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A very Blunt conversation

Award winning singer-songwriter James Blunt, who is performing in Malta on April 7, tells Kristina Chetcuti how he nearly took up permanent residence in Malta, his time as an army officer in Kosovo, and most of all, his passion for music.

Cambridge, 4 p.m. Students cycle through the narrow winding roads, tinkling their bells, books stacked in their bicycle baskets.

At the main door of the Corn Exchange Theatre – an impressive piece of Victorian architecture – a 10-deep crowd of fans for the evening’s concert is already gathered. Doors will not open before another three-hour wait in the freezing cold.

By the theatre’s side door, a ‘student’ in a black hoodie, messed-up hair and tattered jeans, brakes his bicycle to a halt. He holds out his hand, I look up at the smiling, be-stubbled figure. There is no mistaking those crystal-green eyes.

This is no student, this is James Blunt: one of the biggest pop stars in the world – ‘a soldier-turned-singer’ phenomenon.

“It’s the best way to get a feel of Cambridge, on a bike,” he laughs. “I like this city; there’s a certain vibrancy to it.”

Ground reconnaissance is important for him; once a soldier always a soldier.

We walk to his minimalist dressing room, whereby he says categorically that, actually, he is not a pop idol. Coming from a man who wrote his university dissertation on ‘The Production of a Pop Idol’, this sounds a bit rich.

So does he not follow his theories to become successful?

“No. I did the exact opposite. I’m not a pop idol. I’m a musician.”

His 2005 debut album Back to Bedlam, which sold more than 11 million copies, was the biggest-selling UK album of the noughties, and yet he genuinely refutes the pop idol title.

“I’m not about haircuts or clothing or who I’m dating. Unfortunately the media world doesn’t focus on music anymore – it’s all about image and perception.”

Blunt, 37, is very eager to chat. His words – in very posh BBC English – almost collide with each other as he speaks:

“I am a musician. I talk about things that carry strong emotions, I don’t talk about flashy cars, I talk about the human condition, what it is to be alive or alone in your world, the highs and lows...”

This is the start of a very animated conversation. Blunt, true to his name, doesn’t mince words or cuts corners. Yet, there is nothing of the morose, wistful man we see in his music videos.

He is witty and sharp, very affable and in good humour. If it weren’t an interview, it would have been one of those fun, spirited, philosophical conversations you have with friends at the pub.

He says he is really looking forward to his concert in Malta and it will not be his first time here either.

“I’ve been visiting since I was 14 – I’ve even got friends in Malta.”

He knows Valletta well and has clear memories of plunging into the sea off some cliffs in Gozo.

He says he loves it so much that he very nearly took up permanent residence in Malta in 2008, when he was looking to set up home outside the UK.

“It was a toss-up between Malta and Ibiza. In the end I opted for Ibiza because it’s closer to England, so it’s easier to get friends to visit me.”

Blunt was in Malta in 2003 for Elton John’s first concert at the Floriana Granaries.

“That was some fantastic location! Rocket Music (Elton John’s Management) had just taken me on and I was there as a guest of Elton – he even dedicated a song for me that night, it was surreal,” he says.

He feels at home in the Mediterranean because he spent his early childhood living in Cyprus, where his father, a colonel in the British Army, was stationed for a time. His earliest memory is of sitting on the beach in Cyprus as a little boy with the hot sand burning his skin.

For him the Mediterranean means warmth and passion, and it contrasts sharply with Britain, a country, which he says “instils emotional inhibitedness.

“I am emotionally stunted,” he says. “I’m your typical British male.” Perhaps because he assumes that all Maltese men wear their heart on their sleeve, he feels the need to explain.

“I don’t know if you know, but British males find it very difficult to express themselves. Let’s say you meet me on the saddest day of my life – a terrible, sad, sad day – but if you had to ask me how I was feeling, I would still say I’m fine.”

And that is why for him, music is a great outlet – he wears his heart on his album sleeves, so to say. His unfinished conversations come out in tracks which have so far graced three albums - Back to Bedlam in 2005, Lost Souls in 2007 and Some Kind of Trouble, his latest one.

“I write out of necessity. It’s almost painful at times, the soul searching you have to do, but I find it is hugely rewarding when you’re honest with yourself.”

Is that why his songs tend to be quite mellow?

“I come from a very cynical country – for the British a glass is always half empty.”

However, there’s been a definite change of mood in his new album, penned after what he calls “a period of reflection”, in which he decided he “was going to stop writing songs about poor old me”.

Some Kind of Trouble is more upbeat, and there’s a feel of spontaneity and freshness to it.

Even in the video of his first single of this album, Stay the Night, we do not see him walking his trademark broody amble towards the camera.

Instead, it’s shot on a golden beach, he is surrounded by surfers, and he actually looks cheery as he is strumming the guitar, singing: “If this is what we’ve got, then what we’ve got is gold”.

Later at the concert, while playing this same song, he jumps on his upright piano, and all grins, pretends he’s surfing; the crowd goes ballistic.

“It’s an album full of hope and excitement. It’s about freedom and innocence and my trying to recapture the optimism of teenage years. It’s the ‘some kind of trouble’ I’d like to be getting at,” he said.

Still, he is not apologetic for churning out a quite few record-breaking sop songs. In fact, he defends his music like an officer would his troop.

When I mention that despite the worldwide record breaking sales, his single You’re Beautiful was voted the most irritating song by The Sun in 2007, his eyes betray a wary watchfulness – the red tops definitely grate him.

