Of course I know her name isn’t pronounced ‘Lisa’. Everyone does. She even had a television show in the 1970s called Liza with a Z. But the moment I learnt that she gets stroppy when people anglicise (or anglicize) her name, that was it: the word-gremlin began its evil work in my brain. I’m not sure what the technical name for this condition is, but it’s that thing that makes you mention the War to Germans, or that happens when you ask a man with enormous, sticking-out ears to pass the salt and instead say, ‘Can you pass the ears, please?’
But this is yet to come. For now I’m waiting in a hotel suite – yellow silk curtains, 18th-century landscape paintings, vases of roses – a few blocks away from where Liza Minnelli lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She is only an hour late, which is pretty unstarry of her, considering. Her fiancé David Gest, a music producer who specialises in multi-star extravaganzas, has phoned, introduced himself as ‘Mr Gest’ and told me that his intended is on her way. I hear a raucous laugh – ‘Hah!’ – in the hallway and, when I open the door, I almost get flattened against a wall as Liza with a Zee barrels in and starts pacing around the room signalling for her entourage of two – there are normally half a dozen – to come in and join us. ‘Hello old boy,’ she barks at me in a mock plummy English accent. ‘I need an ashtray.’ The curtain is up. The performance has begun.
She is wearing black, from her jacket to her high-heeled boots (which make her seem taller than her 5ft 4in). Her spiky hair – ‘I call this my wet hair with toe stuck in electrical socket look, hah!’ – is very black, bottle black indeed, as are her Cleopatra eyeliner, long false eyelashes and thickly drawn-on eyebrows. The blackness of her expressive, bulging eyes, though, is all genuine 100 per cent Liza Minnelli.
She is 56 this month but, apart from a few crow’s-feet and liver spots, she doesn’t look much different from how she looked in 1972 when she first became an international superstar after winning an Oscar for her high-kicking, big-voiced performance in Cabaret. She did look rather different this time last year, though. She was in a wheelchair and, after months of binge-eating junk food, she was five stone heavier than she is now. Having survived three broken marriages, chronic drug and alcohol addiction, rehab, depression, failed comebacks and three miscarriages she had, it seemed, finally hit her lowest point. In May 2000, suffering from arthritis and pneumonia, she had cancelled 14 concert appearances. This followed two hip replacements, three bouts of knee surgery and an operation on her throat. While convalescing she had been rushed back to hospital where she was treated for a life-threatening bout of encephalitis, a viral infection carried by mosquitoes.
Today the only physical intimations of this troubled past are a slight shake in her hand, a crack in her voice and an occasional tendency to make connection jumps and lose the thread of her thoughts in conversation. She is sipping cold, sugary coffee from a giant Starbucks cup; taking agitated drags from a Marlboro Light. ‘Know something?’ she says in a muscular, chewy voice. ‘It’s my last vice.’ She holds up the cigarette, turns up one corner of her pursed mouth and raises an accusing eyebrow. ‘And it’s going within six months. I stopped smoking for a while then I thought I’d have one, then half an hour later I found myself lighting another and I thought, ‘Son of a bitch.'”
She is getting married for the fourth time on Saturday. Does her bridegroom smoke? She widens her eyes. ‘No! Heavens no!’ So that is going to be a bone of contention? ‘I have smoking areas in the house. Yes I do! Hah!’ She touches my shoulder. ‘Marriage is about compromise, honey.’ I imagine she is busy doing all those last-minute things a bride must do: making sure there will be enough vol-au-vents to go round at the reception, ordering the flowers, wondering whether the best man will be bringing his monkey to the service. It is true that Michael Jackson is best man, isn’t it? ‘Well, yes. David grew up with Michael so he knows the family really well. They are partners in business.’ And Whitney Houston will be singing as Minnelli enters the church? ‘Sure.’ Her attendants will include Petula Clarke, Gina Lollobrigida and Martine McCutcheon, but Elizabeth Taylor will be maid of honour, correct? ‘Yes. But Elizabeth can’t bend down – her back is so bad – which I why I asked the others to help.’ Am I right in thinking that since Liza Minnelli’s mother, Judy Garland, died of a drug overdose in 1969, Elizabeth Taylor has been her surrogate mother? ‘Yes. No. She is more like a sister. I met her so many years ago when she was working with my father [the Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli] on Father of the Bride, the first one I mean. And she was nice to me. She loved me.’ From the nursery onwards what was ordinary life for Liza Minnelli would be extraordinary to other people. The first visitor to see her, just hours after she was born, was Frank Sinatra. No‘l Coward, Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe were regular guests at her parents’ house. When she was seven, Ella Fitzgerald taught her how to sing ‘Embraceable You’, when she was 11 she made her television debut with Gene Kelly. ‘Yes,’ she says, blowing out smoke. ‘But you must bear in mind that these people were just the neighbours. It was all I knew. Hollywood was much more of a community then. Everyone stuck together. It’s like our wedding. Our friends are coming, that’s all. We’re all in the same business. If you were getting married, wouldn’t you invite journalists?’
