He produced the biggest album ever, befriending movie stars as well as presidents. At 77, Quincy Jones is in no danger of running out of stories.

After a few minutes in Quincy Jones’s engaging company I begin to see why his PR people are so jittery. The man has an easy charm and is a natural raconteur. But he is also a loose cannon. Over the next hour or so, I find myself nodding and laughing as he tells me of his passion for Nazi cinema, how he lost his virginity at 12 and how he experimented with every drug going.

In a career that spans six decades, Quincy Jones has worked with Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Dizzie Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and P Diddy, to name but a few. Most notably, he was the producer of choice for Frank Sinatra for years. Indeed, it was his arrangement of Fly Me to the Moon that became the first music played in space (Buzz Aldrin took a recording of it with him for the first moon landing).

At the age of 77, Q, as he is known to his friends, is still considered one of the leading producers in the world, with a record 79 Grammy nominations and 27 Grammy awards to his name. And he is still writing film scores, still conducting, still arranging. And still making records, his latest Q: Soul Bossa Nostra is released this month.

It features contemporary versions of songs from Jones’s extensive catalogue, with singers such as LL Cool J, Mary J Blige, Usher, Snoop Dogg and Amy Winehouse ‘paying tribute’ to the producer. ‘Each artist picked a song that resonated with them for different reasons,’ Jones says. ‘They all made them their own and knocked them out of the park.’

He can also still claim, 28 years after Jackson’s Thriller first went on sale, to have produced the most successful album of all time. Not only that, but the most successful single, too, with We Are the World. On that occasion he pinned up a notice in the studio that the assembled stars could not miss: ‘Check your egos at the door.’

Today, as he sits in a suite at the Dorchester, he’s not in bad shape for his age. A bit of a paunch maybe, but he dresses with the brio of a younger man, like an extra from a Seventies television show: safari suit, colourful scarf, orange shirt, dog tags, earrings. He has a thin ’tache shading his top lip and although he talks in a jazz musician patois, he is articulate and his recall is excellent.

Next to him is a box with one of the expensive Quincy Jones signature brand AKG headphones in it, strategically placed there by the PR from the manufacturers, Harman International Industries (who has insisted on sitting in on the interview, at the other end of the room and we won’t even know he’s there, honestly). You can understand why they would want his name associated with their product.

Jones tells me that he does actually use this brand in the studio, and has done so for years. But, amusingly, he also mentions a rival brand to me by mistake, and when he does I sense the PR on the other side of the room burying his head in his hands.

Before coming to London to launch the headphones, Jones has been in Paris and Berlin. Sounds like they’re working him hard, I say. ‘Yeah, but as long as there are hot ladies around I don’t mind. I was married for 36 years but now I’m free. I’ve done my duty. Seven children, six grandchildren, five mothers, three wives. My oldest grandson is 36. I might be a great grandfather soon.’

Blimey. What must Christmas be like? ‘The most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, man. One of my children just came over.’ He shows me a photograph of a young woman sitting on his knee. ‘Her mother is Nastassja Kinski. She’s 17. So sweet now. Smart, too.’

In a documentary a few years ago Jones’s children talked about how their father neglected them when they were younger. They also said they felt like surrogates to the famous performers in their father’s life. According to Jolie Jones, the eldest of his seven children: ‘Everything else was second, which wasn’t so right for us. But that’s how it was.’ When I remind him of this quote he says: ‘That might have been true one time, yeah, but not now, man. Like this little thing.’ He holds up the photograph again. ‘We’re friends. We tell each other bad jokes. She rubs my back for me.’

He had lunch yesterday with Stella McCartney and she reminded him of this daughter. ‘Stella has had a crush on me since she was little. So sweet!’ It has been a busy trip socially because he also met up with his old friend Sir Michael Caine. ‘I’ve known Michael since I did the music for The Italian Job. We’re exactly the same age, born the same hour. He said to me: “Q, God’s bowling in our alley.” We have a lot of friends in common, you see. And a lot of them have died recently. I’ve lost 174 friends in five years. That’s a lot of people, man.’

But is the death of a friend who is in old age easier to accept than that of someone middle-aged, like Michael Jackson? ‘No, not really. I’ve lost two brothers as well, from cancer. It’s never easier to accept just because they are older. I was in London when Michael died, which was hard for me. Not that I wanted to go to the funeral. I don’t go to them any more because I find them too depressing.’

The last one he went to, he says, was Marlon Brando’s in 2004. ‘I’d known Marlon since 1951. He gave my son acting lessons. Funniest s— you’ve ever heard. He was paying me back for getting his son a job with Michael Jackson. He gave my son advice on how to creep in the house when you are late back at 4am. You turn off the engine and push your car into the garage, then you take off your shoes so as your wife don’t hear you.’

