The soundcheck over, Paul McCartney –  he rarely uses the Sir –  stares out across the empty seats of the ice-hockey stadium, eyebrows raised in that way of his, lost in thought. In two and a half hours these chairs will be filled with Americans waving the Stars and Stripes; holding up lighters; crying, singing, hyperventilating; greeting the latest concert of his 19-city tour with what the press have been calling ‘Maccamania’. He hands his guitar to a roadie and picks up his jacket, flipping it over his left shoulder in the same movement. Taking the stairs two at a time, he steps down off the stage and greets me with a cold, dry handshake. ‘Art,’ he says bluntly. ‘You’re here to talk about art, right?’
‘Here’ is Long Island, New York, and it’s news to me that I’ve flown all this way just to talk about his paintings. ‘Among other things,’ I answer, trying not to show the alarm in my eyes. What about the juicy stuff? His children’s feelings about his marriage in a few weeks’ time to a former swimwear model who lost a leg and became a charity campaigner? His bitter feud with a dead man, John Lennon? What about George? Linda? And, of course, what about the Beatles, a band ‘bigger than Jesus’ that broke up more than 30 years ago and yet still sells as many records each year as it ever did, a billion at the last count? At least he didn’t add ‘and poetry and classical music’, the other art forms in which he has taken to dabbling.
As he leads the way along a corridor, a crowd –  road crew, hangers-on – mills around him briefly, jostling for position like petitioners in a Tudor court. When we pass through a door at the end, their progress is blocked by a security guard and I notice Paul McCartney’s walk: it is loose, swaying, almost a swagger. He will be 60 next month but, apart from a few crow’s feet around his bovine-big eyes and an interesting chestnut tint to his hair, he shows little sign of it. ‘I think someone must have falsified my birth certificate,’ he says, his flat Liverpudlian vowels softened by 30 years of marriage to an American. ‘Joke! It’s just I feel as youthful as I’ve ever felt. And pretty fit. I used to have to wring out my shirts after shows. Now I hardly sweat at all.’ He is indeed looking lithe, tanned and moisture-free –  and a little shorter than I’d imagined. I’ve read that he is 5ft 11in; but we all remember that conspiracy theory about how he died in a car crash in 1966 and was replaced by a taller double, only to give the game away by walking barefoot –  a Sicilian symbol of death –  on the zebra-crossing outside the Abbey Road studios.
Backstage we sit on sofas in an ashram-like room draped with black curtains, lit by candles, heavy with the smell of joss sticks. McCartney scoops up a handful of nuts from the coffee-table. ‘Excuse me if I eat these while we talk,’ he says between crunches. ‘I usually nibble at this time before a concert.’ We have an hour before he has to change for the show –  less if he feels the talking is putting a strain on that golden voice of his.
Alongside the bowl of nuts are copies of the Sun and the Daily Mail, just arrived from England. Both carry full-page features about how, after 11 September, Americans are saying McCartney is ‘healing’ them, just as the Beatles did in 1964 after Kennedy’s assassination. Healing, Paul? Healing? ‘I know! I know!’ McCartney says, the puffy curves of his lips smoothing out into a grin. ‘Better than bad reviews, I guess. Actually, I don’t read them, because they have an affect on me: I either think I’m too great or I get paranoid.’ The glowing reviews in the American press may have something to do with the fact that he has not toured for a decade; also that the show includes 21 Beatles songs; in the past McCartney has refused to play more than one or two of them at his concerts. ‘I used to get pissed off when people called me “ex-Beatle Paul McCartney”,’ he says, tossing another handful of nuts into his mouth. ‘Now I’m more comfortable with it.’ He chews and swallows. ‘JFK had died a few months before the Beatles’ first tour and there was a sense then of America wanting to get back to normal after a world-shocking event. The same is happening now, though I feel more connected with it this time because I was in New York when the terrorist attack happened.’
