This is The Last Word. It’s our final section of the magazine where we take a bonafide music legend and ask them about life, navigating the tricky waters of the music biz and how far they’d go to prove their legendary credentials. Up next, it’s Rick Astley. Rick’rolling icon and national treasure extraordinaire.
The new album is called Who We Used To Be, but who did James Blunt used to be?
I mean, yeah, it’s a good question. I’m an ex-soldier, who bluffed my way into the music business. I suppose that title is based on the notion that you know, once upon a time, it was about that. It’s a title with that sense of nostalgia of those innocent years when we had all our hopes and dreams about what the future might bring and with that at the time, came such great hope and such great positivity. In a way it was a simpler, more naive time.
Do you think we’re living in an altogether less innocent and more cynical time?
Yeah, I think it seems as if politicians definitely try and divide us more harshly. The way we’ve used social media potentially makes us less compassionate towards other people, respectful to other opinions and others’ perspectives. The innocence has been taken away as well. Children are exposed through the internet to all kinds of things that you and I weren’t from a much earlier age.
Do you worry about that as a dad?
Yeah of course, and that’s part of the album title too. I do have children and I’m seeing the world a bit through their eyes and I hope to protect them from the worst bits but at the same time expose them to the best bits of life.
I’m married now too, my parents are getting old, and won’t necessarily be with us for that long. M y position in the world, or at least my family’s small sphere of the world, is changing.
I suppose that’s why you write your most intense songs normally when you’re kind of probably in your teens and early twenties. Then if you’re a rock star, you’re first supposed to die before you get to my kind of age. But I have made it to this age, and so I’m finding as much inspiration now as I did in my early teens.
You mentioned rock stars dying young. When you came into the music industry you’d already dodged bullets in Kosovo. Rock and roll seems quite tame compared to that…
Yes, but I did really give it a go… the rock and roll lifestyle. I moved out to Ibiza and just went to the clubs the whole time and just tried very, very hard, but my constitution is just too great.
This is your first album in four years and it’s quite eclectic. I could hear some modern stadium rock on there quite early on.
It’s definitely quite diverse in its songwriting. I think that’s a nice thing that each song sounds different from the next. I am kind of known for writing songs on a guitar or piano, relatively down-tempo and morose songs. Those are the ones that I’ve had commercial successes with, but I enjoy dance music and I live in Ibiza, so my own music isn’t the only kind of music I listen to. Given the option I don’t listen to my music! If you come to my live show too, it’s a much more upbeat concert than people think.
Any favourites on the record?
We put this single out called ‘Beside You’ and it’s a beautiful sentiment. It’s a song for my wife, a song to say you’re the person I wanna dance beside for the rest of my life.
That’s the one that the record label have gravitated towards as a radio single. But the killer track on there, you know, I love ‘Saving a Life’ which is actually my favourite on the album.
Your debut album Back To Bedlam is now 19 years old and is one of the best selling UK albums of all time. Given it’s now of legal drinking age, what drink would you buy that album?
Oh, I feel it would be sad to only give it one. But I think I’d give it a flaming Sambuca.
You’re also still the landlord of the Fox and Pheasant pub in Chelsea…
Absolutely. It’s an awesome pub and I’m really hands on with it. Buying a pub is the best thing I’ve ever done and I love it, having a pub that is 170 years old. You feel like you’re just the custodian of it and my job is just not to fuck it up. So I’ve kept all the old features of the pub, but I’ve made it function really well and have a fantastic team who work in there.
I love music and it’s a great passion, but it’s also just my job. Whereas, the pub is just the most awesome thing to have.
Do you pull pints?
I can pull pints, I’m fully trained, but the bar staff are a little embarrassed by me and normally ask me if I’ll just go down to the pot wash. Maybe they prefer to keep me out of sight a little bit. There are some strict rules at the pub. They say we’re allowed any live music you like, except for me. That’s that’s on the council rules!
We’re not allowed to play me over the sound system either, apart from when we play ‘You’re Beautiful’ five minutes before closing time to effectively clear the pub!
What’s your go-to at the pub?
We serve Estrella Damm, which is really good lager. But we also have a Fox and Pheasant lager, which is really delicious. So I’ll usually have one of each and then I start moving up from there [to] shots of tequila.
You’re famously the funniest man on Twitter. But what’s your favourite tweet?
Hmm, I just normally gravitate towards the more obscene ones. Like when someone said ‘James, you’re my guilty pleasure’. I just replied ‘mine’s anal!’. I write them and show them to my manager or my wife and the more they shake their head, in dismay, the more I know it’s a good one and that’s when I press send.
Going back to the album, you mentioned that ‘Dark Thought’ is about your close friendship with the late, great Carrie Fisher.
Yes and I really, really struggled to write it. For every album I’ve done since she’s died, I tried writing that song or tried finding what it is I needed to say. But I learnt it just needs to come naturally and from the heart without too much thought.
I just described the moment I went to her house after she died, and put my hand on her gate and shed a tear and said, ‘oh God, Carrie, I miss you so much’. One of the star map vans that show tourists around Hollywood drove up, parked outside just by me and over the speaker they said, ‘On your left you’ll see the late Great Carrie Fisher’s house. And as you can see some fans are still deeply moved by her passing’. That was me! It was an awful but very funny moment.
If she’s looking down on us, that’s the kind of thing she’ll be seeing and absolutely killing herself laughing at.
Carrie was a huge part of your early career too.
Yeah, when I was writing Back To Bedlam, even before I had a proper record deal at that stage, I was living with her. And then when I recorded, you know, any number of albums until she died, I lived with her full time in L.A. I think that environment was an integral part of my recording too. It’s an incredibly creative house. She had a Christmas tree set up 365 days a year, and the house was just a work of art in itself. It’s just full of things. It’s a really beautiful little wonderland and so it definitely had a huge impact on my writing and my albums.
Speaking of Carrie, is there someone who has liked your music that you weren’t expecting to?
Kanye West once called me up and said he wanted to work with me. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t take it seriously because it’s Kanye West! Why on earth is he calling me in the first place? It was a while back and I think he was a guy who was really interested in different musicians. He’d heard my music and wanted to collaborate.
I took his phone number but I never called him back because I just really fucked up! It didn’t compute and it’s one of my greatest regrets. Of course I should have done. But I didn’t believe it, it’s just little me. Why would he really want to do that? It’s imposter syndrome, really. You can’t take yourself seriously, so why would he?
I’ve had some really sweet comments from different people throughout my career. Paul McCartney said something really sweet early on and Elton John took me on tour around the world and he’s been incredibly supportive.
Any unfulfilled goals?
There are definitely a few venues I’m still looking at playing. The Hollywood Bowl is an amazing venue. I’d love to play in there. I did Wembley Arena last year, so it’d be nice to step up to a stadium, wouldn’t it? I’ve played Glastonbury before but I’d go back there too. It’s just an awesome, awesome gig.