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James Blunt on Some Kind Of Trouble and 'perfect pop songs'
James Blunt during a special, intimate concert for radio contest winners in Florida last week. © Radko Keleman/ZUMA Press/Corbis
James Blunt is well aware of how he's perceived. "People think of me as this rather sad figure, a lonely, tortured guy writing songs about how miserable and misunderstood I am. That's what happens when you have a big hit about love and loss."
That 'big hit' Blunt is referring to is...well, c'mon, you know the tune. You either adore it or could happily go to your grave without ever hearing it again. Since its release in 2005, You're Beautiful has been certified gold, platinum, multi-platinum and beyond in just about every country that hands out such certifications. The album it was featured on, Back To Bedlam, didn't do too badly, either, selling over 11 million copies worldwide. The former British army officer continued his winning streak with his sophomore CD, 2007's All The Lost Souls, which moved more than 4.5 million copies globally but did little to change his image as a dour, lovelorn troubadour.
Blunt's newest album, Some Kind Of Trouble, finds the singer-songwriter and guitarist in a much more buoyant mood, as evidenced by the zippy, infectious single Stay The Night. "I just felt happy and wrote a happy song," Blunt says. "The key is the music. If you start strumming chords that make you feel good, then the tune is going to go the same way."
MusicRadar caught up with James Blunt recently to discuss his approach to songwriting, his love of acoustic guitars (along with his renewed enthusiasm for electrics) and performing on Sesame Street ("a career high," he half-jokes). In addition, we posed to him that all-important question: Is there a huge song by another artist that drives him up the wall?
Stay The Night is what I would describe as a 'perfect pop song' - you hear the intro and you're hooked. How do you go about writing such tunes?
"Well, I don't have any kind of formula. Stay The Night is something like three minutes and 30 seconds or something like that, and You're Beautiful is probably bang-on three minutes and 30 seconds, as well. That seems to be kind of a marker, in a way - it's enough, but it doesn't drag on forever.
"More than anything, though, I think the role of a songwriter is to capture an emotion. If you can do that with absolute honesty and clarity, then you're well on your way. Don't get me wrong: I do like a lot of music where the meaning is open to interpretation. But if you're talking about the kinds of songs that hit people straight away and they can relate to directly, you've got to go for a very pure message."
Talk to me about working Steve Robson and Ryan Tedder on that song. Who came up with what, and how did it all happen?
"I'd been working with Steve Robson already. I was introduced to him by my drummer. It was supposed to be a one-off meeting, have a beer and a chat - that kind of thing. But I showed up early to his studio when he was playing the piano. I looked around and saw these electric guitars. So I picked one up, and right then and there we wrote a song called Dangerous. We struck up an amazing relationship. So what was supposed to be one beer turned into days and weeks and months, and he produced the album.
"During that time, Steve and I were out in California, and we met up with Ryan Tedder. We got out a bunch of guitars and started playing together, very spontaneously, so Stay The Night has that kind of guys-sitting-around-the-campfire vibe. I'm really happy with how the song turned out. It's got a lot of energy, and I think it's from the way I attacked my guitar a bit differently, a little more percussively.
"But going back to your first question about what makes certain songs work and connect with people, the narrative of Stay The Night is about having fun and enjoying life and not wanting the night to end. I think most people can relate to that kind of spirit."
Does the whole concept of having to churn out hit singles bother you? Wouldn't you rather concentrate on albums than think about a song being a hit or getting picked for a TV commercial?
"I think I've always focused on albums. I don't consider myself a singles kind of guy. My albums have always sold more around the world than singles. My first record, Back To Bedlam, sold something like 11 or 12 million copies. Yes, it was driven by a single, particularly in the US, but as an album it did quite nicely.
"I get what you mean, though, but in point of fact, I do make albums, and then I leave it up to the record company to figure out which songs they think will work out there. I wouldn't have a clue what works on the radio, so I'm quite happy to leave it up to the record company to do all that. If I had to pick a single, I'd get it massively wrong."
Overall, Some Kind Of Trouble is way more uplifting than your first two records. Was that the plan all along?
"I don't believe I thought it out too hard. I just didn't want to repeat myself with slow, melancholic songs. Still, it was a little bit of a puzzle: I didn't know how the album would play out. It wasn't until I hooked up with Steve Robson that this new kind of enthusiasm and playfulness started to come about. For me, playing the electric guitar had a lot to do with it, too. Stay The Night is an exception in that it's very acoustic driven, but if you listen to the rest of the album, there's a lot of electric guitars on it."
What led to your decision to play more electric guitar?
"The truth is, I started on the electric when I was 14 years old. But what happened was, I started traveling a lot when I was in the army. It's difficult to bring an electric and an amp in a tank, you know what I mean?"
Actually, no, but I can picture it. [laughs]
[laughs] "Right! Well, it's impossible, trust me. There's no room, there's no sockets to plug into, and plus, you're in a tank. But I found I was able to bring an acoustic with me, and that really impacted my first batch of songs. Lately, for recording and performing, I'm playing a Nash electric, which is a Telecaster-type model. The company is based in Los Angeles, and they make really wonderful guitars."
What kind of amps do you like to use?
"On stage, I like Marshall Bluesbreakers and Fender Twin Reverbs. In the studio, we had all kinds of amps. It really depended on what studio and city we were in. Whatever was sitting around, I'd give it a go and see if I liked it. I know I used a Fender Blues DeVille, which I liked a lot. So yeah, on stage, I go for the Bluesbreakers and the Twin Reverbs. In the studio, there's no one or two definitive amps."
