A man distracted by his washing machine, that is Mike Figgis when I meet him in his North London flat on an overcast afternoon. He is sitting on a laundry bin in front of the machine, staring gloomily into its port hole, perhaps in the hope that it will feel sorry for him and start working again. Without much conviction he offers me a coffee and says he will be with me in a minute. I look around. There are deckchairs, bookshelves and, on the floor, a pair of knee-length, tan-and-black riding boots, which are what you might expect a Hollywood director from the silent era to wear, but not Mike Figgis.
On the wall hangs an acoustic guitar, which is more in keeping: Figgis is not only an Oscar-nominated director, he is also an accomplished jazz musician who scores his own movies and began his career playing trumpet in a band with Brian Ferry. I gaze out of the window next. There are extravagant views over a canal and, beyond them, can be heard the urban ambience of King’s Cross: sirens, pneumatic drills, Tannoys announcing departures. This is Figgis’ home when he is in his homeland — he was born in Carlisle and raised in Newcastle, with a few years in Africa in between — but he is often in America. Indeed he flew in from New York on the red eye this morning. He was hoping to get his washing done before flying off again to Prague but the soapy water, he explains over his shoulder, won’t drain away.
I don’t know much about washing machines but I do know that when they won’t drain it is probably because the filter is clogged up. I impart this information and his mood lightens. ‘Yes, yes, I remember now, someone did mention that when I bought it. The filter. Thank you. Did I offer you a coffee?’
The air of distraction suits him. He is 6ft tall and scruffy in an overcoat and white trainers, laces untied. At 59, his goatee is silvering. His electric fuzz of dove-grey hair is still distinctive — he doesn’t like it much, though, and would shave it all off, he says, were it not for his having a ‘big and lumpy’ head. We sit across from each other over a breakfast bar. There is a montage of family photographs here, as well as outsize novelty dollar bills and, I notice, some Rizla papers. For rolling joints? Yes, he confirms insouciantly. He likes to smoke with his sons — aged 32 and 26 — when they visit. He seems open and friendly then, though he has a reputation for being, shall we say, uncompromising. He always looses it, he tells me, when people drive badly. ‘I’m a tyrant. If someone is driving the crew and me I say: “Both hands on the wheel, please, and no phone calls.” I won’t tolerate sloppiness. The same with people using hand-held cameras — there is no direct energy, no dynamic. I cut the strap off straight away to force them to hold the camera properly.’
Though he is softly spoken — and well spoken — the lack of compromise can sometimes translate into volume and volatility. His first big success as a director was Internal Affairs in 1990. It not only revived Richard Gere’s career, it provided the actor with the gritty role of a lifetime, that of a corrupt policeman, an Iago to Andy Garcia’s Othello. ‘Richard says he finds it easier playing bad people than good,’ Figgis now says. ‘And certainly he is a perverse enough human being to understand perversity. When we started shooting he trusted me. I found him very easy to work with on that film. I then did another film with him — Mr Jones — and it was a disaster. It was about manic depression.’
Which other Hollywood director would so casually call Richard Gere a pervert? Either Figgis lacks the caution of more conventional Hollywood players, or he simply doesn’t care about making powerful adversaries. ‘I was really stitched up on Mr Jones,’ he continues with a thin, off-centre smile, ‘and unfortunately Richard was one of the producers. There was a certain point where he could have backed me up and trusted me, but he didn’t. He even approved Jon Ameil [the director of Entrapment] to come in and re-shoot, which was to me a terrible idea — because the film is now stupid.’ Figgis runs a hand through his wiry hair and sighs. ‘My version was beaten up, along with me. Despite the sniping of Ray Stark [the late Hollywood mogul] and the studio, Richard had put in a good performance on my version. Two films on, I made Leaving Las Vegas and everything that had been repressed in Mr Jones resurfaced unencumbered by the studio and, ironically, it was the most successful film I made. I would cite that as an example to studios that they should just fuck off and let directors do their thing. But they never learn.’
Oh, the suppressed anger beneath this calm surface. But it is understandable. Figgis was nominated for an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, the film that launched Nicholas Cage into the leading man first-division. Cage played a suicidal drunk, a role that won him an Oscar and upped his rate from $2 million to $20 million per film. Following an agreement between the two of them, Figgis wrote the lead role in his next film, One Night Stand, for Cage but the actor turned down the job [it went to Wesley Snipes] and left Figgis feeling disillusioned with Hollywood. ‘I was disappointed that I didn’t hear from Nick for about four years after he won the Oscar. I think he was suddenly getting offered all the parts that never came his way before. He turned my film down because he just wanted to fuck off and make a lot of money.’