Then he dismisses it as an unfounded survey commissioned by some company manufacturing lactose-free products.

“The number of participants in the poll was too low to be taken seriously. But anyway, I believe, if people don’t like it, in this modern age, everybody has the power to switch off the radio button.”

He is proud of his music, and that song – about a beautiful girl he saw on the London subway – was all about the intensity of an emotion. Who was the girl? His voice goes down a notch.

“I knew her. She was an ex-girlfriend, with her new man, who I didn’t know existed. She and I caught eyes and lived a lifetime in that moment.”

Does she know he had written it for her? He shrugs slowly.

“I don’t know. I haven’t been in touch with her at all. It wasn’t for me to take up.”

He goes on to say that the British press – who claim that it was about his former girlfriend Dixie Chassay, the casting director for the Harry Potter films – “has got it all wrong”.

It’s hard to picture that only a couple of years before the dizzying success of this song, Blunt had been an army officer. The British army had partly sponsored his private secondary education and then university, so in turn he had to pay back with four years’ service.

Those years, for him, were ‘a great life lesson’. His acoustic guitar travelled with him wherever he went: “But of course,” he laughs, “You’re not going to sing Goodbye My Lover to the guys.”

Now that he has swapped his tank for a tour bus, he finds that for 24 men to live in such close quarters for the 13-month duration of the tour, the set-up needs to be quite regimental.

“It’s like a mini army. Only more comfortable, of course. And well, the dangers are a bit less, too.”

In 1999, he was serving with Nato troops stationed in Kosovo, where neighbours were killing each other. What he saw there, did it mark him for life?

“Kosovo left an indelible mark. It helped me learn a lot about what it is to be human,” he says.

He realised humans are like sheep, really. “It takes great courage to stand out as an individual. Human beings do ugly things because they are not thinking, but simply following others.”

In Kosovo, it’s only when people were unplugged from the crowd that they got the “terrible recollection of what they were doing”.

“It was not about fighting, it was all about learning how to channel aggression, how to be diplomatic, how to appease, how to calm – these are very strong tools and more productive than fighting,” he says.

Blunt’s most significant moment was when as a cavalry officer he was a heading a troop that had been ordered to seize Pristina airfield. US General Wesley Clark had issued a command to reach the airfield and take hold of it but the Russians got there first.

“We had 200 Russians lined up pointing their weapons at us aggressively,” Blunt recalls.

“The direct command that came in from General Clark was to overpower them.”

That could easily have risked a major conflict with Russia. “It was a high pressure situation,” says Blunt. He did not want to follow the order, because his gut feeling told him it was wrong, so he kept saying ‘I’m not sure what you mean, sir.’

Luckily, British General Sir Mike Jackson then sent an admonishing message down the wire saying: “I’m not going to have my soldiers be responsible for starting World War Three”, and ordered them to encircle the airfield instead.

For Blunt, General Jackson is a hero – were it not for him, the original order could have seriously threatened international peace.

Blunt plays down his own part in the event: “You would have done the same. It’s common sense. I said to the others that if they ever make a statue for General Jackson, I’d be happy to spray a small graffiti on it, ‘James Blunt was here’ or something of the sort,” he laughs.

The British press recently blew the whole incident out of proportion and the BBC even ran headlines saying that Blunt was claiming he prevented a third world war.

“It was appalling, really,” he says, bristled. “When I confronted the journalist, he blamed it on the editor. Journalists never seem to want to take responsibility. You know, that’s why I think journalists really have big egos.”

Blunt is clearly not a big fan of the press, and given that the paparazzi tend to chronicle every minute detail of his private life, this is not surprising. But the way he goes on, apologising profusely, is quite endearing.

When I ask him whether it’s true – as most of the press reports about him state – that he only has two pairs of jeans and six T-shirts, he laughs: “Yes. And seven pairs of socks. I’m sure it was seven the last time I counted.”

He discounts himself as someone who doesn’t care much about clothes and style, but after a moment he says: “I really like your attire. I like these boots – and your jacket. What label is that? My sister has her own label and she does jackets like those. I love it.”

He might have opened up to me, but he is still not confessing. When I ask if he managed to convince the girl in Stay the Night to sleep over, he shoots: “I never said if it’s a lady or a man.”

Asked if he sings to his girlfriends, he replies: “My friends come to my concert. I don’t sing at home.”

He wouldn’t reveal who his friends in Malta are, but immediately says he will be learning some Maltese before coming down for the concert.

“I am genuinely excited about that. I’m going to be singing songs from all the albums. I mean I’m not taking anything for granted, but the Maltese people are so passionate… it will be great.”

After the interview, Blunt plays to a venue full of screaming fans. As he predicted, the crowd is young and vibrant and surprisingly, not overwhelmingly female, although obviously, the girls were making themselves very much heard:

“James! Stay the night with me!”, “James you’re beautiful!”, “James I love you!” they keep screeching.

Blunt’s sense of fun and playfulness make him a great entertainer on stage, and in spite of the occasional miserable ballad, the concert actually rocks.

It’s not just that he’s a brilliant musician, it’s because in truth he’s also a pop idol. But let’s not go there again, shall we?

James Blunt will be performing live in Malta at the Valletta Waterfront on April 7.

Tickets are available from Vodafone outlets or online on www.nngpromotions.com.

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