John Taverner says his music comes from above – ‘I see myself as a conduit’ – and reveals the secret of the ‘Jesus imagination’. He talks to Nigel Farndale

If you didn’t know what Sir John Tavener did for a living, you could guess from his long hair, domed forehead and unworldly air that he was a composer.

“I do stand out,” he says in a gentle, croaky voice. “I am tall and thin and very bony, but I suppose it is the hair. I got a lot of bullying at Highgate [school] until they realised I was a talented pianist. After that I grew my hair long and cultivated what I thought was the look of a pianist, as a form of self-preservation.”

He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, and his first break came in 1968, when his father, who owned a Hampstead building firm, did some work for John Lennon. He introduced his son. The two musicians, both in their twenties, hit it off and spent the evening sitting on the floor, eating macrobiotic food and playing tapes of Tavener’s orchestral music.

The next day Lennon telephoned to say he wanted to sign Tavener to the Beatles’ Apple label. Though Tavener continued to compose, it was not until 20 years later, in 1989, when The Protecting Veil, his haunting concerto for solo cello and strings, had its premiere at the Proms, that Tavener could claim a wider renown.

The concerto became one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time – Tavener attributes its appeal to its femininity and tenderness – and, along with his Song for Athene, sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, it is probably the work for which he is still best known.

Until recently his work was strongly influenced by the Greek Orthodox Church – sustained chords, sinuous chants and spiritual themes. He has a house in Greece, and at his home in Dorset there are Orthodox icons around the fireplace. But now he has, he says, moved towards a “universalist view”, in which all religions are equally valid.

He has also pared down his music. Critics, who tend to like complexity, have accused him of attracting audiences by over-simplification. But this is, surely, to miss his point. Tavener strips away the complexity to get to what he calls the “essence”. A good example of this is The Veil of the Temple, a seven-hour vigil that had its first performance at the Temple Church in London last year, which will be performed in a shortened, three-hour version next week.

“I didn’t sit down and recompose it,” he says, “but tried to reflect something of its gradual ascent, starting with hardly any sound whatsoever.”

We are talking in his house in Dorset. Outside there is a willow tree and, beyond that, a medieval church tower. Woodpigeons can be heard, and cockerels. It seems a pastoral idyll, in other words. He composes on long walks here, without a notebook, and does not worry that he might have forgotten his composition by the time he gets home.

“Increasingly, I understand Blake who referred to the ‘Jesus imagination’,” he says. “The imagination is a divine thing and is not capable, in its true, pure sense, of having a profane idea. These ideas that come like that put me in a state of semi-ecstasy and leave me feeling revitalised.

“There is no way I can forget them because they seem to emerge from deep down in the subconscious. I can’t get an idea out of my head because it’s part of me, in a way. Sometimes I have the sensation that I’ve known it already. Like deja vu. Not that it was another piece of music, but that one has known it before. I think Yeats experienced something similar in writing poetry.”

Sir John refers more than once in our conversation to “the angel of inspiration” and talks of having “auditory visions” in which music is dictated to him.

“That’s how it seems to me. Maybe I’m crackers. That’s possible. I see myself as a conduit. It has to be effortless. Effort for me means existential angst and ego and I don’t want any of that in the music. Music must be about transcending the ego rather than being imprisoned by it.

“Once you start seeing the ego of Beethoven, his music can seem self-conscious, particularly in the late quartets. But then you look at the late Bagatelles and there he seems to . . ,” he trails off, ” . . . he gives up the effort and it is sublime.”

He stands up, glides towards his grand piano, lays his elongated fingers on the keys and plays, most affectingly, Beethoven’s delicate B flat Bagatelle. “There, Beethoven doesn’t do anything with it. Perhaps he was too tired to make it effortful.”

Sir John can, he says, explain Bach and Beethoven, but not Mozart. “Mozart is inexplicable. Everything in his music is ecstatic. If you just change the position of a single chord, the whole thing falls to pieces. It’s so perfectly poised. That’s why it moves me. And if music doesn’t move one, if it doesn’t inwardly reduce you to your knees, what’s the point of it?”

