It was next to impossible to miss James Blunt's debut single, "You're Beautiful," in 2005, as the song was broadcast in television and movie soundtracks and commercials, and in nearly every identifiable radio format. Blunt's tremulous vocals proclaiming the realization that a beautiful woman met in passing is romantically unattainable struck a chord worldwide, becoming a cultural phenomenon while reaching number one status in 12 countries and propelling sales of the album Back to Bedlam into the stratosphere. His success also resulted in supporting slots on an Elton John tour, and later caused a critical and popular backlash against his super-sincere style of delivery that some critics dismissed as targeted mostly to sentimental housewives and schoolgirls. While the criticism possibly stung Blunt's artistic ego, he no doubt enjoyed the fruits of his commercial success. "The core element running through my songs," he told Robin Eggar of London's Sunday Times, "is about the lonely path one walks through life, the connections you make and the thoughts that you don't generally share with people."
Blunt was born into a family with a long military history. He attended boarding school and joined the military after graduating from Bristol University. He attained the rank of captain and eventually served as part of the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo in 1999. "It was depressing," he told USA Today. "I saw humanity at its worst and most destructive, and at the same time individuals on all sides showed incredible courage through strife." Even during this period, Blunt carried his guitar to compose songs, including the song "No Bravery" on Back to Bedlam. The song's inspiration derived from Blunt's witnessing Serbian soldiers sharing a moment of jocularity and a pornographic magazine while standing next to a group of Albanians they had just slaughtered. "You can get over it because you have the good fortune to come home," he told USA Today. "After my time there, I could go out to a pub in London and see my friends and people who are worried about being cool. The people I left [in Kosovo] have much more right to be traumatized because their lives continue to be directly affected."
Returning to London, Blunt was a member of the Queen's Life Guard. He returned to music after finishing his military tenure, picking up where he had left off as a child when he learned to play recorder, violin, and piano before he was seven years old. He had bought an electric guitar at age 14 and had written songs that were inspired by musicians of the time such as Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Pink Floyd. Later he began composing in a style closer to that of his more current musical heroes: Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Neil Young, and Elliott Smith.
Blunt was discharged from military service in 2002, and began performing in London clubs and recording demonstration tapes. He was signed to Elton John's management company, and John's support even included his comparison of Blunt's "You're Beautiful" to his own classic "Your Song." After performing at the 2003 South by Southwest music showcase in Austin, Texas, Blunt was signed by Linda Perry to her Custard Record label, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. He paired professionally with Elliott Smith, Beck, and Badly Drawn Boy producer Tom Rothrock, and set out to create Back to Bedlam.
Back to Bedlam reached number one on the British charts, where it reigned for nine weeks, sold 2.4 million copies, and won two Brit Awards. Blunt repeated this success in the United States, selling out headlining shows and netting a supporting slot with Elton John. Blunt told USA Today, "I recorded the album in Los Angeles with an American producer and American musicians, and the topics I sing about are not specific to where I was brought up. They're about what it is to be human, so I hope people from any country, race or religion can relate. I'm enjoying the opportunity and the experience of connecting musically."
Blunt's singing, which quakes and teeters toward an aching falsetto, has elicited much comment. "I think it's taken me years to learn how to sing like a girl," he explained in a conversation with Sean Combs in Interview. "I didn't take lessons or anything. My voice is the strongest instrument I've got. I can play a whole host of instruments, from anything on keyboard or piano, and any guitar. But the voice is where I find it easiest to express myself."
After selling eleven million copies of Back to Bedlam, Blunt returned to the drawing board to write new material for a follow-up, All the Lost Souls. Released in September of 2007, the album continued to mine Blunt's Kosovo experiences for such songs as "I Really Want You," where the reference isn't sexual or romantic conquest but a challenge to a divine being who avoids interfering in human activities. Blunt also reflected on his newfound celebrity in "Give Me Some Love," and on the celebrity of others, as in the song "Annie." While noting that the album's songs were written from the comfort of the vacation paradise of Ibiza and during a period when Blunt was dating supermodels and starlets, Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman noted that the album sounded "curiously gloomy." Comparing the new album with Back to Bedlam, he mused that "a less confident artist might have tried to contest his wussy image by crafting a tougher and faster follow-up. Not Blunt, whose sophomore effort is, if anything, even quieter. There's something almost punk rock about his steadfast refusal to rock."
For the Record …
Born on February 22, 1974. Education: Graduate of Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
Served as captain in NATO Peacekeeping Force, Kosovo, 1999; released debut album, Back to Bedlam, 2004; released Chasing Time: The Bedlam Sessions, 2006; released All the Lost Souls, 2007.
Awards: MTV Europe Music Award for Best New Act, 2005; Q Award for Best Pop Act, 2005; Brit. Award for Best Male performance, 2006; NRJ Music Award (France) for Best International Newcomer, 2006; Best-Selling British Artist award, 2007.
Addresses: Management—Twenty-First Artists Ltd., 1 Blythe Road, London, W14 OHG, England, telephone: 44 207 348 4400, e-mail: [email protected] Web site—James Blunt Official Web site: http://www.jamesblunt.com.
Back to Bedlam, Atlantic/Custard Records, 2004.
Chasing Time: The Bedlam Sessions, WEA International, 2006.
All the Lost Souls, WEA International, 2007.
Entertainment Weekly, September 21, 2007.
Interview, August 2006.
Sunday Times (London, England), April 24, 2005.
USA Today, February 24, 2006.
All Music Guide,www.allmusic.com (April. 1, 2008).
—Bruce Edward Walker