Interview: James Blunt
He spent much of his childhood in Cley-Next-the-Sea, with the village's landmark windmill as his own personal playground. Fifteen million album sales and a cabinet full of awards later, STACIA BRIGGS speaks to James Blunt, an officer (well, a captain) and a gentleman.
There are few interviewees that I would abandon my family for, but James Blunt is amongst their number.
Since discovering Blunt's Norfolk roots, shortly after his mega-hit You're Beautiful saturated the airwaves for a summer back in 2005, I've made occasional attempts to pin him down for an interview, all of which have been entirely unsuccessful.
When the call comes to let me know that I've got an audience with Mr Blunt in an hour or two, it comes when I'm on a day off, with my children, a long way from home or from my office.
To be honest, I can't really do the interview. Then again, it's James Blunt: I ditch the family and take over a quiet room in a busy office to take the call. I can apologise to the children and my mum later – and, as I see the rain start to fall outside, I'd better start formulating something particularly placatory.
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I just hope that James is as charming as he appears to be in the interviews I've seen him giving on television or I'm not only going to be the subject of other people's annoyance, I'm going to be annoyed, too.
The call comes, with military precision, at the time I've been given.
- 1 Elton John to kick off UK leg of farewell tour at Carrow Road
- 2 'Second time this year' - Armed police called to Norwich street
- 3 'An insult to the city': Couple ditch 'hellhole' hotel after 45 minutes
- 4 Ex-head charged with sex attacks on boys at Norfolk school
- 5 'Someone will get hurt' - Frustration over pothole near Norwich surgery
- 6 New bus and cycle lane opens after traffic disruption into city
- 7 Jailed in Norfolk last week: Drug dealer, £1.3m fraudster and paedophile
- 8 What next for The Birdcage in Norwich?
- 9 Road cleared after overturned lorry on A47/A11 Thickthorn roundabout
- 10 Music shop for rent after couple bow out after 34 years
'Thank you for taking the trouble to talk to me,' says James, immediately and without the irony you might expect from someone who has songs dedicated to him by Elton John, dates the most glamorous women on the planet and was responsible for the biggest-selling album of the noughties.
'I appreciate it. It's nice to speak to someone from Norfolk.'
James' family hail from Norfolk, Cley, to be precise, where for many years they were the owners of the village's distinctive windmill, which commands breathtaking views over the salt marshes to Blakeney Point and the sea.
The family bought the mill in 1920 for �350 and it was converted into a holiday home. Lt Col Hubert Blount, James' grandfather, inherited the mill in 1934 and, over decades, it was carefully restored with grants from Norfolk County Council, the Pilgrim Trust and English Heritage.
Lt Col Blount died in 1979, when James was five years old and the mill passed to Charles and Jane Blount, his parents.
Here in Norfolk, I tell James, we're keen to claim him as one of our own, possibly on the basis that we're some-what 'celebrity-lite' when it comes to famous sons and daughters (apologies to Stephen Fry, Myleene Klass, Bernard Matthews and Nelson).
'If that's the case, then I'm yours,' he says. 'I am one of yours, really. I spent a lot of time when I was growing up in Norfolk and it's definitely somewhere that I feel drawn to when I come back to Britain.
'My grandmother and grandfather lived and died in Norfolk – their gravestones are there and it links me with Nor-folk forever. My parents lived there and I still have relatives in your part of the world.
'I have missed coming to Norfolk, but I do try and visit when I can, which isn't particularly often now that I'm committed to a 13-month tour.'
Then he adds, 'and anyway — you've got The Darkness too, haven't you? I hear they're reforming. That's an exclusive for you – Justin is a friend.'
I point out that The Darkness are from Lowestoft, over the border in Suffolk.
'Ah yes. Forgive me. Not Norfolk, then. Near Norfolk.'
Growing up with a windmill as a playground, James remembers his time in Norfolk with great fondness.
'The windmill is absolutely amazing: really something. When I think of Norfolk, it's the windmill at Cley that comes to mind first, that and the incredible flatness of the place and the beautiful countryside,' he says.
'When I was in Norfolk, I spent all my time by the sea and in the countryside. I didn't really go to the towns or the city, I was in Cley, which is the most wonderful place.
'It's a special place to spend time in. I have climbed through every little room in that windmill. I used to climb to the top and stand on the little balcony where the sails were. I don't think it could have been any more exciting for a child.'
James, however, is yet to add a windmill to his portfolio of properties which include a home in Ibiza and a chalet in the Swiss town of Verbier.
