“I saw the circle of life happening right in front of me. I needed to get in the studio right away…” - hmv.com talks to James Blunt
Artists always need inspiration to get back to work, and that inspiration can come from just about anywhere, whether that’s heartbreak, politics, hotel rooms or anything else. But, in the case of James Blunt, it took tragic news to get him working again.
Just back from a lengthy tour in support of his The Afterlove, a large chunk of which he spent opening for old friend Ed Sheeran, Blunt was planning on spending some time with his young family. But, towards the end of the tour, he discovered his father Charles, had been diagnosed with stage 4 chronic kidney disease.
And, as he tells us, that was a discovery that sent him straight into the studio...
When did you start putting together the songs for Once Upon A Mind?
“Two weeks after the tour finished. I had the inspiration, I just needed the time to do it. I finished my last tour in the middle of September in 2018, and, two weeks later, I was in the studio writing again. I had lots of stuff to write about.”
Was that because you felt energised after touring? Or were you motivated by something else?
“It was more morose than that. We’d just found out that my Dad was ill. He’s got stage four kidney disease and he needs a transplant. I’m not a match and he’s still on the waiting list. It was a massive moment for us as a family, he’s a man who doesn’t drink or smoke, he’s very fit and suddenly he had to face his own mortality. That really spurred me on to write.”
“At the same time, I have a new and very young family and a wife and I’m constantly having to leave them behind on these huge tours. When I saw the circle of life happening right in front of me, it really gave me focus. I needed to get in the studio right away.”
You’ve worked with some big writers on the album, Steve Robson, Jimmy Hogarth, do you have a good sense of who you want to work with before you start writing and recording?
“I’ve worked with these guys for years now. Jimmy Hogarth did my first ever demos! The first-ever version of ‘You’re Beautiful’. The most important song on this album for me is a track called ‘Monsters’, which is a track about my father. I called him up and I told him he was the only person who can help me capture it.”
“Steve Robson is an old friend and I always knew I’d work with him. Tom Rothrock, who produced and mixed my first album, work with me again. I knew I needed to capture these songs in the most honest way I could and I needed people I could trust to help me do that.”
It’s an 11-track record, is that 11 slimmed down from 13 or 14? Or are you a guy who writes 40 or 50 and then has a real cull?
“For my last album, I wrote over 100 songs, but this was a bit different. I didn’t write quite so many, I had such a clear focus this time and only a handful of songs were left over. I really nurtured these songs until I had them exactly where I wanted them to be.”
Did you have a goal of how you wanted this record to be sonically?
“On my last album, I really wanted to try and mess around with all kinds of music. I live in Ibiza, I love dance music and I wanted to collaborate with lots of different people. But for this album, I needed to record the songs in the way I know best. I wanted to take the sonics from my first album and find that rawness again.”
Did that mean working much more quickly?
“It meant fewer computers and more humans to play instruments. The emotion you transmit through your fingers can’t be replicated by a keyboard.”
You’ve mentioned your father’s condition and what a big impact that had on the record, is that the theme that unites it in lyrical terms?
“There are three songs about my father. There’s a song about the state of the world today, asking for my children to be better than that, there’s a song for my wife about me being away so much and there’s a song about my journey. I’ve had an amazing time, I was a single man touring the world with a band, I’ve had more fun than you can possibly imagine and I feel like I’ve got there undamaged. I’m very, very lucky.”
When did you decide to call the album Once Upon A Mind?
“As late as it was possible to do, the record company had to hassle me endlessly for it. I wanted to call it ‘How It Feels To Be Alive’, I thought it really summed up the album. But Tom Walker screwed that up for me with his very good album ‘What A Time To Be Alive’. In the end, I went with Once Upon A Mind because I’ve got s**t on my mind. It’s the same vein as Back To Bedlam, the loneliness you’re mind can give you.”
Do album titles always tend to be last-minute decisions for you?
“Sometimes they’re there the whole time. Moon Landing was definitely like that. This was a bit more of a struggle.”
How are your live plans coming together? You’re in some big venues again?
“Yes, off again, leaving people behind. The first show is on Valentine’s Day, which you just know has gone down very well at home. I’m playing some amazing venues and I’m delighted to be back in arenas in the UK.”
You’ve got six records now, how’s the set coming together?
“I promise not to play songs from the new album. I like to play the songs people want to hear. It’s a ‘Greatest Hits’ set every night. That’s how I like it. Me, surrounded by fantastic musicians who make me look good…”
How’s 2020 looking?
“It’s the UK and Europe and then into summer festivals, after that it’s on to the rest of the world…”