Elvis Costello is a doting father, friend to presidents and writer of ‘proper’ love songs – but he’s still got the same old fire…

On a roof terrace overlooking Manhattan, an awning flaps lazily in the breeze. The man sitting underneath it is wearing sunglasses, as well he might given that a) the afternoon sun is unforgiving, even in the shade, and b) he is a rock star. Well, rock star up to a point. At 54, Elvis Costello is still leaping from genre to genre like a young pond frog spoilt for choice with waterlilies.

Having produced hit after New Wave hit in the late Seventies with his band The Attractions, he turned a little bit country in the early Eighties. After that came, in no particular order, recordings of jazz, swing and opera, as well as his innovative work with the Brodsky Quartet, a collaboration that is still going strong after 17 years.

Now he is back with Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an album of bluegrass and traditional American country music, recorded in Nashville. It’s a beguiling collection. Appeals to the heart and the head. And lyrically it reminds you why Costello has been described as Britain’s answer to Bob Dylan – reminds you, indeed, why Dylan wanted to tour with him and why songwriters as great as Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney have queued up to collaborate with him.

But this said, he is still a bona fide rock star and today he is dressed like one, in his black suit, black shirt and black tie – and his purple fedora and matching socks. The sunglasses could not be more rock star, in fact, big as they are with silver frames that contrast with his gingery sideburns and ’tache.

In conversation he is expansive and articulate, but easily sidetracked. And it is disconcerting talking to a man with whom you cannot make eye contact. ‘These?’ he says touching them. ‘I’m blind without them. They have prescription lenses in. Anyway, trust me, you don’t want to see what’s underneath them. I’ve only had three hours’ sleep.’

He and his wife, the multimillion-record-selling jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, live mostly in Vancouver with their twin boys who are two-and-a-half years old. Is the lack of sleep because of them? ‘No, I’m just an early riser and yesterday I flew in from the West Coast so I’m still on West Coast time.’ His son from an earlier marriage – he’s been married three times – is 34. How is he finding being a father again at his age? ‘Wonderful. Being a father at any age is wonderful.’

Who do the twins take after? ‘Thankfully their mother. Light hair and light eyes. I see temperamental things that might be like me. They travel a lot for young children. They’ve just crossed the Canadian prairies on a tour bus with us and they will be here in New York in a few hours, and then my wife is going to Europe to do some television shows, so they will stay here with me while she does that. I have help of course, but it’s great. We can sit and watch football or read The Hungry Caterpillar.’

Krall was playing shows up until the seventh month of her pregnancy. She was also doing interviews; I know because I was one of the masochists who requested one. I bow to no man in my admiration for her music, but, boy, is she a scary person to interview. Break the ice with her and you find cold water.

Anyway, the point is, the twins have been listening to music since before they were born, and I ask Costello if he sings to them now. ‘No, and I don’t think they are all that keen on my songs. It’s Randy Newman they love because he wrote Toy Story. They know the score so they can say what action is happening when. Randy must have a great trick there to imprint that music in children that young.’

The twins, he tells me, by the way, think he looks like Mr Potato Head, or at least that the drawing of him on the sleeve of his new album does. For his own part, he describes himself as a combination of Cheeta, the elderly chimp from the Tarzan movies, and Liza Minnelli. ‘The dynamism of Liza,’ he adds, ‘with the hairiness and long arms of Cheeta.’

Oh, and another aside while we are at it; he was born Declan Patrick MacManus in London in 1954, the year Elvis cut his first record, and he has had his stage name since 1977, the year Elvis Presley died (the Costello part was taken from his great grandmother).

But back to his music. Does his 34-year-old son like it? He smiles a rare, gap-toothed smile. ‘You’d have to ask him. I think so yeah, but I can’t speak for him. I can speak for my wife because we are both musicians, so of course we influence each other in our musical choices, but as for him, I can’t really say. Up to a certain age you can say our life together is beautiful but then the child becomes a separate person with his own identity. I love them all and am proud of them all. And I often don’t feel deserving of the love I get back from them.’

His relationship with his own parents seems to have been equally healthy, even after their divorce in 1972. It was a musical family. His mother sold records, his father was a successful big-band singer and his grandfather a trumpeter, working the cruise ships. Does he ever look in the mirror now and ‘see’ his father looking back? ‘I see both my parents. My dad in some respect but also my mother. I look like both of them. I think we made some of the same choices. They worked hard to make sure I had a decent standard of living. And I’ve worked hard, every single day since I left school. I think I have a protestant work ethic.

