Many a musical artist has fallen victim to the curse of the sophomore slump, but James Blunt seems confident that he's avoided it handily with his new album, All the Lost Souls. We spoke with Blunt recently about the differences between this record and the last, whether he ever worried about his chances of success in the States, and how he feels about those who would call him too sensitive a songwriter.
James Blunt: Hi, there! This is James.
Bullz-Eye: Hello! How's it going?
BE: It's a pleasure to talk to you. I'm with the website Bullz-Eye.com. I'm a fan of your debut album, and I've just gotten your new record and, so far, I'm enjoying that one, too!
JB: Oh, thank you! It definitely takes a couple of listens to get all the different aspects, I think.
BE: Well, from what I can tell, it's very good. It sounds like a solid follow-up.
JB: Yeah, y'know, I really enjoy it, and, for me, that's the most important thing.
JB: Yes. And, for me, it's a development and growth from the first.
BE: And with that having been said, how sick are you of having people worry whether or not it was going to be a sophomore slump?
JB: Yeah, y'know, we talk about that. I think...I think nowadays the media has to talk about something, don't they? They need some kind of story, something to write about. In fact, I think they're probably wrong. I think the second album's probably easier than the first, because at least you've got a bit more experience at writing songs and the experience in the studio. In particular with me, at least, I've been around the world for the last three and a half years, on tour, and the experience has had phenomenal intensity to it, because there's always been a microphone recording what I'm saying or a camera taking pictures of it. Even in the most private of moments, someone's going to find out about it. So all of that intensity is great inspiration for songwriting. So, yeah, in many ways, it's easier. I think the harder thing is, then, for people to listen to it with an untainted ear, because they're obviously influenced by how they felt about the first album or how they feel about the artist.
BE: So I guess for you, then, the cliché about how you've got a lifetime to write your first album and six months to write your second album wasn't as intimidating.
JB: Well, the amount of time may be true, but in those six months, you get so much more experience and probably more musical ideas, having toured for so long and doing music every single day, that with all that intensity and a whole lot of things to write about, it's like a rollercoaster!
BE: How intentional was it that "1973" sounds like something that could've come off an Al Stewart album?
JB: Hey, thanks! That's very nice to hear. Having not listened to Al Stewart much, it's not intentional, but I really just...I write in a very simple way: I don't record as I write, I just write with a piano or guitar, and I suppose people did more than in the '70s as well. Now, we're so dependent on the whole 'let's put a few beats down and sing over top of that.' So there's a comparison, I suppose, to the way I write and the way that songwriters of the '70s wrote. And, also, I guess we recorded in the same way that they did as well. We got together in the studio, my band and myself, and we face each other and play these out live. And we recorded it with old, vintage equipment. And the result is...it's got a bit of human spirit.
BE: It does. And, by the way, if you do get to listen to a bit more Al Stewart, he's quite good! (laughs)
JB: (laughs) Yes, well, I do know Al and his music; I just don't think I've set out to try and sound like him.
BE: It looks like Jimmy Hogarth is the only one of your co-writers from the debut to return, but I'd guess it's probably not coincidence that two of your new co-writers -- Eg White and James McEwan -- also worked with him on James Morrison's debut album, Undiscovered.
JB: Right, I think that's probably my publisher's fault. (laughs) I just wanted to write with an array of people, and kind of a broad ranging array as well, people who wouldn't all necessarily be obvious. And I think Eg White is one of those people, isn't he? And I hadn't heard of him before, but with that kind of name, you'd got to meet him! And at the same time, someone like Mark Batson is completely off the other end of the scale.
BE: True. And Max Martin certainly has a resume full of hits, but he's not necessarily associated with singer-songwriters.
JB: Exactly! And, again, my publisher suggested him, and I thought, "Why not?" At the core of it, Max Martin understands melody. He can be involved in a certain genre of music and totally tied up with that, but at the same time, he's gotta have a basic understanding of music to do that, and he's still a phenomenal writer as such. To get in a room with him...we came from the opposite ends of the spectrum, but, at the same time, we did find that place to write. It was a really uncomfortable writing session for both of us, I think, but sometimes it's good to be out of your own comfort zone, and the result was something I'm very happy with.
