Thursday, 20 September 2018

‘Planning to sit down? You’re at the wrong gig!’

JAMIE CULLUM does not like to be defined or labelled. Nor does he like to be predictable.

JAMIE CULLUM does not like to be defined or labelled. Nor does he like to be predictable.

The married father-of-two, who is on the verge of releasing his sixth album, is known to most of us as the pint size musician who made jazz cool for the younger generation after performing on Parkinson in 2003.

But none of these associations seem to sit comfortably with the 33-year-old, who will perform on the Henley Festival’s famous floating stage this summer.

So how would he describe his style?

“It is not my job to describe my style thank God, because I could not, but I am a musician, songwriter, piano player and guitarist.

“I spend such a lot of time in the jazz world but I am not unique there are a lot of young people out there singing and playing jazz.

“When I was at school there was a certain image of a classical musician, but if people can play it and feel good about it, that’s what it’s all about.

“Playing on Parkinson was a really big moment for me, I was really nervous about it. Although I had actually made two albums before that, everyone thinks that is how it all started for me.

“I made my first album with the end of my student loan which was about £60, and my second came from the money I made from the first. That was picked up by a small label and Universal bought my contract out from them.”

The £1m contract, for three albums, saw Universal beat Sony in a bidding war, and the company’s input propelled Cullum to stardom.

His first studio album, Twentysomething, was released in October 2003, went platinum and meant that Cullum ended 2003 as the UK’s biggest-selling jazz artist of all time.

He had graduated from Reading University with a first class degree in English literature and film, after deciding against a place at Oxford.

“It felt wrong, and I did not know that I wanted to be a musician then,” Cullum said. “I had a brilliant time at Reading and made some amazing friends, got a really good degree.

“It was a creative time, which helped me decide that I wanted to focus on my music.

“Throughout university I was playing in pubs and also in about 10 or 12 different bands.

“I was even gigging the night before my finals and I missed my graduation because I went on tour.

“I was playing jazz but I was also in ACDC and James Brown cover bands. I guess you could say that I was a jobbing musician at that time.

“When I finished my degree I thought that I would try to make a living from my music while playing with good people.

“I moved to London and thought I would give it a couple of years.

“Jazz came from a mixture of places guess you could say that I came to it through the back door.

“I was interested in people being really good at playing instruments and I was looking a lot at A Tribe Called Quest and the Pharcyde and also types of jazz samples and I was interested in picking them apart and finding out where they came from.”

Cullum’s success has led to him playing at a wide range of top music festivals and venues, including Glastonbury twice, the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans, the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles and Japan.

He has presented a weekly jazz show on Radio 2 since 2010.

Cullum’s repertoire of work includes songs by Rihanna, Radiohead, Elton John and Lady Gaga and he has dueted with Kylie Minogue, Burt Bacharach and the Heritage Orchestra.

He said: “I have a lot of good memories from festivals and have played in some really amazing places.

“I have only driven through Henley but it is beautiful and I have heard great things about the festival so I think it is going to be really good fun.

“A few of my friends from university are coming which will be great.

“I do not have a set list when I play so anything could happen if people are thinking of having a night of sitting down then they are at the wrong gig.

“I find confusing to have a set list and you can always see it in the band when they are used to playing the songs again and again.

“I just act at that moment and start singing something and the band has to catch up.

“It can be a bit challenging being in my band but they are used to it, I have been with the same band for the last five years.”

Cullum, who is married to ex-model and writer Sophie Dahl, has recently welcomed his second daughter into the world.

He said: “Fatherhood is an amazing sensory overload and I am loving it. It is really hard being away but I have to try and do it in short bursts.

“I am definitely a different person than I was 10 years ago and I think that right now I have a different focus.

“It is not that I have left any of the other focuses behind for good, and in a way I embrace the childlike enthusiasm which is less mature.

“But fatherhood makes you experience everything more intensely. Just life in general, you see it more clearly because you have to.

“I think I understand the world in a slightly different way now.”

Cullum describes his latest album, Momentum, which will be released in May, as more “mature” than his previous recordings, adding: “It is definitely more of a songwriter’s record.

“Previously I have kept it more weighted on the side of covers and originals in equal measure, but this time I wanted to give myself the opportunity to foreground my songs above and beyond everything else.

“I do not think I could have done that five years ago. I did not have the confidence to either.

“Covers are something that I will always do and I know that this is making things much harder for myself. But if you include that kind of stuff on records all the time then your own songs are rarely going to get a look in people will always go to the songs they know really well.

“The album is similar musically in a lot of ways to the others but there are lots of big drums this time.

“I have finally had a drum kit to play on at home so there is a lot of that going on. There are moments of big pop melodies and moments where you go down into some jazz. It is up tempo, full of energy and quite wide screen. This record is not a jazz record really, but I do sing a lot of jazz, it is what I am indentified with.

“I feel that the songs on this album really speak for themselves. I write all of my own stuff with a little bit of input from my brother.”

It is in fact Ben, four years older than Cullum, that the musician describes as his biggest influence. He said: “Ben loved his music, loved playing and loved listening so I just copied him. When he picked up the guitar he started playing Iron Maiden and Nirvana and I did the same.

“I also like John Legend, Ben Folds, Mad Lib, Tom Waits and Fats Waller who doesn’t love him?

“But Ben was a big influence on me. Now I collaborate with him and we wrote three songs together for the new album. He is a successful songwriter and DJ and we have a natural connection and we both make music anyway so fun so there is no agenda.”

The album took less than six months to make, but Cullum says it is easy to “romanticise” the process from afar.

He said: “When you are doing it is amazing but you have to show up every day and put the time in every day to make things happen.

“There are times when you are trapped inside your own head and it gets a bit nuts.

“I definitely enjoy the playing bit, and I look at the other, promotional side of things as a bit of a privilege because it means you are lucky enough to be getting your stuff out there into the world.

“Ten years on and six albums later I am lucky to still be in that position.”

Cullum insists that even now, after four platinum albums, an appearance at the Queen’s birthday and Brit award nominations, he does not feel he has “made it”. “It still feels fresh for me every time I play,” he said. “I do not really look back you are always only as good as the last thing you did.

“I think you are always going to be nervous about feedback but I am recording all the time so I am always doing new stuff and moving forward and trying to create all the time.

“You are not thinking about other people, I am always thinking about something new. It is a nice feeling to have a good chart position but it is not the be all or end all.

“My priority is going to gigs and playing well. There is tons of stuff I would like to do, like to be a really good piano player.

“I am a minnow compared to the people I admire.”

l Jamie Cullum headlines the Henley Festival on Thursday, July 11. Visit henleyfestival.co.uk.

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