He met most of his film-star friends while working on film scores. His approach to writing them, he says, was sometimes more calculating than instinctive. ‘Music in movies is all about dissonance and consonance, tension and release. Star Wars was all victorious consonance, what Spielberg and I called emotion lotion. With The Color Purple the music invades your soul. It was the first film I produced.’

And that was the film in which Oprah Winfrey, another of his old friends, got her first break. He was quite hands-on for that one, insisting that Spielberg be the director. He even managed to persuade Spielberg to recreate a scene from German cinema in which the rain symbolises tears.

‘I was a fan of Leni Riefenstahl, you see, one of the greatest black-and-white film-makers who ever lived. I had lunch with her before she died. She was Goebbels’s girlfriend, you know. Looked like Hedy Lamarr. Very beautiful. She told me she had 211 cameras for Triumph of the Will. I asked her why so many and she said: “Do you think I am going to say to Adolf, ‘Lets do another take’?”’

Riefenstahl also told him that the Third Reich was gathering pace at the same time Freud was doing his research into cocaine as anaesthesia, looking at how it shuts off the emotions and encourages you to be violent. ‘And she told me the whole Third Reich was on cocaine. That makes so much sense.’

Was he ever drawn into that world? ‘Damn right I was. Drugs in the world of the bebop musician? Are you kidding? Ray Charles was taking heroin in front of me when I was 13. I got tired of being left out so I would have a sniff, then two months later you are shooting up. That’s how you start. The body needs more and more. Ray was on heroin for 30 years. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis they were all stoned.

‘Marijuana was part of the culture. And a little toke now and then never hurt anyone. It enhances the senses. But as Bird himself said, if you can’t play it’s not going to help you.’ Does he still have a toke? ‘Sure man. Course.’ Any other drugs? ‘Back then I did, Benzedrine, and what are those things you pop?’

‘Amyl nitrate?’ He punches fists with me. ‘Yeah that’s it. You bin there, man. But I always had the will power to say that’s enough.’ After five days without sleep in the studio, presumably? ‘Tell me about it. For Thriller, you mean? But that was just smoking, man.’ And presumably Michael Jackson didn’t partake? ‘No way.’

When he was deprived of sleep like that for a week, how did he manage to think straight? Didn’t he feel he was going mad? ‘Yeah, but that’s where the creative stuff comes in, the unconscious mind. You do it because you have a deadline. You have to go five days and nights without sleep. The engineers who didn’t smoke couldn’t take it. They were being carried out on stretchers. It’s not the drugs that get the results though.’

When Jackson asked Jones to recommend a producer for his first solo album, Jones told him he would like to take a shot at it himself. The record company was ‘scared to death’ because ‘they said I was too jazzy’ but Off the Wall became a huge hit. They did Thriller after that, in two months. But the 1987 follow up, Bad, took 14 months too long in Jones’s view and the pair never worked on an album together again after that.

‘We did Thriller quickly and when you take too long, as we did with the next Michael Jackson album, you lose spontaneity. But I will always do one more take until you get it in the pocket, which is the right key and right tempo, the tempo God wants it in. That’s when you don’t notice anything standing out because everything is exactly where it should be in the arrangement, not too dense, not too airy. I learnt that from Basie when I was very young. It can be quite subjective though. I hear it in my head.’

If he was like Beethoven and went deaf could he still hear it? ‘Yes, because it’s all inside. Absolutely. If architecture is frozen music then music must be liquid architecture. You can almost see it; you don’t necessarily need to hear it to work out the orchestration. You’re hearing it inside.’

We talk about how Paul McCartney, another friend, composed Yesterday. He woke up with the tune fully formed in his head. ‘Tunes sometimes come to me like that, too, like Soul Bossa Nova [the 1962 track best known these days as the theme tune for Austin Powers]. Music is the only thing that engages the left and right brain simultaneously, it means the intellect is always tied to the emotion; the words are second to the melody, that is where the power of a song lies. Think of some of the great lyrics, they don’t mean s—: “Waiting round the bend, my Huckleberry friend”.

‘I’m a great believer in letting lyrics just flow out, wherever they come from. Get out of the way of yourself. The conscious mind is so full of s—. You have to use the subconscious mind. Don’t become a victim of paralysis by analysis. I like to hit it, and just go with the gut. Do something that gives you goose bumps.’

Bet there were plenty of those with Sinatra. ‘There sure were.’ What was he like to work with? Intimidating? ‘It takes a lot of guts to tell Sinatra what to do, man. You better have your s— together because he takes no prisoners and if you ask him to jump without a net you better have got it right. There is so much trust involved. He would love you, or roll over you with a truck and then reverse.’

He holds his hand and taps one of the rings on it. ‘This ring he gave me 40 years ago and I’ve never taken it off. It’s his family crest from Sicily. We would do all sorts of crazy s— in Hawaii. He used to love to fight, though he couldn’t fight for s—.’ He acted fighting well enough in his films. ‘Couldn’t for real though. His spirit was willing but…’ He shrugs.

