James Blunt on Songwriting

March 15, 2010
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jamesblunt_final“Some lyrics come in a flash,” says British singer/songwriter James Blunt. “They almost come faster than you can get them down, and you look skywards and think, ‘Wow, thank God that arrived for me.’” Blunt’s hit single, “You’re Beautiful”—which reportedly arrived from the ether in about 20 seconds—spent eight weeks at number one on the U.K. singles chart, and Sir Elton John compared it to his own “Your Song.” “That was a huge compliment,” says Blunt. “Of course, I paid him to say that [laughs].”

Blunt picked up the guitar at age 14, and drew great inspiration from Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Lou Reed, Elton John, and Paul Simon. His favorite contemporary songwriters include Elliot Smith and Cat Power, and he was so inspired by Smith that he sought out Smith’s producer, Tom Rothrock, for the recording of his major-label debut, Back to Bedlam [Custard/Atlantic]. Writing the material for that album spanned several years—including throughout his four-year tour of duty in the British Army. From his barracks in Kosovo, he wrote “No Bravery” on his Gibson acoustic, which he would sometimes hang off the back of a tank.

“The song just flowed,” he says. “In that environment, it’s very obvious what you need to say, and you try to express some form of emotion.”

Though that guitar made it back from the war, it met a tragic end in a minor motorbike accident. However, Blunt soon acquired the one guitar he now does everything on—a 1966 Gibson J45.

“It’s beaten up, but it sounds great,” he says.

Blunt’s songwriting process is free from rules. “Often, it’s just messing around on the guitar until I hear something that sounds interesting or that has a good feel to it,” he says. “It might be just one musical phrase that creates a melody, and a bit of a lyric that sets a mood. From there, you start building a song. I never record my melodies or chords—I just have my lyric sheets—because if a song is good, and if it evokes an emotion, you’ll remember it.”

While some of his songs come in a flash of inspiration, others require a bit more time and attention.

“The song ‘Wisemen’ took about a decade from the initial idea until the day I made it into something interesting by reworking it,” he recalls. “It’s hard to know when a song is finished, and I often don’t know. I take it to a certain point, but the first time you play it live is the only time you can feel whether it really works or not.”

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