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James Blunt 1481 Final
Nine Songs

James Blunt talks Maddy Smith through the pivotal songs in his life, that provided the soundtrack to his rule over the noughties.

31 October 2023, 08:00 | Words by Maddy Smith

The noughties was a time of reinvention and bright new things, of artists who had one foot in the past whilst also trying to get their head around what the new century would look and sound like.

MTV’s dynasty reigned in its prime, Harry Potter hit the big screen and rhinestone and glitter-bejewelled outfits were rife; the 2000’s were awash with distinctive cultural milestones and gaudy iconography. The decade also holds particular significance for singer/songwriter James Blunt, welcoming the birth of Back to Bedlam.

Raw, infectious and radiating with the power of simplicity, its lead single “You’re Beautiful” not only hit the number one spot in ten countries across the globe, including the UK, the US, Spain, Mexico and Canada, but went on to become the UK’s best-selling album of the 00s.

When we speak, drills and machines whir in the distance as Blunt mulls over the past twenty years from his home in Ibiza. Renovations are underway and it’s clear to see the breadth and the extent of change his career and life have presented him since his debut album. “It's the first time I've gone through the same kind of seismic shift as I did when I was a child, which is why the new record is called Who We Used To Be”, he explains.

Ahead of the release of his seventh studio record, Blunt delves into the momentous Nine Songs which have soundtracked his life and ascent to stardom. “It's been a fucking rollercoaster and I love every minute of it”, he beams. “I've been incredibly lucky with my journey and that I'm still here. I've just been signed to a new record deal with the same label, Atlantic Records, who are my family within music.”

Assured, polished and pensive, Who We Used To Be ebbs and flows with a thematic poignancy; addressing life’s hurdles which resonates with human experience. It takes in heartfelt and profound expressions of the challenges of ageing, of illness, of parenthood and entering new chapters.

The title pays homage to the innocence and naivety of Blunt’s time as a teenager. A time which raised questions about life, who he was going to be, what he was going to do and who he was going to be with, he tells me, “That's why there was so much inspiration for those first songs.”

“I'm going through a seismic shift in my place in the world and all the questions that go with that; suddenly I'm as inspired now as I was as a teenager. Now I'm married and I've started a family, my parents are getting old and might not be with me for very long. I'm writing songs about that moment where your parents go, seeing my life through my children's eyes, the aspirations I had with my wife to start a family’, he explains.

“Some of them we've achieved, and some of them we have failed at. There are great celebrations on the album, of the songs that are our successes. “Beside You” is my lead single, it's about my wife, she's the one that I want to dance with forever.”

Blunt’s Nine Songs selections offer a timeline into the power and magic of music which have been the catalyst for his career, from road trip soundtracks through to record signings and the inspiration behind pop behemoth “You’re Beautiful”.

His choices tell the stories and milestones which have sculpted Blunt into the artist that he is today; from the peppy vigour of Don Maclean’s narrative, to embracing the devil’s horns with Alice Cooper, finding inspiration from Cat Power’s unbridled energy, and an adoration for capturing nostalgic melancholy, with him shamelessly covering Pixies “Where Is My Mind?

Blunt’s vivacity and sense of humour are not only infectious, but an extension of his artistic expression and a constant throughout the chaos. “I think what's kind of amazing is I think I'm pretty still a normal human being at the end of it”, he considers, reflecting on the journey to his seventh record.

“The industry shoots you up and spits you out at the other end. There are bands who've been cast aside and who are damaged as a result. I feel very lucky that I'm a pretty normal human being who’s come out with a smile.”

“American Pie” by Don Mclean

I chose this list in the order in which I felt I heard these songs. My dad was a soldier, an army helicopter pilot, and so he was always based in different places like Cyprus, Hong Kong, Germany, and as far afield and as exotic as Yorkshire.

We would always be going on these really long car journeys with a trailer on the back; moving house, depending on where he was stationed. I remember singing along to “American Pie” in the car as a family, as a repetitive memory. That's when I remember understanding the feeling and the sense of what music is - enjoying the melody, enjoying the story that it told, because “American Pie” is an amazing tale.

At the same time, it was the magic of us going on these long journeys, all singing along and the bonding element of what music offers; that's why it was a really important song for me.

