When Jools Holland’s not suppressing rebellions in Kent, he’s listing the service stations he’s visited or playing boogie-woogie. Whatever happened to rock’n’roll? asks Nigel Farndale

Like a water spider skitting across the surface of conversation, that’s Jools Holland. It’s to do with his wandering focus: he nods and smiles constantly, but rarely concentrates on what you are saying, still less on what he is saying. It’s also to do with his relentless flippancy and jocularity.

When, for example, the talk turns to his move from a town house in Blackheath, south-east London, to Cooling Castle, near Rochester in Kent, he gives a cheery nod and a smile. ‘Wherever I lay my flat cap is my home,’ he says, pleased with his joke, and with himself. He also seems pleased with his new role as lord of the manor: when he got married last year, after a 16-year courtship, he gave a slice of wedding cake to all of the villagers.

His wife, Christabel, is a member of a landed Scottish family and was formerly married to the Earl of Durham. Among the 800 wedding guests were the couple’s 16-year-old daughter, Mabel, Ringo Starr, Stephen Fry and the McCartneys, who flew in by helicopter for the reception. The Prince of Wales couldn’t make it, though he did invite Holland to his wedding, earlier that year. Connected, in a word. A pillar of the establishment, even. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that this former punk rocker has just been appointed deputy lieutenant for Kent.

Does he, I ask, wear a flat cap in his official capacity? ‘Not when I’m being DL, no. I wear one when I am going dog-racing. Hardly any dog tracks left. All gone now. Catford. Wembley. Mad. Great sadness.’ This is how he talks, by the way. In rapid, clipped, one-word sentences delivered in a reedy, back-of-the-throat, south-London voice.

I ask if the DL of K gets to pin medals on people, on behalf of the Sovereign. ‘I haven’t yet but I would be very happy to deliver a telegram from the Queen to someone who is 100. I think it is my duty to promote Kent and to suppress any rebellions. Every five minutes there is an uprising of some sort. Peasants revolt – that started in Kent. And when Mary I was marrying Philip of Spain it was the people of Kent who came and rebelled. But I would like to reassure all your readers that they can sleep soundly in their beds now that I have control of Kent. I also keep an eye on our coastal borders, in case there is an invasion. There was a report recently that the Germans were planning to include Kent as part of France in a new map of Europe, and that is exactly the sort of thing I like to keep my eye on.’

As we are in Kensington today, at the HQ of his record label, Holland is not wearing a Kentish flat cap. He has gone, instead, for a more spivvy, London look: black suit with velvet piping, Chelsea boots, clunky diamond cufflinks and a Rolex watch. His fingernails are dirty and there is writing on the back of his hand. ‘It’s only within the past five years that I have found the right thing to wear,’ he says. ‘When Squeeze started touring America in the summer of 1978 – one of the hottest summers America had known – I turned up with a fur coat and snow boots. I had had no idea what to expect and I had to carry them around America for two months.’

He was only 20 then, a tender age to experience rock stardom. Squeeze had two big hits under their belts that summer: Up the Junction and Cool for Cats, both of which sold more than half a million copies. They weren’t really a punk band – their tunes were too catchy and cheerful, their lyrics too clever – but they got lumped in with the punk movement, like the Police, with whom they shared a manager. Did they also share groupies? ‘That is one of the benefits of being young and handsome and playing music. I still play music.

‘Also, if the other members of the band were off their faces that meant you could move in on the lady folk. I look back with fondness on all that, but it is like looking back on another life. We would check into hotels that were more comfortable than my flat. Now my house is more comfortable than most hotels.’

Ah yes, the hotels. Holland keeps a diary in which he records such minutiae as the size of hotel room he is staying in, as well as the merits of service stations he has frequented. It suggests he is in touch with his inner anorak. Still to be obsessed with boogie-woogie after all these years also, perhaps, shows a want of imagination. He has, after all, been playing it since he was eight.

He had been taught to play St Louis Blues on the piano by his Uncle David and could soon play fluently by ear. ‘I was lucky,’ he tells me rather touchingly, ‘because when I heard my uncle play boogie-woogie on the piano for the first time, the cosmology of the room came into focus. I was mesmerised by the way the left hand could play a constant riff while the right hand rolled off on its own. And I’m still mesmerised.’

Holland left Squeeze at the height of the band’s success, because ‘I like to be in charge. I like a benign dictatorship. In Squeeze I wasn’t the dictator.’ He formed his own band, which soon fizzled out. The chance then arose to host a documentary about the Police recording a new album at George Martin’s studio in Montserrat. Holland proved a natural in front of the camera: confident, irreverent, witty.

At one point, Stewart Copeland, the Police drummer, was demonstrating different styles of guitar-playing and Holland silenced his exhibitionism with an abrupt, dismissive: ‘That’s enough of all that.’ The documentary led to him being asked to co-host The Tube, with Paula Yates, live from Newcastle every Friday night. ‘When we did the audition we thought: We don’t want to do this. Imagine coming up here every week. So we were off-hand and rude and badly behaved, which it turned out was just what the producers were looking for.’

