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Jamie Cullum: 21st Century Kid

Jamie Cullum

Jazz artists don’t, as a rule, fill stadiums to overflowing. Jamie Cullum does.

Jazz artists don’t, as a rule, measure the success of their albums in multiplatinum sales. Jamie Cullum does.

Jazz artists don’t, as a rule, count both 16-year-olds and their sixtysomething grandparents among their core fan base. Jamie Cullum does.

Advance copies of jazz artists’ discs aren’t, as a rule, handled like precious nuggets of plutonium. Jamie Cullum’s latest was, with watermarked, nondownloadable, prerelease pressings of Catching Tales treated with the sort of uberstrict security usually reserved for such bands as Green Day and Coldplay.

Indeed, the tousle-haired powder keg, as celebrated for his hyperactive stage antics as for the vocal and keyboard prowess that blurs traditionally rigid musical boundaries, is a fervent rule-breaker. Following in the flour-caked footsteps of another Jamie, compatriot Oliver who charmed the world by investing the stodgy culinary arts with roguish Gen-X sangfroid, Cullum oxymoronically reigns, at 26, as the jazz prince of overenergized slackerism. He is the equivalent of a Prius as customized by Chip Foose: a compact, fuel-efficient hybrid capable of going zero to 60 in nothing flat and able to easily outperform just about anybody else on the road.

The past two years have been a whirlwind of breakneck proportions for the Essex-born wunderkind. Following a much-ballyhooed bidding war that resulted in a 1 million pound, three-album deal with Universal, Cullum’s sophomore disc, Twentysomething (which debuted in October 2003 in his homeland but wasn’t released stateside until nine months later) rapidly became the most popular jazz album in U.K. history and has gone on to achieve worldwide sales approaching the three-million mark.

Since then he’s circled the globe with standing-room-only promotional and concert tours, released a top-selling DVD (Jamie Cullum Live at Blenheim Palace), contributed to the soundtrack for Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason with a percolating cover of the mid-’60s Robert Knight soul hit “Everlasting Love,” been honored with twin nominations at the prestigious Brit Awards, for best male artist and best live act, earned a Grammy nod, been named artist of the year at this year’s BBC Jazz Awards and played at St. James’ Palace for Queen Elizabeth’s birthday (she decreed his performance “magical.” Cullum, in turn, stole her place card from the banquet table. It’s now on display in his parents’ living room).

His official Web site does a brisk business in T-shirts, ringtones and autographed photos (oh, and they also sell CDs) and is currently offering up Cullum’s Audi TT as a contest prize. Surely, when he included the self-penned “I Want to Be a Popstar” on his 2001 debut disc, Pointless Nostalgic, he had no idea how prophetic the tongue-in-cheek anthem would prove.

Fortunately, Cullum is both grounded and intelligent enough to take the PR hyperbole and marketing overdrive in stride, recognizing their value yet remaining true to his creative instincts. Talking from backstage at London’s fabled Ronnie Scott’s, fresh from a long-overdue, late-August vacation with Brazilian girlfriend Isabella in Ibiza (“It was kind of a holiday” he laughs, “but more just a party. I had to recover for a week”), Cullum says he’s eager to climb back aboard the “treadmill” that will carry him hither and yon in support of Tales (an extensive U.S. tour is scheduled for ’06) because he’s “really proud of the album.”

As well he should be.

With its greater focus on original material-Cullum wrote or cowrote 10 of the disc’s 14 tracks-Tales seems the natural outgrowth of Twentysomething, at once more mature and self-assured yet also increasingly fun and relaxed. No stranger to the slings and arrows of jazz purists who can’t get their heads around the ease with which he embraces pop and rock sensibilities while remaining steadfastly true to his jazz roots, he admits, “It’s not an easy record to categorize, but it comes from a real place. People who are less knowledgeable about me as a musician have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, you wanted to make a record that was more pop’ or ‘ You wanted to make a more commercial album,’ but that really was the farthest thing from my mind. I think it’s just that I’m actually learning more about how to assimilate my influences. I no longer feel like I’m doing something wrong when I combine a jazz solo and a pop song, and I think I’ve become more confident about expressing myself in an original way. I’m not worried about upsetting the jazz people anymore.”

