James Blunt on his mega-hits, military service and the pitfalls of being famous

Munira Rajkotwalla 26 January 2018

The Cambridge Union was treated to an engaging talk from a warm and often funny James Blunt on Wednesday evening. Being what one might call a Blunt-Agnostic (not that I’m unsure if he really exists, I just don’t have enough knowledge of his work to take a stand on whether he’s the best or worst thing to happen to music), I was interested to pick up on the palpable buzz of excitement as a full-to-the brim Union Chamber awaited his arrival, demonstrating that he clearly has many committed fans among Cambridge students. While I was wandering around the Union beforehand looking for the press area, I happened to walk past Blunt who I think must have been on the way to his soundcheck. I was oblivious to this but was alerted to his presence afterwards by the sharp intakes of breath of two women walking behind me. ‘Oh my god, was that him?’ one asked the other. Nearly 14 years after he burst onto the scene with his debut album ‘Back to Bedlam’, the consistency of Blunt’s appeal in an era when fame is transient for many pop musicians is certainly impressive.

The talk itself proved that Blunt is an eloquent speaker, perhaps at least in part thanks to his Public-School education, which he appeared to remember fondly. Blunt’s unconventional pre-music career as a Captain in the British Army was almost as much a feature of the talk as his music. As a man uniquely able to provide an insight into the two very different worlds of military service and celebrity, it struck me that there was a degree to which Blunt missed the former part of his life. He spoke of the pitfalls of being world-famous, of the loss of anonymity and having his phone and emails hacked. He was clearly very proud of his military service; even if he did somewhat downplay his role in averting World War Three by refusing to engage with a unit of Russian soldiers while under NATO command in Kosovo, he was eager to retell a story he must have recounted many times. However, Blunt also clearly appreciated, and was even slightly awed, by the impact his music had on people around the world. When asked by the Union’s interviewer if he was tired of playing ‘You’re Beautiful’ every night, he retorted that he was tired of being asked that question. Blunt’s attitude is refreshing; all too often musicians can be loath to play their ‘big hits’, the songs that made them famous, but Blunt is less self-centred than this. He cheerfully admits that his mega-hits such as ‘You’re Beautiful’ and ‘Goodbye My Lover’ have made him tons of money, and that they mean a lot to many people around the world, and it was no surprise that when, in a first in many years for the Union, he performed at the end of his talk, it was those two songs that he played.  

After the talk, myself and several other Cambridge student journalists got the chance to sit round the table with Blunt. He was keen to talk about his musical influences, citing 70s artists such as Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie. Bowie may well have been more than a musical influence in fact, as when a journalist put it to him that he could still ‘sesh quite hard’, he quickly replied ‘yeah, totally’ and indicated his unwillingness to slow down anytime soon, living as he does in Ibiza. Another big theme of the talk had been Blunt’s Twitter, where he is well-known for his self-deprecating humour and occasionally juvenile put-downs of ‘trolls’. When it came to me, I asked Blunt, as a man whose career has spanned the massive popularity surge of social media, what differences he’s noticed in the interactions he’s had with his fans since the days of written fan mail. He suggested that the ability to ‘give feedback so quickly’ had resulted in a lot more abuse being directed towards celebrities such as himself, and that usually when people had bothered to go the effort of writing a letter it had been a lot more supportive. Also, given his dedicated following around the world (Kazakhstan and Italy were just two of the countries he mentioned during his talk), I asked Blunt what his favourite country to tour in was. He gave the somewhat left-field answer of Lebanon, saying that Beirut was ‘the most amazing city in the world’, but also said that for ‘amazing audiences’ you should head to ‘Latin America’, particularly ‘Buenos Aires’. It was at this point that I reflected on the surreal thought that this was a musician who can pack out big stadiums in probably every continent on the planet. Whatever you may think of his music (and I think Bonfire Heart at least is a true banger), this is no mean feat and surely must be respected.