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Why James Blunt Is More Than A Beautiful One-Hit Wonder
In Depth

Why James Blunt Is More Than A Beautiful One-Hit Wonder

Often hiding behind deadpan wit and snarky tweets, You’re Beautiful hitmaker James Blunt is one of Britain’s most underrated songwriters.

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It’s no secret that James Blunt is one of the most self-deprecating men in pop music. Always quick with a joke – and more than a hint of self-mockery – Blunt’s hilariously vicious replies to Twitter trolls have seen him win praise as a social-media sensation. What tends to get overlooked, however, is how the pop-rock songwriter has been quietly amassing an impressive body of work throughout his career.

From his debut album, 2004’s Back To Bedlam, to 2019’s Once Upon A Mind, Blunt’s songs have moved beyond the chart-topping smash hit You’re Beautiful to encompass folk, pop and even dance music, but they are always underpinned with his knack for emotionally raw lyrics and candid honesty.

Listen to the best of James Blunt here.

Though Blunt is modest enough to admit that some people don’t like his music, his likeable personality and cutting sense of humour have won over even his harshest critics. In fact, James Blunt’s self-effacing wit is arguably his secret weapon; luckily, however, he is always able to back this up with charmingly well-crafted pop songs and engaging melodies that speak louder than any Twitter troll.

Perhaps it’s time we reassessed James Blunt’s status as “guilty pleasure” and embraced him for what he truly is: a national treasure.

Waiting for the day: a military upbringing

Born in an Army hospital in Tidworth, Hampshire, on 22 February 1974, James Hillier Blount grew up with military service practically in his blood. He can trace his lineage back to Danish ancestors in the tenth century, and proudly claims that each of his forefathers has willingly served in wars and battles across the ages.

Since his father was a colonel in the British Army, Blunt – who dropped the “o” from his surname in 2002, at the start of his musical career, because people found it easier to spell – honoured the family tradition by training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and he ended up joining the Life Guards regiment in the late 90s. When the Kosovo War broke out, in February 1998, Blunt found himself deployed to serve his duty as an armoured reconnaissance officer as part of NATO’s military operations, eventually rising to the rank of captain.

Music, however, was always Blunt’s true calling. His parents weren’t particularly musical, though he does remember them owning cassette tapes of The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Don McLean and Pink Floyd, which he avidly devoured. Having originally learned to play guitar as a teenager (he started writing his own songs at the age of 14), Blunt took his instrument to Kosovo and strapped it to a tank as his battalion trundled ahead of the front lines to survey the Macedonia-Yugoslavia border.

It was during downtime while lunching with locals that Blunt wrote the song No Bravery, an intensely vivid eyewitness account of the devastating impact of the war, which he would later record for his debut album, Back To Bedlam.

After acting as the Queen’s bodyguard and later standing on ceremony during the Queen Mother’s funeral, Blunt, who had been recording demos whenever he was on leave, left the Army in late 2002 and decided to pursue a musical career.

On the strength of hearing a promotional CD containing an early version of Goodbye My Lover, Blunt managed to score a deal with Elton John’s management company and soon found himself being touted around various recording executives, eventually signing to Custard Records, the label run by former 4 Non Blondes’ frontwoman, Linda Perry. Within a year of leaving the Army, Blunt’s journey to becoming a pop star was well underway.

Running wild: recording in Los Angeles

For his first taste of the industry high life, Blunt was flown out to Los Angeles to record with Elliott Smith producer Tom Rothrock. As a huge fan of Smith’s lo-fi folk sound, Blunt knew that Rothrock’s production style would mesh with his own musical influences.

“I started to listen to more people of the 70s I thought were amazing – singer-songwriters like Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon, bands like Fleetwood Mac,” Blunt said. “But the things that really caught my ear that I felt I related to as a musician were singers like Cat Power, who I think is just so insanely fragile in her performance and her songs, and with such great beauty as well.”

While in Los Angeles recording what would become Back To Bedlam, Blunt was invited to stay in the Hollywood Hills with Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, a family friend. Unabashedly eccentric, Fisher’s home had a Christmas tree set up all year round, still littered with musical instruments left by her ex-husband, songwriter Paul Simon.