No, they’d get drunk and cause trouble. ‘Well, you know what I mean. We’re a clan.’
‘She hasn’t been put off marriage? She didn’t think she should maybe just live with him? ‘But we’ve been doing that. Hah! No, David is so…’ She trails off. ‘It’s so different this time. I really waited. A long time. And I thought I’d never get married again. And he thought he would never get married.’
As did quite a few people. Indeed there was insinuation in the American press that David Gest, who is 46 years old, has a collection of Lalique crystal and hasn’t had a girlfriend since he was 29, might not be the marrying kind. David and she became engaged three months after she appeared on a Michael Jackson special he had organised last summer. Was it love at first sight? ‘No, because we had met each other several times over the years. It was always, ‘Hello Mr Gest,’ ‘Hello Miss Minnelli.’ But for this last show Michael said, ‘I want Liza on it.’ And David was sceptical. David knows every rock and roll act in the world but he didn’t know ‘Liza with a Zee’. So he sent his conductor over and I sang for a while and afterwards I could hear the conductor on the phone to David saying, ‘Yeah, three octaves! I’m telling you, she’s got her voice back. You’ve gotta come down here and hear this.’ So he did.’
David Gest has, it seems, been a good influence on Liza Minnelli. ‘I lost all this weight because David wanted me to. But I also did it because I don’t want to take any medicine. Nothing mood-altering. I have two crushed discs and two rotated vertebrae in my neck. If I’m carrying any extra weight, it hurts. I don’t want to be in any pain. I don’t want to take painkillers. So there’s the inspiration.’
Is she following a particular diet, such as the Hunza? ‘Yeah, it’s called the Hunga Diet. H-u-n-g-a. Hunga! Hah! You get used to eating healthy. I have half a banana for breakfast. Yogurt for lunch and fish and steamed vegetables for dinner. I went to Bob Mackie who is designing my wedding gown and he said: ‘Oh Liza, you look great. Did you have a nip and a tuck? Liposuction?’ And I said, ‘No, darling. Hunga!”
She disapproves of cosmetic surgery? ‘No, I don’t disapprove of it, but it hurts! That’s why I don’t want to do it, it hurts. Some people are more sensitive than others and I get a little claustrophobic with all that stuff.’
Is there anything about herself she would change? Long pause. ‘My attitudes.’ What’s wrong with them? ‘I’m in constant change now every day because I realise I have a choice. I don’t have to be a slave to anything. I have healthy fear.’ She embarks upon a long analogy about being bumped by someone and turning round angrily to find it’s a blind man. ‘Alcoholics and those of us with compulsive-obsessive disease get bumped on the street and I’ve got to turn round and see who it is before I open my mouth because I know the guilt of what I have done will keep revolving in my head.’
Riiight. But even as a recovering compulsive obsessive, she must perhaps feel she has no choice. It is inescapable. Indeed, in her case it has been suggested that her mental and physical problems are genetic. Judy Garland was notorious for her mood swings, her nervous breakdowns, her 23 suicide attempts, her five marriages, her violent weight fluctuations and her various drug addictions. And so far Minnelli seems to have crashed through life repeating the same mistakes her mother made. ‘Honestly, it is not inevitable because of one woman,’ she says in a hazy drawl. ‘It’s inevitable because of my family history on both sides. It skips generations, but it’s there, like cancer, like any other disease, that’s just the way it is.’