BE: Yeah, and, actually -- and I mean this in a good way -- it sounded like I thought it would sound, building in bombast as it progressed.
BE: I see Tom Rockroth returned to produce, but Linda Perry seems to have gone hands-off this time. Was it due to a busy schedule, or did she just decide to let her little bird fly on his own? (laughs) (Writer's note: Perry signed Blunt to her label, Custard Records, which worked out nicely for both parties.)
JB: Oh, well, actually, what happened last time was that she was my record label boss, and she's still my record label boss, but what she did last time was that she heard the songs prior to my recording them, then she came into the studio and gave her words of advice. Not quite exactly a producer, because Tom doesn't need that, but at the same time, she was of great support to me, and she was a great guide through everything that was going on. For this, she did exactly the same. She was there through the writing process, and I went and took her songs and went, "This is what I'm going to record." And she went and gave her support, her opinion, and her advice. So, no, she had the same influence on this album. On back to Bedlam, she did actually produce one song ("No Bravery"), but it was only one song, and it was during one afternoon. But I still feel that her name is just as associated with this album.
BE: Well, I saw that she did get a "special thanks" credit, at least.
JB: Yes, absolutely.
BE: I really like the MVI version of the album. (Writer's note: if you haven't been introduced to it yet, the major labels are starting to utilize Music Video Interactive with some of their high-profile releases, adding a second disc that provides lyrics, videos and other extras.)
JB: Oh, thanks. I've seen bits of it, but not the whole finished package, actually.
BE: Did they approach you about utilizing it for your album, or had you been familiar with the technology and pitched the idea?
JB: They approached me about it. For me, I guess, I like the notion of the 10 songs as the body of work and the emotional journey, and that's the album that I focused on. I don't...other people might want to delve into it and find out more about the whole process and about the songs, sometimes about the artist as well. So MVI seems to counter that.
BE: There's also a preview of your "Return to Kosovo" DVD on there.
BE: How did that project come about? Obviously, you've got a history with Kosovo, since you were stationed there while in the British Army, but...
JB: Really, for me, it was a personal journey that I wanted to get involved. I had been there for six months and invested time, energy, and life out there, so when it was suggested that I go out there and play to some soldiers, I said absolutely, of course I would. I was asked to by the British army in the first place, but we had the opportunity to play not only for the British soldiers but, of course, there were some Serbs and some Kosovar-Albians. And we took some cameras along, because I'd filmed some of my stuff while I was there originally, so it made great sense to carry on filming while we were there. I was blown away by the experience; I think I didn't know what to expect, and it surprised me.
BE: On the first album, you did a co-write with Ricky Ross from Deacon Blue, a band who never really managed to translate to American audiences. How shocked were you when your debut took off in the States? I mean, was there ever a point where you'd been thinking, "Oh, this is never gonna translate over there"
JB: No, I think...it was working in places like Italy and France and Germany, and those guys aren't speaking English, so there was no reason why it couldn't translate over here. Y'know, I write songs about the human condition, about the human mind, about our consciousness, and the songs don't...they don't differentiate between male or female, or race, or religion. It's more about being human, so any human should be able to relate to it.
BE: Were you amused by all the press around "Weird Al" Yankovic's song, "You're Pitiful" (a parody of "You're Beautiful")?
JB: Yeah, well, y'know, I really enjoyed some of the parodies, but it's not my favorite, actually.Yeah, well, y'know, I really enjoyed some of the parodies, but it's not my favorite, actually.
BE: Oh, really?
JB: Yeah. I think there've been some really cracking ones along the way. There was "My Cubicle," about a lonely office worker, and then there's another very clever one by a guy called Tom Gleason, and he's the boyfriend of the girl on the underground who has to deal with the weird stalker, James Blunt. (laughs)
BE: Did you anticipate all the press that Al's parody received when he wasn't able to release it officially?
JB: Um, well, y'know, the press will do their thing.