What did they fight over? ‘Anything. You might say the wrong thing. Didn’t take much. Depended on the mood he was in.’ Presumably he treated someone as robust as Sinatra differently to someone more fragile, such as Michael Jackson? ‘Yeah, Michael was a baby. One way in which I did treat the two the same was that I realised early on you don’t tell a superstar in public they are getting it wrong. You have that conversation one-to-one, in private. If you push them up against the wall in front of other people they will want to defend their reputation. As they should. They work for their success. They know what they are doing, most of the time.’

Like Michael Jackson, Jones was a child prodigy. Does he feel he missed out on a childhood? ‘I didn’t have a mother so I was out there from the age of 11 working, running a clothes-cleaning service. Working for a pimp.’ Sounds like he had to grow up quickly. How old was he when he lost his virginity? ‘I must have been 12. When I was 15 I was with a 35-year-old girl. She was accused of rape but I said that ain’t no goddam rape, 35 is when a woman reaches her sexual peak. Men reach it much younger.’

At this point the PR from Harman International Industries interrupts and asks Jones if he would like to reconsider his answers to the questions about drugs and losing his virginity. To his credit, Jones just laughs and says: ‘Oh, we just doing free-form here, man. Don’t worry about all that.’

It takes a lot to make Quincy Jones worried, it seems, a perspective that perhaps comes from the hardships of his formative years. His mother was a multilingual Boston University graduate who became a bank executive before succumbing to schizophrenia. ‘She was a brilliant lady, but back then when a black woman had a mental illness they didn’t give a s—. Now they could cure what she had with vitamin B. Back then they just took her away in a straitjacket. I was seven years old. It was pretty traumatic. My stepmother beat the s— out of me and my brother, so when I was 12 I fought back and knocked the hell out of her. But you can’t sit and whine about that s—.

‘The statute of limitation has expired on all childhood traumas. Get it fixed and get on with your life. Some people waste a lifetime blaming all their woes on their childhood.’

His father was a carpenter to the two most notorious gangsters in black history, the Jones boys. ‘Capone ran them out of town when he found how much money they were making from the numbers racket. Seeing dead bodies and machine guns, that is what I remember most from my childhood in the South Side of Chicago. Drive-by shootings. It was the biggest black ghetto in the worst depression. There was nothing but gangsters around us and I wanted to be one, too.’

So what happened? ‘Then I came across a piano when I was 10. We had broken into an armoury and I saw it sitting there in the dark. When I touched the keys every cell of my body said: “This is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.” That day I stopped wanting to be a gangster and started wanting to be a musician. That’s why I can identify with all those rappers I’ve worked with.

‘One of my daughters was engaged to Tupac, you know. He died in her arms. She almost got murdered, too. I became very close to Tupac, after a few confrontations when we first met. Him and Snoop Dog. The trouble with a lot of the rap fans today is they sacrifice their intellect to be cool. Dumb is not cool. Smart is sexy.’

Jones moved from the piano to the tuba, then the saxophone and finally the trumpet. At 14, he formed a band with the 16-year-old Ray Charles, playing throughout Washington state. ‘Ray and I were friends until the day he died. We held each other in our arms when he was in the hospital.’ Then, at 15, Jones won a scholarship to a music college in Boston, and later in the Fifties he played and studied in Paris (where he met Picasso, whose studio was across the street).

His trumpet playing came to an end in 1974 when he suffered two brain aneurysms and was close to death. Did that experience change him? He points to two long scars on his forehead, the result of surgery. ‘This scar is from my operation. I’ve got a metal plate in my head. I was paralysed on my left side for a while and had to stop playing the trumpet. It changed my personality to the extent that it opened me up a lot, because before that I used to hold things in. I’m more on the surface emotionally now.’

After giving up the trumpet he concentrated on his conducting and arranging and became the first black man to be a senior record executive at a major label. ‘In the America I grew up in there was apartheid, but I went to Paris and it taught me there could be a balance between black and white. When Ray Charles and I were kids in Seattle we didn’t have the black role models that young black people have today, like P Diddy and Oprah and Barack.’

Did he ever imagine back then in Seattle that it would be possible for a black man to become president of the United States in his lifetime? ‘No, never. I remember sitting at home in my kitchen in March 2005 with Oprah and Michelle and Barack and even then we couldn’t imagine it ever happening. I told Michelle I was going with Hilary because I thought she had a real chance. I wanted to remain loyal to Hilary and Bill, who is a big music fan, but my heart was with Barack. At the Iowa primary when Barack won the nomination, he came to see me in my suite and we hugged.’

Not only a friend to the stars but to presidents too, and a role model to black Americans everywhere, though you’d never guess it from his unassuming manner. It is time for Jones to end his ‘free-form’ and fly back to his home in LA. And I am happy to report that when he says goodbye it is with another gentle fist punch rather than a handshake.


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.