Entering into the spirit of the thing, I ask if this tour is also about ‘healing’ Paul McCartney –  after all, he has said that he ‘cried for a year’ when his wife Linda died of breast cancer in 1998. ‘Yes, there is a lot of that for me. And I have a new woman in my life who I’m going to marry, so that’s part of that, too. Heather has made me feel more at ease with things. After two full years of horror and doctor’s offices and scares and diagnoses…’ He trails off. ‘In truth when you have been through that and come out at the end…’ He trails off again. ‘I’m grateful not to have to spend my days doing that any more. And I’m lucky to have found a good woman who is strong like Linda and beautiful and positive and funny.’
He found it odd dating again after so many years of marriage and he felt guilty, too, but soon rationalised that it would be what Linda wanted. With the 33-year-old Heather Mills, he tells me, it was ‘big attraction at first sight’. Then, ‘I really started to fancy her.’ The marriage will take place at his home in the Hamptons, near New York, on 6 June, three days after he performs at the Queen’s Golden Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace. His daughter Stella, a celebrated fashion designer, won’t be designing the wedding dress. And there are rumours that his other children –  Mary, James and, from Linda’s first marriage, Heather –  are not wildly enthusiastic about the union either. ‘I think a second marriage is hard for the children,’ McCartney says, nodding gravely. ‘No matter who it is: people in my position are told not to worry, that time will heal. But it’s very difficult. It’s difficult for all of us. They find it difficult to think of me with another woman. But it’s how it is and how it must be, and I think that, more than anything, they want me to be happy –  and this is what makes me happy.’
It’s a steely remark, as cold and dry as his handshake. McCartney once said, ‘I’m not really tough. I’m not really loveable either.’ He was half-right. You don’t stay at the top for as long as he has without being pretty tough and single-minded. His comment about how his children will just have to lump it seems to reflect this, as do his thoughts about his reaction to George Harrison’s death last November. Looking distraught, McCartney went before the cameras to pay tribute to his ‘baby brother’. Was he wanting to make amends for the flippant comment he made in 1980 when John Lennon was shot? ‘It was definitely to do with that, yeah. I was conscious of that. I was just as distraught when John died, probably more so because it was a shocking murder. I knew George was going to die. I’d seen him and I knew. He had terminal cancer…’ He shakes his head at the memory. ‘But you’re right. When John died I didn’t know whether to stay at home and hide or go to work. I decided to go to work, as did George Martin, and at the studio we talked about John and cried and when I was leaving that night, in the dark, in the London traffic, I had the window slightly open and someone pushed a microphone in and asked me what I thought about John dying. I said, “It’s a drag.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say. And, in print, it looked so heartless. When I saw it written down I thought, “Jesus Christ.”‘
It was not just in print. He said it with a shrug, as if in an attempt to be cool. And the callousness of the comment seemed to confirm what many suspected McCartney really felt about Lennon. When the Beatles broke up in 1970 the world blamed Yoko Ono. But John, George and Ringo blamed Paul, partly because he had, they thought, become too bossy, partly because he refused to work with the band’s sinister new manager Allen Klein (later imprisoned for tax fraud), partly because he was the first to tell the press –  much to the annoyance of John Lennon, who had already told the others in private that he was planning to leave the band and wanted to break the news himself. Feeling angry, unemployed and bewildered, McCartney retreated to his farm on the Mull of Kintyre, grew a beard, drank too much and had what he later described as a nervous breakdown. Eventually he recovered his composure, became a vegetarian, sued the Beatles, recorded the gorgeous ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’, formed Wings –  with Linda on keyboards and vocals, much to everyone’s amusement –  and had a long run of chart-topping singles and albums. He also wrote ‘The Frog Chorus’.
Lennon, meanwhile, moved to New York, became a junkie and revealed himself to be the borderline psychopath many had always suspected him of being. He embarked on a hate-campaign against McCartney, comparing his former partner to the cabaret artiste Engelbert Humperdinck. McCartney would try to patch things up and have ‘very frightening phone calls’ with Lennon which always ended with one telling the other to ‘fuck off’ before slamming the phone down. In 1976 Lennon said of McCartney: ‘He visits me every time he’s in New York, like all the other rock ‘n’ roll creeps.’ McCartney felt hurt, not least because, as he said in 1987, ‘I always idolised [John]. We always did, the group. I don’t know if the others will tell you that, but he was our idol.’
