For his latest film Ewan McGregor has dropped his winsome, million-dollar grin to play a selfish, brooding, promiscuous drifter. And, by the way, he’s taken his clothes off again. He spoke to Nigel Farndale

The restless, jiggling knee, the repetitive tapping of cigarette over ashtray, the way he keeps saying ‘yeah, yeah’ – loudly, impatiently, running the words together – all give the impression that Ewan McGregor has been, somehow, overwound. He even strains forward in his seat, as though about to spring up for a quick lap of the room. He can, it seems, hardly contain himself, his energy, his confidence.

Perhaps this is how someone behaves when they are struggling to keep their ego in check – trying to come to terms with being, at the age of 32, an international film star who flies by private jet, earns £5 million a film and finds himself cast as the love object of characters played by, among others, Nicole Kidman, Cameron Diaz and Rachel Weisz. Actually, it’s a good question: how does Ewan McGregor keep his ego in check? ‘I’m not sure I always do,’ he says with a Perthshire burr and a lupine grin. ‘Perhaps I don’t.’

With his dimpled chin and wide blue eyes, he is good-looking, no question. But he hasn’t had the mole on his forehead removed, or his manly nose narrowed and prettified. And he doesn’t have expensive teeth, or Hollywood muscles. He is a lean, 5ft 10 1/2in and, if anything, in tank-top and white, snakeskin shoes, he looks a bit dorky today. Or perhaps natural is the word. And this may explain why he never had to go through a starving-in-a-garret period.

‘No, I never starved. I wish I had had that, in a way. I’d have liked to have had the time to read the classics and reflect about things. But I was in such a rush. Such a rush. I was hungry for success. I really was.’

He landed his first starring role – in Dennis Potter’s television drama Lipstick on Your Collar – in 1993, shortly before graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Soon afterwards, aged 23, he won a leading role in Shallow Grave (1994), the acclaimed film directed by Danny Boyle. In Boyle’s next film, the even more acclaimed Trainspotting (1996), he shaved his head, shed two stone and was given the lead as a lovable junkie.

By then he was being talked of as the most exciting and dangerous British actor since Gary Oldman, the most versatile and subtle since Daniel Day-Lewis. A mixed bag of films followed – some charming, small and British, such as Brassed Off (1996), Little Voice (1998) and Rogue Trader (1999): others, well, with greater commercial appeal, such as Star Wars (The Phantom Menace, 1999, Attack of the Clones, 2002), and Moulin Rouge! (2001).

His latest two offerings, released this autumn, reflect his almost bizarre eclecticism. Down With Love, in which he co-stars with Renée Zellweger, is a frothy homage to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day romantic comedies of the 1960s. Young Adam, based on a novel by the Scottish existentialist writer Alexander Trocchi, is a dark, erotic thriller in the style of Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s.

McGregor plays the anti-hero Joe, a selfish, brooding, promiscuous drifter who works on the canals around Glasgow. He emotes without words, seduces without feelings – the character he plays is so unsympathetic it was a struggle finding financiers to back the project. If it hadn’t been for McGregor’s persistent lobbying of the UK Film Council, the film wouldn’t have been made at all.

‘It’s the story of a man’s moral decline,’ he says. ‘That’s what attracted me to it. I felt it either had to be made authentically, without any compromises, or not made at all. I’m only interested in playing characters; playing someone who isn’t an all-out good guy doesn’t worry me. I like the film because it’s fucking edgy. It’s strong.

‘There was a pressure to shoot a final scene where Joe walks towards a police station and hands himself in, but I wouldn’t do it because it would have made a mockery of the film. Young Adam wouldn’t have been made in Hollywood. They just don’t make films like this. They don’t.’

A leitmotif which runs through Ewan McGregor’s work, from the BBC costume drama Scarlet & Black (1993), his performance in Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in 1994, and Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996), to the glam rock film Velvet Goldmine (1998), is full-frontal nudity.

The actor is, it seems, very, very proud of his willy, as well he might be given that Elle magazine once described it as ‘incredibly handsome’. I tell him that it almost came as a relief when the thing finally put an appearance in Young Adam – it meant that the audience could relax and concentrate on the story.

‘Yes, thank goodness,’ he says with a laugh. ‘The film wouldn’t have been right without it. I felt it was slightly underused.’

Being naked in public is, for most normal, vulnerable men, the stuff of anxiety dreams. Why is he so relaxed?

‘I’m not blasé about it in everyday life, but on a set it doesn’t bother me. I like the idea very much. Being naked on set is like swimming naked – it makes you feel powerful.

‘I think it adds to the realism of a film, because we are showing people’s private lives. Part of private life is nudity. It’s very effective if you have two actors lying naked on a bed having a chat. It makes their relationship very real if you glimpse their genitalia. It’s a short cut to making it clear that here are two people at ease with themselves, who are lovers.’

