It's pretty unfair, when you think about it, that so many people seem to harbour an irrational hatred of James Blunt. On paper, he's little more than a staggeringly successful, clean-living, middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter; a veritable angel, by the standards of his trade. Other pop stars commit antisocial crimes, like Pete Doherty; brawl in public, like the Gallaghers; or kill animals on stage, like Ozzy Osbourne and we think they're charming. Blunt strums a guitar, forgets to shave, looks a little posh and suddenly he's the most hated man in Britain.
James Hillier Blount, to quote the full name often employed by his sneering critics, has achieved huge commercial success. His debut album, Back to Bedlam, sold 11 million copies and in 2006 was the bestselling record in the world. The single You're Beautiful won an Ivor Novello award for most performed work, and he constantly plays to packed-out stadiums. He's cracked both America and Japan. His new album, All the Lost Souls, has been selling at a healthy rate and he is about to embark on yet another sell-out British tour, after playing in Auckland and Wellington this month.
Yet something about him winds people up. There's the music: after heavy radio play, the ever-so-catchy You're Beautiful began to get on everyone's nerves.
So did Blunt's posh background, earnest delivery and shrill, other-worldly voice. Eventually, the fickle mistress of fame turned on him. A Mirror newspaper poll of "the most annoying things in life", published last year, put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. Eventually and, in retrospect, perhaps inevitably, his name became Cockney rhyming slang for a word unsuitable for any family newspaper.
We meet in the north-London office of Blunt's formidable PR adviser, Barbara Charone, for two reasons. Firstly, because he's about to go on tour and has a new single out called Carry Me Home. Secondly, because it's about time that people gave him a fair hearing. As Charone herself puts it, the success of his current album, which has sold 700,000 copies in Britain, has made him a "way too easy and cheap target for all the James-baiters out there".
What's it like, I ask, being called the most unpopular man in pop?
"I think I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect me in some way," he says, earnestly. "But I just have to let it brush off me because, in the end, it's not really relevant. For me, the truth comes from the people who come to the shows and sing the words to the songs back to me. It's a great thrill when people say to me that a song of mine describes perfectly how they are feeling. It's not something I expected to happen."
Blunt looks everything you'd expect him to be. He has at least a centimetre of stubble and wears a raggedy T-shirt under a jacket, jeans and a pair of very battered-looking brown biker boots. He holds your gaze while he talks, sometimes with an intense, John the Baptist-like stare. The strangest thing about him is his hair, which is hanging about in his eyes and has been flattened into a monk's tonsure where it has been squashed under his baseball cap.
We move on to the safer ground of his new album. To go by its lyrics, All the Lost Souls is preoccupied with miscommuni-cation and damaged women. Simone, the muse of the song 1973, is looking a bit haggard from spending too much time in the Ibizan superclub Pacha; Carry You Home laments a girl whose only friend is "trouble"; Annie is about a woman reaching for stardom but falling short. There's an awful lot about not being heard or understood, and references to screaming and shouting. What's he getting at?
"It's not conscious. There are some women in this album, but there were boys in the first one. So that one was about boys and this one is about girls. The not-being-able-to-hear stuff I think is just because I find it difficult to express myself."
The album, Blunt insists, is about your past making up your present and future, which is why the front cover is a picture of his face now, made out of hundreds of older, smaller photographs. He didn't even want his face on the front cover. He wanted a skull, but the record label baulked.
Inevitably, All the Lost Souls is actually a lament about the irritants of fame and one of those irritants is newspapers and, therefore, people like me. Again, his lyrics occasionally make reference to this age-old celebrity dilemma. "One day you'll hope to make the grave, before the papers send you there," he sings in the track One of the Brightest Stars.
"I used to read the papers and think they were telling the truth and now I recognise that they don't and that most forms of journalism are just embellishments of stories. It's a remarkable eye-opener. So, yeah, I'm less trusting of journalists. I did an interview in Los Angeles and I said, 'It's nice here, isn't it?' and when I read the interview, the quote had been changed to, 'Isn't it absolutely delightful here?"'
Then, he says, there are the hundreds of inane questions he gets asked so frequently by lazy interviewers on the pop PR merry-go-round that he has stock answers for. "In some interviews, all I'm doing is pulling out answer five and answer nine, because I have all those answers tucked away. My tone of voice really changes when I start saying them. I can actually feel my throat change shape when I say them. It's really strange and by the end of the day I'm exhausted because my mind hasn't really been working at all but my throat has just repeated certain shapes over and over again. It's mind-numbing.