It was in Fisher’s bathroom that Blunt recorded the version of Goodbye My Lover that would make it onto his debut album. Ostensibly about the loss of an ex-girlfriend, the song would later reach No.9 in the UK and has since become a mainstay at British funerals, as revealed by a survey conducted in 2006 by the Bereavement Register.

Blunt’s debut album, Back To Bedlam, was eventually released in October 2004 and made good on his promise to encapsulate his love of smooth-sounding folk-rock and acoustic ballads verging on easy listening. The record didn’t make an immediate commercial splash, but its second single, Wisemen, took him within touching distance of the UK Top 40 in early 2005.

Originally written at the age of 16, when he was at Harrow School, in London, Wisemen contained all the ingredients of the best James Blunt songs, even though the singer admits the lyrics are quite nonsensical. “Although the lyrics don’t make any sense,” Blunt has said, “they capture an emotion. There’s definitely an emotion of isolation, of separation from a crowd, of someone unsure about where the hell they’re going.”

Blunt’s commercial fortunes would soon change, however, as his real breakthrough came with the release of You’re Beautiful, in May 2005. Written “about a moment when I saw my ex-girlfriend on the Underground in London with her new boyfriend”, only to find they passed each other by without acknowledging each other, the hit-in-waiting was a tender acoustic-led ballad full of pathos and regret, instantly winning over audiences with Blunt’s quavering, heart-rending vocal.

One of the brightest stars: finding fame

Undoubtedly his most famous song, You’re Beautiful made James Blunt a superstar overnight and hit No.1 in both the UK and the US – a remarkable achievement for a British artist, given how his style of endearing folk-pop was miles apart from a chart filled with bling-waving rappers and glamorous pop posturing.

Famously, the music video for You’re Beautiful featured Blunt jumping off a 55-foot cliff in Majorca, though he remembers he had to do it twice in order to get the right shot. “I split my lip the second time and my voice has always been incredibly high ever since because my tonsils were replaced by my balls that day,” the singer later joked.

You’re Beautiful’s extraordinary success sent Back To Bedlam skyrocketing up the album charts on its way to becoming the best-selling album of 2005. Shifting 11 million copies worldwide, the record proved there was a growing market for earnest singer-songwriters who were unafraid of wearing their hearts on their sleeves.

“It was a huge, huge album,” Blunt later reflected. “It’s beyond your kind of wildest dreams.” He was even interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and serenaded her TV audience with a piano rendition of Goodbye My Lover.

Re-released off the back of their parent album’s success, the singles High and Wisemen made a much bigger impact on the UK Top 40 the second time around, charting at No.16 and No.23, respectively, and Blunt spent the next year and a half touring the world. He started writing new material while on the road, but was already mindful of the critical backlash his hugely popular brand of emotional songcraft attracted from the notoriously antagonistic UK tabloids.

Moving to Ibiza, Blunt wrote the rest of the songs for what would become his second album, including 1973, a nostalgia-tinged soft-rocker about a girl called Simona that shone a spotlight on the Pacha nightclub. Released as the lead single from All The Lost Souls, 1973 had a Coldplay-like anthemic thrust that helped it peak at No.4 in the UK.

Infusing his songs with the winsome sweep of 70s singer-songwriters, Blunt remains proud of how he crossed the “difficult second album” threshold by grappling with his newfound fame. “I was super excited by the songs, I really love it,” he reflected. “It’s quite a dark album in many ways, and it’s called All The Lost Souls despite [me] being insanely visible around the world. It was quite a lonely place to be.”

No place I cannot go: a seasoned songwriter

Though it would have been impossible to match the runaway success of Back To Bedlam, All The Lost Souls was still hugely popular, entering the UK chart at No.1 in September 2007. Feeling he was evolving as a songwriter, Blunt considered the record’s second single to be one of his finest achievements.

