Q&A with James Blunt

Mountain Xpress: Where are you right now?
James Blunt: I’m on tour at the moment so we have a concert later this evening. I’m down in the South of England, a place called Bournemouth.

Why is this tour (in support of All the Lost Souls) bringing you to smaller towns and venues?
It’s my second album and my songs are all about people growing with them and living with them. The albums is supposed to have a life rather than just a marketing plan. It’s something I find much more personal than something that can be chucked out one year and so I much prefer to do small shows and trying to see the whites of people’s eyes and connect with people, because that’s just what my music has always been about. People discovering it and telling each other rather than just dependent on things like advertising. That’s why it’s nice to do smaller towns and places that have a more personal feel.

Is it intimidating to be right in front of the crowd?
Not at all. It’s only music and hopefully no one’s going to die. I’m pretty chill with the whole thing and usually people come there to have a good time.

Your new album has a vintage 1970s feel. Why?
It just really culminated in what they were doing round about that time which was the golden era of the singer/songwriter. People didn’t go into a studio and lay down some beats from some machine and try and compete with the machine for something that they could record. It was about people writing songs. It was about sitting there with a guitar or a piano and making a song that was strong enough to be performed without that drum loop but instead as a human being, or with an instrument and performing a song. That’s what I would try to do: Write songs that I can perform on my own, solo, with just one instrument. I think that’s what it’s been all about.

And then also, the recording process that was really excelling at that time is what we’ve tried to do with this album. Again, not relying on the machinery too much for recording — otherwise you kind of lose the human emotion through that recording process. But instead, just relying on the musicians. So, we recorded it as best we could as a live album all facing each other in a room. We’re just trying to capture a moment, a performance from the band. What’s more interesting: to listen to a machine or the emotion you can hear from a real human, whatever instrument, whether they be playing drums or keyboards or bass or guitar? You know, to really get that human feel to it. So that’s why I think it probably really correlates to the sounds of the ‘70s.

From where do you draw inspiration?
My songs are about real life. They’re about the real experience I’ve lived through and have experienced myself. It would be a shame to lose that emotion through different processes.

Have you ever been approached to do a cover song?
No! I write songs because I have to, really, to document my own life and understanding of what’s going on and to process all those experiences. No point in writing in your diary someone else’s words.

In a recent interview with Gordon Lightfoot, he told me that nostalgia and optimism keep music relevent. Do you agree?
Yeah, I kind of like that as a quote [laughs]. I might nick that. For me, I have a great sense of nostalgia. I really enjoy the sense of what came before. You know, the past is what shapes our present. I have a real strong sense of that and also that sense of sadness of the past. You can never relive it. I think I hang onto that a little bit. Say, the best time in my life may have been university. You know, amazing times, celabratory moments but you can never go back to them. The song “1973” is a great example of a celebration of a moment but it’s tinged with the sadness that you’ve got to move on. You can’t relive the past.

I think the definition of nostalgia is unhappiness remembering happiness.
Almost exactly that. For me, I’ve always said that my songs are misery with a dash of hope. You know, through the sharing of your most dark moments with other people, that common connection that lends itself to having a common sense of hope.

You manage to capture a palpable human longing in your songs. Is that the intention?
It’s definitely what I’m pulling from, yes. I guess I just sit down and really absorb myself in a moment and try to express the emotion. Emotion is so hard to describe in words and language can be so limiting. You really use the emotion that one gets from music in the first place and then mix it up with clear words that capture that and you’ve just got a better way of communicating, a better way of capturing what it is that you feel inside.

Do you think you’re get better at song writing?
I think I have my way around it. Also, there’s a great benefit to being very naive to music because that’s sometimes when you can be your most honest. I pick up things as I go and ‘I’m definitely glad for the experience that I have now.’ You can tell that All the Lost Souls is a more musically accomplished album than Back to Bedlam, but at the same time, Back to Bedlam had a charm because of its innocence.

You wrote All the Lost Souls while in Ibiza. How important is a sense of place in your music?
I guess, like doing anything, you need a bit of quiet in the room so you can focus on what you’re hearing in your head. I guess I needed a room that was quiet, but not only just the room, but also in my everyday life. It’s easy to get tied up in the music business or the media world doing what I do, so it was great to go to a place where the local people didn’t really care [about] what’s going on in Hollywood. They’re more down to earth. A Spanish island in the middle of winter is good for that.

Do you think that your physical surroundings affect your writing?
I had an amazing view where I was writing. the piano and the guitar looking out over the rural Spanish countryside and the sea and an island beyond that. I think it helps open your mind up and be more imaginative. Being locked in four walls might have made it harder.

Why do some people make it in the music business and others don’t?
There are lots of things that have to fall into place. Also, it depends on how you define success in the first place. There are many musicians who I’d define as successful, but they haven’t necessarily been high up on the charts or sold millions of records. But then as musicians, that’s not actually what music is all about. Music is about connection and expression of emotion. Someone like Cat Power I think is a phenomenally successful musician because her albums are beautiful. Sure, I’ve been commercially successful, which is a very different thing. To have that, you need a bit of luck a long the way and for other things to fall in place at the right time.

But I suspect you’ve worked hard for your success.
For me, I’ve worked hard to get some really strong songs. I worked hard to find myself the right manager. I think it’s key to being in a good position in the music industry because I do music but he does business. I worked hard to get a good record deal. It’s funny — it’s the right manager and the right record company and the right producer. My producer has no ego and doesn’t want to make an album that sounds like Tom Rothrock. He wanted to make an album that sounded like me this time, and next time he works with another artist he’ll want it to sound like that artist. It was just hard work at finding the right pieces of the puzzle.

VH1’s “You Oughta Know Tour” featuring James Blunt comes to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Monday, Mar. 3. 8 p.m. Tickets run $27.50 and $35. Info: 251-5505.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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