The big day with Sophie Dahl, a new tour and the perfect holiday soundtrack – Jamie Cullum’s got Christmas all wrapped up
‘I don’t think I’m any less tortured than anyone else; it’s just that I choose not to share that with my audience or in my songs,’ said Jamie Cullum
Christmas is big in the Cullum household. He’s a traditionalist in that sense, and has already spent the best part of the holiday season celebrating the Yuletide spirit. As well as finding time to pose for Live’s Christmas cover, he’s also been the guest host of the festive edition of Never Mind The Buzzcocks, recorded a Tracks Of My Years broadcast for Radio 2’s Ken Bruce and picked his perfect Christmas playlist.
Next month, Cullum’s new album, The Pursuit, is launched in the U.S., and there’ll be a world tour to support it. He can’t wait. The only problem will be leaving his fiancée behind.
Cullum met his intended, Sophie Dahl, at a charity event for the Lavender Trust two-and-a-half years ago.
‘We hit it off immediately. I think we knew emotionally that we would become good friends. We just started talking about books – I was reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas at the time – and certain other stuff that we were into.
‘But someone like me never entertains the idea of going after someone like her, so I didn’t go for it. I couldn’t assume that she would be interested in me… But it worked! Lucky old me – it turned out to be much more.
‘I think it was to do with the fact that I always carry a good book around with me. In my case I was actually reading it, although it’s a good chat-up tip, I think: to always carry a good, thick book.
‘My relationship with Sophie has helped put everything in perspective,’ he adds. ‘It reminds me that while I love this, and have certain responsibilities to my career, there are more important things in life.
‘Falling in love and creating a life with someone makes you deal with your life in a much better way. At least, it does with me. I don’t work any less hard, but I certainly work in a much smarter way. You can’t beat a couple of days off with the missus. That’s not a bad thing at all.’
I should warn you now that I’m about to do some serious name-dropping. Before meeting him today in a photographic studio in north London – where he’s enjoying posing in front of a large white piano – the last time I saw Cullum was on Elton John’s balcony in LA. And no, that isn’t a euphemism.
It was the summer before last, and Elton and David Furnish had just moved into their Hollywood apartment, a beautiful modernist dream home that they decided to christen by inviting a few people over. And as he was in town recording his new album, one of those people was Cullum.
‘Falling in love and creating a life with someone makes you deal with your life in a much better way… I don’t work any less hard, but I certainly work in a much smarter way,’ said Jamie who is engaged to Sophie Dahl
‘I’m more excited by this record than anything I’ve ever done before,’ he said at the time. And knowing him, I knew he meant it.
The Pursuit was eventually released in the UK a couple of months ago, and it’s probably the best thing Cullum has ever done. It’s certainly the most commercial, although he doesn’t necessarily take that as a compliment. And while five or six years ago you’d have been forgiven for thinking he occupied the same area on the Venn diagram as Michael Bublé, his gift for experimentation and counter-intuitive cover-song choices has put him in a very different league altogether.
‘My relationship with Sophie has helped put everything in perspective,’ said Jamie
‘It would be very easy for me to go and record an album of ten standards, but I don’t do that – that’s not my MO,’ says Cullum.
‘People know me from Parkinson, so it’s not expected for me to go and play with the Count Basie Orchestra, or do a weird Radiohead cover or some of the more off-the-wall stuff that I do. I think pushing the envelope and trying to do the pop and jazz things together is actually a less commercial thing to do, but it certainly felt like the right thing for me. I was never happy in that Venn diagram.
‘It’s odd, because as soon as you throw pop into the mix it’s assumed you’re aiming for a more commercial vibe, but that’s not always the case. Not with me, anyway. It’s very challenging to make pop and jazz good bedfellows. It’s actually an extremely difficult thing to pull off, and only truly brilliant people like Steely Dan have done it successfully.’
The Pursuit was delayed for a year, while Cullum recorded new songs, discovered a couple of hits he wanted to cover (including two by Rihanna) and then was asked to sing the title track of Clint Eastwood’s masterful film Gran Torino.
‘Clint is simply the man,’ says Cullum enthusiastically (although to be fair, he’s enthusiastic about most things). ‘When people say he’s a music nut, they don’t know the half of it. They really don’t. He can identify particular Sonny Rollins solos from the past 60 years, and he’s just on another level to most people. He really knows his music, and you’d better know your stuff if you want to keep up.
Cullum met Clint through the actor’s son, Kyle, a jazz musician who lives in Paris. When Cullum and Kyle were recording a demo for the theme song of another Clint film, which was meant for James Blunt, Eastwood Sr decided that Cullum was the man for the Gran Torino job.
‘We ended up recording it in his house, playing along to the film on a flatscreen TV,’ says an obviously star-struck Cullum.
‘I couldn’t believe it. Because after all, he is Clint Eastwood. The Clint Eastwood. I’d love to do more film work, but it’s a bit difficult after working with Clint. I mean, it’s a bit like having caviar as your very first grown-up meal.’
‘I’d love to do more film work but it’s hard after working with Clint Eastwood. It’s like having caviar as your very first grown-up meal.
Cullum is the only real star of 21st-century jazz. Now aged 30, he has been making music since he was 13. He released his first album, 1999’s Heard It All Before, while still at university, although he only pressed 500 copies. Soon after came Pointless Nostalgic, which stirred interest from Michael Parkinson. He then signed a huge contract with Universal, resulting in his third album, Twentysomething, in 2003.
One of the most engaging things about him is that he’s totally unselfconscious (on his website he’s even pictured wearing a Santa hat).