The Tube, which ran for five years between 1981 and 1986, was chaotic, ground-breaking and compelling. It featured unsigned bands alongside rising and established figures, but the undoubted stars were the hosts: Holland’s nonchalance and cynicism was the perfect complement to Yates’s flirtatiousness and anarchism. ‘I feel I ought to apologise to the people of Britain for my interviewing style on The Tube,’ Holland says. ‘I think I ushered in a more ill-mannered and disrespectful form of television. All I can say in my defence is that there was a certain earnestness and humourlessness about television interviewing at that time and we wanted to subvert it a bit.’

Later With Jools Holland has re-awakened the innovative spirit of The Tube, and is now in its 26th series. Among the new talents it has introduced over the years are Catatonia, Travis, Macy Gray, Gomez, Stereophonics and The Fugees. The highlight of each show is the moment when all Holland’s guests play together. That the show has been running for so long – 14 years – makes you appreciate Holland’s own longevity. He is 48 but seems older. Not in terms of looks but… When he was a young man hosting The Tube, he seemed oddly old and world-weary, using old-fashioned, not very rock’n’roll expressions, such as ‘splendid’ and ‘ladies and gentlemen’.

‘I know exactly what you mean,’ he says, helping me out. ‘Funnily enough, a friend of mine had a load of videos of The Tube and is just putting them on to DVD for me because I wanted to show them to my daughter who is friends with Pixie, Paula’s daughter. [Holland has three children: two from an earlier relationship.] And I watched a bit of one yesterday and it was odd to see what an overly confident, cocky person I appeared to be – because I hadn’t done that much television at the time. But I was clearly a big “reckon-I-am” person and, for some reason, that seemed to work. At the time, market research suggested that people saw me as an older brother figure, even though I was only 23.’

He must miss Paula Yates. ‘Well, it was sad what happened to her. She was so funny and sharp. The friend who is transferring The Tube onto DVD came across this moment where she calls me a stupid c— just off the microphone. He isolated the sound and said: “Listen to this. Probably the first time that word had been used on television and no one noticed it.” Well done Paula. You couldn’t be pretentious with her. She would catch people off balance. The moment she made me howl with laughter was when she introduced “Fred Mercury”. Freddie was so not a Fred…’ Holland has been commissioned to write his memoirs.

‘I’ve got up to 1994 so – when did Paula die? – I don’t think I’ve quite got up to where she drops dead yet.’ He is referring to Yates’s death from a heroin overdose in 2000. ‘But you have to have the high and lows,’ he continues in an inappropriately jokey voice, ‘the tears and the laughter!’ Did he have no intimation of Yates’s impending meltdown? ‘I didn’t sense the seeds of that at all, no. There was no sign at all that she was anything other than a teetotal, devoted mother who was very quick and amusing. There was no portent of things to come.’

How has he managed to survive so long himself in the rock world, without sliding into drug dependency, I mean? ‘It’s funny, I dreamed last night that Rod Stewart was trying to give me loads of cocaine. That was a strange dream to have.’ Especially given Rod’s legendary stinginess. ‘Exactly… But it was just a dream.’

What about when Holland is awake? I imagine he is no stranger to cocaine. Long pause. Much nodding. A smile, slightly cautious this time, the smile of the DL of K. ‘Inevitably around music there is drugs.’ Inevitably. ‘But you can’t generalise because one person can have a puff of marijuana and it will send them off their rocker. And cocaine can make people go mad, too.’

‘People’ as in Jools Holland? Pause. ‘I think I went mad on cocaine for a while, yes.’

And then? ‘And then, after a while, it made me nauseous, so I was lucky. What I did notice before I stopped was that three days later it would make me very short-tempered. It crept up on me and was changing my personality, making me twitchy and unpleasant. Also, I would spend hours talking to people I wouldn’t normally talk to. Also, it doesn’t make music sound any better.

‘People taking coke grind their teeth and imagine they want more and more sex. A jazz cigarette, on the other hand, can sometimes open the door to helping you understand a piece of music better. It’s like alcohol. Some people can’t drink. Paula Yates couldn’t. After one drink she would go mad. No tolerance. Personally, I do like a nice pint of bitter.’

Born in Deptford in 1958, Julian Holland had a happy if impoverished and peripatetic childhood. He is vague about what his father, Derek, did for a living, partly because he never stayed in one job for long. They once went without electricity for a year, and he recalls his father hiding from the rent-collector – but there were also short periods when there was money for cigars and vintage claret.

Did it bother him that there was no money around? ‘Actually, once I was aged 14 there was quite a bit of money. My father had various successes. My parents were very young. Still alive. My father had lots of books. Always read to me. Greek myths. Firing my imagination. And once I started to play piano he would bring home abstract jazz records for me to listen to.’

Did he want his father’s approval? ‘Every child who plays an instrument wants his parents to look at him. You want to show off your talent. And the desire and ability to show off is essential to success as a performer. I would drive everyone mad playing the piano. I would do it all day, relentlessly. In a confined space. You need to be obsessive about it.’