'I eat bread, but I don't particularly want to make it,' he laughs.
In the past, James has said that although he loves Norfolk and remembers it with great fondness, it hasn't inspired him to write any songs.
Tongue in cheek, I tell him this is something he should look to remedy in order to appeal to his fanbase in our county.
'You're right,' he says, 'then again, my new album is all about trying to recapture the optimism of my teenage years – the 'some kind of trouble' I wanted to be getting into.
'So I suppose, by default, the album is all about Norfolk. You can definitely claim it is. If you take some of the letters out of some of the song names, I bet they spell 'Norfolk'.'
James' father, like his grandfather, was a military man who held little regard for the 'noise' that was music ('the most musical thing I ever did was ring the church bells in Wiveton church,' he has said in the past) but his mother introduced young James to the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd.
His first instrument was the recorder, at seven, he was playing the piano and the violin and by 14, when he was a pupil at Harrow, he had taken up the guitar – primarily in an attempt to pick up girls.
'I haven't used the recorder on an album, no,' he says, 'although there is a recorder-like instrument with a keyboard attached which we use on stage. It's a bit more impressive than a recorder, but then again, that wouldn't be hard.
'I'm not ruling out using a recorder in the future, I should add. Actually, I probably am.'
James will be returning to the region in July, when he plays at this year's Newmarket Nights, performing after an evening of racing as part of the track's 25th anniversary line-up.
Having spent much of his army career with them as a member of the Household Cavalry and later when he ran the army's riding school, James adores horses.
More to the point, his uncle used to run the racecourse at Newmarket, so his forthcoming gig there on July 15 will be somewhat of a homecoming.
'I don't get to ride anymore – these days, when I ride, it's in a big tour bus with a band, but it'll be lovely to be in that environment again,' he says.
When I ask if he's a betting man, and if he might be tempted to put some money on the horses that will race at Newmarket before he performs, he says he's not a big gambler. Did he bet on the Grand National? I ask.
'I didn't even know the Grand National had been on,' he says.
'This week, I've been in Switzerland, Malta and now the UK. I hardly know what day it is! I love performing and playing in front of an audience, but it means that your world is a tour bus: you're not really aware of what's hap-pening outside that world.'
As he speaks to me, James is in the airport waiting to take a flight to America. There's not even the slightest hint that the gruelling 13-month tour he's just started is taking its toll or will be anything less than an enduring pleas-ure.
In fact, I get the feeling that he relishes the routine of touring. It must be similar to his time in the army – travelling long distances with friends, following tight schedules, being told where he's going and what he's doing.
'I've become somewhat adept at packing,' he says, making a nod to the fact that it's often been noted that he never changes his clothes to go on stage and packs less for a year-long tour than his band members do for a two-night break.
'Twelve men in a tour bus is hardly a glamorous lifestyle, but I do enjoy it, in a strange kind of way. I suppose I'm used to it.'
Having flown back to Britain just to appear on Lorraine Kelly's show and fitted in two or three interviews in the airport lounge, it's time for James to get ready to board his flight to America.
'I hope you'll come to the concert?' he asks. 'Come to the concert. And say hello to Norfolk for me.'
My family forgive me somewhere along the A47 – when I tell them that a very charming James Blunt sent his regards to them. In a roundabout way…
l James Blunt will appear at Newmarket Nights on July 15. Tickets cost from �21, �12 children (limited children's tickets are available, and once the allocation has been reached, children will be charged at the full adult rate), 0844 5793010, www.newmarketracecourses.co.uk
l Some Kind Of Trouble is out now.
JAMES BLUNT: FACT FILE
l James Hillier Blount was born in an army hospital in Wiltshire to a family with a military history dating back to the 10th century.
l He changed his name to 'Blunt' to make it easier to spell when he began in the music industry. 'Blount' is pronounced the same way and remains his legal surname.
l He began playing guitar and writing songs when he was 14 and earned his pilot's license at 16.
l He was an officer in the Life Guards, a Cavalry regiment of the British Army, and served under NATO in Kosovo during the conflict there in 1999.
l He stood guard at the coffin of the Queen Mother when she lay in state and was part of the funeral procession in 2002.
l He left the army in October 2002, having served six years, to concentrate on his music career.
l His breakthrough hit You're Beautiful topped the album charts in 16 countries worldwide, sold 11 million copies and earned James two Brit Awards, two Ivor Novello awards and was nominated for five Grammy Awards.
l He has since released two further albums, All The Lost Souls in 2007 and Some Kind of Trouble in 2010.