There is an entertaining chapter about actors in Digital Film Making, a new book by Mike Figgis, published by Faber and Faber next week. ‘As I warn in the book,’ Figgis says, ‘actors can be temperamental. But who can blame them? They are expected to just turn up and start acting whether they are in the mood or not. The best advice I would give a budding film maker is: try acting yourself before you ask someone else to do it. It’s hard. I know, I tried it. You feel self conscious. Everything can affect your mood, from the time of day to what you had for breakfast. When you don’t have the answer for why something isn’t working, your nervousness increases along with your insecurity. The actors’ nerves increase too — you’ve made them feel inadequate because they can’t seem to give you what you want — but it sometimes takes the form of arrogance because they’re actors and they can impersonate confidence. As the director, you’re the one who ends up looking nervous. I think a lot of directors are frightened by actors, intimidated by them. I was when I first tried direction. It was like having to perform. Actors want to be directed though. They don’t want Hitler exactly, but they do want a firm hand and a clear vision. You do have to judge it. Even Richard Gere wanted to be directed, so as he didn’t look foolish.’
Actors like to test directors, it seems. Give them a trial period. This happened on Canterbury’s Law, the pilot Figgis has just been shooting in New York [starring Julianna Margulies from ER]. On this occasion, honour was served on both sides — but it isn’t always the case. For his last foray into television, Figgis shot an episode of the Sopranos. ‘I came in on season four and I was the only person on the set who wasn’t dug in. A lot of the crew were just phoning it in. Coasting. Being sloppy. I made the mistake half way through that shoot of getting firm with the crew. I made a lot of noise and told everyone to shut the fuck up. That was it. After that, they withdrew humour and good will. There were no big hugs at the end. But so what? As a director there is not point in trying to be everyone’s friend.’
It’s tough talk, but then he has had to deal with James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano. When Figgis suggested he try acting in a certain way he turned on him and, in front of the whole cast, said: ‘Why the fuck would I do that? Tony Soprano wouldn’t do that.’ A silence fell. ‘I don’t think it was planned,’ Figgis says now. ‘It was spontaneous. He was in a grumpy mood. It was scary.’ The director backed down and allowed the actor to try it his way. ‘It didn’t work so then Gandolfini said he had had an idea and would try it another way: the way I had suggested in the first place.’
We talk about how actors manipulate emotions away from the screen — and it brings us to Figgis’s own experiences of dating actresses. ‘It’s every cliché. They are such high maintenance. At the time you don’t mind it but only later do you realise you worked quite hard. The root to being an actor or actress is that you have some kind of identity crisis. They all do. They have to have big egos because they are exposing themselves. They are expansive characters.’
He says ‘all’ but you know he is talking about Saffron Burrows, the actress with whom he had a five year relationship. Gossip blamed their bust up in 2002 on her close friendship with the actress Fiona Shaw — though Figgis himself dismissed this speculation as ‘crude’. At the time he observed: ‘It is painful to lose the everyday presence of someone in your life; but if you really love them, you just love them.’
Is he in a relationship now? ‘I am.’ Another off-centre smile. ‘But filmmaking is not a user-friendly profession in that respect. Too much time on location. Never in the same place.’
One of the more memorable scenes in Leaving Last Vegas is a sex scene. Figgis is known for them – a broad narrative sweep and a core of sexual obsession characterise his best work. In his experimental film Hotel, for example, he used a dizzying montage of erotic glossy, lesbian, sex scenes. I ask if digital filmmaking makes sex scenes easier because it is more low key. ‘Yes, but certain rules still apply. The director’s job is to create the ambience and maintain it. You have to be 100% there for the actors, not be in their eye line, and as soon as you cut a scene get straight in there — huddle with them and say this is great. Keep the energy going. It is seductive management. The crew have to understand they are part of that energy and if they stand there chewing gum in the eye line of the actors, bellies hanging out, it won’t work. I’ve seen people eating sandwiches in the eye line.’