My parents didn't listen to much music. My father thinks music is noise, really. But they had three albums; The Beatles Greatest Hits, The Beach Boys Greatest Hits, and Don McLean's American Pie, and those were the three tapes we had in the car.

“Poison” by Alice Cooper

I just remember the moment I heard this song, I was in Cornwall, down around the Rock area, Daymer Bay area. I was in my early teens, I had just started playing electric guitar and I started having a dream and a vision, I remember hearing that song and thinking, ‘Yeah, fuck, I want to be a rock star.’

That song really encapsulated everything. Sonically, it was just a very exciting sound. As it turns out, I turned into a pop star instead of a rock star and I don't sound anything like Alice Cooper. But the dream was there.

I had a whole period of listening to those ‘80s American guitar bands, whether they’re American or not, but they've sold in America so well, like Europe’s “Final Countdown.” I bought myself an electric guitar to learn guitar solos.

At the start of my music career, I was a fan of sticking the odd guitar solo into a song. Not many of them have made albums though. The best known one of mine would be a song called “Wise Men”, which has a cool little guitar solo in it. But I also have a song called “Superstar”, which has a fucking awesome guitar solo in it. The Devil's Horns ruined me. They're just poking out a tiny bit.

“Brothers In Arms” by Dire Straits

Mark Knopfler's guitar playing was very much about guitar solos and riffs. He would not only tell a story with words, but with his guitar as well. I had a mate at school who showed me the three chords that I still know and use - the only three chords that I still know and use. But I instantly asked him if we could learn the “Money for Nothing” and “Sultans of Swing” guitar solos.

As a song goes, I thought there was real sadness and melancholy in “Brothers in Arms”. I think that's the kind of thing that I gravitated towards as a songwriter, writing some kind of nostalgic melancholy.

I really enjoy that clarity on any of my songs that have connected with an audience; the ones where each instrument is really, really clearly heard, rather than just a wall of sound - where less is more, and each instrument has its part, and tells its story. They are the songs that I feel my audience connect with.

“You're Beautiful” features a line at the top of it which I can sing to anyone, and they'll know the song straight away. This is also true, particularly for the songs I've had a heavier hand in with production. Normally they've got little counter melodies that I find tell another story.

“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

The album Nevermind, I don’t know when it was hitting big, but I bought it when I was just about to go to university in Bristol. My friends were listening to it too, and it just seemed to be the soundtrack to my first year at university.

I guess we were suddenly free of school, free of parents and free of teachers. We were our own people and the music really seemed to encapsulate that as well that sense of excitement that we were young adults, and the world was ours for the taking.

BEST FIT: It’s so simple, yet it still has such a monumental impact to this day.

I think that's always true of any really good idea. It's that it's really simple and it's really clear and that you know the direction. If someone's trying to sell you a business that they do, if they can't spell it out in the first 30 seconds, it's probably not a great business. But if they can really say, ‘This is my business, this is my thought, this is my idea, this is my direction’ - the simplest ones are the ones that grab you, that are going to work.

Nevermind maintains such a continuous sound throughout the full record.

Yes, exactly. And weirdly, when I was asked to compile this little list, I found it hard to choose exactly which song from Nevermind, because all of them on the album give me the same sort of sense of excitement. But I suppose this is just the classic one, which sort of sums it up as well as any of them.

“One” by U2

Again, compiling a list like this, I guess as a musician, you probably want to fill it with these really quirky, interesting songs that are off the wall and no one's heard of, but with a lot of these songs I haven't. I've just gone for really classic songs that grabbed me at the time and, and this song did that probably more than any song ever in my entire life.

When I first wrote down this list, I wrote down “In a Little While” by U2 instead, because it's a beautiful, beautiful song. But actually, even though I love that song, “One” is just bigger, not just commercially, but bigger to me as well. It's just a fantastic love song, in a way. Not necessarily as a romantic love song, but as far as I understand it, it's about the one, and we are one, and how you're bound and with another conscious being.

It's something that lyrically and sonically got me in and will forever be one of my most important songs I've ever heard. I think even with “Goodbye My Lover” and the lyrics there, I probably started with U2’s “Did I disappoint you?”

