The prima donna-ish behaviour is there in the subtext, between the lines of those around her, in the way the air seems to tighten before she enters a room. I’ve been told, for example, that it is ‘very’ important that I arrive on time – 3pm sharp – because ‘Miss Midler likes things to run smoothly’. Best to get there 15 minutes early, actually.

As it happens, train times dictate that I am there an hour early, but I figure the foyer of the Connaught hotel is as nice a place as any to kill time. I’m just settling into a book when the air tightens and a strong-voiced American asks who is joining her for lunch. I look up to see Bette Midler, all 5ft 1in of her, with a green pashmina draped theatrically over her shoulder. Three men and a woman are hovering around her, a dance of attendance. The singer/actress/comedienne is 63, but the blondeness of her hair and the smoothness of her skin says 10 years younger. Certainly she is recognisable. The high cheek bones, the full mouth, the chin like the prow of a ship. Once she and her entourage have taken their seats in the restaurant, a couple of the waiters nudge each other and whisper her name.

I get a message to say what I already know, that Elvis, as it were, has entered the building. It also says that she is ‘in good spirits’. Well, phew to that. She can be very difficult, with one interviewer describing her ‘terrifying gaze that threatens to turn you to stone’. Strong photographers have been reduced to tears, apparently, and one boyfriend who crossed her found that his car had been crashed into. She tells the story herself. She was in a Jaguar that was insured. He was driving an Oldsmobile that wasn’t. You don’t mess with Midler. You arrive on time.

Needless to say, it is 3.45 before the interview starts. We are upstairs in her suite, a suite with several doors leading off it. She has entered through one of them, having changed out of what Americans call slacks into a just-above-the-knees skirt, high heels and a bright red top that shows her cleavage. She now has big eyelashes, two black butterflies resting on her cheeks. Show time.

‘I hear you’re in good spirits,’ I say.

‘And if I wasn’t I would know how to pretend,’ she says crisply.

And presumably if you pretend to be happy, you become happy. ‘Exactly, I try to be upbeat and that can be self-fulfilling. It is about acting “as if”. Act as if everything is just great. Things lighten up when you do that. It’s about stepping into character.’

Let’s address this character she steps into first, then. It, she, ‘The Divine Miss M’ as she used to style herself, is warm, funny and camp. To emphasise a point she rolls her eyes and pulls faces. She is or was (she always wore wigs on stage) a larger-than-life, wisecracking redhead who could be bawdy and insinuating one moment and then sing a tender ballad the next. A fairly gentle example of her humour is what she once said in her act about Madonna: ‘Pity the poor soul who has to rinse out that gal’s lingerie.’ But actually her comedy route was so spectacularly lewd, even now, 30 or so years on, I struggle to find an example I can quote or even allude to in a family paper. Think cunnilingus, erections, flatulence…

One of the alter egos she does in her show is a mermaid in a wheelchair. That says it all really. ‘I didn’t invent tack,’ she once said. ‘But I definitely brought it to its present high popularity.’

As a film star, her most memorable characters were versions of herself, from the self-destructive rock star in her Oscar-nominated film The Rose (1979), to those string of comedies in the mid-Eighties – Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People (in which she played an obnoxious wife opposite Danny DeVito, one who became more sympathetic as the film progressed) and The First Wives Club.

She was good, too, opposite Woody Allen in Scenes from a Mall – again, a version of her own character. In truth, she was so charismatic playing herself that it was hard to cast her as anyone else.

There is something very glitzy and Vegas about this character, then.

Very Caesar’s Palace. She is doing a two-year residency there at the moment – performing about 200 days, in rotation with Cher and Elton John. She got off lightly. Celine Dion had to do five years before she was given parole. They do it for the money. Midler is reportedly being paid $150 million. Her show is called The Showgirl Must Go On and everything about it is big, big, big. Twenty high-kicking showgirls.

More sequins and feather boas than the imagination can cope with. Midler describes it as ‘not only the biggest show of my career but the biggest show in the history of showbusiness’.

We talk about how Las Vegas has its origins in the Great Depression. The town wouldn’t have been built there in the desert had it not been for the construction of the Hoover Dam, that towering symbol of Roosevelt’s New Deal. It soon became a place for people to escape the doom and gloom, live out their fantasies. Presumably she is noticing history repeat itself at the moment? ‘Definitely, my audiences want spectacle and glitter. They want escapism and I give it to ’em, right between the eyes. That’s what entertainment is, escapism. People in my profession give themselves airs and graces, but essentially it is about entertaining, helping people forget their lives. I used to be mortified in the Sixties at the thought that that was what I was. I didn’t want to be known as this kind of entertainer, I wanted to be a serious actress, a serious singer, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised an entertainer is not such a bad thing to be. I’m kind of proud that I’ve survived and that I’m good at what I do. I must have had some talent and done something right to be still doing it. Most of the kids I started with have given up.’