Holland’s relationship with Christabel was threatened in its early days by a potentially disastrous episode. Christabel asked Holland to put £35,000 worth of jewellery in a bank before going on tour to America. Instead, he left it in a briefcase at his studio and it was stolen – by his own father. Jools had to sit in court and see Derek Holland admit to having sold the hoard to finance a trip around the world. Holland Snr was jailed for 15 months. Holland Jnr described the case as embarrassing but said that both he and Christabel had decided to help his father seek psychiatric treatment.

I wonder if he sees some of his father in his own behaviour. ‘What do you mean?’ I mean his impulsiveness, a certain self-destructiveness. ‘Such as?’ Well not only did he leave Squeeze when the band was on a roll, but also, in a way, The Tube. He was suspended from it for declaring on a live trailer for the programme: ‘If you’re a groovy f—–, you’ll watch The Tube.’ He must have known that would get him sacked. ‘That was an inadvertent slip of the tongue. I wasn’t concentrating.’

Freud would argue that slips of the tongue are a way for the unconscious mind to reveal true feelings and motives. ‘You mean I might have unconsciously been trying to get out of the show? Well, possibly. I think by then I was getting tired of The Tube. It was convenient to be out of it.’

Also, he was expelled from school for wrecking a teacher’s Triumph Herald – he let the handbrake off and it rolled down a hill. ‘Expulsion is a strong word. It wasn’t as if I was an awful trouble-maker. Just one or two misunderstandings. I don’t think it was deliberate, letting the handbrake off. At the time, in my shallow mind, I found humour in the situation. Not really caring about school. I felt I already knew what I wanted to do, which was play the piano and show off.’

He wanted to be famous? ‘In a babyish way, yes. I fantasised about it. I wanted to be like The Beatles. I would listen to Motown and country and think: I could do that.’

Looking back at his life as he writes his memoirs, has he learned anything about himself? ‘Yes, I look at that fellow on The Tube and the fellow in the Squeeze video and I see a different person. I think I’m a slightly improved person now. Or, at least, more aware that there is scope for improvement.’ Less arrogant then, but is he more introspective? ‘Not particularly, no. More tolerant of my own mistakes and, therefore, other people’s perhaps.’

He seems a cheerful person. Is he always like this or are there ever long nights of the soul? ‘The short answer is no, I don’t. I have a lot to be positive about.’ What I’m getting at, I think, is that actually, it might just be that he is rather shallow. Is he? ‘Um. No, I think… Um. I think there is great joy in making music. It is the main focus for my life. Wherever I go, as long as there is a piano in the room, I am happy.

‘As you get older, you realise what your true needs are. Although I have more stuff, I have come to realise that my requirements in life are quite basic. I do get a certain cheerfulness and positive-thinking from my mum. She was once knocked off a motorbike and, as she was up in the air, she was thinking: this is good. I might get a day off tomorrow.’

Part of the positivism is a tendency to talk himself up. ‘I have made and sold more records in the past seven years than I have at any other time in my career, ‘ he says. ‘More than with Squeeze. It’s amazing at my age to be doing that. It feels like I’m doing my career in reverse.’

Soon after Squeeze ended he formed The Jools Holland Big Band, which consisted of him and a drummer. This gradually metamorphosed into the current 18-piece Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. They are touring until Christmas, including dates at the Royal Albert Hall. They also have a new album out, ‘Moving to the Country’, featuring Bob Geldof, Dr John and Mark Knopfler, among other guests.

It is essentially a country album, hence the title. A departure for him. Who is his market going to be? Is his intention to lure people in who don’t normally try country? ‘Lure is a good word. I like the word lure. Yes, because it is playing country songs, but not in the country style. Brian Eno is one of the guests and he sounds like Brian Eno. I hope people won’t be frightened off by the word “country”.’

His band is certainly successful: his last album, in 2004, went straight into the charts at number five. Still, Squeeze could have been… well, maybe as big as U2, with whom they used to tour. Does he have no regrets about giving that up? ‘Squeeze did play huge stadiums in America. Places such as Madison Square Garden… I remember playing the Hope and Anchor with U2 and there were two men and a dog in the audience then the dog left. So we were each other’s audience. You want success for your friends so I look at Bono with pleasure rather than jealousy.’

So Gore Vidal’s aphorism – ‘When a friend succeeds a little part of me dies’ – does not apply? ‘There is an element of that. If you want to see jealousy look at artists. People who own vast amount of land are very jealous, too, I’ve noticed, of people who own slightly more vast areas of land. But, no. Not really. With U2, I don’t think it matters the size of the venue as long as that love of the music is there. I know that sounds…’ Cheesy? ‘Cheesy. But it’s true.’

Key interests ‘Wherever I go, as long as there is a piano in the room, I’m happy,’ says Jools Holland In reflective mood ‘I look at that fellow on The Tube and the fellow in the Squeeze video and I see a different person’



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.