For someone whose music and reputation over his 10-year career has been reliably middle-of-the-road and non-threatening, James Blunt has been involved in more than his share of public controversy lately.
Consider the following: • British Labor Party culture spokesman and hopeful culture secretary candidate Chris Bryant criticized the singer in The Guardian for coming from a privileged background and having a posh accent, and pledged that one of his first priorities would be to encourage more diversity in the arts.
Blunt, a former British soldier who served in Kosovo in the 1990s, angrily responded in an open letter to Bryant: “You classist gimp. I happened to go to a boarding school. No one helped me at boarding school to get into the music business... and then you [Bryant] come along, looking for votes, telling working-class people that posh people like me don’t deserve it, and that we must redress the balance. But it is your populist, envy-based, vote-hunting ideas which make our country crap, far more than me and my shit songs, and my plummy accent.”
• Blunt, who is known for his uncensored Twitter feed, jumped to the defense of fellow singer Ed Sheeran following a snarky comment by former Oasis leader Noel Gallagher.
Blunt tweeted: “Time to legalise assisted dying. RT @IndyMusic: Noel Gallagher says he cannot live in a world where Ed Sheeran sells out Wembley Stadium.”
Gallagher responded in kind in an interview on BBC over the weekend when he was asked about writing songs based on his own life experiences. Gallagher said: “If I wrote songs about my own life, they would be more boring than James Blunt. If that’s at all possible, which we all know, of course, it’s not.”
• And most recently, last week another tweet landed Blunt in hot water when he was accused of homophobia over a post showing the cover of the British magazine the New Statesman showing himself and other personalities like David Cameron and Boris Johnson with the title, “Does it pay to be to posh.”
The cover shows the group sipping champagne and wearing white-tie evening dress to illustrate the article on privilege and success.
Blunt’s tweet to accompany the image was: “I won’t be picking up the soap when this party moves to the showers.”
With all that activity, it’s a wonder that the 39-year-old Blunt has time to devote to music. But he has, building on the success of his 2003 debut album Back to Bedlam and its massive hit “You’re Beautiful.” Through three subsequent albums, including last year’s Moon Landing, and nonstop touring, Blunt has managed to rise above the “one-hit wonder” label and, in the process, has shaken some of his “balladeer” image thanks to upbeat, lively shows with his fivepiece band.
But first, about the high public profile, according to Blunt his lack of self-censorship in his tweets is more of a lark than anything else.
“I’m just messing around really,” he told The Jerusalem Post from his London home last week ahead of his February 7 debut in Israel at Tel Aviv’s Nokia Arena. “Having had my army experience, my songs are about peace really, about the things that unite humans instead of what separates us.
I sing songs which are not full of bravado, but instead are open, so that makes them open to judgment.
“People who aren’t under the spotlight, who are under the shadows, can judge that harshly from the confidence of their shadows – and they can enjoy the anonymity of their Twitter page. So I try to engage them to take the piss out myself and to laugh at the whole thing.”
Regarding the back and forth with culture secretary Bryant, Blunt dismissed the claims that his background or his accent have anything to do with his music or his success.
“I never had to address issues like this or fight those views when I had a proper job.
In the army, when you’re doing a real job, nobody has time to deal with things so petty,” he said.
“I got involved with something I love – which is music. We sing songs that mean a great deal to me, that I’m passionate about.
People turn up by the thousands to join in and listen and sing. That’s what I love.”
Selling out arenas around the world is a far cry from carrying on the longstanding family tradition of military service. The young Blunt spent his early childhood in England, Cyprus and Germany where his father, a colonel in the British Army Air Corps and military helicopter pilot, was posted at various times. After receiving a degree in psychology in an army-sponsored scholarship, Blunt enlisted in 1996.
In 1999, he served as an armored reconnaissance officer in the NATO deployment in Kosovo, worked ahead of the front lines directing forces and targeting Serb positions for the NATO bombing campaign.
Blunt had brought along his guitar, strapped to the outside of his tank, and would sometimes perform for the local population and his fellow peacekeepers. He said that his military training (like that of most Israeli 18-year-olds) has helped him set his priorities straight in his post-army life.
“For me, it was definitely a positive period of my life. I can’t speak for other people whether it’s right for them to do too,” said Blunt. “Today the job that I do, being on the road and sleeping on a tour bus for literally eight out of the last 10 years, requires a certain amount of discipline. We run our tours very much like a military campaign – although our bus is slightly more comfortable than a barracks.”
Another residual effect of Blunt’s military service is his ongoing support via benefit concerts for the human rights organization Doctors Without Borders.
“I came across them in Kosovo. As a reconnaissance officer, I was always in front of my commanders and everyone else. I thought I was doing a tough job, but whenever I went around the corner, already there ahead of me were these amazing doctors and their teams giving medical care to the civilians injured in the conflict,” he said.
“I was blown away at how proactive and selfless they were, and when I had the chance I began to work with them to get their name out there.”
Regarding his first journey to Israel, Blunt said that he didn’t pay any heed to calls for a pro-Palestinian boycott or simply to stay away from a perceived trouble spot.
“I have some experience in conflict,” he said dryly. “And my experience has shown me that there are two sides to every story, and the main goal is for each side to communicate and try to understand the other.
“As an outsider, it’s a complicated situation that you’re only passing through for a short period of time. But instead of hiding your head in the sand and not coming at all, it’s better to be proactive and show up to sing songs about issues that unite human beings – and that’s what I try to do.”Tickets for James Blunt’s show on February 7 at the Nokia Arena in Tel Aviv are available at *2207 and www.2207.co.il.