A beautiful snob story
James Blunt is the military man turned pop star who is derided for being too posh. Yet he’s happy to send himself up – and his mum agrees
Hating James Blunt is a British tradition. Like hating the French, Jeremy Kyle, Simon Cowell or the avocado bathroom suite — we hate him with the kind of enthusiasm we reserve for things we love to hate. He’s the pantomime villain of pop. There are Facebook groups dedicated to hating him; we voted him Britain’s fourth most irritating thing — more annoying than traffic wardens or stepping in dog poo (but less than cold callers). We’ve turned him into such a national barometer of taste that other musicians clamour to deride him. Paul Weller said: “I’d rather eat my own shit than duet with James Blunt.” And Paolo Nutini agreed: “Hearing yourself described as the next James Blunt — that hurts.” Finally, we handed him the ultimate accolade: we turned his name into its own rhyming slang. And now here he is, in motorbike leathers and a billow of smoke, looking like a bit of a James Blunt. In the studio, I’m laughing about how cheesy he looks when a voice cackles behind me: “I’ve made a career out of cheese!” I turn around to see James Blunt laughing — at himself. This is the last thing I ever expected.
Blunt never used to find himself funny. If someone teased him for being the most hated man in pop, he’d whip out sales figures: “14m albums sold, 3m in Britain alone,” he hair-dryered one journalist, referring to his first album, Back to Bedlam. But over the years he’s mellowed: he recently joked he was going to Afghanistan to “sing the Taliban into surrender”.
On the panel of Have I Got News for You, he said that when he met the French president, Sarkozy complimented his music and he shot back: “I really like your wife. Let’s swap!” He also tells an anecdote about meeting Cher. She said to him: “I want to tell you how much I really like your work and I’m really excited to meet you.” He said thanks so much. “Then five minutes later she walked up to me and said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you were someone else!’” Now he’s laughing. “I’ve learnt over the last few years not to take it all that seriously — it’s entertaining.”
At 5ft 7in, Blunt is smaller than I thought he’d be. He looks so generic-cute-indie-boy that once at a gig when he stage-dived into his audience the security grabbed him and wouldn’t let him back on stage, leaving him screaming “I’m the f***ing singer”. You can’t say anything about his looks he hasn’t already quipped. He told the TV host Ellen he was “very effeminate” and joked on Never Mind the Buzzcocks that he looks “bigger naked”. It’s the same self-deprecating British humour he applies to his music. “I enjoy it,” he smirks. “I was at f***ing boarding school. I was in the army. We ribbed each other throughout. My friends — we only take the piss out of each other. If I didn’t get it, I would think they didn’t love me. Write whatever you like and I’m not going to bat an eyelid.”
Nobody needs their mother interfering, not at 36! He’s not a mummy’s boy — he’s very independent. All of the criticism has been hellish
Of course, these days he can afford some good humour: reportedly, last year he paid himself £2.5m in profit. Our love-hate relationship with Blunt is complex — it’s really a severe case of Celine Dion syndrome: in public, the line is You Definitely Hate Him; in private, millions of us buy the stuff. Back to Bedlam shifted 11m copies and was No 1 here and in 18 countries — it became the fastest-selling album in Britain in one year (earning a place in the Guinness Book of Records) and the biggest-selling album in Britain in the last decade. The follow-up, All Lost Souls (2007), sold 4.5m, in a global record-sales slump. As John Niven, a former A&R man and the author of Kill Your Friends, points out, that is “brilliant in a time when execs would sell their children to dubious Belgians to break the million mark. Yes, you could argue his music’s a bit vanilla, but vanilla’s a very popular flavour.
So, in terms of continuing to sell, I imagine he’ll prove to have Viagra-like staying power”.
Or, as the music impresario Jonathan Shalit (who discovered Charlotte Church), says, “He’s obviously not cool, but is hugely talented. It’s his melodic and reflective qualities that endear him to so many.” The winner of two Ivor Novello awards (Best International Song, Most Performed Song) and nominated for five Grammys, he’s the unwanted gift that keeps on giving.
Blunt was a captain in the Household Cavalry — he jokes it was an easy leap to becoming a pop star, but he’s really too modest. He grafted, playing clubs and recording relentlessly, until Elton John’s management gifted him a slot opening Rocket Man’s tour. “I was very lucky. I wouldn’t be here without him. To tour with him was the most incredible experience.” They’re still mates. Although he hasn’t seen Elton and David’s baby yet, he did play their wedding: “You’re Beautiful, of course!”
Later, it was Linda Perry who took Blunt viral. Signing him to her Custard label (an Atlantic Records imprint), she used You’re Beautiful as the hook to build his fanbase, snowballing audience interest until the hit turned into the Most Irritating Song of All Time.
But, Blunt says: “If it weren’t for the success in England, and the backlash that followed, I wouldn’t have got the success worldwide that I now get.”
We say we don’t like James Blunt because of his whiny music, but actually the main crimes he stands accused of are that he’s posh and sleeps with supermodels. He hasn’t got a sob story so much as a snob story. He went to Harrow — currently £9,850 a term — studied at Bristol, trained at Sandhurst. His family has a signet ring, a crest, a Latin motto: “Lux tua vis mea” (Your light is my strength). His full real name is the extraordinarily posh James Hillier Blount. He speaks very posh, all glottal stops and RP, and with the kind of schooling that means when I get something wrong he pounces quickly to correct my mistake (I ask if there was a hairdresser’s at Harrow and he twitches, “a barber’s”).
The problem is, in England we don’t like our pop stars posh. As Pete Waterman pointed out on the Today programme, mourning the death of the working-class guitar hero (Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jones of the Clash) at the hands of the likes of Lily Allen (Bedales), Florence Welch (Alleyn’s) and Matt Cardle (Stoke College). Not to mention James Blunt. Mrs Blunt saw red. She emailed stiffly: “[Waterman’s] attitude is reflected by most of the critics in the country. My son James Blunt, who is hugely appreciated worldwide, receives harsh criticism here and we have, rather sadly, been aware that it is because of his background.”
Blunt would rather forget the incident — he certainly won’t talk about it. Mrs Blunt, for her part, is horribly embarrassed. “I’ve said too much! I’ll get into trouble!” she wails, poking her head out of her smart Hampshire cottage, looking quintessentially posh (jovially plump, shirt, house slippers, blow-dry). “I had no idea this would happen. I feel terrible about it. Nobody needs their mother interfering, especially not at 36! He’s not a mummy’s boy — the opposite — he’s always been very independent. Some of the criticism has been hellish. Here’s someone who has done quite well, been in the army and suddenly — the things people say! If only they knew James they’d see he’s such a sweet, charming boy. He’s enormously funny. You see that sometimes — like on Have I Got News for You. He was brilliant! That’s what he’s really like.”
“I’m always asked about being posh,” shrugs James, claiming (ludicrously): “I hadn’t noticed I was any posher than you. Nobody mentions it to me, except in interviews. But if you’re insistent that I’m posh, then that’s cool with me.” It’s cool with him because he doesn’t think posh is a dirty word. Instead — like everything — he turns it into a joke, teasing that he’s going to rival the Mobo (Music of Black Origin) awards by creating the Mopos — Music of Posh Origin, giggling: “I’m hoping to beat Coldplay and Keane.”
His friends point out that he’s not at all stuck-up. “Posh?” wonders his Verbier ski companion Victoria Aitken (daughter of Jonathan and sister of Alexandra, recently in the news for marrying a Sikh). “Perhaps. But a snob? No. He’s down to earth and gets along with everyone. He’s hugely loyal and he hasn’t changed now he’s famous.”