So she does think it was inevitable that she would go off the rails? She puts on her serious face. ‘I don’t want to dwell on the past. I like moving forward. But… Here’s something I’ve learnt. Whenever you get two people talking about me the conversation will follow the same pattern. ‘I saw Judy Garland’s kid in an off-Broadway show, I didn’t think she was very good.’ And the other person says, ‘Of course.’ Or it might go: ‘I thought she was terrific.’ ‘Of course.’ Or another conversation: ‘Liza Minnelli is out of the business, she has adopted children, she is working with brain-injured people and she is going to college.’ ‘Of course.’ ‘Did you know Liza Minnelli just jumped out of a window and died?’ ‘But of course.’ Do you see what I’m saying?’
Of course. Whatever she does, people will say it’s inevitable? ‘Yeah, it’s as if I can’t do anything by myself.’ She lies back on the sofa. ‘Look, my momma told me: ‘Give the people what they want, then go get a hamburger.’ Or several. She mentioned her compulsive-obsessiveness, has she turned to a psychiatrist for help with it? ‘I’ve reached out for help to all sorts of people all the way down the line and never kept my mouth shut. You need to know as much as you can about your condition. It’s like you can’t expect to know how to do a Broadway show from watching it. You have to practise.’ She stands up and starts dancing. ‘You have to learn: step, shuffle, tap, shuffle, hop, hop, take it slow. You gotta rehearse.’
And life is a cabaret. Does she think she would have been a successful singer if she hadn’t been Judy Garland’s daughter, in the sense that her trials and tribulations, her traumatic childhood, gave her performances, her torch songs, an added depth and poignancy? ‘I don’t think you can communicate from the stage with people unless you can identify with them, with their suffering. You know, if I am walking down the street, spinning, saying I have to do this, I have to do that, if I just perform a citizen’s arrest and say halt and look around I will inevitably see someone with one leg. Someone suffering so much more than I am. I have high-‘N’ [neuroticism] problems.’ Meaning? ‘I was never in the gutter. Up here [she taps her head] I was, but not in reality.’
But she grew up knowing about financial problems. Judy Garland was often in debt and died owing $4 million. Liza once joked that before she could read or write she learnt how to check out of hotels without paying. True? ‘Yes, well, there’s lots of stories.’ Aren’t there just. ‘Yeah, but it’s not my problem. I know how I grew up.’ She lights another cigarette. ‘It is strange. So many times I’ve been, say, visiting my half-sister on my father’s side, in Mexico where she works with the Church, and I’ve read that I’m drunk somewhere in some club and I’ve just thought, ‘Hello?’ And I’ve just kept on doing what I was doing, washing the dishes with my sister.’
So she just shrugs it off? ‘It’s not like any of this is new to me. For anyone who was not born into this, though, it is hair-raising. I grew up with it.’ Does she think ‘normality’ only came into her life once she became famous in her own right? ‘Well, my parents were so proud of me and supportive and wonderful. When I was 16 they said you can go to New York and Momma gave me $100 and my father gave me an airline ticket and another $100 and I went to New York and I never took another cent. Never. Not one.’
On the contrary she began sending money home to help her mother out. Judy Garland only realised that her daughter had become a star when Garland invited her on stage during a concert she was giving at the London Palladium in 1964. Was that when the world first recognised Lisa Minnelli in her own right?
‘Liza. It’s Liza with a Zee.’
I must look mortified because she laughs her maniacal laugh – ‘Hah!’ – and says with a shaky, lopsided smile: ‘It’s all right honey, people get it wrong all the time.’ Realising that I am now speechless with shame at my mistake she pats my knee and grins. ‘Don’t worry about it. Really. What were we saying? Yes, the first time I was recognised as a performer in my own right wasn’t on that London stage: it was in an off-Broadway show. I won all the awards there were to win. I was 16. I earned my stripes. So by the time I went to sing with Momma in London she had no idea I’d done all this work and she was quite surprised.’
Recovering my composure slightly, I ask if her mother became competitive. ‘She had to. My mother wasn’t dumb. She was one of the smartest, funniest women I’ve ever known. But, boy, after being on stage with her when she turned from Momma into Judy it was…’ She stands up again, puts her hands on her hips. ‘Well, she sang her five songs and then she introduced me and I came on and sang a song and she applauded. Second song she was still applauding. Then when I did my third she was pacing up and down and by the fourth she had her hands on her hips and was staring at me like this.’ She scowls. ‘By the fifth she was no longer looking at me but re-doing her lipstick, and I thought, ‘Yikes!”It must have been odd for Judy Garland to recognise that her reign was nearly over, that she was being usurped by her daughter. And of course just eight years later, Minnelli realised her full potential with Cabaret. It must be strange for her being preserved on celluloid as she is in Cabaret, this wisecracking coquettish young thing, practically a baby. Does she look at herself in that film now and think, ‘If only you knew what was in store?’ ‘No, I don’t see this baby dancing around. I see a ballsy performer.’ Is she any different from that ballsy performer now?