Does he blank out the film crew when doing a sex scene?

‘No, I’m never aware of the crew anyway. You shouldn’t be. I could have a sound man lying under the bed and I wouldn’t notice him. My only concern when I’m doing a sex scene is that I don’t get my arsehole in shot, also that my penis doesn’t show when I’m supposed to be having sex with someone – because that would be a bit of a giveaway, wouldn’t it?’

But what if…? I raise my eyebrows. He grins.

‘That doesn’t happen. Not sure why. Because it’s not real, I suppose.’ He shakes his head. ‘Actually, it has happened to me. I’m not pretending there haven’t been moments.’

So how does he, um, cope?

‘I just take a few moments. You know, the director says, “Let’s try that again,” and I say, “No, give me ten seconds.” It happened to me [with Alice Krige] on Scarlet & Black. I had to lie on top of her and because they wanted to see me and her naked, we couldn’t wear underwear. It was a bit awkward. I’ve heard that Stephen Fry taped his to his tummy for a love scene in Wilde. I wouldn’t fancy doing that. I mean, having to pull the tape off afterwards. Quite painful.’

I suspect that, in the age-old Hollywood tradition, film publicists encourage rumours about Ewan McGregor and his female co-stars, but they are without foundation. He married Eve Mavrakis, a French set designer and producer, when he was 24. They have two young daughters, Clara (seven), and Esther (nearly two), and the family always travels with him on location. For all his nonchalance about sex scenes, McGregor seems quite puritanical about sex, or at least depictions of sex in inappropriate contexts.

‘Sex is so out-there these days,’ he says, his knee jigging up and down furiously. ‘In every shite magazine. Magazines for 14-year-old girls in which they are told how to give a blow job. Fucking outrageous. I think it’s all wrong, seeing six-year-old kids with boob tubes and miniskirts. It’s wrong. Just wrong. I think their parents should have a fucking good look at what they are doing. Really, I do.’

Is it because he has daughters?

‘Yes, perhaps. I probably feel more protective. I’m sure that is it.’

Were his parents broadminded about sex?

‘I kind of left school before I started, so I wasn’t having sex aged 14. Once I’d left home I’d left home, so I didn’t have to bother my parents with it.’

He and his elder brother, Colin, were raised in the small town of Crieff, in Perthshire. They attended Crieff and Morrison Academy, a public school where their father, Jim, was the games master; their mother, Carol, is also a teacher, of special needs children in Dundee. The young Ewan was regularly hauled before the headmaster for antisocial behaviour, and he now thinks he felt depressed at school because he found it hard to live up to his brother.

‘There was some sibling rivalry, I guess. Not fighting as such. But, well, Colin was academic and sporting, you know, captain of the rugby and cricket teams, and those were the most important things at our school. Music and artistic studies, the things I was interested in, were deemed wasters’ activities. Copping out. We are different in every way.’

His uncle, Denis Lawson, the actor best known for Local Hero (1983), would visit Crieff from London. Often dressed in flares and an Afghan coat, he would leave a trail of glamour in his wake. Does McGregor think he would have become an actor if he hadn’t had a cool uncle making a big impression on him as a teenager?

‘I think I would have been drawn to music and art. I was in the school pipe band and the choir [McGregor has Grade 7 French horn.] ‘I also became the drummer in a school band. I wanted people to call me Bones. No one did. I can see now I was wanting to perform. Ever since I was tiny I would mime to songs at my parents’ parties, aged four or five, putting on a show. I had a huge hankering for old films at the weekend on BBC2, anything black and white and romantic.

‘And pantomimes were hugely erotic experiences – I always became sexually excited about the principal boy, who was a woman in fishnets. Does that sound dodgy? I would fall in love with her during the performance and dream about her when I got home that night.’

McGregor left school at 16, joined the Perth Repertory Theatre and then enrolled on a one-year drama course at Kirkcaldy College of Technology. The theatre must have seemed a bohemian place compared to tweedy Crieff.

‘Rep was quite bohemian, yes, but I was too young to realise. I was rather shocked because I came from a tiny town. I met a gay man for the first time, also the first couple having an [extramarital] affair. I was going, “Fucking hell, what is going on? Does his wife know?”

I did get swept along a little in the high campery, the “darling” thing. It was the world I had secretly always wanted to be in. There is a magic to theatre. You don’t want to find out the actors are real people. You don’t want to meet them in real life. When I take my eldest daughter to shows

I often get asked backstage, and it’s a shame because I don’t want to be rude and not go and say hello, but I also don’t want to shatter the illusion and mystery for my daughter. Already she knows how it all works because she has been on film sets. She has seen how much of it is an illusion. Believe me, as one who has appeared in Star Wars, which has the most acting to a bit of tape on a stick in history, I know all about the illusion side of it.’

How much of an illusion was it when his character took heroin in Trainspotting? Had he actually tried the stuff in real life?

