James Blunt

It started in Austin. From there it went to L.A., then back across the pond to the U.K. Now just about everywhere you go, on radio stations and TV shows from coast to coast, you’re likely to hear the high-strung guitar sounds of one 1966 Gibson J-45 and the plaintive vocals of one James Blunt.The 20-something Blunt seemingly came out of nowhere in 2005 to score one of the biggest acoustic-based hits in years with “You’re Beautiful.” Just like that a career was launched. Now, here in ’06, Blunt’s debut album, Back to Bedlam is toying with the top of the charts (it’s already certified eight-times platinum in his native England) and we’re all learning his name.

Blunt’s story is particularly inspiring for this reason: It could have been any of us. A slight exaggeration, to be sure, but for all those who have ever considered showcasing their musical talents at the annual music industry mega-party in Austin, Texas, known as South by Southwest, Blunt proves that the SXSW trip can pay off big-time. It was in that musical melee during one unruly week in 2003 that Blunt was discovered by producer and former Four Non-Blondes frontperson Linda Perry. Perry quickly signed him to her Custard Records label (with distribution by Atlantic), and the rest is platinum-coated history.

Blunt had been playing piano and guitar since his early teens, but it wasn’t until after a stint in the army on a lengthy and eye-opening peacekeeping tour of Kosovo that he truly applied himself to songwriting. Favoring the music of early-’70s singer/songwriters, the young Londoner has fashioned himself, in a sense, after his musical idols such as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Elliott Smith.

What got you started with guitar?

I started playing original music when I was 14 years old. I saved up and bought myself an electric guitar for around $200. I got a new Peavey amplifier, and I just made a racket. Then I started refining my gear and I got a Fender Telecaster and a Fender Twin amp, and I started to make something that was slightly more tuneful.

But I was moving around a lot and traveling from place to place. I would be at boarding school and I’d go see my parents on the holidays, who would be in different countries because they traveled quite a bit. All that made it hard to have a band and it didn’t make sense to play the electric guitar with a heavy amplifier and all the bits that were needed for it. So I found myself leaning toward the acoustic guitar. That way I could travel with my guitar, and it could be the medium for my songwriting. I was about 19 or 20 years old when I made the move from the electric to the acoustic.

So what kind of music were you playing at that point?

I was writing my own stuff, but at the same time I was covering things like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, and the Pixies. That was when I really started taking up the acoustic. Once I did that, I continued to make my own music and wasn’t really listening to other bands that much, because I never had a chance to carry a big music collection with me. In recent years, since the iPod, I’ve obviously been able to investigate a whole lot of the early-’70s singer/songwriters, like Lou Reed, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, and Elton John. And as for contemporaries, I really enjoy people like Cat Power and Elliott Smith—which is why I worked with producer Tom Rothrock [Beck, Elliott Smith].

What is your primary songwriting instrument?

It changes between piano and guitar. If I’m traveling, it’s a guitar, but if I can get to a piano, I love to. I’d say it was about 50-50 on this album.

Do you record your ideas?

I don’t record actually. I just think if an idea is good, then I should remember it. The only things I’ll write down are lyrics. And then, later on when I’ve run it through with a band, I might get a demo done.

Do those of you who say, “If it’s a good idea, I should remember it,” have a better memory than the rest of us who rely on recording our ideas? Or do you simply focus on the idea more?

I think that’s exactly right: It’s about focusing on the idea. Sometimes you might not be able to get back to your idea until later, so maybe recording it is good to keep a beautiful idea for the future. But if there are ten ideas in a day and one of them stands out, that’s the one I’ll usually focus on and forget the others. And I can only run with five ideas in my memory at one time.

Do you experiment with open tunings or try anything else out of the ordinary to get your creative juices flowing?

No, not really. But I do change between playing an idea on one instrument and then taking it over to another instrument to see if that makes something fall out of it. But often it just comes from trying different things, and sometimes even making mistakes. I find that one of the greatest ways of doing things is just being open to hearing mistakes and seeing how they might develop from there.

When you write, are you thinking of a full production?

Almost never. I think almost always my idea is, “Can I play this on my own?” And if I can play it on my own, then it should hopefully be a good song, totally un-reliant on other musicians around me.

Yet, in the studio, your producer let you have all kinds of fun. What instruments do you play on the album besides acoustic guitar?

I played as much as I possibly could, from acoustic to electric guitar, bass, 12-string, nylon-string, piano, organs of all kinds, marimbas—you name it. But other times I’d reach the limit of my own playing ability and decide to get some professionals in who Tom recommended. And we got four or five other musicians who were experts in their own field. There was a great bassist, Sasha Kristov, who did the majority of the bass playing. We had a great keyboard player, John Nau.

You’ve done a lot of TV appearances lately. What have you learned about performing live on television?

It’s a bit stranger than a gig because you’ve got just one song—you’re on stage and away you go and then it’s over. And a lot of times it’s just cameras and no audience. It doesn’t necessarily come very naturally to me.

When you’re playing a regular gig, how do you monitor onstage?

I always use wedge monitors and sidefills; I never use in-ears. I feel detached when I’m using in-ears. I probably have a little bit more vocal in the wedges, because the acoustic tends to feed back quickly—I don’t use a soundhole cover or “feedback buster.” I think they’re really bad for sound quality. In order to send the best mix to the front of the house I keep my acoustic quite quiet—at times I can’t even hear it. I have to kind of trust what I’m doing.

How do you amplify your guitar?

I D.I. it. I’ve got a stereo Fishman setup, which has both a pickup and a microphone. I can’t remember the model, but it works really well. I don’t use an amp or any effects.

What guitars are you carrying around with you now?

I only brought one for a long time, but now that the tour has grown, I’ve got myself a spare. I’ve got two Gibson acoustics, and I also borrowed a 12-string from Gibson. My standard guitar is a 1966 Gibson J-45. My spare is a 1958 LG-1. I like the vintage instruments because they have a bit of character. Obviously they sometimes have issues and problems along the way, but that’s the nature of the beast. What they really have is great tone.

It must be exciting to watch what this record has done.

It’s great to have something that you can hear in your head, and build it from nothing. And then it’s also nice to bring in those other musicians and watch them take it beyond your expectation. And sometimes it wouldn’t even occur to me that it was actually happening—that what they were adding was creating something that was better than I could have imagined. But afterwards I’d think, “Yeah, of course. It all makes sense.” That was a thrill in itself.