The folks at Universal are, of course, banking on Catching Tales to match or surpass the success of its predecessor, but Cullum insists he doesn’t “buy into the financial machinations of it at all. The only thing I was aware of when I sat down to make the album was that I wanted to do a whole heap of stuff that people wouldn’t necessarily associate with me. But I was also conscious that I didn’t want to lose anyone. I wanted to challenge people but not do anything reactionary. Rather than sticking my middle finger up to the core audience, which is a really easy thing to do, I wanted to evolve naturally like an artist is supposed to.”

It’s a sentiment that helps explain the album title. “I didn’t want to just choose the title of one of the songs,” he says. “Instead, I wanted to choose something that encapsulated what I thought the record was about. It refers to the way it was put together so quickly. The writing process was three months, and the recording process was just three weeks. When, at the beginning of this year, I sat down to write, it happened so fast, like I was catching stories out of thin air and wrestling them to the ground. Also, I have a great love of photography, and I always say that when you take a photo you catch a tale. Oh, and I also like the fact that it sounds a bit like ‘chasing tail.’ So, you know, it’s really me: high and low culture in one confusing entity.”

Back when Cullum’s skyrocketing ascension was first ignited, one British journalist dubbed him “Sinatra in sneakers,” and it stuck. But, cleverly alliterative as the sobriquet is, it doesn’t really fit. A more apt comparison, particularly in view of the dexterity Cullum demonstrates on Tales as both songwriter and performer, is Joni Mitchell. Cullum’s ability to speak of and for his generation, combined with the integrity and wit he brings to his lyrics, is distinctly Mitchellesque.

“Joni Mitchell is someone whose work I know intimately, and to be even mentioned in the same breath as her is a wonderful thing,” he enthuses. “I do think there’s a genuine honesty about what I wanted to say in the original songs-and in the covers as well. My ambition whenever I walk on stage is to have a really fucking good time, which is something that’s difficult to get in the studio. So what I wanted to contain on this record was a real sense of fun, a sort of laissez-faire attitude that showed I wasn’t too worried about ‘polish this bit and polish that.'”

Because he hit his stride around the same time they did, Cullum is often lumped together with Peter Cincotti and Michael Buble. As with the Sinatra reference, it’s a too-easy link that’s not terribly accurate. “I think,” he muses, “the main difference is that I have a lot of interests outside the kind of music they do-mind you, when I say ‘they’ I don’t think you can really include Peter in that. Michael loves the standards and he loves that era. I love dance music and electronica and rock music. Whenever I’m mentioned alongside those guys, I think, ‘Great! They’re two terrific young musicians with great voices, so bring it on.’ But at the same time, it can put you into that sort of suit-wearing, Rat Pack revival thing, which I’m loath to be compared to. I’m no retro kid. This album was made in 2005, not 1955.”

With Tales, Cullum need not worry about being pigeonholed. The original tunes are at once wry, smart, poignant and funny, suggesting the storytelling elan of essayist David Sedaris, and the album’s range is tremendous. It’s as if Cullum poured a bucketful of emotions into a blender and hit the puree button.

Two of the earliest tracks, “Photograph” and “London Skies,” evoke a sweet sense of nostalgia that seems perhaps odd for a songwriter who’s not yet 30. But Cullum says such backward glancing makes perfect sense. “When people say, ‘What do you know about life?’ my answer is that I know something about life that’s different from what you know about it. Every experience, old or young, is valid. I sing ‘Blame It on My Youth’ from the perspective of not knowing anything about love, which has as much validity as the perspective of a 60-year-old who’s been through it a billion times. ‘Photograph’ was written quite directly from me being at home with my mum and dad and clearing out a closet. I found two photographs that reminded me of all these things that happened to me as a kid and, looking at them, my thought was, ‘I see so much magic that I missed at the time.'”

As for “London Skies,” which echoes the sweet wistfulness of Everything But the Girl’s “Oxford Street,” it was, he says, “written for my girlfriend, who’s from Brazil. She loves living here in England but hates the weather and gray skies, so I was trying to romanticize it for her-to show her the beauty of the rain and fog and poeticize the ghostly ballet of the mist. Then, after the London bombings happened, the song took on this incredible kind of new meaning and resonance. I love the way songs can do that. It’s why I’m in love with songwriting.”

