It starts gradually, with a realisation that you really like that song, Bonfire Heart, and turn up the radio whenever it comes on. Then you start following James Blunt on Twitter, having heard about his habit of searching for unkind remarks about himself and delivering delightfully pointed smackdowns to the perpetrators (with over 5,000 retweets for the sharpest). Before you know it, there aren’t enough glitter pens in the world for the banner you’re planning on making for his next London show.
Or that’s what happened to me, anyway. “The positive vibe here has taken me by surprise,” he tells me. “It’s been warming to hear people say, you know what, I like that song and more than that, I’m prepared to say so.” I’ve never quite understood the level of vitriol directed at him for having a boarding school, army background and a drippy song (You’re Beautiful, which went to number one all over the world in 2005). In the couple of times our paths have crossed previously I’ve found him to be wryly amused by this whole pop star lark and relatively free of ego. Today he’s as bemused as anyone at the new warmth heading his way from the British public. This could be the comeback of the year.
“I can sense a groundswell of people supporting it,” he says of his new album, Moon Landing, his fourth. It’s no huge sonic departure, but it’s full of memorable tunes and there’s a lightness of touch that gives it less of a tortured, tearful feel than past recordings. In Bonfire Heart’s uplifting strum he has scored his first British hit single since 2007. “It was number one in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other places, but for the UK to put me in the singles chart was totally unexpected.”
I tell him as tactfully as I can that before this year it had felt like he was on a steady downward trajectory, not to floptown but to a more sensible level of success than the 11 million-selling monster that was his debut album, Back to Bedlam. He points out that it’s only really the UK and US that have become weaker markets – in much of mainland Europe and Asia he hasn’t been able to walk down the street for years.
“I don’t think I was ever designed to be a ubiquitous worldwide star,” he accepts. “I’m a singer-songwriter writing quite personal songs. You’re not supposed to chuck me on a stage with bells and whistles. There was a struggle ahead after that happened and perhaps I was trying to write songs to compete in that arena.”
At 39 he’s still a bit of a cautious interviewee, perched on the edge of a sofa in the retro surroundings of the St John’s Wood recording studios, RAK. A few hours later he was playing for Prince William at a Kensington Palace charity gala alongside Taylor Swift and Jon Bon Jovi. Having served briefly alongside Prince Harry in the same army regiment and stayed friends, he’s more comfortable in royal company than with the press. There’s a flush of red in his cheeks that suggests he’s used to having to defend himself in these situations. “The negativity crept in very early on with that first album, from the media,” he says. “What’s interesting is you get a transition from, ‘The song is played too much, it’s annoying to hear,’ into ‘He’s annoying.’ Am I an annoying person? My friends can find me annoying, but I don’t think as an artist I am. It’s just that the song has been played too much.”
His time in the army may have toughened him enough to brush off the pisstakers – after university he served in the Household Cavalry and as a reconnaissance officer in Kosovo until he left in 2002. But he doesn’t think he handled all the gibes particularly well and has no comfort to offer the latest music meltdown victim, X Factor winner James Arthur. “I was defensive and I don’t think that’s necessarily the way to go. So I don’t think I’d have advice for anyone. It’s been a mad old journey. These are just normal human beings thrown in extraordinary situations.”
Now at least he has Twitter to respond to his critics. “Why does James Blunt sing like his willy is being stood on?” asked one detractor last month. “Damn thing’s always getting caught under my feet,” was his priceless comeback. He admits to keeping an eye on mentions of his name as “market research”, saying it’s helped him to decide on his next single. But it also means he sees all the insults.
“I am a troll. And do you know what, I really don’t like social media apart from this aspect of it. Posting pictures of me doing this or that is really boring, but I enjoy engaging with people. I tell them it’s just a laugh, stay in touch if you’re getting any grief. They’re just voicing an opinion. Disappointingly, since what I’ve been doing has been publicised in the media, it’s pretty much stopped. So there’s no reason to go on Twitter any more.”
Instead, increasing numbers of people are telling him how much they like his new album, a development he attributes to going back to basics with Back to Bedlam’s producer, Tom Rothrock. “The first album had a naivety to it. I made it with no expectations. After that, I was trying to write songs with an audience in mind. I was thinking, how am I going to fill these arenas? This time around I really battled to write words that I needed to say rather than what I thought people wanted to hear. There was no audience again.”
In the immediate aftermath of Back to Bedlam’s 10-times platinum success, expectations became unmanageable. “It was amazing and ridiculous. But I knew I was never going to be able to replicate it.” At least he found a way to enjoy the rewards, buying a house in Ibiza (where he still lives all year round) with a nightclub in the basement. A neon sign reads: Blunty’s Nightclub Where Everybody’s Beautiful.
“I went there because it’s a really fun place. I just like nightclubs, simple as that. It would be madness not to enjoy the trappings, but everyone’s welcome to join in. I’m not lonely and isolated on a pedestal.” He has a girlfriend now, which has curtailed the playboy activities somewhat, but in no way is he deluded enough to think of himself as a rock god. I remind him that he remains responsible for my most ludicrous work jolly – a trip to Ibiza on a private jet to see him play a hilltop gig launching his second album in 2007.
“I’m so sorry it was to come and see me. Wouldn’t it have been a better story if you’d gone to see some amazing rock ‘n’ roll band?” But for an increasing number of people now, whether this self-deprecating star believes it or not, James Blunt is the one to watch.
Moon Landing is out now on Atlantic. April 19, Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (0845 401 5045, royalalberthall.com)