If George was his baby brother, was John his big brother? McCartney smiles, causing crinkles to arc downwards from his hazel eyes. ‘Yes, definitely, although not in the Orwellian sense. John was older than me and, in the good sense of the phrase, he was a big brother. He was a lovely guy. But we were very competitive. Looking back on it, I think it’s…’ He purses his lips. ‘It’s awkward. You don’t always say to people what you mean to say to them when they are alive. And with John, we had a guy relationship, loving each other without saying it. We never looked at each other and said, “I love you,” but people would ask us, “What do you think of the rest of the Beatles?” and we would say, “I love them.” So we knew indirectly, peripherally.’ He rubs his hands together to brush off some crumbs. ‘We were brothers. Family. Like an Irish family. It’s not unusual to get brothers fighting, but we did it in the spotlight –  everyone got to look at the O’Malleys arguing. We gave and took a few good blows. But with John, we made it up by the time he died and I was very thankful for that. We were talking normally about baking bread. And cats –  he was a cat man. He would talk about going round his apartment in his “robe” as he called it by then, dressing-gown to us. So, ordinary stuff.’
But there’s more to it than that. For years now Lennon’s role in the Beatles has been talked up and McCartney’s down. Lennon is portrayed as being deep and cool, McCartney shallow and cheesy. Yoko Ono has played a large part in this. Most witheringly she said four years ago, ‘John was the visionary and that is why the Beatles happened. Paul is put into the position of being a Salieri to a Mozart.’ McCartney has been trying to counter this, to make his version of the Beatles story the official one, most notably in an authorised biography, Many Years From Now by Barry Miles. He wants it to be known, for instance, that he, not Lennon, was the one who introduced the Beatles to Stockhausen and the avant garde.
Does he feel he has finally set the records straight? ‘I became more comfortable that my contribution was being recognised, yes. And George’s. Sad that he had to pass away before people really saw it… There was a re-writing of history after John’s death. There was revisionism. Certain people were trying to write me out of the Beatles’ history, as well as the other two. George was reduced to the guy standing with his plectrum in his hand, waiting for a solo and, as John would have been the first to admit, George was very much more important than that, as a character, as a musician. And Ringo is now being sidelined because he wasn’t a composer. We all needed each other. We were four corners of a square. There were people close to John, saying, “Well, Paul just booked the studio,” –  which was galling. The trouble is’, he says, scooping up another handful of peanuts and speaking indistinctly through them, ‘I became worried that the John legend would totally wipe out any of our contributions. I’m sure I got paranoid about it, but, hey, that’s normal for me.’
Such was McCartney’s paranoia he even tried to have the Beatles songs he wrote retrospectively credited to McCartney-Lennon (as oppose to Lennon-McCartney, a brand as revered as Gilbert and Sullivan, or Rodgers and Hammerstein). Yoko Ono, who inherited Lennon’s estate, refused to give permission for this. ‘I didn’t want to remove John,’ McCartney tells me, ‘just change the order round. I don’t mind Lennon-McCartney as a logo. John in front, that’s OK, but on the Anthology (1996), they started saying “Yesterday” [a tune that came to McCartney in a dream] by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and I said, “Please can it be Paul McCartney and John Lennon for the sake of the Trade Description Act? Because John had no hand in that particular song.”‘ He jiggles his knee up and down in agitation. ‘I recently went to a hotel where there was a songbook and I looked up “Hey Jude” [another McCartney song] and it was credited to John Lennon. My name had been left off because there was no space for it on the page. Do I sound obsessive?’
