By Jon Wiederhorn
To date, James Blunt has sold more than 20 million albums and has played sold-out arenas across the globe. Being famous has brought both artistic and financial rewards. Blunt has a home in Ibiza, Spain and a chateau in the Swiss Alps, and he's made numerous friends in high places, including actress and writer Carrie Fisher, with whom he stays when he's in Los Angeles.
"I met her years ago in London in a restaurant," Blunt tells Yahoo. "She said I should stay with her when I wrote the first album, and now whenever I record, I've been living with her. It's very much my home away from home, and it's a very creative house. One minute Sean Lennon will be passing through and Harper Simon, who is Paul Simon's son. When I was working on this album, I'd come home from the studio at one in the morning and Carrie would be on her bed writing. She'd be the first person I'd play every song to. And after she heard it, she'd give me her critique and then send me out in the morning to fix it up."
While fame and wealth have given Blunt opportunities he only dreamed of a decade ago, he has also been subject to the inconveniences of being a celebrity. He has been pressured by his label and management to continue to raise the bar on his popularity, and been scrutinized by the British press, who he claims is just as happy to fabricate something about him as they are to tell the truth. Case in point: The U.K. paper the Daily Mail caused a stir in October 2012 when it printed an article in which Blunt allegedly said, "I just want to take some time out for myself. I haven't got plans to do more songwriting."
"That newspaper is famous for not ever telling the truth," Blunt says. "I'd been home for a day to wash my clothes after my world tour finished. Then the next day I headed to Los Angeles and started writing songs. Music's in my blood. I never plan to stop."
There are two sides to James Blunt. On one hand, he's a former British Army captain who served in Kosovo, an adventurer who rides motorcycles across endless stretches of highway, an avid skier who attacks the slopes like an Olympic champion, and a fearless deep sea diver. Then there's the hopeless, pain-stricken romantic who rose to stardom in 2004 with the strummy, acoustic pop song "You're Beautiful" from his debut Back to Bedlam, and has just released the plaintive, heart-on-sleeve Moon Landing.
"I sing some delicate little tunes, but I enjoy adventure and I come from a serious Army background," Blunt says. "I had an amazing time in the Army going to places where you're hopefully helping bring peace and stability. It was the greatest education in the world. To be in areas that aren't safe and try to understand the difficulties of the people there was an incredible thing."
While Blunt continues to support war veterans through various charities, he's hardly remembered for his military service. Once "You're Beautiful" hit the radio, he took on a new life as a celebrity pop star. The song exploded and Back to Bedlam sold more than 11 million copies around the world; eight of the 10 songs were used in television commercials. In addition, Blunt won two Brit Awards and a pair of MTV Music Awards.
His subsequent records, 2007's All the Lost Souls and 2010's Some Kind of Trouble, were more musically intricate; lush with piano, strings, and polished production, and they were also well received, spreading his appeal to pop, rock and indie audiences.
For Moon Landing, Blunt decided to strip some of the frills of his last two albums and take a more direct approach to songwriting. He started working in England with Martin Terefe in the fall of 2012, on the album tracks "Postcards," "Heart to Heart," and "Blue on Blue." The latter is an English term for friendly fire, but Blunt used the expression as a metaphor for love gone bad.
"It's a terrible thing when two people in the same army shoot at each other by mistake," he said. "But sometimes we do the same in a relationship. We hurt the ones we love the most."
After a session with Terefe, Blunt decided the two didn't share the same aesthetic approach to the album. Blunt wanted Moon Landing to be the musical cousin to Back to Bedlam, filled with simple, pared-down songs that emphasized emotional resonance and sensitivity over extravagance and pop convention.
"I didn't want to write words that I thought my fans wanted to hear," he explained. "Instead, I wanted to write the words that I needed to say. It's a more personal album with songs about my experiences over the past three years; some of them good, but some of them very bad. And I wanted to capture them honestly in a therapeutic way."
