James Blunt did not realize how prescient the title of his debut album “Back to Bedlam,” was.
Things have been the best kind of crazy for the British singer-songwriter since “Back to Bedlam” came out in his homeland in October 2004. It was the best-selling album in Great Britain in 2005, besting the likes of Coldplay and U2, not to mention icons such as Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones. It also netted Blunt a pair of Brit Awards, which are the U.K. equivalent of the Grammys.
On the other side of the pond, “Back to Bedlam” soared into the Billboard Top 5 and has gone double platinum. The single “You’re Beautiful” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, making Blunt the first British solo artist to top the survey since Elton John in 1997 with “Candle in the Wind.” He also won two MTV Music Video Awards and was named one of People magazine’s 100 Most Beautiful People.
All told, “Bedlam” has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
It seems like a bit of understatement, then, when Blunt says: “It’s been amazing. It’s kind of taken me by surprise. I think I’m still in a state of shock about most of it.” Then again, he explains, he’s been busy with nearconstant touring and promotion duties, so he’s had “no chance to stop and think about it.”
He does, however, fi nd success in America to be a different proposition than in his homeland.
“I think maybe we set ourselves up for a fall in the U.K.,” Blunt, 29, explains. “We talk about coming over and trying to break America or conquer America, and I think America as a whole probably wouldn’t want to be broken or conquered and probably quite rightly would send us back home.
“But obviously there’s a lot of pressure, because it is such a big market.”
Blunt, however, says he works hard to separate his commercial and creative concerns.
“You don’t set out thinking about how many albums you’re going to sell,” he contends. “I write songs on a personal level, and I made an album ’cause I wanted to record these songs and document them and capture things I felt strongly about and then get them heard and play them out live in whatever country it may be.
“It’s all about musical connection, that kind of social interaction. So I’m glad it’s worked and that lots of people are hearing it, but my (joy) is not on the basis of units sold. I find that a rather vulgar thing to think about.”
Following his path
Blunt — born Blount — has been consumed with music since childhood, though his home in Tidworth, England, did not have a stereo; his parents had cassettes by the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Don McLean, but they were only played in the car. Instead, music was played in the home, with Blunt taking lessons in recorder, violin and piano. It wasn’t until he went to boarding school as an adolescent that Blunt began to hear rock and pop music — and that struck a deep chord.
At 14, he began playing guitar and started writing songs shortly thereafter. Blunt had already decided to pursue music professionally by the time he attended Bristol University, but he had to delay his entry by four years after enlisting in the British army.
“My dad was in the army, so he introduced me,” Blunt says. “And then because of that introduction, I asked the army to assist with my university tuition fees, and the payback is you have to then serve four years of military service.”
Blunt, who achieved the rank of captain, was stationed in Kosovo in 1999, then returned home to serve in the more sedate Queen’s Life Guard before his 2002 discharge.
“I knew what my path was going to be,” he notes, “so it didn’t seem like too much of a problem to do my time in the army and get out and do music. I didn’t sense that I would be stopping any chances of getting a record deal by spending some time in the army.”
And, in fact, he may have been more prepared to handle his eventual success with a few more years and some genuine battlefi eld experience under his belt.
“I don’t know whether I’m better equipped to deal with it or not,” says Blunt, who was signed after songwriter/producer Linda Perry saw him perform at the 2003 South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas. “Maybe in the fickle world of the music industry, I know not to worry too much if somebody says I’m not wearing fashionable (sneakers).
“And I guess I probably have things to write about. Experience is always a good thing to turn to when writing songs.”
Almost all of that experience stems from romances — including “You’re Beautiful,” which Blunt wrote after seeing a former girlfriend riding the subway with her new paramour. It’s all personal and passionate — so much so that it took Blunt a while to get comfortable performing the songs in public.
“I’m singing about things that are private, really,” says Blunt, who drew the song “No Bravery” from his military experiences. “Being a Brit, we’re not necessarily that good at expressing those kinds of things — and I’m as British as the next Brit, in that old-fashioned way.
“So, yeah, it was defi nitely difficult the first few times I got up onstage and sang these very private thoughts and ideas.”
A journey through song
Despite that, he adds, “I’ve always looked people in the eye onstage. I think if you’re going to go out there and say things, you might as well look them in the eye and take them on the journey. The payback is I then get approached by lots of people who say, ‘Yeah, I feel the same way.’ ”
That empathy certainly helped turn “You’re Beautiful” and subsequently “Goodbye My Lover” into hits, but Blunt is ambivalent about that. He appreciates that the success opened doors, and ears, for his music, but he worries about the possibility that one song will define him at this early stage of his career.
“I’ve always felt uncomfortable with that,” he explains, “because to me this album, ‘Back to Bedlam,’ is a collection of 10 songs. I wrote them in chronological order. I recorded them in relation to each other, and I put them down on the album in a specific order to make sense and take the listener on a journey.
“So it really shouldn’t be listened to as individual songs. It seems strange to focus on one chapter of the book that is ‘Back to Bedlam.’ If anyone just read chapter four of a book, you’d say, ‘You’re mad!’ And I feel the same way about taking a single to radio and saying, ‘Just listen to one song.’ ”
Blunt hopes it won’t be long before he has more songs for people to hear, too. Explaining that “I write as I go,” he’s already been working on material for his second album; he has about a half-dozen songs “that I absolutely love,” some of which he’s playing in his concerts. He expects to keep pursuing the personal path he did on “Back to Bedlam,” and Blunt is studiously avoiding any trite obsessions with his success or touring experiences.
“I still lead, as far as I can, a regular life,” he says. “My relationships with friends and family and my work associates is the same, so I’m not going to be writing songs about interviews and hotel rooms, I promise that. I still feel strongly about life subjects.”
James Blunt and Starsailor perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $50, $35 and $25. Call (313) 471-6611 or visit
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