Pianist and jazz singing sensation Jamie Cullum dropped into the Portsmouth Guildhall on last month. Mayhem! got exclusive backstage access ahead of his show and chatted one to one to find out more…
Momentum is your sixth album; can you tell us about it?
It’s my first album where I’ve contributed 90% original songs. I didn’t start out to make a record like this it just gradually revealed itself to be as it was. The whole album happened in a whirlwind of not over thinking stuff. It was a real pleasure.
You play many of the instruments on this new album yourself and recorded much of it alone at home. What freedom does this give you?
It makes you live inside your own head a lot more. You’re not constantly seeking others’ approval around you and it leads to a more personal statement. I do love to delegate and enjoy the talent of others but sometimes, in the way studio technology has evolved, it can be really fun to put it all together yourself. Maddening sometimes, but really fun.
How does that compare to your previous work?
My previous albums have definitely been more collaborative. A casual listener would assume this is more of a ‘pop’ album too. This, to me is not the case. The contemporary references are more obvious this time for sure. But I can’t and will never escape being a jazz musician!
What comes first for you, the beat? The chords? The lyrics? Can you talk us through your process?
It’s so particular from song to song. The song Everything You Didn’t Do started with a beat – me playing the drums in my pyjamas! The joyousness of the beat and the excitement of the fact I was playing it (however simple) inspired this song about positivity and the feeling that all the good stuff is still ahead. The song Sad, Sad World began absolutely with the lyric – “Will you help me paint a smile on this sad, sad world” – the music followed soon after, just simply, on my upright piano in the hall of my house at night time.
How long does it take to write a song and what one thing do you need in order to do so?
Some can take 40 minutes, often though it’ll take a couple of weeks from inspiration to fine tuning and completion.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I always find this a slightly odd question and never know how to answer it! Getting inspiration for stuff just happens doesn’t it? Anywhere, anytime. The question I guess is not where you get it from but what you do with it when you get it and whether you can isolate it and run with it. That’s the bit that takes a bit of craft and practice which I’m still working hard at!
Does every song have a story behind it? Can you tell us one?
You’re Not the Only One from Momentum was very specifically about a time when I worked as a judge on a Sky One show called Must be The Music. It’s a song about musicians trying to make it in the world and how hard it is to aspire to your dreams.
The majority of this new album is original, with two new covers. How do you decide which songs to cover, and which to include on the album?
I always end up doing covers by accident, it’s never something I really think through. I have a pretty good ear which means I can play things after hearing them once. It means often I’ll sit at the piano and play something I heard on the radio that morning. Sometimes they stick – if they do, then you’ll normally hear me doing it at a gig or on an album!
What song are you most proud of writing and why?
Sad, Sad World from Momentum is one of my favourite lyrics I’ve ever written. It manages to encapsulate a very complex feeling I had after having kids. I was both incredibly joyful but also more aware than ever of how scary and sad the world is to bring children into.
Nearly every track has a different feel and musical style and you worked with a number of amazing producers across the album. Was this intentional?
Nearly everything I do is an accident! That certainly was the happy accident in this case. I never intentionally try to mix tons of styles. I just really like a lot of different music and enjoy reflecting that in my own songs.
Who did you choose to work with on each track and why?
Dan the Automator (Gorillaz, Kasabian) really helps me get a great groove on songs and always makes the drums and the bass sound really crusty and fat. Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Adele) is amazing at bringing the best out of songs and bands playing together and capturing a performance.
With such a diverse mix of contributors, who has made the most impact, been most inspiring or had the most influence?
Definitely my brother Ben. He really inspires me to follow my own muse and not try to live up to anything other than what I want to be musically.
Who’s on your wish list for future collaborations?
More work with Pharrell Williams is on the cards and I would LOVE to write songs with Damon Albarn.
Introducing strings gives a much bigger sound and you’ve mentioned The Edge of Something having a ‘Bond-esque’ feel. Would you like to write a Bond theme?
I think it is a major opportunity for any songwriter to write a bond theme, but SINGING it is the big one. A big iconic voice is needed! I would be honoured!!
If you could write any film theme tune, what would it be?
I would love to write for the Fifty Shades of Grey film. I reckon I could nail that one.
There is such a mix of styles on this new album: rock, pop, elements of dub and blues. Have you turned your back on jazz?
I present a weekly Radio 2 show on jazz and there is a great deal of jazz on the album. Plus all my previous albums have included the above elements. So I guess the answer is no.
Is this a coming of age album for you?
Nope! Just another album! I’ve already made the next (an acoustic jazz album!) and am working hard on the the follow up to that. Keep looking forward.
Which of your six albums has proven most challenging for you and why?
The album The Pursuit. It came after Catching Tales which was a commercial disappointment after 20Something. I had to really put that out of my mind and just focus on the music.
We hear that you never work to a written set list and improvise at gigs. Have you ever found yourself not knowing what to do next?
Always! That’s part of the fun I think and always when the best, most surprising moments happen.
What’s your favourite song to perform on stage and why?
Probably a song called Mixtape from The Pursuit. It always gets the crowd jumping!
What are your pre-gig rituals?
Whisky and a bit of a stretch!
What’s your most embarrassing moment on stage?
I headbutted a cameraman by accident once. We both got bleeding heads but carried on regardless.
Who was the last artist or band that made you more or less stop what you were doing and go “wow”?
I watched Vampire Weekend live in France this summer. They were fantastic. Stylish and full of substance.
Your radio show has given you the opportunity to speak to many other musicians and explore a plethora of widely unheard music. What effect has this had on your own musical journey?
It’s been amazing and consistently inspiring. It’s really made me want to raise my game being so directly involved with so many extraordinary musicians every week.
If you could take only one record to the moon, what would it be?
John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Spiritual and deep. Perfect for the moon. Music that feels like flying.
Who, dead or alive, would you love to interview and why?
Miles Davis – although he would probably scare the sh*t out of me.
To all the budding musicians out there, what one piece of advice would you give?
Keep doing it. Don’t stop. Play with musicians who are better than you. Play live whenever you can. Practice. Play from your heart. Avoid groupies who spend too much time on Instagram.
What’s next for Jamie Cullum?
Dinner and a cold beer!
Interview by Daniel Tidbury