It's the same phrasing as “Did I disappoint you? Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?”. It’s “Did I disappoint you or let you down? / Should I be feeling guilty or let the judges frown?”. I think you can probably sing my song “Goodbye My Lover” over “One” by U2.

BEST FIT: What point in life did you become so connected with this song?

Again, I was at university. I don't know how long it might have been out before then but, once again it's that sense of realising you’re your own person at that stage.

I’d just bought my first car which was a fucking cool car. It was a Lada Riva, a classic Russian-made car, which had a huge sound system in it, and I remember that song was the soundtrack to every journey. There's a loneliness to the song, isn't there, really? It's talking about, “We are one” and yet there's a loneliness to the whole thing. It's an aspirational thing.

It’s all like that period in life, in the midpoint of the list, anyway, where you're establishing your independence, because obviously you go off to university and you're left to your own devices to establish who you are.

It's who you are, what you're going to be, where you're going to go and who you're going to end up with. I suppose it's that time of all these questions about life and that's the most inspiring time anyway, isn't it? Most songwriters probably write their songs in their late teens or early twenties. That's the time in your life where you just have too many hormones, loads of questions and you don't know where everything's going to land. And that's your greatest, inspiring time.

My new album is reflective of exactly that and I'm going through the same sort of questions now, because my life is changing so dramatically. I've just got married, just started a family, my parents are getting old and I'm going through another seismic shift in my world. And so, that's why I'm working through the same questions on this album.

It's interesting cyclically, because we're coming up to 20 years since Back to Bedlam was released. It feels like a nice full circle moment?

Yes, exactly. Weirdly, I feel that in my audience now I have the people who have been with me for 20 years, who have been loyal supporters to me despite everything that's gone along with it - all my mistakes. But weirdly, I think there are a ton of young people in their twenties who are turning up to my concerts, returning to the shows, because I'm guessing that they must have been forced to listen to my albums when they were kids on their own long journeys.

Whether they like the music or not, it's still ingrained in them. And so, they seem to turn up en masse and they know every single word, they come for stag dos even. So it's a really wonderful time.

“Where Is My Mind?” by Pixies

I have, to their horror, covered this song many, many times. It's kind of a criminal act for me to cover it, but I can't help myself. I love the song so much. Again, it's by stars who I always wanted to be.

I love what it does, in a way that I will never be able to do myself. I can't really describe what it is, but that's probably why I can't do it. It's rough around the edges, it’s very raw and it’s from the heart and soul.

What I'm drawn to with music is when it's not about perfection, but it's honesty and genuine expression of emotion. To feel someone else's emotion is a magical moment.

“Maybe Not” by Cat Power

I was looking for a record deal and I'd already got myself a publishing deal from EMI Music Publishing as a songwriter. I was using the money to finance gigs. I'd get a couple of musicians to come and play with me, but I'd really started to get turned down by every record label in the UK for some really silly things, like, they'd ask if I could speak in a different accent.

And then, as my last chance, I went out to play at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas.

I found myself playing on the 20th floor of the Ramada Hotel. I’d flown two musicians out, so it's a long way to find yourself playing on the outskirts of a town in this really crappy venue in a lobby on the 20th floor. It's just weird. But before I went onto the stage, I went into a parking lot where they'd set up a stage and I heard this girl called Cat Power play.

One of her songs is this song, “Maybe Not”, and it's so raw and so exposed. I found a real beauty and magic in her songwriting and in her spirit and soul, because so much of music is a pretence. So much of it is bravado.

Cat Power was singing without shame, about her failings and her frailty and her flaws. That's much more courageous, that's much braver. It’s much more impressive - to stand there and remove your shell, like you’re removing your clothes and standing there naked and saying, ‘Judge me.’

I was really inspired by her. I signed the record deal, which actually was that weekend, with a woman called Linda Perry, who was in 4 Non Blondes. She started a new independent record label called Custard Records based in Los Angeles.

When we eventually signed the paperwork, the first thing I did was sit in my car and put on Cat Power. It’s not a great celebratory song, but it has a huge amount of emotion, and I'm inspired by that honesty. I found her just as inspiring as that exciting moment of getting signed.