Just a bit. Everyone knows who wrote which Lennon-McCartney composition because the songwriter always took the lead vocals. And he’s Paul McCartney, for goodness sake. His boyhood home has been preserved for the nation by the National Trust. According to the Guinness Book of Records, he’s the most successful songwriter in history. Bigger than Elvis. Bigger even than John, now. How can he possibly feel insecure about his reputation? ‘I know! That’s what people say to me. Because I’m fucking human. And humans are insecure. Show me one who isn’t. Henry Kissinger? Insecure. George Bush? Insecure. Bill Clinton? Very insecure.’ It’s a curious crew to compare yourself to –  the model for Dr Strangelove, a Texan to whom English is a second language, a philanderer –  but perhaps it makes sense in light of something McCartney said at the height of Lennon’s war of words: ‘John captured me so well. I’m a turd. I’m just nothing.’
Improbable though it may seem, Paul McCartney appears to have suffered periodically from low self-esteem. Linda McCartney once said: ‘I don’t dwell on what people say about me. I dwell on what people say about Paul, for some reason. Maybe it’s because he can’t handle it.’ For all his chirpy optimism, mannered blokiness and double thumbs-up gestures, he is, it seems, prickly about his reputation. As Private Eye discovered when he reacted with cold fury to the inclusion of one of his poems in Pseud’s Corner recently, he takes himself very seriously. His ‘fucking human’ comment is intriguing in another respect: it suggests that, in his professional life at least, he suffers from Paradise Syndrome: having a perfect life he needs to find something to feel anxious about. It’s not enough that he’s credited jointly with writing the soundtrack to our lives, he wants his name to come first. It won’t suffice that, since he was 20, millions of his fans have been calling him a genius –  he needed to hear it from his ‘big brother’, his musical equal, his idol, John Lennon.
But you can’t help feeling that he should be, that he can afford to be, a bigger man. He shouldn’t rise to Yoko Ono’s bait. It looks so petty. Worse than that, his attempts to control not only the Beatles’ history but also their mythology have come across as boastful, petulant and self-serving. Perhaps it is just that, for all his gifts as a lyricist, he frequently expresses himself badly in conversation, often hitting the wrong note, not saying what he means. His mother died when he was aged 14: his first response? ‘What are we going to do for money now?’ He has regretted that line all his life. Even his heartfelt tribute to his ‘baby brother’ George seems a little patronising and ill-considered. He must have known that Harrison always hated being thought of as the baby of the band, not least because when the Beatles first formed Lennon used to refer to ‘that bloody kid hanging around’ –  and Harrison, long after the Beatles broke up, said he thought that was how Lennon still regarded him.
Perhaps McCartney’s insecurities only seem undignified –  even indecent –  because in so many other ways he is such a dignified, decent man. He pays his taxes, he doesn’t wear leather shoes on principle, he sent his children to the local comp, he was faithful to his wife for 30 years (something almost unheard of in the priapic world of rockstardom), he does his own shopping at Selfridges, he travels on the Underground. The superstar next door image he has tried to cultivate may seem like a tragic affectation given that he is worth £713 million, but at least he tries. ‘You said I have this thing about wanting to be seen as an ordinary man: well, I’m sorry but I am,’ he tells me. ‘It’s just too bad –  I can’t be anything other. I’m a lucky ordinary guy, it’s true. I’ve done a lot of things and fulfilled a lot of my dreams, but it doesn’t mean…’ He smiles ruefully. ‘I assumed, like you, that when I met someone who had done well that they would be saintly and just say, “Thanks, I know I am OK now.” But it doesn’t work like that.’
Yet, to the outside world, he seems so positive and well-adjusted. ‘Yeah, but my worst fear is being found out… I don’t want to elevate any higher than I am now. Sir Paul McCartney is as elevated as I ever wish to go –  in fact, it is a little too high. It was a great honour and all that but… I need the people around me to know I am still the same and I want to feel the same, because I like who I am. A bit insecure. So I don’t go, “Fuck you! How dare you tell me that. I’m better than you.” It would be easy to do but I don’t want to get like that. Know why? Because I’m working-class [his father was a cotton salesman, his mother a nurse, and he grew up on a council estate]. If I got like that now, people, the crew out there, would be doing this [he flicks the V-sign] behind my back as I walk past.’
