The way James Blunt sees it, we may get older, but nothing changes much from elementary school. "We seem to be in exactly in the same state as when I was 8 years old. In a school playground, children gossiped about who kissed who, who said what about who, who isn't cool because they weren't wearing the right clothes. Now on a global scale, people write about who kissed who, who said what, and who's wearing what clothes."
In the nearly three years since Blunt released Back to Bedlam, he's sold 11 million CDs worldwide with the album, going No. 1 in 18 countries and top 10 in 35. A short list of accomplishments includes being nominated for five Grammys, landing the first No. 1 single in the U.S. ("You're Beautiful") by a British act since Elton John's "Candle in the Wind" in 1997 and winning two MTV Awards and two Brit Awards.
That seemingly sudden rush to global superstardom and the attendant experiences make up the lyrical content of All The Lost Souls, out Sept. 18th on Custard/Atlantic Records. The 10-song cycle about life-and death-- shows tremendous growth from 2005's Back to Bedlam, which Blunt calls "a very honest, slightly nave collection of thoughts, emotions and experiences. I wrote them without any knowledge that anyone would hear them."
This time he knows there's an audience eager to hear his songs about "the ups and downs of his journey." Blunt bristles at the notion that his now-lofty perch distances him from his listeners. "Just because I've been given the fickle title of celebrity, it doesn't mean I'm any less human. I go through the same thing, only my mother hears about it first now," he says, laughingly referencing his frequent appearances in the tabloids.
Indeed, one listen to All The Lost Souls and it is clear Blunt is talking about what unites us, not what divides us. We all crave love, comfort and security, especially in those times when they seem the hardest to find. Those intersections are the ones that interest Blunt the most and on "All The Lost Souls" he brings a focus, clarity and, at times, urgency to our travels.
"We go through this really amazing experience called life and we're trying to understand it and understand why the hell we're here," he says. "I really love life. I really enjoy it, but it does trouble me and as it goes and it ticks by-- it's not very long--you kind of wonder what you're going to get out of it, where to look for greater depth and meaning, and why we do the things we do to fill it. I think we all experience that."
All The Lost Souls was found as he toured the world in support of Back to Bedlam. He wrote five songs while on the road, testing them before a very willing audience. When it came time to write the remaining songs, Blunt needed to get off the merry-go-round of the last few years and be still. In the summer of 2006, he retreated to Ibiza, off the coast of Spain. After the constant cacophony, the silence took some getting used to. "It was the first minute to stop and look around at what had really happened after three years and have a think about it," he says.
He returned again to Ibiza the following winter and received songwriting assistance from a most unlikely source: "Someone had stolen my boiler, so there was no heating," he says. "I was in the house wearing an overcoat, a hat and fingerless gloves playing on the piano. The builder would drop in and say I was living like a monk. The songs I'd written in the summer having just stepped out of a club were much happier."
Seeking some different flavors for the album, Blunt asked his publisher to pair him with "people who weren't necessarily the obvious writers... to just free myself." While Blunt wrote the bulk of the album himself, his request led to collaborations with Mark Batson (Dr. Dre, Dave Matthews Band), Jimmy Hogarth (with whom he also wrote for "Bedlam"), Steve McEwan, Eg [cq] White and Max Martin.
Musically, the album draws much of its inspiration from great artists of the '70s: "Fleetwood Mac, Don McLean, Elton John, maybe a touch of Steely Dan in there, and if I'm lucky, a bit of Bowie," he says, before cheekily adding, "and if I'm lying I might as well add Zeppelin as well."
The album opens with the layered, rollicking "1973," a nostalgic look back at sharing great times with friends. Songs such as "One of the Brightest Stars" and "Annie" deal with the vagaries and distortions that fame can bring. "Carry You Home" and "I'll Take Everything" tackle our fragile mortality, while "I Really Want You" and "Same Mistake" showcase Blunt as his most vulnerable.
The Sandhurst graduate who served in Kosovo admits that he finds language limiting, but, in song, he finds the freedom to write what he can't speak. "My music is autobiographical. It's my expression and it's for me," he says. "It's a necessary expression; otherwise I'd just be this Brit that just has a shell." And as for those who may find his confessions too dramatic, he quotes Jeff Buckley: "Sensitivity isn't being wimpy; it's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom."
When it came time to record in Los Angeles with
Back to Bedlam producer Tom Rothrock, he brought in the boys from the road. The recording marked a sharp contrast to "Bedlam," which was tracked with studio musicians and then with Blunt overdubbing many of the instruments himself. This time, "I sat behind a piano or a guitar and played the band the songs and described what I wanted from them," he says. "We'd been touring together for two-and-a-half years. They know exactly what it is I'm after and it takes very little time for them to put the flesh on a skeleton."
With the recording behind him, Blunt is eager to get back before his fans. "Touring is the most fun you can possibly have," he says. "It's the best invention anyone ever came up with." Yet even he imagines a day-hopefully in the far, far future-when the audiences are no longer there. On the album's closer, "I Can't Hear the Music," he sings with a quiet resolve that even after the fans' applause has faded and the curtain has come down for the last time, the music remains. For Blunt, it's a song of hope and an ultimate reminder of why he's here. "The chorus sums it up: 'And if I can't hear the music and the audience is gone/I'll dance here on my own.' It's about saying I'm in it for the passion," he says. "I'm in it for the love of it and the audience may be a temporary thing."