This sounds modest enough, it is even said with a slight stutter, but when she returns to this theme, as she does from time to time, she speaks more quickly and her resolve hardens. Increasingly, she bigs herself up, tells me several times about how proud she is of her achievements. But the secret, she reckons, is to think you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread but know you’re not. With Midler, it seems, there is a mask of confidence covering her insecurities. Is that fair? ‘Sure I feel like an impostor sometimes. Everyone does. I’m a worrier.’ It’s a Jewish thing, she adds. Worry, worry, worry. She’s a bit of a hypochondriac, for example. And she says that however confident you are about your skills, you are never quite sure how divine you actually are.

But is she happy more often than she is unhappy? ‘I’m happy at the moment. Happy that I’m not touring because the market has fallen out of that for a lot of people and being in one location, Vegas, is a good alternative. The population there changes every three days. They want to see the one big show. They are laughing and crying and it is therapeutic. They come away feeling buoyant. My husband stands back and sobs openly.’

Oh come on, she’s not that bad… (No, I didn’t really say that. Of course I didn’t. She means her husband Martin von Haselberg weeps with pride.) Is that when she sings Wind Beneath My Wings? ‘He loves the flights of fancy in the show. He likes the wackiness. He thinks that’s inspired. He loves it back stage. But yeah, when I sing Wind Beneath My Wings, that’s my guy.’

Because? ‘When I was on the road and on location he had to pick up the slack with our daughter. He sacrificed a lot. He kept her on the straight and narrow, knew how to reel her in.’

Their daughter was a handful? ‘No, it was more my daughter never wanted to hear any advice, always wanted to go her own way. You know, she was like, “If you say that one more time I’ll never speak to you again”.’

Sophie, their daughter, looks spookily like her mother. Midler calls her Mini-me. She has just graduated from Yale. Now that must have made her proud. ‘Hey, we must have done something right. We were proud, so proud. One of the best days of my life. She read Chinese at university. She lives in China now. Martin taught her German and she is trilingual.’

Midler went to Hawaii University. Read drama. She had grown up there, the third of four children and had worked in a pineapple-canning factory. While she sorted she sang ‘at the top of my lungs’ and no one could hear. She reckons this is the reasons her lungs ‘are made of leather’. She has said that nothing beats working in a pineapple factory. It was one of the happiest jobs she had, along with go-go dancing. For all this happiness, though, she was desperate to leave the island. Now she says that her fellow citizen of Hawaii, Barack Obama, has made much better peace with the place than she has.

The problem was she grew up in what she describes as ‘dire poverty’. Her father ‘worked like a dog all his life’ as a painter for the Navy. Her mother was a seamstress. Her parents weren’t very demonstrative. They showed her ‘plenty of emotion’, but they didn’t give ‘much love’. ‘There was a lot of yelling going on. It made me self-centred, a result of not getting any attention as a child. If you are neglected, you go for it elsewhere.’

I ask whether, as a mother to Sophie, she has consciously tried to avoid being like her own mother was with her. ‘My mother didn’t know we were there. She was in her own world trying to make ends meet. I was more hands-on, trying to make a well-rounded person. But it was Martin who provided Sophie with everything she needed, when I wasn’t there.’

It is touching the way she refers to her husband. She uses words such as ‘cosy’. Talks about how they ‘suit’ each other. Says their relationship is nothing to do with drugs and alcohol or having a ‘whoopee life’. She is the breadwinner. He does the cooking. He used to be a commodity broker, and some-time performance artist. That was how they met. Their marriage got off to an unconventional start. It was in Vegas. An Elvis impersonator conducted the service. ‘Yeah,’ she says now. ‘We only got our wedding pictures back last year after 24 years. Got a letter from a guy saying, “I’m closing my chapel and I thought you would like these”.

‘He sent us our pictures and we looked like children, even though we were quite old. I was 37, Martin was a couple of years younger, and all his hair is dark, no grey hairs. I’m a redhead. My hair is silver now, but you can’t tell. It was frivolous to do it there with an Elvis impersonator but it was a whim.’ It took them a long time to get to know each other properly, she adds. All their friends said it wouldn’t last.

She shakes her head, gives her easy smile. ‘Boy, the time. Time used to be so sleepy and slow. I swear they have cut an hour down to 15 minutes.’

How does she keep the spark in her marriage alive? ‘We don’t always. There were plenty of times we felt like throwing in the towel because it was so hard, with my working. But we kept putting one foot in front of the other. It was hard. We kept plodding along and each success you have within the framework of the marriage you build on.’

They live in New York but her husband goes with her to Vegas for her residencies. Does she have homely touches in their rooms there – family photos, ornaments, flying ducks? ‘No, we live in the hotel and it’s OK now that I have moved rooms. I was getting distressed because everything in the suite they gave me was grey. Grey walls, grey rugs, grey furniture. Grey, grey, grey and right across the road they were putting this new tower up, so for the first 77 shows I was tearing out my hair. I’m an artist so I’m sensitive to colour and light. I was getting depressed. Getting the blues. I begged them to move me and they gave me the Asian suite which is where all the high-rollers from Asia stay… It has doors and you can breathe the air and that has made such a difference.’