Whereas other stars of his magnitude would think twice about leaping around the stage slapping their thighs, Cullum embraces the opportunity like a child.
He’s an old-fashioned entertainer in that respect, keen as mustard and full of vim. I once saw him play in a small club in Amsterdam, where he jumped onto a piano and spent half an hour bopping around the stage like a Duracell-powered Jerry Lee Lewis.
However, the thing I find fascinating about him is that not only is he innately self-confident – ‘I come from a good, strong, normal, supportive family. What can I say?’ – but he also appears impervious to criticism. Tell him his new album stinks – and you ought to know right now that his album does anything but stink – and he’d probably nod, offer a wry smile and carry on talking.
‘You can occasionally read something quite hideous, even from writers you admire, and it can be quite hurtful. But then I look at my blissful life and it helps temper any ill feeling I might have. To be on a tour bus, in the heartland of America, drinking a cold beer and driving to a town where people have paid to hear my music? That’s not a bad life really, is it?’
‘It would be very easy for me to go and record an album of ten standards, but I don’t do that – that’s not my MO,’ said Jamie
He also appears to go out of his way to Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the positive, and eliminate the negative, as the great lyricist Johnny Mercer once put it. Cullum doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, and doesn’t have his own cross to bear.
‘I don’t think I’m any less tortured than anyone else; it’s just that I choose not to share that with my audience or in my songs. Choosing not to share is a cardinal sin in this business. Not sharing your heartache or your bowel movements is frowned upon these days. But even though I don’t share in that way, I hope there’s enough in my music to move people.
Well, there obviously has been so far. One of the things I think that resonates with his audience is the fact that he does actually know what he’s talking about. He’ll say that he doesn’t know as much as he should, and that his technique is only four per cent of what he’d like it to be, but he knows his stuff and doesn’t inflict his personal obsessions on you.
During our interview he spends a good five minutes eulogising about a particular album of lush ballads John Coltrane recorded with Johnny Hartman in 1963 (it was re-released in 2008, in case you’re interested – and you ought to be); when I say I don’t know it, he doesn’t sneer and look superior, but takes me through it, blow by blow.
He’s also taking a keen interest in the file-sharing issue, and has sympathies with both sides, knowing that illegal downloading can’t continue at the rate it has, but also knowing that it’s difficult now to put the digital genie back in the box.
‘I’m a music consumer of the highest order, and I spend an awful lot of my time looking for music, buying music, downloading music legally and illegally. I make no bones about it – if there’s some Thom Yorke EP floating around and it’s not out until next week, then I’ll download it illegally. However, the following week I’ll buy it because I want the artwork, and I want to see the notes and to find out where it was recorded and all the rest.
‘However, the flip side of that is, four weeks before The Pursuit came out, I was getting all these tweets from people who’d heard it because some of the CDs sent out to journalists had found their way online. I know the album has been illegally downloaded at least 60,000 times, which is as many as the record has actually sold.
‘The problem is, we’ve gone too far. You can’t start punishing people – you’d be punishing people like me, who spends thousands of pounds a year online, because I illegally downloaded something from a blog.
‘We need to make the download systems so sophisticated and so comprehensive that people don’t need to download stuff for free. Developments like Spotify and Sky Songs are great ideas, and great business models. If you could get things with ease then you wouldn’t have to go scrabbling around on some dodgy site to get it. YouTube is the place we need to start legislating…’
Politically, Cullum is in a state of flux. Interested in politics, and sensitive to the vagaries of the newspaper industry – ‘Everyone’s got an agenda’ – he’s still in two minds about which way he’s going to lean come election day.
What he does know is that he feels aggrieved at having one of his educational forays turned into a photo op by the children’s minister, Ed Balls.
‘I was basically tricked into that. I’ve always been interested in music education, and in the past six years I’ve been doing school workshops in Britain, Europe and the U.S. We’ve done a free concert for schools at the Albert Hall, with kids up on stage rapping and playing drums with us – lots of stuff like that.
‘The Labour Party was launching its National Year of Music, which is basically getting kids to play instruments for free and then giving them bursaries to learn to play them. So I turned up to this event and it became a great big political love-in. I was angry because it should have been an apolitical event.’
Although he’s disappointed with Labour, and furious at the recent revelations concerning Tony Blair’s behaviour and mindset prior to the invasion of Iraq – ‘I felt tricked’ – Cullum says he has yet to make up his mind on which party will get his vote.
‘My real interest in all of this is seeing how disengaged my own generation is – not the kids beneath us, but all those in their late twenties and very early thirties.
‘My generation has no interest in who’s going to take control, because everything and everyone looks and sounds so similar. There’s no point of difference. Yes, as a nation we’re getting more stupid, but I laughed when Simon Cowell said that he might think about trying some sort of X Factor process for politicians. Actually, it might take something like that to re-engage people with politics.’
Cullum, though, is very engaged. What does he think of David Cameron?
‘I’ve met him and I liked him,’ he says, cautiously, before smiling and moving on.
‘There’s obviously this great unease with Labour, but I don’t think the Tories should assume they’re going to get into power. They need to prove they’re worthy. However, as far as the Labour Party is concerned, I want to see someone stand up and take responsibility for what we are and where we are.’
As for the future, after next year’s tour there’s talk of moving to Paris for a year and learning to play Chopin, although there are many things in his ‘ lexicon of dreams’, not least settling down with Sophie, and turning the world upside down once again. There’s still a lot of jazz down there, you know.
Jamie’s new single ‘Don’t Stop The Music’ is out on January 25. His UK tour starts in Glasgow on May 7.