He checks his watch pointedly. ‘Now,’ he says. ‘The Walker Gallery, Liverpool.’ There is an exhibition catalogue for it on the coffee-table and as we flick through the paintings –  bold colouring, some abstract, some figurative –  I nod approvingly. Pretty disturbing, though, some of them. ‘Oh. Yeah, a lady friend once walked through my studio and said, “Paul what would a psychiatrist make of all this?” Here,’ he says stopping at one. ‘It’s red, so I suppose you could say “demonic, red, hell,” but I just like red. In the Rorschach test, some people see a butterfly, some see a devil. You are supposed to betray yourself in painting. But that’s OK. I don’t try and hide anything about myself.’ He turns to a warmer image. ‘These beach paintings aren’t disturbing, though. That was just a memory. Shark on Georgica is somewhere I used to sail. I knocked the paint pot and a shark appeared. I like that accident. Perhaps it betrays some hidden fears.’  Freud said there are no accidents. ‘Exactly.’ He flicks on a few more pages. ‘The curator picked this one out and says it’s very sexual. I’m not sure what he means but I’ll go along with that. That could be phallic.’ He gives a thin laugh and moves the page round to view the painting from a different angle. ‘When I was a kid I used to draw nude women and feel guilty. Now when I look at nudes in photographs and paintings I don’t giggle. I had to get over that block, get over the smutty stage. I started painting seriously when I was 40, when I had children, and that was when I got over it. To have babies we do have to do certain things…. Here’s a nude of Linda. Why not? I was married to this woman for 30 years.’
Has he painted any of Linda since she died? ‘No, I haven’t painted too much in the past couple of years. Well, I’ve done one or two and they are a bit disturbing. But they would be, wouldn’t they? I was disturbed.’ He grieved properly for Linda, he says, something he didn’t do when his mother died from breast cancer. ‘I certainly didn’t grieve enough for my mother. There was no such thing as a psychiatrist when I lost her. You kidding? I was a 14-year-old Liverpool boy. I wouldn’t have had access to one and I do now. I saw one when Linda died and he said, “A good way to grieve is to cry one day and not cry the next, alternate days so as you don’t go down one tunnel.” I took his advice.’
McCartney has said that in the months following Linda’s death he thought he might die from grief; did he mean he considered taking his own life? “No. I was very sad. In deep grief. But never suicidal. I’m too positive for that. After a year… It was as if the seasons had to go right through, as if I had to feel like a plant. A couple of months after the end of that cycle I began to realise I was also having other feelings, that I was emerging…’
That all you need is love? ‘Mmm. I am a romantic. I like Fred Astaire.’ Me, too, I interject. ‘That’s good,’ he says. ‘Now I feel I can open up to you. I always say to young guys, “Be romantic,” because not only do women love it but you’ll love it, too. English men are so reserved, though. The idea of being caught with flowers on the bus! You hide them under your jacket.’ He mimes hiding a bunch and looking nervous. ‘Well, I’m not like that any more.’
McCartney looks at his watch again. Nearly time to go to his dressing room. Presumably the big difference between touring America in 2002 and 1964 is the seats; audiences today don’t wet them quite as much. ‘I think the main differences is the age range of the audience,’ he says with an easy laugh. ‘The Beatles audience was essentially our age or younger, a lot of screaming girls. Now the audience is layered: people the age I am now, but also their children and grandchildren. They were holding up babies the other night, which was like, What?’
I say I imagine people bring their babies along because they want them to have a stake in history –  like watching the Queen Mother’s funeral procession. ‘Yeah, there’s probably something in that. People want to be able to say, “I was there.”‘
Later I make my way upstairs to take my seat for the concert. The excitement of the crowd is palpable and infectious. And when a giant silhouette of Paul McCartney’s violin-shaped Hofner bass appears on a screen on the stage, everyone goes nuts. The screen lifts, the crisp, heavy, opening bars of the Beatles song ‘Hello, Goodbye’ are heard, and thousands of hairs on the backs of thousands of necks stand on end, mine included.


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.