A Musician at a turning point in his life

DAVID WHETSTONE talks to Jamie Cullum and finds a musician at a turning point in his life.

Dec 21 2009 by David Whetstone, The Journal

The morning after Joe McElderry’s triumph in The X Factor, it seems reasonable to ask Jamie Cullum if he’d been among the millions of viewers who shared the moment.

“I’m afraid not,” says the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist. “I’m away quite a lot so I’m probably the only person in the universe to have missed it.”

Of young Joe from South Shields, he says: “He’s certainly a very gifted singer so good on him. It’s always good when somebody really talented gets attention.”

The prospect of fame and fortune through music is the carrot dangling over all X Factor hopefuls but is this a good thing?

“It depends what you’re in it for,” says Jamie, whose first album was released – in a run of just 500 copies – 10 years ago, when he was 20.

“For me, it’s always been a bit more about the journey rather than the destination because I’m a total music geek.

“You think about playing all the time and it’s not really about where you’re going or where you want to be. The journey I’ve taken, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world because it’s been amazing fun.

“I’ve been passionate about music since I was 12 years old but I didn’t think it would be my career until I was 20 or 21. I used to play because it was what I did and it was a good way to get invited to parties.”

Born in Essex and brought up in Wiltshire, Jamie benefited from a relatively privileged education which took him to Reading University and a first-class honours degree in English Literature.

From there he could have gone in many different directions. Looking back, he says: “I really enjoyed doing English and writing and stuff like that. I thought for a time I might go the journalistic route or write fiction.”

Music, though, became all-consuming.

“I played shows where there’d be five people in the room and then I started to do gigs that were sold out,” says Jamie.

“I became self-sufficient as a musician. I was completely DIY. I’d organise the band, turn up with my own PA system and sell CDs.

“I was signed by a small label called Candid and then Universal got interested.”

The eclectic second album, Pointless Nostalgic, blending new numbers with re-workings of classics by the likes of Gershwin and Thelonious Monk, earned him a spot on the Michael Parkinson show so Jamie Cullum, too, has benefited from a little TV assistance.

He is most often characterised as a jazz musician, probably because he does do jazz brilliantly and jazz critics, who can be a picky bunch, have been appreciative. But he’s not the type to relish being put into a labelled box.

“I always say that that’s your job. It’s my job to be leaping out of the box.

“That’s where the creative tension really happens. Without wishing to be ‘know-it-ally’, I tend to say I’ve got the soul of a jazz musician but I grew up with pop and hip-hop music. I take from all of those things and meet them with the soul of a jazz musician.”

He likens the approach to that of 1970s American rock band Steely Dan who are revered by fans of jazz, rock, funk and R&B.

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Jamie says his latest album, The Pursuit, was the most difficult, partly because of self-imposed pressures – the only type he allows himself to be subjected to, he insists.

“I’ve just turned 30 and this was the fifth album. It felt like quite a searching point of my career so I felt I really had to make an album that made a big statement and opened me up to the next 10 years of music-making. I wanted it to be different to all the others.”

It was released in November. And the response?

For the BBC, Adrian Edwards called it “refreshingly ambitious”; in The Guardian, John Fordham was appreciative, saying pop fans might now “get the point of Cullum”, even if jazzers didn’t; Clive Davis, for The Times online, while suggesting there seemed to be a competition among critics to see who could be the rudest about Jamie Cullum, said he “deserved credit for balancing art and entertainment”.

For his part, Jamie says he has been “massively” gratified by the general response to The Pursuit.

“This has been by far the most positive response I’ve ever had, which is a great feeling.”

He acknowledges that a change in his personal circumstances has also added to the sense of a turning point. In 2010, he confirms, he is to be married to model and writer Sophie Dahl, granddaughter (on her mother’s side) of author Roald Dahl and (on her father’s side) of actor Stanley Holloway.

This is something, says Jamie, that he prefers not to talk about.

However, asked if his wife-to-be had any input into the new album, he says: “She’s a novelist and a writer so she’s pretty busy with her own work. But I think when you are both creative for a living, it’s not something you can switch off from when you come home from the office.”

Jamie says he is not averse to advice and has always listened closely to brother Ben, a composer who lives nearby.

Recently Jamie toured extensively through Europe and America, and makes special mention of a memorable gig at the Hollywood Bowl.

Reminded that he is currently talking to a journalist based in Newcastle, he perks up and says; “Oh, I’m looking forward to that. We’ve always had great gigs up there.”

He sounds absolutely genuine.

As young Joe McElderry is finding out fast, the North East is awash with fans keen to show appreciation for talent and commitment.

Jamie Cullum’s first full UK tour for five years will bring him to Newcastle City Hall on May 11, 2010. A new single, Don’t Stop the Music, is out on January 25 (Decca/Terrified Recordings). *another mention this is the next single…*

Without wishing to be ‘know-it-ally’, I tend to say I’ve got the soul of a jazz musician

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