‘I don’t know what it feels like to shoot smack because I’ve never done it, but I do know what someone looks like when they do it, because I watched a lot of people who did. At one point I did discuss trying it. I thought me and Danny should do it together and John [Hodge, who wrote the screenplay], being a doctor, should administer it, to make sure we didn’t die.

‘We thought it should be done properly in a hotel room. Then we started working with heroin addicts and I just thought it would be hugely disrespectful to do it. I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t think it would have helped bring depth to the performance, but it would have been an excuse to try it.’

Has he ever caught himself using his actorly gifts, the skills of the illusionist, to manipulate people off-screen?

‘I’m sure I did in my youth, but you learn to be truer to yourself as you get older. It never made me feel good about myself so I wouldn’t do that now. If you are acting in an everyday situation to get your own way, you are lying to the people around you. If you want to be straight with your wife, it’s better to say: “I just don’t want to change that nappy,” or whatever, rather than to lie.

‘But I don’t mind changing nappies. I changed Clara’s more than I change Esther’s. I don’t know why that is. It’s not that I am repelled by the dirty nappies. Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe I’m lazy in that respect. There is an element of me seeing myself as the breadwinner.

‘Eve brings other things to the marriage. She is a much better organiser than me, for instance. We’ve just been on location for five months [in Alabama, filming Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton] and she is the only one who can get all the arrangements right for moving a family for that long. If it was left to me, we would get there and not have anything we needed.’

He uses the tip of the Marlboro he has just finished to light up another one.

‘Five months would have seemed a lot longer if they hadn’t been there with me. It would have been unbearable. I have a great family and I am at my happiest when I am with them.’

After Alabama McGregor went to Australia to work on the next Star Wars film. He and his family have not spent much time at home in Belsize Park in London this year – or indeed in the past five years. I ask McGregor if he has considered sending his children to boarding school when they are older, if only to give them some stability?

‘Definitely not. They will have to change schools if I am away on location. That will be much better for them. I can’t see any benefit in being separated from your parents.’ (In part, McGregor’s policy of always taking his family with him on location was prompted by a near-fatal illness Clara suffered as a baby. She spent three weeks in hospital with meningitis. McGregor flew back from America where he had been appearing in an episode of ER. ‘I was shaken by that experience,’ he says.)

One of his recent films, Black Hawk Down (2002), filmed on location in Morocco, is said to be a personal favourite of President Bush. It has gritty action scenes and, to prepare for his role, McGregor trained with the US Rangers, something he revelled in. Has he ever fantasised about being a manly soldier rather than an effete actor? He laughs.

‘Yeah, yeah, whenever we watched the war coverage from Iraq my wife had to keep reminding me that I’m not a soldier. I did go through a period of thinking acting was a stupid thing to do, but that may have had more to do with a feeling I had at the time that I was stupid.’

He flicks ash from his cigarette, and misses the ashtray.

‘My brother is a fighter pilot in the RAF and I’m an actor. You can’t think of two more diverse professions. We are close, though. I love him very much. He took me up in his Tornado once, we did a lap of Scotland, and I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life.

‘The hatch closed and I could just see a slither of my brother’s helmet as we were taxi-ing down the runway and I felt such pride. He’s seen all my work and I’d never seen his. He was doing such a manly thing, a proper job for a man. He fucking flies at 500 miles an hour 200ft above the ground. Incredible. Whereas I wear make-up for a living.’

Tellingly, McGregor likes to test his courage on his motorbikes, namely a powerful Ducati 748 SP.

‘It’s truly my passion, my real passion. From the moment I first rode on a race track something happened. The bike leapt ahead. It was so exhilarating. Made me feel more alive.’

Is it that he appreciates not being cosseted and mollycoddled by over-anxious film executives for a few hours when on the track?

‘Yes, you have complete control of the machine and where you go. No one can bother you. I don’t wear a phone piece in my helmet. There’s something that happens on long journeys. I love it. It represents independence for me. You are making your own decisions on a bike, and, as an actor, when you’re working, your decisions are made for you. You are met by drivers and your breakfast is always waiting for you, just as you like it, and you have people telling you when you have to go where.’

Sounds like a hard life. He laughs.

‘I know, I know, poor me. And before Christmas I had to have a four-month holiday.’

I ask what happens when he bumps into old friends, who don’t fly by private jet and get paid to kiss Nicole Kidman. Do they smile the frozen smile and mutter “jammy bastard” under their breath when he leaves? ‘I think it’s “fucker” they mutter. “Jammy fucker.” I suppose it’s hard, oh God, this is going to sound crap, I suppose your real friends aren’t affected by it.

‘But that can’t be true. Everybody is. It’s hard. Going back to Crieff, going back to the pub, I don’t do that any more. I wish I could but…’ He laughs. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I’ll shut up now.’ l


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.