"Actually, if someone starts an interview in a certain way, I can probably just give them the whole interview in one go. I'll think, 'right, I know where we've started, let me just give you the whole thing now in half an hour, and we've done it and you've got what you want.' It's not a conversation, it's a monologue. I got asked two really awful questions earlier," he goes on. "The first was: 'Tell me something that no one else knows about you'. I get asked that once a day. The other one was: 'So, who's the real you?"'
James blunt was, as we noted earlier, born James Blount. There are all sorts of stories as to why he changed his name. One is that his management thought the original spelling, with those elongated vowels, sounded too "posh" (there's that word again). The official line, however, is that "Blount" is actually supposed to be pronounced "Blunt" and so, rather than having to correct the mistakes of every journalist and fan, he agreed to drop the stray "o".
He is 34 and the eldest of three, with two younger sisters. The Blounts are from Wiltshire in south-west England but, since Blount snr was in the army, they moved every two years or so during his childhood, with Blunt and his sisters rebuilding their lives and friendships every time they moved. The family lived in Germany, Cyprus and Yorkshire, with Blunt attending prep school in Berkshire. He ended up at Harrow. After school came Bristol University, where Blunt started out studying aeronautical engineering as he was good at maths and had a pilot's licence, but then switched to sociology, which seemed less taxing.
It's Blunt who brings up the four years he later spent as a soldier, not me. I was trying, for reasons I can't fully remember now, to ask about his star sign. You'd think he'd be sick of talking about his military career, but perhaps he just wants to get the subject over and done with (and crossed off that mental list). He served in the Life Guards, part of the Household Cavalry. His CV includes stints doing armoured reconnaissance in Kosovo, with his guitar strapped to the outside of the tank so that it didn't get sat on; then as captain of the Household Cavalry alpine ski team; then, latterly, with the Queen's Life Guard, even a stint guarding the Queen Mother's coffin.
"I was really comfortable in the army, really at home there," he says suddenly, in reply to a question about whether or not he's a typical Pisces. "I miss how non-judgmental soldiers are. The things that I dealt with were very real and necessary and important. It was often a question of life and death. At school, when I was very young, I remember someone calling me posh, and I hadn't been called posh since then, until I got into this industry.
"In the army, we were reliant on each other and no one cared about my background. Now I'm in the most judgmental industry in the world, and yet I'm supposed to be in an industry that deals with something true. But the music industry doesn't give a stuff about music as a connective medium, it just cares about who's cool and who's not cool, and my background and 'can we get played on that radio station?', 'is he the kind of person we want playing on that radio station?' and things like that."
He sympathises with Prince Harry's determination to do a tour of Afghanistan. "I can't speak for him, but I can imagine that that's what he likes about the army, too. I read one quote from him in which he said that he felt like an ordinary bloke until the press turned up. It doesn't matter who you are as long as you can work with other people. I'm sure he brings a lot to the team."
When he's not on a tour bus, Blunt lives in Verbier and Ibiza. Some reports have suggested that he's a tax exile and that's why he doesn't have a house in Britain. Blunt insists that's not true. "The house in Verbier is a tax burden, not a tax dodge. I bought it because I love skiing. And I live in Ibiza because if I only get two weeks off a year, I might as well spend it somewhere my friends might want to come and visit me. I haven't got a house in the UK just because it wouldn't be practical."
Being away on tour so much of the time also means that his relationships - with friends, family and yes, girlfriends - suffer. He affects discretion about his private life but we know, roughly, that the Blunt roll call of former girlfriends has included casting director Dixie Chassay, blond heiress and socialite Camilla Boler (who spilled all to the papers about his alleged affair with model Petra Nemcova), Tara Palmer-Tomkinson (briefly), and holistic therapist Mika Simmons. His current sort-of girlfriend is another socialite called Verity Evetts.
Blunt's tabloid reputation as a love rat does appear to be a bit undeserved, though. If you read between the lines of his rather vague conversational style, it sounds like he's just looking for The One and not having much luck. He's "searching", he tells me. Searching for what?
"You asked me before when I'm going to get married," he says. "I'm searching for the answers to those kind of questions. And there are greater things in life than being rich and famous. I never set out to be rich and famous, I set out to be happy. I'm on a search for happiness. I am happy now, in certain ways. I'm having an amazing time, but there are other things that I'm still looking for."
Despite sometimes talking this slightly vague sort of nonsense, when you get past the hair and the voice, James Blunt is actually a very nice man indeed. He's charming, fun and seems genuinely kind. He'd probably lend you a tenner, help an old lady across the road and give up his seat on the bus. Then he might write a song about you.
As a person, then, Blunt scores pretty highly. But as an artist, there is something a bit ersatz about him. For example, when I ask him about what kind of music he likes, he looks vague. Only by screwing up his face and really thinking can he summon up the most recent thing he put on his iPod (the latest Cat Power album). No, he doesn't have a song stuck in his head.