‘I can turn into her at any minute – so watch out! It’s a stage presence. I was taught all that. What I was never taught was how to live. Momma didn’t know. She’d been working since she was 13 years old.’ Live as in ‘living in the real world’? ‘Yes. Rather than this artificial world. They [the studio, MGM] protected Momma from the time she was so young right up until she had me. They got her addicted to pills, kept her on a starvation diet, and then they kicked her out. That’s not a good thing. There is help now in studios so anyone who is flailing around just has to raise a hand.’
Liza Minnelli mothered her mother. By the age of 12 she was her mother’s nurse and dresser and was even hiring and firing staff – interviewing applicants to assess whether they could deal with her mother’s erratic behaviour and addictions, and asking the police to check their references. As children, Minnelli and her sister Lorna, the daughter of Sid Luft, Garland’s second husband, would replace their mother’s sleeping pills and refill them with sugar, in case she overdosed. By the age of 14, Liza had taken the precaution of acquiring a stomach pump.
Some childhood. ‘Look, my father did his best to give me a normal upbringing. He really did. He’d see me and say, ‘What do you want to be, Liza?’ And I’d say: ‘A Spanish dancer.’ And he would go and buy crpe paper from a drug store and wrap it round me and he would then stretch it and put safety pins in and I would have a train and ruffles and he’s say, ‘What does a Spanish dancer do?’ And I’d say, ‘Dance?’ And he’d say, ‘Then dance, Liza, dance!’ And he’d watch me for hours.’
It’s a touching story. Clearly she felt closer to her father, who died of cancer in 1986, than to her mother. What objects of his does she still keep around the house? ‘I have his viewfinder in a glass case alongside my lucky five-dollar bill – the first money I ever earned. The two things remind me of who I am.’ Liza’s father was bisexual, as was her grandfather and her first husband, Peter Allen. Indeed, on their wedding night, she caught Allen in bed with his boyfriend (‘When we got divorced he got my wardrobe, that’s all he took!’ Liza said later.) Why does she think she has always been attracted to gay men? ‘Well, who else is in the theatre? Know what I mean? Are you going to meet a lot of basketball players when you’re performing on Broadway? I think not.’ In some ways she has continued in her mother’s role as a gay icon, a ‘Friend of Dorothy’ (the name of Judy Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz) being an early idiom. How does Liza Minnelli account for her own gay following? ‘There is a difference in the genes with gay people. I find that gay people relate to women like me because I’m sensitive like they are. I describe what they are going through.’ Perhaps so: she was an ornament of Studio 54, a true bohemian, frolicking with Andy Warhol and taking many lovers, among them Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Sellers. By all accounts she could be immature, petulant and shallow but her quixotic, excitable, likeable personality always seems to have compensated for her flaws. And, as she says, fame breeds insecurity, and she was born to it.
It is time for her close up now. Her make-up man goes to work. ‘This is my best side, honey,’ she tells the photographer, presenting her left profile. Endearingly, she keeps absent-mindedly bursting into song – ‘Mr Saturday Night’ – and she keeps trying out dance steps, too, seemingly oblivious to other people in the room. At one point she wanders through into another room, and I can hear her say loudly: ‘What’s that English guy’s name again?’ When she comes back out she says: ‘It’s blaady cold, don’t you think, Nigel, old boy? When you lose weight you really feel it.’ She takes a sip from my coffee cup by mistake and nearly chokes on it. ‘Ahhh, no sugar! Yuk!’
Pictures taken, she gives the photographer and his assistant a big hug each, but sensing my English terror of such tactility she slaps me on the back instead and says: ‘Ta-ta’. Her mobile rings. It is Mr Gest. She ends her conversation: ‘I love you, sweetheart.’ A minute later Mr Gest walks through the door: 5ft 9in, dimple in chin, shaped eyebrows, permatan, neat little scarf around neck and, though the room is dark, sunglasses. ‘How did it go?’ he asks. Liza links her arm through his and says: ‘He called me Lisa! Hah!’


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.