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24 September 2014

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Music Feature

James Blunt
James Blunt

James Blunt interview

James Blunt, whose parents own Cley Mill on the north Norfolk coast, has scooped two Brit Awards for best pop act and best British male. Read our interview with the chart-topper before he released You're Beautiful, which propelled him to stardom.

audio Play: Clip with James' dad the day after the Brits >
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While James Blunt's family is known locally for its work in preserving one of Norfolk's best-loved landmarks, the singer-songwriter is gaining international recognition for his music.

Singer-songwriter James Blunt may have dropped the 'o' from his surname to make it easier for his moniker to trip off his fans' tongues, but say the name Blount in north Norfolk and his family's link with Cley Windmill is sure to pop up in conversation.

The windmill, on the tip of the coast near Blakeney, has been passed down generations of his family since the 1920s and they are well known for their work in restoring the 18th century landmark.

"I haven't seen him this morning but we had a hell of a good party afterwards,"
James Blunt's dad, Charlie, the morning after the Brit Awards

And the family is set for more attention with James' debut album Back To Bedlam notching up the record sales and acclaim from Elton John.

The tousled haired ex-Army captain may have left behind the short back-and-sides haircuts of his days in the forces, but he's still guiding his career with military precision.

The Harrow-educated singer has wedged a lifetime of realised dreams into his 28 years. After graduating from his army-sponsored place at Bristol University, he re-tread his father's and grandfather's footsteps into the force.

He was sent to patrol the streets of Kosovo as a peacekeeper before being promoted to captain.

He was put in charge of leading 30,000 troops into Pristina as the first British officer to enter the Kosovan capital.

Having decided to become a singer while still at school, James found song-writing didn't offer much of a distraction from what was happening around him and it was time to replace guns with guitars.

Within a year of leaving the army, he'd teamed up with former 4 Non Blondes singer Linda Perry who has written and produced songs for Pink, Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera.

She signed him to her US-based label and he recorded his album in Los Angeles while lodging with actress Carrie Fisher.

A support slot on Elton John's 2004 tour followed, while this year he's headlining gigs around Europe and hitting the festival circuit at Glastonbury and Wireless.

The windmill was filmed for a BBC ONE trail
The mill was filmed for a BBC ONE trail

With new single You're Beautiful now out, it's a hectic time for James who is only making it back to his London flat for two days a month.

During one of his fleeting home visits, he squeezed in a chat with Zoe Applegate about his Norfolk roots, working with Beck producer Tom Rothrock and recording a song in Carrie Fisher's bathroom.

Were you brought up in Norfolk?

A little bit. My grandparents live in Cley and my dad now has the windmill which is a guest house. So I've spent much time up there, but a lot of it was at school as well and my dad was sent abroad so often as well with the army. So it's always been his home and he was completely brought up there. He spent years of his life there.

Do your family still live in the windmill?

No, they don't. It's now a guest house, but my cousins and uncles are all around that area. But my dad's now living down in Hampshire.

Do you go back to Cley and stay in the windmill?


Do you have any memories of your grandfather who was Norfolk's deputy lieutenant?

Yes, very much. I was relatively young when he died so my memories are limited to seeing and recognising this old man as your grandfather. I don't know much about his character and things like that. I've obviously read a few things now but he seemed like a nice man.

The mill has been passed down generations of your family. How important is it to you?

For us it's really special. It's a really beautiful old building and Norfolk as a place is a stunning county and obviously has loads of windmills and for us to have one that is in such good nick - my dad's been really keen on it and has looked after it. Locals have been really supportive about helping to contribute to renovations. It's part of history and it's really great to be part of it.

Has the landscape around Cley helped to inspire your work?

I don't think about Norfolk as I write songs, sadly no! But things like High is a song about watching the dawn come up over the sea and I've had many of those situations.

The only CD player in your family was in the car, so where did your interest in music spring from?

My mum was very good at making me take up musical instruments, so although there was no popular music she made me learn the recorder when I was three, the violin when I was five and the piano when I was seven. I took up the guitar myself when I was 14.

Musical instruments I've been really good at taking up and carrying on - it's just that popular music has been slightly missing.

Apparently your musical interests were suppressed at school. What was that like for you growing up?

No, school was pretty good about it. The guys at school obviously had much bigger record collections than I had, so then I was shown different types of music: Led Zeppelin, The Pixies, Pink Floyd, a bit of Hendrix and a bit of The Doors as well as the obvious things that people as teenagers listen to.

School was pretty good about letting me take up music and that's where I had my first musical ideas and first said, 'Yeah, I'm going to be a musician.' I just had to do a quick stop gap in the army first.

You come from a military family so was it expected of you to join the forces instead of pursuing music after leaving university?

Like any parents, mine wanted me to have a secure job with a regular wage and career prospects. And the one job my father knew of, that he'd had experience of himself, was the army, so he could help me in that direction.

Then the army helped with my university tuition fees so I owed them four years. It was inevitable, but I knew I was going to do music and it was just a stop gap.

James Blunt.
James is playing at Glasto this summer

I didn't always think, 'Oh, I'm going to be in the army.' I always thought, 'I'm going to be a musician.' The army was just a delaying thing.

My time was done and I would have had to make a decision to stay on. Obviously, the army wants you to stay on, but to me, to give up my dream of doing music would have been the hardest decision of my life. You don't want to reach 60 and say, 'Well, I was going to be musician.'

So for me I'd done four years and said, 'Well, I've got to do music now because it's what I've been dreaming of, talking about and planning.' I had no hesitation about it.

No Bravery was written when you were stationed in Kosovo. How much did song-writing help you when you were out there?

Not much! I don't think song-writing helps there. More your practical use of a weapon.

But I guess it's always nice to be able to capture your life's experiences in a song and hold the emotion in that way. For me this album is a diary.

Your career sounds as though it's happened in a whirlwind - how easily do you think things have worked out for you?

Well, I'm 28 now and I've been planning this since I was 14 so it's actually taken a really long time.

There have been many steps along the way which have just been the tiniest of steps - be it playing in London with only five people there or playing with a hundred people there but only one person has aided the journey - meeting one musician there or a producer there.

It's taken a long time but eventually when I had the songs in place and demos right and I found myself a manager, that's when everything started happening quickly but I think that's always the way it is. Things take a long time, but when it's right things move fast.

Your album is produced by Tom Rothrock who's worked with Beck. What was it like working with him?

He's great - a really softly spoken, non-egotistical kind of man who really knows how to get the best out of musicians. It was a really wonderful experience in Los Angeles underneath the Hollywood sign.

Which song from the album are you most proud of?

I like Goodbye My Lover because it's a really personal song and I recorded it in my landlady's bathroom in Los Angeles.

She had a piano in there and for me listening back to it it actually sounds like the voice I hear in my head. It's so close to what I can imagine.

So that's why Carrie Fisher's bathroom gets a credit on your album. How did you end up staying with her?

Through my ex-girlfriend. She knew her and I met Carrie in London and  she said, 'Come on, if you're doing an album you might as well come and live in a weird house!'

Your family were nervous when you left the army, so what do they think of your album?

They've been really supportive. They're my number one fans and in fact my mother's my first stalker.

First published on 18 May 2005.

last updated: 17/02/06
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