‘Never sleep in the day. My mother doesn’t enjoy great health and I sometimes hear my dad’s voice in my own saying to her, “You should take a nap during the day”, but she won’t. I’m a bit like that. I haven’t taken a holiday in 16 years.’

In his case the not wanting to sleep during the day is to do with his insomnia. That said, he now points to a couple of sun loungers on the other side of the roof terrace and suggests that we could always go and have a lie down on them and carry on the interview there ‘side by side, like Eric and Ernie’. Elvis Costello, it seems, is in a playful mood. This isn’t always the case. He has a reputation as a serious man – serious about music, serious about politics, serious about the subject of Elvis Costello.

This is reflected in his physical paradox – he manages to convey an air of slovenly nonchalance and tightly coiled energy. And it occurs to me that his reputation for reticence and being difficult may be something to do with his manner and voice. He is a mumbler. As it competes with the breeze, the traffic and the sirens below, his voice becomes so whispery, I worry it won’t pick up on my tape. He shields the recorder with his hat. ‘See? The hat has two purposes, shields my head and shields your mic.’

His whispery speaking voice is in contrast to his singing voice, which has extraordinary range and power. We had originally been scheduled to do this interview when he was over on a visit to London, but then he decided he would have to rest his voice that afternoon and when I heard the concert at the Barbican that evening, I could see why.

‘You do have to be a bit careful with your voice,’ he says now. ‘It is an instrument. I think when you know the songs, your voice works around them, finds the slots with more ease, but you need to know how to pace yourself because we were doing 10 new arrangements in that show. I try to find the character for each song and I wasn’t sure how much vocal stamina it would take to follow one from the other. It seemed to hold out OK.’

The Barbican audience that night was warm, with many standing ovations; he was in a friendly mood, too, with much good humoured banter. Was this, I ask, a case of him making amends for the comment he made in 2005 that, in effect, he had fallen out of love with England? ‘I don’t care if I ever play in England again,’ he said at the time.‘I don’t get along with it. We lost touch. I don’t dig it. They don’t dig me.’ He shakes his head.

‘That was a mischievous sub-editor taking a quote out of context. I was opening for Bob Dylan and was just coming off stage and I was saying that, compared to America, I feel like I don’t connect any more in Britain. My mother rang up and said: “Did you say you hate England?” You can scour that interview and you won’t find that quote. Then the broadsheets pitched in with arts page editorials about what it all meant. I mean, if I’d known that was all I had to do to get publicity I would have said goodbye to England earlier.’

It’s not the first time he’s been taken out of context. At the end of the Seventies, details of a drunken argument in a Holiday Inn in Ohio were leaked. Having apparently described the soul legend James Brown as ‘a jiveass nigger’, and Ray Charles as ‘a blind, ignorant nigger,’ he woke up with a hangover and called a press conference in New York to apologise.

‘I said some stupid things and can’t blame anyone but myself,’ he says now. ‘I hope I have made amends now and anyone who has followed my career will know I am not racist and cannot doubt my respect and admiration for black singers. But the English thing I didn’t even say. I don’t know whether any one noticed, but I haven’t been in England for 20 years. I moved to Ireland 20 years ago and now I am mainly in Vancouver. But ultimately…’ A shrug. ‘I didn’t get into this business to be loved.’

But loved he is. Besides T Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello has worked with, among others, Bacharach, Brian Eno, McCartney. It’s often said he’s the Kevin Bacon of the music world, connected to everyone and everyone connected through him. ‘I don’t feel I went looking for them, though. Most of the major collaborations came to me. I didn’t go knocking on Paul McCartney’s door.’

Sounds like a cue for a Wings song. ‘Exactly. It’s funny but with Wings, Paul didn’t refer to the musical language of the Beatles at all, he wouldn’t even make passing reference to their harmonic cadences, what he did instead was create another highly original sound. But by the time our collaboration occurred I thought his reluctance to refer to the Beatles was perverse, because everyone else was ripping the Beatles off.’

And as McCartney once said, ‘I think I can do Paul McCartney better than Noel Gallagher can do Paul McCartney’. He nods. ‘Well Noel is deluded about a lot of things, most obviously that he is a songwriter at all. That he even brackets himself in the same sentence as Paul is laughable. You have to keep these boys in line! None of us are Irving Berlin or Burt Bacharach, you know. I sat at the side of the stage recently watching Burt sing Alfie and it was magical.’

He had been a member of the Beatles fan club as a child, so working with McCartney must have been daunting enough, but to work with Bacharach must have been… well, what? ‘We worked section-by-section, phrase-by-phrase, both composing, answering one another, it was a fairly extraordinary thing for him to allow me to do – after all, he doesn’t exactly need to collaborate at this stage in his career.

