My idea of living dangerously is staying up until 2.30am watching television and drinking whiskey when I know I have to drive to Wiltshire next morning for a wedding. Marc Almond’s idea is to jump on a plane to New York, consume a wheelbarrow-full of LSD, heroin, crystal meths, Quaaludes, opium, mescalin, Ecstasy and cocaine, and then spend a week crawling from one S&M club to another, before bursting into tears and making his mascara run.
Concerted self-abuse of this sort takes its toll. The 42-year-old pop star attributes his liver damage, blackouts, panic attacks and mood swings to his hedonistic lifestyle. And he found the chronic memory loss a distinct drawback when it came to writing his memoirs. There is a period which began in 1981 with Soft Cell’s number one single ‘Tainted Love’  and lasted for about five years that he can only recall through a haze of hallucination – it was, he explains, a nightmarish blur of events, places and faces.
‘My 12-year addiction to benzodiazepine [sleeping pills] didn’t help either,’  he adds in a confidingly camp but stentorian tone. ‘I can never remember anyone’s name. An hour after meeting someone, I’ve forgotten it. The memory loss is all part of my stammering and dyslexia, too. I get my mords wixed up.’  A peel of nervy loud laughter at this. ‘Luckily, I have an obsession with keeping lists, notebooks and diaries, so they helped with the chronology of the book – getting things in the right context.’
Today, sitting under a bust of Harold Macmillan in a publisher’s office in Chelsea, Marc Almond looks out of place. He is 5ft 6in, with a wiry physique – his own description is that he looks like a nose on a stick – and, as you would expect, he is wearing black clothes, black sideburns and black eyeliner. Tattoos run the length of both sinewy arms, and creep up his neck like tendrils from under his T-shirt collar. On one finger there is a heavy silver ring in the shape of a skull. There are chunks of metal in his nose and his ears, too – and there appears to be a little glittering something on his front tooth. He has had cosmetic surgery to remove the bags from under his eyes. It is midday. We were supposed to meet at 11am but a panicky Almond realised at the last minute that that meant having to do something in the morning – and he simply can’t do anything before lunchtime. He’s cheerful, and funny, hyperactive if anything. To keep his stutter in check he speaks in a torrent – words tumbling out breathlessly – and he repeats himself to maintain the rhythm of his sentences. As I listen to his cautionary tale of rock-and-roll excess I grip the sides of my chair and try not to look too startled.
He first got a taste for shocking people in 1979, when completing a degree course in performance art at Leeds Polytechnic. For one exam show he sat at a mirror, naked except for black boots and a swastika thong, and shaved half his body. He then smashed the mirror and, with a shard, cut himself, drawing blood. For the climax he lay face down on a large mirror and simulated sex. All he remembers about this now is that the mirror was very cold.   Around this time, the beginning of the New Romantic movement, Almond met the synthesiser player Dave Ball and formed Soft Cell. Their first appearance on Top of the Pops caused, as the saying goes, the BBC switchboard to jam – ‘I look back on those early performances and I even embarrass and shock myself in a way, they are so kind of, “Please love me, please love me”, and I’m trying so hard. I can imagine why it would have got people’s backs up – too much eyeliner, too much leather, too fey, too mincy.’
Nevertheless, ‘Tainted Love’  sold more than a million copies in Britain. It was also a number one all over Europe, and in America it was in the charts longer than any other record in history – and so gained a place in the Guinness Book of Records, replacing Bill Haley’ s ‘Rock Around the Clock’. Ball and Almond received no publishing royalties for the single, however, because it was a cover version. ‘We were so naive,’  Almond says with a raucous laugh, ‘we put a cover on the B-side as well. If we had used one of our own songs on the B-side, we could have shared the royalties 50/50! Instead we lost around £1.7 million.’
Even so, the first half of the Eighties were extremely lucrative for Britain’ s first ‘synth duo’. They had a succession of hits and Almond developed an addiction to spending money: £500,000 on drugs alone. He bought a Mercedes convertible on a whim as he passed a car showroom – even though he can’t drive. On another occasion, while recording in Bavaria, he developed a craving for sushi and, unable to find a sushi restaurant nearby, flew back to London for the night – ‘When you have to have sushi you have to have it.’  Accountants were despatched to devise saving schemes that would prevent Almond getting his hands on his money. ‘Then one day came the terrifying realisation that the money was coming in faster than I could spend it. The addict with an endless supply of money can remain indefinitely in denial.’
Through the haze Almond recalls that around this time he was groped by George Melly at a party; Rowan Atkinson did a sketch about him on Not the Nine O’ clock News; on a night out with his friend Molly Parkin he drunkenly tried to seduce the boxer John Conteh; Madonna stayed at his bedsit in London; and, in New York, Andy Warhol invited him to his studio, the Factory. They filmed each other. ‘It was Polaroids and Super 8s at 50 paces, a strange stand-off.’ Almond’s recording history after Soft Cell split up in 1984 has been chequered. He would announce his retirement in a petulant fury – on one occasion storming into the offices of Record Mirror to bull-whip a journalist who had been critical of him – only to retract the announcement next day.