The worst part of success, she reckons, is finding someone who is happy for you. She has a new album out, a collection called Best Bette, and it shows her range – pop, jazz, soul, swing, music hall. Since its release in this country it has sold 400,000 copies. I’m happy for her, I say. ‘Thank you, thank you. This album has taken me by surprise. No one ever told me I had so many fans here! It’s strange to find this out at my age, but then everything surprises me about getting old. I’ve never been this old before. I never thought I’d feel this good.’

Her career began in earnest on Broadway in the late Sixties when she starred in Fiddler on the Roof. One of her two sisters was killed by a taxi on her way to see the show and it took Midler a long time to recover her equilibrium, and career. In the early Seventies she reinvented herself as Bathhouse Bette, a cabaret act singing in New York’s bathhouses, a meeting place for gay men. Her accompanist on piano was one Barry Manilow. ‘It was such a fun time,’ she recalls. ‘Camp. Frivolous. I was getting a chance to do all the things I dreamed of. It was kind of a wave you rode. You didn’t want to look too closely. I didn’t think it would ever end. I’m happy I didn’t know better. If I had known then what I know now, what a struggle it can be, I might not have done it.’ She adopts a squeaky voice: ‘How did I get so far on sooo little?’ But when she takes stock now, does she feel fulfilled? I mean, isn’t the fact that she hasn’t got performing out of her system yet tantamount to a kind of failure? ‘When I was 50 I had a big party and I looked back and felt good about it. It hadn’t all been for me, me, me. I had done stuff for other people. Yes, I had done some beautiful shows and I had sung some beautiful music, but sometimes I was in too much of a hurry. On the whole, I was very proud of myself.’

And her film career? ‘Yes, I’m very proud of that, too.’

Even Jinxed!, the 1982 film that received such poisonous reviews it nearly finished her career for good? It bombed. Everybody blamed her.

She didn’t work again for a couple of years. ‘No, Jinxed! was a turkey.’

She flutters her hand, waving the memory away. ‘People ask if I’m pissed off I don’t make pictures any more but I’m not. I had a good run. You have to make your peace with that and not cling. You know, you can’t keep saying, ”Why isn’t it me, goddamit.” You can’t be bitter.’

Sounds like something she might have been told in therapy, something she doesn’t entirely believe. Still, what about her life generally? Has she done things she is ashamed of? She gasps. ‘Oh! SO many things. I can’t even talk about it. I wake up screaming in the night. Some things, I’m so appalled at the way I behaved!’ I lean forward. Like what? Like what? ‘I really can’t talk about it, but I was cruel more than once. I never wanted to be like that but the DEVIL made me do it. Even I was disturbed by my behaviour. I felt ashamed. I still wake up shivering. But I feel I have done enough good to balance it out.’

Blimey. Does she sleep well? ‘I don’t sleep at all. Sleep really badly. Always exhausted. It’s a function of getting old. No more melatonin. No more hormones. I have to do a lot of exercise. That helps a bit. But I still sleep badly.’

Bette Midler is more delicate and dignified than I had imagined. She has better posture, too, sitting straight-spined in her chair, her hands cupped demurely in her lap. And while it’s true that, as someone once wrote, she always looks like she is on the brink of an amusing rebuttal, she is, actually, for all the cheerful brassiness of her stage persona, quite ladylike.

She says she would never discuss money because she is ‘a lady’. It’s meant as a joke but you suspect she thinks that a lady is exactly what she is, or would like to be. She mocks herself, her shallowness, says she is like a magpie because she loves ‘shiny stuff’, but you suspect this is a defence mechanism, that she is saying it before someone else does. She wishes she had been taken more seriously, especially in her film career.

One of her most memorable roles, after all, was not a comedy but a weepy – Beaches. Hers was an odd film career. She began to think Hollywood was out to get her, but in fairness she did make some bad calls – she turned down the lead role in Misery, and despite the fact that Sister Act was written for her, she turned that down, too.

She admits she does still call around from time to time. ‘I get on the phone and I ask people, “Is there anything out there?”‘ And when she quickly adds that she has no regrets now and that she accepts her film career is over, you know that she protests too much.

Is she any good at switching off, chilling out? ‘The trouble is I overcommit myself. I just keep thinking I don’t have much time left! There are so many things I haven’t done that I wanted to do. Darn, I should have learned French.’

Does she keep a diary? People find that therapeutic. ‘I don’t, no. But I have started photographing everything. If I don’t photograph everything there are months when I don’t know what I’ve done. My memory is so shabby. I put the photographs in a scrapbook then I have a record of my life. It’s a full life, no question, but it’s not all meaningful. There is a lot of crap. There are highs but then there is also garbage, garbage, garbage.’

She sits up and widens her eyes. ‘Shall I take your picture? May I take your picture? Ken! Ken!’ A member of her entourage appears from behind a door. ‘Ken. Take his picture.’ She bounds over from her chair and cuddles up next to me on the sofa. I battle momentarily with my English reserve then put my arm around her. Click.

When Ken turns the digital camera to show us the picture, we are both grinning like lunatics.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.