James Blunt has no patience for your jokes about him. But only because the punchlines he makes at his own expense are funnier.
It’s been more than a decade since James Blunt imprinted himself on your life forever with his massive and, ultimately, annoying hit “You’re Beautiful.” (Just reading that title has put the song back in your head. Sorry.)
He’s released four albums and had a few international hits since “You’re Beautiful” hit No. 1 in 2005. Blunt’s debut album, Back to Bedlam, sold 11.2 million copies and the overly earnest, overplayed ballad made the singer, as he recently told British talk show host Graham Norton, one of the most “deeply unpopular” artists in the world.
But with an equal parts vicious and self-effacing social media presence and a new album featuring tracks that he describes as sounding “like Akon,” Blunt would like us to brace ourselves for an unsettling turn of events: his renewed relevance.
As he posted on Twitter at the end of last year, “If you thought 2016 was bad—I’m releasing an album in 2017.”
On Friday, Blunt will release The Afterlove, his fifth studio album and, maybe, the first one he’s really liked. At the very least, it’s the first one he’s released with a sense of confidence about himself, and with the freedom of a newfound don’t-give-a-shit attitude. One that’s owed to a career as the internet’s most surprising and delightful Twitter troll.
His bawdy and scorching comebacks to those who make fun of him on Twitter have accrued the kind of legend and fandom that BuzzFeed curates lists about. “His tweets are beautiful, it’s true,” a recent post ruled. An example: “James Blunt’s face fully aggravates me,” one user tweeted. “Then sit on something else,” Blunt responded, shutting them down.
As it turns out, James Blunt is kind of hilarious. And despite whatever impression you have of him based on the image of a lilting pansy strumming a love song on his guitar, he’s kind of a badass.
From a stint in the British army—guitar strapped to his tank the entire time—to writing much of his first album in Carrie Fisher’s bathroom to currently residing with his wife and son in, of all places, Ibiza, that goddamn “You’re Beautiful” guy defies your expectations. The least of which is getting us to like him because of his music again.
Blunt is in a great mood when he walks into a meeting room, guitar in hand, at the Atlantic Records New York office. The lead single off The Afterlove, “Love Me Better,” has been out for a few days and is getting respectable pickup, especially because of its opening lyrics.
“Yeah I’ve been called a dick, I’ve been called so many things,” he croons. “I know I’ve done some shit that I admit deserves it / But that don’t mean it doesn’t sting.”
Most people loved his Taylor Swift “Mean” approach to confronting his critics so—heh—bluntly. Others, especially those who have frozen him in time as that guy singing shirtless in the rain about seeing your face in a crowded place, found it slightly offensive.
“I’ve been called a dick!” he laughs. “Well, yeah, it’s offensive! More offensive to be called the thing, though.” Maybe, he hopes, this new candid song combined with the ever-growing popularity of his Twitter account (1.38 million followers and counting) will finally offer a glimpse into what his personality is really like.
“I suppose what’s weird for me is that my songs have come across as so earnest, which I totally get. But I’m not,” he says.
It must be confusing, I venture, to be defined by one song. Ostensibly, it was well-enough liked when it was released to become a pop culture phenomenon. What changed to make it the subject of such intense derision?
“The song just got played a fucking shitload, didn’t it?” Blunt says, laughing. “Just played so much. Which is great for my bank balance. But too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing.”
He scoffs so loudly when asked if he still performs “You’re Beautiful” at concerts that the question becomes almost preposterous. “It’s one of the highlights of the concert, and it’s still a positive thing. You wouldn’t be here, talking to me, if I didn’t have the song.”
He continues: “If I didn’t play it at my show, people would say, ‘What the fuck? I bought a ticket to hear your hits.’ Of which there’s one.” He still loves playing it, too. “Because that means it’s almost the end of the concert and time for a beer.”
There’s a seductive charm to his self-deprecation when he talks about himself or his music, especially The Afterlove. “There’s a kind of excitement in the music I haven’t necessarily had when I played guitar and wrote miserable songs,” he says.
Like any musician unveiling a new direction, he’s careful not to disparage his previous four albums, which he says he loved and felt were special. Still, talking about why he’s more excited about this new effort than usual, he rationalizes, “I suppose I’ve gone around writing songs on guitars for a long time, but it’s not just the music I listen to.”
Blunt took four years between his most recent album, 2013’s Moon Landing, and The Afterlove, writing roughly 100 songs for it instead of the usual 25 to choose from. A more modern sound—you’ll hear R&B, electronica, and an Ed Sheeran-like vibe—comes from the fact that he worked with One Republic’s Ryan Tedder, frequent The Weeknd collaborator Stephan Moccio, songwriter Danny Parker (who wrote Shawn Mendes’s “Stitches” and Nick Jonas’s “Chains”), and, well, even Sheeran himself.
