"I think I mostly have an insecurity complex about myself, because I've been trying anything I can on women along the way," admits James Blunt, the heartwarming voice behind the ballady smash "You're Beautiful," with a chuckle. "I tried a uniform at first, and then tried being a musician. Neither have worked particularly well for me. I'm sure psychologists will have something to say about that."
Blunt, whose forlorn lyrical vignettes sound a lot like David Gray songs as sung by Damien Rice, was the UK's hottest new export as 2006 began, until the Arctic Monkeys stole his thunder. Formerly an officer in the British Army's elite Household Cavalry -- and more recently, Elton John's wedding singer (okay, it was just one song) -- his debut album, Back to Bedlam (Atlantic), was 2005's biggest hit across the pond, even managing to finally bitch-slap Coldplay out of the No. 1 slot.
But it wasn't always like this. With no other way to fund his Bristol University engineering degree (which his sensible parents insisted upon before supporting his musical ambitions), Blunt traded out years of military service to cover his costs. After a stint in Canada, he served in Kosovo in 1999 as a reconnaissance officer with the NATO peacekeeping force. "To get an education, it was just one of those things I had to do," Blunt explains. "But to me, it never seemed that long. I thought, 'I'll get to see the world and get out in my mid-twenties and then get to do my music.'ÉThat was probably a good thing at that stage. I wasn't ready. I didn't have the songs there. I knew I had the voice, but I didn't have the songs."
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Blunt spent his downtime in Kosovo working on lyrics. "Some people took a deck of cards. Some people took a ball. I took a guitar," he says. "I had to strap it to the outside of the tank. I really wanted to put it on the inside, but you have to put the soldiers inside. There isn't enough room. I tried to strap the soldiers outside, but that just didn't work."
A few years later, those lyrics helped land Blunt a South By Southwest showcase that caught the attention of Linda Perry, who quickly signed him to her Atlantic Records imprint, Custard. Just recently, at Blunt's sold-out House of Blues show in L.A., she boasted her investment would garner three Grammy nominations this year, and net two wins.
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The bulk of Back to Bedlam's songs was composed during Blunt's final years of service, including "No Bravery," the album's painful record of the genocide he witnessed in Kosovo. "It was really just a kind of reportage of the images that we got on a daily basis out there," he says. "You look around and see these individuals who seem to be relatively intelligent and sympathetic, but when they got caught up in groups, large groups, something innately evil would take over. Their compassion as human beings would dissolve."
Produced by Tom Rothrock (Elliot Smith, Badly Drawn Boy), Back to Bedlam also features "Good, My Lover," a piano ballad that presented some issues when Blunt and Rothrock realized they didn't have any money left in their tight budget to bring a piano into the studio. Desperate times led to desperate measures, so Blunt turned to his landlady/hostess, Princess Leia. Yes, he just happened to be crashing at Carrie Fisher's place at the time, and yes, as luck would have it, she just happened to have a piano inÉher bathroom?
"I guess the story is famous because it happens to be a famous person's bathroom, and she kept a piano in the bathroom," Blunt reasons. "But at the time, it was a very basic decision, like, 'Oh, shit, we need a piano.' "
The album's centerpiece, though, remains "You're Beautiful," a gushy anthem Blunt wrote after spotting an ex with a new boyfriend. He has no idea if she knows the song is about her, or that his heartbreak helped to make him a pop sensation. All he needed was a little life experience.