You still do play acoustics quite a bit. Gibsons seem to be a favorite.
"That's right. I have a J-45, which has become my workhorse. I have a Gibson 12-string, too, which is really wonderful. It's very warm-sounding and forgiving - I can bash all about and it'll still sound terrific."
Of all the guitars you own, do you have one that you consider special in any way?
"Definitely. It's a Gibson J-45 from 1966. I did my first album with it, and it's super. The neck on it is very thin, which I like - on models produced after 1966 the necks got a little fatter, the lacquer was thicker. I much prefer a thin neck on an acoustic.
"I have a couple of other Gibson acoustics, also from 1966, an LG-1 and an LG-2. They're small guitars, but they sound fantastic, very warm and rich. I like those ones a lot, but yeah, the J-45 that I used on my first record, that's the special one."
Regarding your guitar playing, do you have any kind regular practice routine? Do you sit down and try to work things out?
"On the practice front, I'm playing every single day. At the moment, because of the promotional tour I'm on, I'm in two and three cities a day performing a bunch of songs. So the practice is built in to what I'm doing. On the other hand, it becomes limited to the amount and kinds of songs I play. It's rather a mixed bag. I find that I am getting better, but it's in an off-the-cuff way, and again, it's all based around the songs I get to do. Only occasionally do I find myself at home where I have a good chunk of time, and I can mess around on the guitar and piano."
Are there areas of your guitar playing that you'd like to improve? Specific things you want to work on?
"Yeah, well, now that I'm playing electric a lot more, that's it right there. I want to become a better live player on the electric. In the studio, as you know, you can go back and fix every note if you need to. Live, it's all about getting it right at the moment it's happening. So I want to become a better live player on the electric, for sure."
What kind of gear do you use for demoing and writing?
"I keep it really, really basic. I just whack things down to GarageBand, simple as that. I try not to get too embroiled in the demoing process. My approach is to write the song, record it simply, and have it so that I can remember it for when we go into a proper studio. If I have the chords, the lyrics and the melody down, I'm good.
"Over the course of doing a few albums, I've found that everything changes in a studio. What you thought was a great production idea doesn't work at all; and what you never would have imagined comes out of nowhere. So it's best not to get too married to your demos. Look at them as sketches and nothing more."
There's a wide variety of styles on the new record, but the song Turn Me On might take people by surprise. It's a pretty wild, sexy track. Were you thinking of subverting your sensitive-songwriter image a bit with that one?
"Yeah, it's a lot of fun, that one, isn't it? But no, I wasn't trying to affect my audience or shock them or anything like that. I was just having a good time, that's all.
"To be honest, my record company asked me not to put that track on the record. They thought it was very different from what my fans were used to. But I told them, 'Look, Turn Me On is probably one of the most honest tracks on the record. It's straight-up, it's how I feel, and it's where I'm at in many ways.' So we batted it around, and it made the album. The bottom line is, you're not going to please everyone, but that's not my job. My job as a songwriter and an artist isn't to try to express other peoples' views; my job is to express my view. So there you go."
Speaking of honest, there's the song No Tears, which is beautiful and intensely personal. Is it hard for you to write about such vivid emotions?
"No, it's not. I suppose that's my bread and butter, isn't it? My songs are my way of looking in the mirror and seeing my own flaws, so it's not difficult. In fact, it would be much harder to write very superfluous songs, things that didn't mean anything to me."
Obviously, you rose to fame quite quickly with You're Beautiful. Do you still enjoy playing it?
"Definitely. I go to a show, and I see people out there waiting to be entertained and to be taken on an emotional journey, and if I left that song out, they'd be upset. If I play it, it brings smiles to everybody's faces. As a performer, it's very easy for me to get up and dial in where that song came from. I can focus in on what it meant to me when I wrote it, but more importantly, I can see what it means to people around the world. All of its success and the connections people have attached to it haven't dimmed that at all. To me, it's still a great song that I enjoy playing."
It's clear that you have a sense of humor about it. I quite liked your appearance on Sesame Street where you turned it into A Triangle.
[laughs] "Ahh, yes! A career high, being on Sesame Street. It doesn't get much bigger, does it? [laughs] All kidding aside, it was great and very special. Hey, to have the word 'hypotenuse' in any song, I would call that a triumph in anyone's book."
You're Beautiful is a big song, one of the biggest sellers in the last 10 years. It's the kind number writers dream about having. But, as you know, with that kind of success, there's tons of people who…well, they just don't like the song. It drives them nuts. You know that, don't you?
"Of course. And why they don't like it, why it drives them crazy, is because it's ubiquitous. You're Beautiful was probably overplayed - it happens. If people just heard it once or twice, they would say, 'Hey, that's a nice song.' They hear it everywhere they go, a thousand times, and of course it's going to wear on them. I'm not blind to that. It's totally understandable."
Are there any such songs that drive you crazy?
[pauses] "Yeah… I should have an answer for that, shouldn't I? I'm sure there is one, but I just can't think of it right now. There's got to be something.... Maybe I've just been away from the radio for so long and been locked in the studio that I just can't… [laughs] I know there's got to be at least one, but nothing's coming to me. Put it this way: Yes, there is a song that drives me crazy, but I'm drawing a blank."