BE: How are you feeling about the reception of the new album? The critics, obviously, you can take or leave, but how are the fans receiving it?
JB: You know, so far, they seem to be really enjoying it. As I say, it's one of those albums, I think, where you need to listen to it a few times, because there are some songs that aren't instant. And what I enjoy about it is that there are some songs that develop and become fun favorite songs after a few listens. Something like "I'll Take Everything," normally, on first listen, people hear it and it's not the favorite...but on the sixth listen, they seem to find that it's their favorite. So, yeah, at the moment, the response seems to be that people are generally really enjoying it and recognizing it as a deeper and richer musical experience than the first.
BE: So I've heard that your name got entered into the dictionary of Cockney rhyming slang... (Writer's note: yes, if you speak Cockney, it's now been deemed acceptable to use "James Blunt" in place of the least socially acceptable term for a part of a woman's anatomy.)
JB: Yeah, just another huge honor along the way. John F. Kennedy just got an airport.
BE: (laughs) Actually, they have that JFK quote attributed to you on your Wikipedia page, but it says "Blunt is said to have responded." So it's now confirmed that you have indeed definitely responded that way.
JB: I have. (laughs)
BE: Are there any co-writers that you haven't worked with yet that you'd like to collaborate with?
JB: You know, I haven't thought about it. I guess. The mind starts thinking about new songs immediately as I'm playing out live, but I don't know. What I definitely enjoy about this album is the fact that, musically, it has developed, and I feel kind of free with where I go next. And, again, with the other writers that I worked with this time, they've all been quite diverse. So who knows? Anyone who'll give it a shot. I normally try and write the bulk of it myself and, then, towards the end, try and get other musical influences.
BE: Do you find it weird that "You're Beautiful" has become a wedding favorite, even though it's not really...well, it's a love song, but it's more of a lost love song, really.
JB: Yeah. It's still a great celebration of a moment, if a moment of lost love. But it's still a great celebration of that time. And, y'know, I think also that when you put a song out, whoever goes out and buys it or listens to it, it's then their song, and how they interpret it is entirely up to them. It's kind of like when you write a book, I suppose. The words are the words, but whoever's reading it, their imagination takes those words and processes them into the images that they see. You can't control those things; you have to let other people run with it. I'm really happy they relate to it in any way they possibly can. That's the pleasure of it, really.
BE: OK, and here's my closer for you. Like I say, I'm fan of both Back to Bedlam and the new album, but a lot of the other Bullz-Eye writers...well, they kind of tuned out after "You're Beautiful" because they felt like you were, uh, maybe too sensitive a singer-songwriter. Does that ever get on your nerves?
JB: Well, I just think it's where I was pigeonholed, from Back to Bedlam. There are a small handful of those songs, but it's actually an album of great ups and downs to me. It reflects life as a whole. "High" is a celebration. "Wisemen" is more amusement; it's a fun song. "Billy" is a great, fun song. "Out of My Mind," "So Long Jimmy," all of these things, for me, don't show sensitivity. All of them may have emotion to them, but sensitive? I think that would be pigeonholing.
BE: Is there one specific song from your discography that you would pick out and tell those people, "OK, don't worry about 'You're Beautiful,' just focus on this, because this is more me?"
BE: Well, I mean, I know they're all you...
JB: Yeah, but it's not one song, actually. It's the albums as a whole. And I think most people recognize that. Again, often it's the media who feel the need to pigeonhole, because most people who come up to me are, like, "I bought your album because of 'You're Beautiful,' but it's not my favorite song." They come over and say that there are other songs that have greater meaning to them. And I think that most people realize that it's not about a single; it's about an album. And if one has to talk about sales figures, I think you can clearly see that. And at the same time, I hope that will be recognized with All the Lost Souls as well. They're two albums that I'm proud of for what they are.
BE: Well, it's been a pleasure talking with you, James. I don't know if you check your MySpace page yourself, but I'll send the link to your page when the piece is live.
JB: I do check it on occasion, and I'd love to see it, thanks!