Over the years his distinctively off-key voice mellowed and improved. He signed to half a dozen record labels, reinventing himself variously as a Latin, jazz or R&B artist, a torch singer and even a Vegas crooner. There have been hits, notably a couple of duets (with Jimmy Somerville for ‘I Feel Love’  in 1985 and Gene Pitney for ‘Something’s Gotten Hold of my Heart’  in 1989) and ‘The Days of Pearly Spencer’  in 1992. But his sexual promiscuity and drug-taking got worse and he took to hanging out with underworld figures: criminals, prostitutes and gun-carrying drug dealers.
Then in 1993, he confides, something happened which forced him to change his way of life. Two acquaintances tried to throw him from a sixth-floor balcony window. A neighbour intervened and the police arrived to find Almond mutilated and unconscious on the floor. Instead of pressing charges for attempted murder he decided it was time to check himself into a drug rehabilitation clinic, the Promis Recovery Centre, just outside Canterbury. The therapy included a regime of rising at 6.45am to scrub floors, followed by hours of intensive group therapy.
‘My life started collapsing in the mid-Nineties,’ Almond recalls. ‘I didn’t know why I had been taking the drugs. Someone had to point it out to me. I had been in this selfish, self-absorbed world and all I knew was that I had to keep taking them and spending money and having love affairs and moving house and changing record company. Each time I realised there was something horribly wrong with each new situation – me.’  He stutters as he says this, and he pronounces Rs as Ws. In conversation he peppers his vocabulary with psycho-babble in that way people who have been through therapy do: lots of self-analysis about being damaged, having low self-esteem, needing affirmation, craving attention, confusing sex for love. ‘I did see a psychiatrist,’  he explains helpfully. ‘ But I was bored by it, quite frankly, because I have an attention span of about two seconds.’ More likely, the psychiatrist, faced with the bewildering array of traumas associated with Almond’s childhood, didn’t know where to start and had a nervous breakdown.
Peter Marc Sinclair Almond was born in 1957 in Southport. He moved constantly from house to house and school to school around the north-west of England and, wherever he ended up, he was bullied – often chased by gangs of boys chanting the word ‘queer’  at him, before catching him and beating him up. He was a sickly child afflicted by asthma, bronchitis and pleurisy. To avoid being attacked in the playground he learned to hyperventilate and black out. His nickname was Pwune. His father, an unemployed former Army officer and salesman, was an alcoholic who would sometimes slap his son. The laziness down the right side of Almond’s face is, he claims, caused by his father hitting him with a telephone. ‘I hated him,’  the singer now says, matter of factly. ‘Haven’t seen him for years and there is no chance of a reconciliation. He saw me as the source of his shortcomings and failures. There was always an edginess. A dark anger behind his eyes as secretive as those bottles he hid away.’
The 12-year-old Almond was a bed-wetter by night and a shoplifter by day. When his parents divorced in 1972, Marc and his younger sister Julia were overjoyed – not least because, says Almond, their father had, allegedly, just found their savings and spent the money on alcohol. One day his father stormed into his school and demanded to know from the teacher if his 13-year-old son was a homosexual. He was, as it happened, but the teacher didn’t know that. Although Marc Almond says he wanted to like girls – and he actually lost his virginity that year to a ‘big-boned, galumphing, sweaty girl called Hilary’  – he was always drawn to boys.
Almond left school with two O-levels, talked his way on to an art college course and promptly had a nervous breakdown. He tried to commit suicide by throwing himself off a balcony – someone grabbed him – and he was sectioned for a month at Ormskirk Mental Hospital. ‘Oh, I cried and cried and realised I had been bottling up tears for years,’  he says. ‘I’m still like that to an extent. I become introverted, keep all the feelings back and end up exploding.’
Given his emotional scars, it is amazing that Almond coped as well as he did with the sudden fame and fortune that was heaped on him as a 24-year-old. And though he barely coped at all, at least he didn’t kill himself through a drug overdose, a sexually transmitted disease or, in one of those fits of romantic anguish that pop stars are prone to, a suicide attempt. He came close, of course, and he says now that he feels a shiver when he realises quite how close. I tell him that he makes me feel as though I’ve lead a very dull life indeed.
‘Pop is very disposable by nature and so are pop stars,’  he says with an uneven grin. ‘We are put on pedestals so people can watch us being damaged on everyone else’s behalf. And the record companies encourage us to be excessive. You are told to go to the parties and take the drugs because you have to get into the gossip columns. Then you become a liability. You don’t turn up for your TV performances. You’re brought before the chairman of the record company to have your wrists slapped.’