‘It’s probably what appealed to him. Having a dialogue in music. With him it was a case of finding the lyrics that would confer the meaning of the music that was already in the song. It was so vivid to me.’

Yet this is not the collaboration of which he is most proud – that would be his work with the country singer George Jones. ‘In 1981 I had not a writer’s block exactly but an impasse because I had done five albums and I felt I was no longer saying what I was feeling, so I used other people’s songs and that became the country album Almost Blue.’

To his fans, was that like Dylan going electric? ‘I don’t think it was that big a deal. We joked about it and put on the album – “Warning! This album contains country and western music and may offend narrow-minded listeners.” I didn’t have people heckling but even if they had at least that would have shown they cared.’

He sips his coffee. In his youth he was a legendary drinker. It is just coffee these days. No hard liquor. Did it get in the way? ‘Not so much that really, I just drank my share and it was enough.’

But is it true he split from the Attractions because of arguments fuelled by drugs and alcohol? ‘We just had our time, I think. We thought, “let’s go and do some other things independently.” In the end we were copying ourselves. Self parody. Other people were doing it just as well as us.’

There is something endearingly Eeyorish about Elvis Costello. At one point I find myself in the bizarre position of defending one of his songs, to him – Every Day I Write the Book. ‘It was OK,’ he says begrudgingly. OK! I say. It was the soundtrack to the summer of 1983! ‘I like singing it now, but I don’t much care for the record.’

So the layers of personal meaning and association that the listener brings to it count for nothing? ‘That is to confuse quality with nostalgia. Certain songs have indisputable quality such as I’m Gonna Make You Love Me by the Temptations. Objectively that is a great record with five great vocal performances on it. But the records that were the hits were not always the best songs, they were just the ones the labels put out which caught the mood of the time.’

He even manages to downplay Barack Obama’s request that he be the bandleader at his inauguration. ‘I’ve not met him. My wife has and says he’s very charming. He sent his regards to me, which was nice of him. You’d think he would have too much on his plate to bother with a pop singer.’

The Clintons were fans, too, naming their daughter after the Elvis Costello song (I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea. ‘I think Bill is more a fan of my wife,’ he says. Even so, last year, Costello hosted Spectacle, a chat show series on Channel 4, and proved an able interviewer, his skills honed from standing in for David Letterman.

Guests ranged from Lou Reed, Smokey Robinson, Herbie Hancock, Elton John and Tony Bennett… to Bill Clinton. ‘That Bill took an hour out of his time when his wife was running for president to come on was good of him. That was only the second interview I did. It was bad enough trying to remember the technical stuff, like which camera to look at, without having to think of coherent questions.’

Another week featured what was probably the last television performance by the Police before they disbanded, again. ‘With them it was a case of let’s have some banter with these three guys who after tomorrow night are probably not going to see each other again for a very long time. I had been on the road with them and knew there had been this begrudging tolerance of each other.’

Costello was known as an acerbic songwriter in his early years, as well as a thorny personality. I ask what he makes of the perception that he was an angry young man who mellowed. ‘I don’t think there is any mileage in that. I just think it is a safe thing to say. A safe guess. Mellow about what?’ One thinks of the energy of his early music. Oliver’s Army. Pump it Up.

‘You saw that concert at Barbican, there was a lot of energy in that. A 23 year-old couldn’t have done that.’

What about the anger of the lyrics of Tramp the Dirt Down, in which he looked forward to the death of Baroness Thatcher. ‘Well that was much later. To people who say I have lost the fire of some of my early commentary, I say there are many ways to express things. Shipbuilding is not a ranting song, it is melancholy.

‘The River in Reverse, the song I wrote about [Hurricane] Katrina, wasn’t a pious song, that was an angry song about the lack of care for the victims.’

Besides, often his songs were about love and betrayal. Of The Crooked Line, one of the songs on his new album, he says that it is the first time he has written about fidelity in an unironic way. ‘I think when I was younger I was not very good at writing love songs that didn’t have a twist. You know, Smokey Robinson writes the heartfelt songs, whereas it was my job to write the songs about weakness and failure in love.’

He says it took a long time to admit that it was love with Krall, not just musical empathy. He believed they could be friends and collaborators. ‘Then something happens that you can’t control and I’ve never felt better in my life.’

So The Crooked Line is about finding love and happiness after two unsuccessful marriages? ‘Actually, it was written for someone else to sing. Imagining a much longer relationship to reach a peaceful place. If I was going to write something that personal it would be in the song, I wouldn’t need to explain it. Maybe none of my songs are directly from my own life.’ Note the ‘maybe’. Costello is always careful in his use of words.


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.