BEST FIT: Is vulnerability in music something that you gravitate towards?

Definitely, I do that in my songs and I get grief for it sometimes. I say things very openly, very raw and never about my car!

It’s why I have an audience - because people connect to it. Because you know what? That's what people want to hear sometimes in music. We as humans share human emotions, experience the same hopes and fears, worry about the same things, go through the same rollercoaster of emotions and struggle. If I can capture that - about my father being unwell and my fears for that - I’ve had people call up, saying they’re going through the same thing.

That's what music is. That's the magic of music. Things we struggle to communicate within conversation sometimes can be captured more purely in music. I suppose sometimes that honesty is why I sometimes get a bit of criticism too, because it's “not cool.”

It's interesting, isn't it? And yet, car bravado is seen as cool.

That's why I bought a Lada Riva. It's the coolest car. My sister was a member of the Brownies, so I got five Brownie bobble hats and made everyone wear brown bobble hats in the car. Although the car could do 81 miles an hour, I only drove it at 50 miles an hour, just out of principle. It was counterculture before counterculture had been invented.

“Alameda” by Elliott Smith

Having got a record deal with Linda in LA, I started talking about how to best produce the album with my manager and which producers to use. I heard “Alameda” by Elliot Smith, I just really fell in love with the production and the sonic. I called my manager and asked, “Could I work with whoever produced this?”

Tom Rothrock had also worked with Beck, Badly Drawn Boy and The Foo Fighters. For me he has been my guide through the music business and my recording process. He’s a dear friend to me and helped me make my first commercially successful album.

There’s been integrity with all of it, and he's not trying to make it sound like him. That is his genius. It's all about just trying to express integrity and sometimes that's really hard, and you can overthink it.

He asked, ‘What is it you want to do?’ Rather than forcing something, he forced it out of you, giving you a blank canvas to express yourself fully. It's not overly produced, it’s all very organic. I use that drum kit in Tom's studio - lots of the instruments that you can hear on this song, you can hear in my own albums

“La Cienega Just Smiled” by Ryan Adams

So, I had seen my ex-girlfriend on the underground in London with her new boyfriend, who I didn't know existed. For me, it was a huge moment in my life.

She'd been a long-term girlfriend. I went back and I wrote the words in Hyde Park Barracks - I was still a soldier at the time - and I wrote these words for the whole song in about a minute. I then flew to Los Angeles to write with a guy called Sacha Skarbek, who is a friend of mine in the music business who I'd just been introduced to.

He’d stopped, I think at a Starbucks, to get himself a drink. I was left in the car with the radio on. “La Cienega Just Smiled” by Ryan Adams came on, and as it started, I could sing, “My life is brilliant, my love is pure”, over the top of it. I already had the lyrics, but I didn't have the melody. With Ryan Adams's four chords in our pocket, we went home and played those out and I went and finished the song. And subsequently, “You're Beautiful” was born.

BEST FIT: Is this the most important song to you on this list, would you say?

I think you're probably right. If it didn't exist or if I hadn't heard it, then “You’re Beautiful” probably wouldn't exist either. I've just written a book, which is a silly book about life. But I wrote that there were two defining moments. One was seeing the girl on the underground, and the other was hearing Ryan Adams sing “La Cienega Just Smiled”. Those two moments gave me everything.

Looking back, how does that make you feel now?

I feel insanely lucky to have had such a huge song on my first album. “Goodbye My Lover” is arguably a more powerful song on the album. If you can find a James Blunt fan, you can ask them too - there are definitely a couple out there. I would know, I’ve met him. If you can find him, he'll say that, while “You're Beautiful” is the big commercial success, “Goodbye My Lover” is actually the more emotional song. That's not just about seeing a girl on the subway; it's a lifetime of regret and remorse.

Even to this day everybody knows this song. What do you think it was about “You’re Beautiful” that propelled it into such stratospheric territory?

I think it's that everyone can relate to that moment where you walk past someone and you catch their eye, you see their face, and you think, ‘Hang on, are you the one?’ More often than not most of us do exactly as I did in that song where I didn't stop, we didn't communicate, we just walked past each other and wondered what could have been.

Who We Used To Be is out now on Atlantic Records

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