Counterbalancing the delectable melancholy of “Photograph” and “London Skies” is the delicious cynicism of “Seven Days to Change Your Life,” a tune that was born in the U.S.A. “I was watching one of those infomercials for these self-help CDs while I was jetlagged in America,” Cullum explains. “It blew my mind that these things exist, and I woke up the next morning literally humming the chorus, ‘In just seven short days I’ll change your life.’ It was another of those visceral songwriting moments.”

Building on themes explored on Twentysomething, “21st Century Kid” speaks to Cullum’s peers, a generation he thinks is “basically fuelled by apathy.” That sentiment is, though, coated with a cloudy layer of optimism when Cullum incorporates into his lyric the idea that “truth is the greatest weapon.”

“What I’m trying to express,” he says, “is that merely holding out for the truth will empower you because the truth is so obscured these days. It’s almost impossible to understand what’s going on, so it’s important to just hold out for the truth.” Cullum’s quest for truth continues with “Oh God,” a song he wrote “directly after the tsunami hit [Southeastern Asia]. I said out loud, ‘Oh my God, what is going on?’ It’s not a pro-God song, nor does it deny the existence of a [higher power]. It’s a song about searching for answers.”

The album’s most interesting emotional paradox lies in the juxtaposition of the Cullum-penned romantic tunes and three of the songs-the standards “I Only Have Eyes for You,” “I’m Glad There Is You” and the early-’60s pop anthem “Our Day Will Come”-he’s chosen to cover. Where the originals tend to focus on relationship ennui, breakups and other romantic turmoil, the covers overflow with romantic idealism. “I’m fascinated you picked up on that,” he says, “because it was something I didn’t realize I’d set up until after the album was finished. All the songs I wrote are about love going wrong-or simply about sex-while the ones I didn’t write are the deeply meaningful ones. I think it’s a youthful thing, in that I’m still trying to work out whether I understand love, and appreciate that true love is better expressed through the words of other people.”

Only two of Tales’ 10 originals were written solo by Cullum. For the remainder, he drew on a wide-ranging assortment of partners, beginning with his older brother Ben, who also plays electric bass on about half the album’s tracks. “It’s so easy to write with my brother,” he says. “It’s something we do without even thinking. And Ben and I have so many things planned-other bands and other music projects. We’re like a work in progress.”

Other collaborators include San Francisco producer and DJ Dan “The Automator” Nakamura, who previously approached Cullum to contribute to Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People, and with whom he wrote Tales’ first single, “Get Your Way.” “I love the thought of working with Dan,” he says, “because it’s a complete anathema to most people who know my work. They’re not going to know who Dan is, and they’re probably not going to fully appreciate the concept of sampling, but it struck me as not only an incredibly modern and groovy thing to do but also a very jazz thing to do with, you know, us improvising a song over an old Mel Lewis record.”

Guy Chambers worked with Cullum on “London Skies” and “Oh God.” Teaming with Chambers did, he admits, worry him at first, because both are signed to EMI Publishing and “it was set up by the record company. I wasn’t sure if it would seem like a corporate thing or too obvious. But then I discovered that he’s just this incredible, adaptable musical guy who helped me bring these songs out fully. People know him best from the work he’s done with Robbie Williams, which is great, but there’s much more to him than that.”

Cullum’s fourth Tales partner is his pal Ed Hardcourt. “I was,” he concedes, “absolutely terrified to write with him because I’m so in awe of his talent and knew he’d never cowritten before. So we got together and sank a bottle of wine and wrote ‘Back to the Ground’ in half-an-hour.”

At first blush, “Back to the Ground” seems to build on the same “gotta get back to the gym” theme of procrastinated self-improvement that defines Twentysomething’s “Next Year, Baby.” But Cullum says it was borne out of a conversation between him and Hardcourt about “what it’s like to come back off two years of touring and how you have these old friends who can bring you back down to earth with just one line.” As such, it may serve as the perfect summation of Cullum’s humility, his refreshing inability to become overly impressed with himself despite the attention and accolades that have been pouring down on him for the past 24 months.

“You come home and you think you’re the big news, but really you’re just the same,” he modestly observes. “As one of my good friends so eloquently put it, ‘Jamie, you’re still the same twat you always were.'” Originally Published