Music doesn't actually seem to excite him. He's much more concerned about "connecting" with other people who feel the same way as he does about life. He's a writer who sets his thoughts to music. Given the outpouring of sentiment in his songs, which even he admits are sometimes "pretty wet", he can seem the exact opposite of the sensitive soul you hear warbling on his CDs.
"I struggle with the word 'sensitive'," he says, cringing a bit. "It implies delicateness. I'm aware of my surroundings but I'm not in any way delicate." Well, quite. He travels with just his guitar and a kitbag containing increasingly dog-eared clothes as a tour goes on. Despite being away from his friends and family for months at a time, he doesn't travel with a single photograph, not one memento. Even the toughest soldier has a snap of his mum tucked away somewhere.
Oh, and then there's his other musical life. The guitar-strumming balladeer is a big clubber and fan of dance music, a fact that sits queasily alongside all his woe-is-me stuff. Can you imagine Chris Martin or Damien Rice letting go, putting their hands in the air and jumping around to Fedde le Grand? No. As their music implies, they'd be sitting in a corner somewhere, nursing old hurts about being unpopular teenagers and eating beansprouts.
It is Blunt's refusal to be the drippy character implied by his music that makes people suspect he's a fraud. Perhaps that's the reason why hacks ask him questions like, "So, who's the real you?"
"All I'm trying to do is have fun," he says. "I'm just trying to make albums that I like, and then, along the way, having fun with it. Fun in an honest way, I mean."
On the subject of having fun, there is a slightly controversial reference to mind-altering substances in All the Lost Souls, (the line "I've taken a shit-load of drugs", edited in the lyric sheet to "ship-load"), and a further reference to Valium. Can the squeaky-clean pop star in him expand on a previous comment he made about having a "good" relationship with drugs? "No." Then he adds, "I mention Valium on the album and I don't see what the problem is with that. I don't have an addiction to anything."
He tells me that he has trouble sleeping, which is what Valium might be doing in his life. He can't fall asleep easily, as there are a lot of things on his mind. Like what? "I'm not going to tell you that," he says, and laughs. Fair enough.
Then Blunt does something extraordinary. I ask him who is the most famous person he knows, expecting him to say Elton John, an early Blunt cheerleader. But he doesn't say Elton John. He says, brightly, "The Queen".
"The Queen? You don't know her!" I exclaim.
"Yes I do," he replies, comically indignant. "Well, okay, I don't know her particularly well, but I met her often enough. I was her Life Guard. I was in the Queen's Life Guard. But, yeah, all right, I don't have her private phone number or anything."
It's admirably guileless. This is a man who is constantly attacked for being posh, endlessly picked at and snidely dissed for his smart background and his privileges. And yet rather than squirrelling it all away and pretending to be something else, he's right out there, saying proudly that the most famous person he knows is also so posh she's beyond posh.
It's an impressively unself-conscious thing to say, and it shows that, basically, Blunt doesn't mind too much what anyone thinks of him. He's posh and we should all get over it. He's got long, silly hair because he can't be bothered to cut it. He sells people their own self-doubt and broken hearts back to them, and then he goes clubbing with the vast proceeds from it all. He's got us but he doesn't need us.
And that is why, despite all the likeable things about him, so many people think he's a bit of a James Blunt.
They said it: the verdict on James Blunt from his peers
"I'd rather eat my own s*** than duet with James Blunt."
Singer Paul Weller, Daily Mirror, January 2006
"It's phenomenal to me how many people hate him. It's baffling. Why are we knocking the one success worldwide this country has produced this year?"
Amanda Ghost, Blunt's former co-writer, April 2006
"I was never, ever, ever, ever, ever told by James Blunt that there was a girlfriend. One thing's for sure, I don't think I did anything wrong. I was deceived by this guy and that's it."
Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, Daily Mirror, April 2006
"I don't mind being criticised, but hearing yourself described as the next James Blunt? That hurts."
Scottish singer Paolo Nutini, November 2006
"There doesn't need to be a campaign. Blunt seems to be destroying his career pretty effectively on his own." The Enemy's lead singer Tom Clarke, September 2007
"The world at warble: Blunt plays with many ideas and makes them sound the same." Headline in The Guardian, September 2007 "Despite the sentimental nature of his music and all those rampantly narcissistic videos, there was something honest and plainspoken about this performance." Reviewer David Sinclair, The Times, January 2008.
* James Blunt performs in Wellington at the TSB Bank Arena on April 29 and in Auckland at the Vector Arena on April 30.
- INDEPENDENTBy Esther Walker