To ensure the recording was raw and sincere, Blunt returned to producer Tom Rothrock (Beck, Badly Drawn Boy, Elliott Smith), with whom he had worked on Back to Bedlam before anyone knew the lyrics or melody of "You're Beautiful." For the majority of the next year, he and Rothrock worked in a small room at Studio Factory in Los Angeles capturing the purity of the new songs.
"We recorded it exactly the same way as Back to Bedlam," Blunt said. "What you hear was recorded in a particular way that's much more personal, embracing the cracks and the flaws rather than totally hiding behind massive production or lots of different musicians. Because if you hide behind them, the songs don't get the chance to shine."
Blunt wrote the first single, "Bonfire Heart," with OneRepublic vocalist Ryan Tedder, but it wasn't so much a planned collaboration as an impromptu meeting of the minds. "One Republic was on tour in Europe, so I called him up one day and said, 'Where are you?'" recalled Blunt. "I hooked up with them on tour and traveled with them in their bus while writing. I was like a groupie to the band, and we worked on the song together and it came out great. It's about human connections, so the lyrics are simple: 'People like us, we don't need that much for someone to light the spark in our bonfire heart.'"
For the song's video, Blunt applied an equally improvisational approach. The idea was film the songwriter riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle from Wyoming to Idaho and capture whatever happened along the way. "We covered about 500 miles, and because the song is simple and genuine and honest I didn't want to use actors," he said. "So we asked people we met to be in the video. They're all real. And the most amazing bit was the final scene. We pulled into a car park [garage], and what we didn't realize was there was a wedding taking place in the bar. They saw us and the wedding party spilled out. So I took out my acoustic guitar and I played them 'Bonfire Heart.' Surrounded by their friends and their family, the bride and groom had their first dance to the song."
A less uplifting, but equally powerful song on Moon Landing is "Miss America," which Blunt penned in tribute to R&B legend Whitney Houston, who battled many years of substance abuse and died in February 2012 after drowning in the bathtub of her hotel. An autopsy detected cocaine in her system.
"'Miss America' is about her talent, her incredible voice and the tragic story of her downfall," Blunt said. "I relate to it a bit because the music industry pressures are insane. And there are many people who have gone down the same path as her because of their fragility. Her story is the same as Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Princess Diana, and maybe Justin Bieber's in the future. People in the public eye are under constant scrutiny and I think I relate to that as well."
Blunt, who cherishes his privacy and is reluctant to talk about his personal life, said the public has too much access into the lives of celebrities. He added that it doesn't take much for that admiration to turn into obsession and dangerous voyeurism. "We think we know singers when we listen to them," Blunt said. "We feel close to them and then we, perhaps, want to know a little bit too much. So we go online and read about their personal lives and buy magazines to see them at their worst. We start to play our own role in their downfall because we spectate and enjoy doing that too much. That creates pressure for these people that they shouldn't have to deal with."
The last track Blunt worked on for Moon Landing was the piano part on "Sun on Sunday." It was an ideal and picturesque ending to a year of soul searching, recorded at Rothrock's former home in the Hollywood Hills. "It was where we recorded Back to Bedlam, so it was like everything coming full circle," Blunt said. "Tom had a piano set up there and we played in his living room overlooking Los Angeles. It was an amazing place and it was a great way to end the album. It was actually the last thing we recorded before he sold the place and moved out."
Moon Landing was released Nov. 5, so it's far too early to tell if the public will take to Blunt's back-to-basics approach. But some critics have been less than kind. The album has earned a 49 out of 100 from reviews on Metacritic.com, with Rolling Stone writing "His worst enemy is still his own voice, an agitated whimper that makes even tender lines sound strangely like complaints." And the Boston Globe wrote, "Most of this is too wan to give Blunt a career boost." British daily the Guardian simply griped, "His fourth album is Blunt at his bluntest." That said, the nine Metacritic users who weighed in ranked the album 8.2 out of 10.
Regardless of how Moon Landing fares, Blunt, who begins a world tour in China on New Year's Eve, couldn't be happier with the record. "Making this album has been an amazing journey," he said. "What happens from here, we have no idea. But it was worth the trip no matter where it takes us."