bit of humor saying, “So I saw you standing outside a bar, I would have said you’re beautiful, but I’ve used that line before.”
CF: Yeah, to talk about that, you’re able to poke fun at yourself and your past hits. As you were saying, on “Love Me Better” you remark on “You’re Beautiful”. Many artists take themselves rather seriously. Have you always had a sense of humor about yourself or is it something you developed over time?
JB: I’ve always had it. I was in the army for a number of years and you have to learn how to laugh at yourself in that environment, definitely. And I suppose self depreciation is fairly interesting.
CF: To touch back on your relationship with Ed at the moment, there was a rumor that the two of you were going to head out on tour together. How did you first become acquainted? And do you think Ed’s nervous about being in your shadow?
JB: (Laughs) How did we meet? Let me name drop, Elton John introduced us. It’s also nice being able to name drop like that, and somewhat ridiculous. And is he afraid of being in my shadow? F*** no, of course not. The guy is ruling the roost. He is doing f***ing well.
CF: Now over a decade later, what are your feelings on “You’re Beautiful” and how it shot you into fame?
JB: Well, I love it. It’s an awesome song, and millions of people love it. I think it was slightly overplayed and it afforded some of the vocal minority to say, “It’s an annoying song,” but it’s annoying because it got played so much. It’s not annoying song, it got played so much and that was annoying. But it’s so easy to talk about the people who say that didn’t like it, but actually it sold in f***ing millions (Laughs).
There are a handful of people who enjoy turning positives into negatives, but you know what? There are other people there who loved it, and without it, you and I wouldn’t be talking now, so it’s a great thing. I do songs and people want me to play that. It’s one of the highlights of the gig. It’s a highlight for me to because it means it’s near the end and it’s nearly time for a beer (Laughs). So like I say in my Twitter bio’g, “Proof that one song is all you need.”
CF: Let’s talk about your social media presence for a moment. You have a biting wit and are pretty funny. What do you think of Twitter as an outlet for expression and why did you chose that to troll your haters and fans?
JB: I think once upon a time we were told we should keep our opinions to ourselves, and we were also told that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say it at all, and then someone invented Twitter and we just seem to forget those rules, so it’s a strange environment.
I also suppose we obsess about that kind of environment so much. The people ask me about the kind of negative things I might get on Twitter, and they are just a small handful of incredibly positive reactions I get and it’s just weird we seem to focus on the negative. I do it myself. I can’t help but see the negatives and hone in on that. That’s why I’m even answering, but it sometimes seems disrespectful I suppose because I play to 5 or 10 or 20 thousand people every night, and those people made a s*** more effort, they bought tickets with their hard earned money, and they travelled a distance at cost, and they queued up in whatever the weather to get into these shows in huge numbers.
For some reason, I still can’t help but focus on the one or two people who wrote something negative, and really I’m trying to laugh at myself on social media because why would I focus on those negative guys? They’re at home. They’ve made no f***ing effort. They’re at home alone in a dark room, probably with their trousers around their ankles writing something negative, and I don’t think they should be taken that seriously. So I’m laughing at myself online most of the time for taking them seriously. It’s so easy to forget the incredible positives.
CF: In the song “Bartender” you sing, “If we keep on drinking we’re gon’ fall back in love”. Where did that line come from and it seems to really remark on staying in the present, and I wanted to know, how do you continue to keep yourself in the present?
JB: Well I’m a Brit, so I’m a fan of any kind of alcohol, and I know that it makes everything alright, be it just for a short period of time…
CF:… I believe Homer SImpson said, “It’s the cause of…and solution to… all of life’s problems…”
JB: Exactly that. I feel I have a common bond with Homer Simpson.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve have had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
JB: I do music because I love music fundamentally, and because it’s a great way of expressing yourself. I get to travel around the world and play to some amazing audiences and in some incredible places, from New York to Los Angeles, from Beirut to Rio to Sydney to Cape Town, I played in Zimbabwe, what an amazing job.
But know what the most amazing thing is? In a world where our politicians just talk about the differences between black and white, and Muslim, Christian, and Jew, between man and woman and gay and straight, I go and play in these places and people travel a distance and come into a room and it doesn’t really matter where the hell they’re from or what they are or who they are or what they believe in.
Music kind of brings people together, and I sing songs about my life experiences, but people come up to me and say, “Hey, that song means this to me,” and their stories are normally much more impactful and much more harrowing, if mine are sad, or incredibly stories, so yeah, in a world where there aren’t many opportunities to meet strangers, music seems to bring them together. It’s been a huge honor and a pleasure to have that as my career.
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