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One of the biggest fears of any musician, in a musical sense, is the songwriting well running dry. That's something that's unlikely ever to worry James Blunt. He has, it can be said without exaggeration, lived a life that should provide enough material for a dozen albums, I know - that's what all the singer-songwriters say. But this is a definitively different singer-songwriter.
Take "No Bravery", the song that closes his debut album, "Back to Bedlam". It was written in a barracks in Kosovo in 1999, while James was a reconnaissance officer in the British army. By day, patrolling Pristina, he kept his guitar bolted to the outside of his tank. By night, it came into the barracks with him as he wrote about life as a 22-year-old peacekeeper in the aftermath of one of the decade's bloodiest civil wars. The rest of his unit ordered him to keep the noise down as he wrote and sang in the post-midnight stillness. He didn't keep the noise down. "'No Bravery' is the only complete song I wrote in Kosovo. I wrote while I was sitting in bed with my boots on. You had to sleep with your boots on. The song is fatalistic. And the rest of the album is fatalistic," he says wryly.
But his Kosovan experience is only one aspect of a new artist who's destined to find his way into a lot of record collections. Essentially, James is a find - an old soul who's somehow unafflicted by cynicism, a young writer who sounds likes he's been doing this for years, an angelic voice who's had a hell of a ride. Elton John, with whom he shares a manager, thinks his "You're Beautiful" is a modern successor to John's own "Your Song". An astute comparison, because much of "Back to Bedlam" is reminiscent of John's early-career best. Meanwhile, Tom Rothrock, who produced the album, sees James as a potential British answer to a couple of other clients, Beck and Elliott Smith. Rothrock had never heard of James until he stumbled across a live track he performed at last year's South by Southwest, upon which the producer was so smitten that he instantly agreed to work on "Back to Bedlam".
What's odd is that a military family like the Blunts - his father, a career colonel, has only recently left the army - should spawn a James. After gruadating from Bristol University, he joined the army, , "because my dad was pushing for it." He eventually made captain, and was the first British officer into Pristina, leading a column of 30,000 peacekeeping troops.
Music, though, has always been his mainstay. Actually, this needs to be qualified. James got into music lateishly, the result of growing up in a musicless house that didn't possess a CD player. "My dad was really practical, and saw music as just noise. The only CD player was in the car, and we had just three CDs - 'American Pie', and a couple of Beach Boys ones." When he went away to school, though, he learned piano, then appeared in a school musical, and that was it. From then on, he listened and learned as much as he could. A love of Queen and Dire Straits came and went. Picking up a friend's guitar at 14, he played along to Nirvana's "Nevermind", and wrote his first song soon after. In so doing, he made himself unpopular with the school housemaster, who knew that music drifting down the corridor late at night could invariably be traced to Blunt's room. His teen years were a battle between teachers, who were intent on imposing some sort of education, and himself, equally intent on making music his career.
Armed with "some dodgy demos" he'd recorded, he left the army in 2002 to become a full-time musician ("My dad was nervous, because I was leaving a steady job to do something risky"). Said dodgy items were an impressive enough showcase of his haunting voice and exquisitely personal songs to land him both management and publishing deals within months. "And then I met Linda Perry [songwriter-producer for, among others, Pink and Christina Aguilera], cos my publishers gave her some songs, and then I went to play South by Southwest, and then she gave me a deal with her own label, Custard Records," James says, still half-dazzled by it all.
He went to California in September, 2003, to record his album, and has delivered a timeless debut album, "Back To Bedlam."
His current favourite listening is Cat Power and Lou Reed's "Transformer" album, and "Back to Bedlam" has a similarly enigmatic quality. He won't explain what most of the songs are about, though he does admit that the deceptively bubbly "So Long, Jimmy" was inspired by Messrs Hendrix and Morrison. As for the rest, he says only, "You can get away with murder in a song". There's a lot to James Blunt. The journey starts here.