Clearly his relationship with his father was not an easy one but does Marc Almond now consider that he might owe some of his success to this same relationship – in that he was desperate to prove his father wrong?  ‘Definitely, that’s the double-edged thing. He gave me my weaknesses but also my strengths. Success is revenge. Sometimes you have to use your bitterness – as long as it doesn’t consume you it can give you a feeling of being alive, it gives you an edge. I always felt he hated me. He blamed his own problems on his sensitive, effeminate son. But if success meant having to go through my childhood again, I wouldn’t want to have it.’
Since he spent most of his schooldays hiding from his father and running away from bullies, why does he think he had a need to draw attention to himself by performing on stage? Was it masochism? ‘I’m a shy extrovert, but I think that’s quite common, isn’t it?  On stage I say, “I’m here to give you songs and you’re here to give me waves of love over the footlights and the sooner we can give each other these things the sooner we can all go home.” It’s that reaffirmation thing. Every time I go on stage I have to overcome a fear. It hangs over me like a black cloud beforehand.  I’m sick and nervous – until I put on the make-up, you know, the mask, and I become this monster called Marc Almond.’
Even so, he recognises that some of his psychological problems stem from his inability to differentiate between his public and private personas. ‘It does get confused and you do start to become this other person. Out of guilt. Because you don’t want to disappoint people. It’s a silly camp old idea but I don’t want to let the public down. I’m aware that I’ve become a gay institution and so when I go out I have to put on this Marc Almond drag. But the flamboyant glittery image is sometimes hard for me to reconcile with the person I am at home – unshaven, in my slippers, watching Coronation Street, with a microwaved dinner on my lap.’
As a child he had always craved approval but when he got it as an adult, he could never accept it. ‘I think it was guilt. I felt an impostor, a fake, a phoney. I felt it was all so false. I couldn’t understand why everyone was making a fuss over me. I’m not worthy. I felt out of control of my own life, you know, completely. That I wasn’t in control. Self-loathing clung to me like rust. The worse thing was that I had to lie about my sexuality. My record company was saying you must invent a girlfriend. In the early Eighties if you said you were gay, it was a career destroyer. Pop stars were never really openly gay. It was always that bisexuality thing. A cop out.’
His homosexuality has been a mixed blessing. He has happy memories: nights at the London night-club Heaven, for instance, when Freddie Mercury would pick him up and carry him over his shoulder on to the dance floor. But he has also had to endure being spat at and punched in the face by strangers. Until his twenties he was very confused about his sexuality. ‘I was attracted to anyone who would pay any attention to me, or anyone who would show me love. Love had to be sex. But I never felt comfortable with my homosexuality. I couldn’t be open about it. Even now I’m only 95 per cent sure. I think homosexuality is genetic but there are still doubts.’
In the late Eighties, Almond took to visiting female prostitutes. ‘It was all part of that adventure thing,’  he says. ‘It had to be done. I also felt because I was singing about this life – all the cigarettes and neon and satin sheets and regret – I ought to immerse myself in it. I did like it and it became another addiction for a while.’ There are people who want to be spokesmen for gay issues, he adds, but he has never wanted to be one of them. ‘I would like to think there is much more to me than a sexuality. People don’t say “the heterosexual artiste Rod Stewart”, do they?’
Almond doesn’t get attacked in the street as much as he used to. ‘It’s changed now because everyone becomes mainstream in the end, even me. It doesn’t matter how rebellious you were, whether you were John Lydon [Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols] or whatever, you know, you become cuddly. Occasionally I’ll hear, “Marc Almond you queer bastard,” and someone will spit at me, and I will shout, “Well, actually, it’s Mark Almond millionaire queer bastard, if you don’ t mind.”‘ That said, does he feel guilty that he might have lead people astray, that, as a public figure, he set a bad example? ‘The one thing I felt uncomfortable with was having a young teenybopper audience. I thought of Soft Cell as a dark, arty band. I never set out to write for kids. I did try to keep things secret but, ultimately, if you are an adult, you have to take responsibility for your own actions.’
Analysis of Marc Almond’s character is problematic, in that, once you have digested the things he says about himself you struggle for anything more insightful to add. By his own estimation he is an emotionally immature, chippy, bitchy, self-pitying neurotic who is addicted to everything, frustrated, self-flagellating, self-destructive and narcissistic. Oh, and he says he always sounds pompous and gets out of his depth whenever he tries to be intellectual.
The therapy-speak and self-loathing may well all be part of the tortured drama-queen act, but few of us can claim to be as self-aware – and honest – as Marc Almond is. And he is at his most endearing when he is sending himself up. He describes, for instance, phoning Smash Hits one day and screaming at them for putting his photograph in between Clare Grogan’s and Adam Ant’s, adding, ‘Well, wouldn’t you?’  And his observation about group sex deserves including in a book of quotations: ‘I’ve never been one for threesomes. Inevitably someone ends up making the tea, and knowing my luck it would be me.’ It seems a fitting epitaph.


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.