More recently, Figgis directed Kate Moss in her film debut: a four-minute dream sequence for the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur. She stripped down to her knickers for him, take after take. Tough assignment that, one imagines. ‘The trickiest part was the first 10 minutes. It was just us in the room, and pitch black, because I was using night vision. I tried to create a comfort zone by telling her I was nervous, too.’ That film was an homage to a Jean-Luc Goddard, apparently. ‘With digital you don’t  have to give anything to a laboratory,’ Figgis adds. ‘I could just shoot whatever I liked. Whereas when you’re making a traditional celluloid film, you always have to go through the committee stages. If you’re doing something quite edgy or sexual, it can feel like you’re showing your parents.’
Though he finds black stockings, suspenders and high heels erotic, he is keen to point out that there is a burlesque element to lingerie. ‘The sensuality diminishes. Sexiness is really about light or the absence of it. For example, the Agent Provocateur shorts were shot without artificial lights. The implied is ten times stronger than the explicit. Sexuality is an interestingly dark area of our psychology — so that’s how you want to portray it.’
Figgis is a great innovator, and indeed an inventor, having designed the Fig Rig, which artificially makes the camera ‘big’, and impossible to use with one hand, thereby producing better picture quality. But in the film world he is best known as a champion of digital film making. In 2000, with his film Timecode, he pioneered a technique using digital, real-time editing and filming on quadruple-screens — four segments could be watched in any order and still make sense. This has been much imitated, most notably by 24. Figgis believes that the digital revolution is democratising filmmaking, and that everyone with a digital camera and a laptop can and should have a go at making a film. His new book is intended as a steer to those who are planning to do just that, but without any of the conventional film school training. I suggest to him that it is asking for trouble to encourage everyone to think they have a film in them — after all, people often claim they have a good novel in them, when usually they don’t. ‘Yes there is the danger that there will now be ten times as many bad films made, but there will also be more good ones. It doesn’t really matter either way because distribution is still the problem.’
Figgis has had his fair share of failure as well as success in the film world; how has he coped? ‘Well ultimately that is what weeds out everyone who shouldn’t be there. To survive more than a few years and make more than one good film is how you prove yourself. When the struggling comes, some give up, or modify their ambition. The truth is, the last time I made a feature was 2002 for Disney — Cold Creek Manor with Sharon Stone and Dennis Quaid. Huge crew. Horrible responsibility. It didn’t do very well and since that time I have thrown myself into making much smaller digital films, as well as writing, teaching, and photography —  all the things I love — and I have never been happier.’
But happiness is relative; is he happy now? He crunches on an apple. ‘Sooo happy. I’ve had periods of great misery but it has always been happy misery. I’ve never been able to not get out of bed without the feeling that something interesting might happen today.’
Even so, he admits he cries easily. ‘I’m especially susceptible on  transatlantic flights — the corniest film will work on me.’ His father, a journalist and PR consultant, cried easily, too. He was also a worrier. ‘He died quite young, 56, so he had no experience of me making films. The last thing he said to me was: “I hope you get a real job because I’m worried about you.” I wish I could have said to him it worked out OK; I did OK; it was worth it. Initially I was desperate to impress my dad who was obsessed with jazz — he was a frustrated jazz pianist. That was the great bond between us. I wanted to be a jazz trumpet player to impress him. He understood emotional playing.’
For all the affection with which he speaks of his father, his childhood was not happy — it was happy misery at best. He was brought up in colonial Africa until the age of 10 — when his expat parents, faced by ‘debt and disgrace’, decamped to Newcastle. Overweight, with frizzy curls and fine elocution, Figgis was never going to have an easy time with his northern peers. As a schoolboy he found an escape in photography, and he still does as an adult. ‘I don’t even like going  to a party unless I have a camera on me. I get frustrated. It’s not that I’m experiencing life second hand, I think it is more a way of understanding life. You can have a more hedonistic approach and live it or, like me, you can record it. It is a compulsion with me.’
Though Figgis is unassuming and lacking in vanity, you suspect this lack is tinged with a certain self loathing. He doesn’t find himself ‘attractive’, he says. And for all his good manners and mellow voice, he nevertheless seems to misread social signals and unintentionally cause offence, especially on a film set. He is, you suspect, not as in control of his emotions as he likes to think he is. He’s likable, though. And I see none of the prickliness associated with him — and anyway the prickles may be simply a matter of his being exacting and professional.
He seems willing, out of politeness, to continue, but I can see he is tired and so I say goodbye and leave him in his flat overlooking the canal — with his jetlag, with his dirty laundry, with his demonss


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.