When he first started collaborating with Ryan Tedder on the album, Blunt brought two songs they had been working on to his record label. One sounded similar to the kind of music he’d done before and the other, as Blunt describes it, sounded like something Akon would sing.
The studio told Blunt to go with the first. He called Tedder with the news.
“He said, ‘Get on a fucking plane now, come and see me, and fuck the safe song. We’re going to do the one that sounds like Akon. Because that’s what’s going to make us have fun,’” Blunt remembers. The result is “Lose My Number,” the third track on The Afterlove.
Might Blunt’s fans—hell, even those that hate him—be surprised to hear he is doing a song that sounds like Akon? “Definitely,” Blunt says, shrugging and reaching for his tea. “And they might never hear it. But I’ve done four albums sounding like Damien Rice and David Gray. This makes me excited.”
When Blunt’s record label set up a Twitter account for him, in order to help with his visibility, he insisted that his name be @DirtyLittleBlunt. The label has since changed it to @JamesBlunt. It took a while for his bosses to catch on, but when they realized exactly how he’d been using the account, there was a panic that he was damaging his brand.
“I said, ‘Fuck it, my brand is broken. We might as well fuck around,’” Blunt remembers.
What does he mean by that? That his brand was broken?
“Just whatever. There was no brand to protect,” he says. “It was a fun way of…” He sighs, ruffles his hair, and leans in closer, a glint of mischievous joy in his eyes. “If someone’s going to say something and it’s right there in front of you, it’s nice to be able to respond.”
And respond he has.
“I sometimes wonder, ‘Who the fuck are these people?’” he says. “And then I remember what they are: probably just these weird dudes at home with the curtains closed and their trousers around their ankles, writing a few nasty things, and it’s weird that I should get upset by that person.”
Make no mistake, however. Regardless of how brilliant his Twitter comebacks are, the insults do upset him. He is someone who works hard at his music and is proud of it. The “clapbacks,” not to mention the attention they have gotten him, are just one way he’s learned to deal with it.
“Once upon a time, there was a world where we said, ‘If you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all and keep it to yourself,’” he says. “So Twitter’s a strange world, and kind of like a school notice board that you walk past in the corridor of life, and some nasty pupil has put up a sign saying, ‘I don’t like you’ for the world to read and that you can’t take down. It’s just weird that it’s acceptable for them to do that. I might as well put a little notice underneath theirs.”
If the venomous words of Twitter eggs aren’t impressing humility on Blunt, the world has done a bang-up job of it. He remembers a meeting with the EMI record studio, about six weeks after he returned from a stint in Kosovo. He walked out on a high: “You’re going to be a fucking star. This is going to be amazing.”
He strapped that war-veteran guitar to his back, hopped back on the massive motorbike he had taken to the meeting, and revved off, thinking, “for a moment in my life, I looked cool.” In an instant, he lost balance and the bike fell over. The EMI executives had to rush out to lift the heavy bike off him. “So, anyway, I didn’t get signed by EMI in the end,” he laughs. “And the guitar died six weeks after its return.”
It was soon after that he met the late Carrie Fisher through family friends. He told her that he had scored a record deal and would be moving to Los Angeles. “You’re going to need a place to live,” she told him plaintively. “So you’re going to live with me.”
Three of his albums were recorded in part at her eccentric house, which was featured in all its glory in the recent documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which was released shortly after the mother and daughter passed away. The song “Goodbye My Lover” was recorded in Fisher’s bathroom which, as Bright Lights revealed, had a piano in it.
“Her mind skipped from subject matter to subject matter so fast, like someone on acid—jumping faster than most people could keep up,” Blunt says, tearing up as he remembers his friend. “Which is why people often thought she was manic, and why that first album is called Back to Bedlam: it was the bedlam of that household. She helped name that album.”
The disc of that first album featured artwork of a Prozac pill that says “20 mg of James Blunt.”
“The Prozac pill was taken from her house,” Blunt says. “And she’s buried in it now.” Seriously.
Blunt laments that the world “will not be nearly as much fun” without Fisher in it. She was his son’s godmother, and now he won’t get to know her. But, he likes to think, their time together helped him hone what has become a strong sense of humor—one that, especially recently, has been celebrated—and an even stronger sense of self.
“I think there are tastemakers in this world, and therefore we’re often told what is hip, what is cool, and what is not, and those labels will stick for a lifetime,” he says. “Not all those opinions are necessarily formed by ourselves. So if I’ve fallen afoul and found myself in the ‘unhip’ category, I won’t shake that. Neither am I attaining to. I’m never going to turn that around, but fuck it. I seem to be surviving on it, anyway.”