Inspiration in his terms may be divine and revelatory, but what, for him, is the distinction between a religious experience and an aesthetic one?

“You almost have to become childlike in relation to a religious experience. I never have doubts when I’m writing music. I may well have quite strong atheist thoughts the rest of the time but that is perhaps irrelevant because when I’m actually composing I have my proof. I have a certitude.”

Sir John is 60 and lucky to be alive. At 30 he had a stroke, followed later by heart surgery to correct a leaking valve, an effect of the Marfan syndrome (a condition affecting the body’s connective tissue and found in unusually tall people) he has had since birth. He has also suffered in recent years from temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition associated with out-of-body experiences and quasi-religious visions.

Does he ever wonder whether his angel of inspiration might be a trick of biology?

“My neurologist kept asking me after my first attack, ‘Has your music changed?’ and I said, ‘In a way it has, yes, it has become more contemplative.’ He told me about the conversion of St Paul, that they knew in some form that he had epilepsy. But, my neurologist said, this in no way discredits the authenticity of the experience of a vision – indeed medical conditions can actually bring about this spiritual state.”

So if his music is divinely inspired, what is he, as a composer, adding to it?

“Well, when I return from my walks, my ideas get noted down on different pieces of manuscript – probably in the end there are a hundred little jottings and scribblings strewn all over the room. That’s where the medieval concept of composer as craftsman comes in.

“The ideas that come from that other place, wherever it is, may seem chaotic, but they are not. That’s what’s really mysterious. I look at all these sketches and scribbles and see there is a connection between all of them. That is the stage at which I wrestle as a craftsman with the mathematics of the composition, the form and structure. But that’s a wonderful wrestling, there’s no angst involved, no ego.”

Does he worry that one day the angel will stop visiting him?

“Yes. As I draw near to the end of a piece of music, I have an almost obsessive desire to start another one, just in case. Nowadays I have faith that it will happen, but even if there are two hours when there is music not actually coming to me, then that bothers me. It’s very difficult for me to relax in that sense, because I’ve always said that writing for me is prayer, it’s my umbilical cord, my reason for existing.”

He offers me a bowl of raspberries. “Picked this morning. I’m not much of a gardener, but it’s nice to wander around.” He’s not practical around the house, he adds, “pretty hopeless really. Although I am capable of cooking when left on my own.”

He’s not particularly materialistic, he thinks. Although paradoxically he does have a love of expensive cars, a passion he shares with his friend the Prince of Wales.

“Yes, I’ve always had that. If I want to relax coming back from London by train, I buy Auto Trader and I scour it for cars I might buy. I do love them. I don’t know why.”

He has always had muses, he says. His first, in a sense, was his mother who died in 1985. She dominated him to such an extent that when, in the 1970s, he married a Greek dancer he wouldn’t leave the parental home to live with her. The marriage was annulled after eight months on the grounds of non-consummation.

Did his mother, I ask, feel guilty about that?

“Yes, it was all sort of tacky, that. She didn’t really want me to marry her, that’s the truth. It was consummated, though. I think it probably was a case of my mother telling me: ‘You should say that it was never consummated, dear. Just say that to get the annulment.’ ”

Other “muses” include the Indian soprano Patricia Rozario and Bjork whose “primordial” voice Tavener adores. But his longest partnership was with his some-time librettist Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun. He would ring her at two in the morning and ask her to interpret points of metaphysics for him.

“She didn’t mind the late-night calls. I think she rather enjoyed them. We had a sort of fall-out for a while but now we are back communicating by letter. I feel that I’m much more my own person now and I follow my own vision and I feel this has helped my music.”

The three most important females in his life these days are his wife, Maryanna, 39, and their two daughters, 11 and nine. “The girls do play music,” he says. “In term-time they begin practising at seven o’clock in the morning. There’s quite a cacophony going on, one is playing a flute in one room, the other is playing a cello in another room.”

Doesn’t that offend his musical sensibilities?

“It doesn’t seem to bother me too much. I can bear any human activity when I’m composing.” He frowns for a moment. “Except drills.”


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.