“Same Mistake is my favourite song,” he said. “I wrote it completely on my own in a really reflective way, properly looking in the mirror and saying, you know, ‘You just don’t learn from your mistakes.’ I think the lyrics are very honest, very true.” Unlike the air of innocence that characterised Back To Bedlam, Same Mistake was a mature dive into brutal self-examination.

Blunt’s third album, Some Kind Of Trouble, followed in November 2010, and saw him move in a more pop-oriented direction thanks to the input of Pink producer Greg Kurstin and OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder. Its lead single, Stay The Night, performed well in many European territories and proved that the ex-Army captain was still cultivating a keen international fanbase. Now performing in arenas across the globe, Blunt was clearly advancing as a songwriter, his success boosted by songs that had jettisoned self-pity in favour of sunny, optimistic tracks such as The Truth and Turn Me On.

Some Kind Of Trouble’s follow-up, 2013’s Moon Landing, scored Blunt yet another hit, the lighters-aloft folk-rock of Bonfire Heart, which peaked at No.4 in the UK. As his fourth UK Top 10, it proved just how far Blunt had come in the past decade, evolving from pop outlier to seasoned collaborator with big-name producers.

Pulling no punches, Blunt’s songs were as endearing and radio-friendly as ever, but never once shied away from the down-to-earth relatability that had been his stock in trade ever since Back To Bedlam – as he amply demonstrated on his fifth album, 2017’s The Afterlove.

Almost two decades into his career, if there was any lingering doubt over James Blunt’s credentials as a respected songwriter, his sixth album, Once Upon A Mind, offered further evidence of his talents. Its third single, Monsters, released a week ahead of the album, in October 2019, saw Blunt appear shoulder-to-shoulder with his father in a touching music video that paid tribute to the old man’s ailing health.

“Monsters is a song for my father, who was unwell with stage 4 chronic kidney disease at the time,” Blunt said. “This is a man who had been my hero, so to see him become more frail, to recognise that his life is potentially coming to an end, obviously is pretty good inspiration for any songwriter.” With over 19 million views on YouTube, the video conveys the sorrow of seeing an ageing parent suffer, and the song struck a chord with audiences just as powerfully as You’re Beautiful ever did.

The stars beneath my feet: James Blunt’s legacy

With his charming demeanour and sharp wit on the battlefields of Twitter, James Blunt has long proven there is much more to him than You’re Beautiful. However, it’s unsurprising that selling over three million copies in the US and winning two Ivor Novello awards has made the song a hard act to follow. Not that it seems to bother Blunt himself. After receiving a tweet from someone expressing how much he disliked Blunt’s breakthrough hit, the songwriter replied: “I would love to sit you down and explain dollar for dollar why I just don’t care.”

With many more records behind him, it’s unfair to let James Blunt’s reputation rest on just one song – or album. Everyone knows somebody who owned a copy of Back To Bedlam, but his greatest-hits compilation, The Stars Beneath My Feet (2004–2021), proves that Blunt has gone on to release dozens of songs that are equally, if not more, affecting than the ones that originally made him famous.

At the end of the day, we all want to hear songs that reflect genuine emotion and intuit what we may be experiencing in our own lives. James Blunt is a songwriter who has been able to tap into those feelings far more successfully than most, whether it be through self-recrimination (Same Mistake) or the joy of finding love (Bonfire Heart).

“I write songs about my own experiences,” Blunt has said. “You can’t hide anything from yourself. It’s like looking in the mirror, and that kind of thing can be quite humbling and quite humiliating at the same time.” In many ways, Blunt has helped to pave the way for other sensitive singer-songwriters to come through, such as James Morrison, Paolo Nutini and even Ed Sheeran, each of whom have followed Blunt’s example by picking up an acoustic guitar and crafting tunes that reveal a more sensitive side to masculinity.

Most of all, in an age where many seem to have lost the ability to laugh at themselves, James Blunt is arguably humour’s greatest champion. He knows his critics exist, but his self-aware jokes and good-natured character ultimately win through, and he’s able to rise above it all by writing good songs. In the end, that’s the measure of any great songwriter, no matter how many people on Twitter try to claim otherwise.

Check out our best James Blunt songs to hear more from the wise man of pop-rock.

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