Though the sun is already low in the sky, the day is young for Dame Shirley Bassey. She rarely manages to get to sleep before 4am, her body clock having been irreparably skewed by all those years of playing late-night cabaret, and she rarely rises before noon: she says that as she lives alone, and doesn’t have the concentration necessary to read books, she tends to fill the small hours watching films on satellite television.
Today she is recording a song at Sir George Martin’s Air Studios, a converted Victorian church in Hampstead, north London. It is for a new album which, with a tour in June, will mark her 50 years in show business. The horn section is ‘hamming it up’, as the producer has asked them to, and in the mixing room, stretched out on a swivel chair, Dame Shirley is nodding her head and shimmying her shoulders in rhythm, while holding up a lyric sheet and singing along under her breath.
Pulled down almost over her eyes is a fur hat – very Shirley Bassey – and, as she hums, she seems oblivious to the rest of the world. She appears to be in high spirits, which is a relief because she is prone to mood swings and, though she can mock herself (consider her memorably po-faced appearance on Morecambe & Wise), she has a reputation for being aloof – alone in her bubble of self-regard. That said, I’ve been told she is feeling apprehensive about this interview, as she hasn’t spoken to the press for a few years. And this may be why I have been given some pointers: do address her as Dame Shirley, but don’t raise the painful subject of her second daughter’s death, which may or may not have been suicide, in 1985. This isn’t so much a condition as a request, but I can’t see how, given that she has agreed to talk about her life, she can avoid the subject. It is like an elephant in the room.
As well as the nodding and the shimmying, the singer is also tapping her denim stilettos against the sound console and clapping a hand against her denim jeans. Jeans, Dame Shirley, jeans! ‘I know, I know,’ she says with a warm, smoky laugh. ‘People think I wear gowns all the time but of course I wear jeans for travelling and in the studio. People still recognise me in them, though, especially when I open my mouth to talk. I remember saying to my assistant when we were in a store in America, “Whatever you do, don’t call me ‘Shirley’,” but I forgot about my voice and when I asked to look at a dress this lovely queen came from the other side of the store and said, “I thought it was you!”‘
It is a distinctive voice, deep and breathy but also nervy and slightly slurring – the sort of voice that would attract a ‘lovely queen’. To what does she attribute her gay following? ‘Oh, you know, the gowns, the glamour, the voice.’ And don’t gay men adore strong, dominant, powerful women? ‘Talented women,’ she corrects with a slow blink. ‘I suppose their mums are very powerful figures in their lives. I don’t know, I’ve never done research into it.’
Certainly her theatricality on stage, the long, expressive fingers, the closed eyes, the way she makes a big entrance and attacks those standards – ‘Big Spender’, ‘Goldfinger’, ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, and so on – has made her, for drag queens everywhere, the diva to impersonate. How could they resist all those sequins, feather boas, and wild gesticulations; the split skirts, the big hair, that twisted mouth? But her appeal was always more than camp. She has released more than 60 albums and spent longer in the charts than any other British female performer. And she certainly has staying power. I ask her what that 16-year-old who began singing professionally in 1953 was like. ‘She was very stubborn. She wouldn’t listen to reason. And she was very shy. Still is, in a way. I do a lot of things to cover up shyness. I talk loudly.’
Does the 66-year-old Dame Shirley feel shy about being interviewed? ‘No, because we are in a recording studio. This is in context. I’m working today. If you came to meet me at my place, l would feel shy.’ Shyness is not an obvious condition to associate with Dame Shirley. Rampant egomania, perhaps. Extroversion, maybe. After all, she has said that she enjoys standing ovations more than sex. ‘On stage I have a healthy ego, and I sometimes wish I was like that person off-stage. I’m not. I’m very insecure. I counter my shyness by confronting it, by standing in front an audience.’
As the youngest of seven – six girls, one boy – she must constantly have been competing for attention. ‘I would follow my sisters around. They would say, “Oh please, Mum, tell Shirley to get out of the way.” I suppose singing was a way of getting noticed. No one else in my family sang. In the middle of the night, if I was unhappy, I wouldn’t cry, I would sing, and my sisters would shout down to my mother, “Please make her stop.” I was in my own world when I was singing. This skinny kid with the huge voice.’
Her mother was from Yorkshire, her father a merchant seaman from Nigeria who abandoned the family when Shirley was two. They lived in a then rough part of Cardiff, Tiger Bay, and were so poor they had to sleep three in a bed. ‘I was left to run wild. Terrible tom-boy. Always climbing trees. Maybe I didn’t feel feminine enough to be with the girls. And then, in my late teens, I learnt to become more feminine as a way of controlling men. Girls can’t help but flirt. When you wear your first bra you look down and say, “Oh, look at these.” Actually, I wasn’t very well-developed at first – slim little thing, no boobs.’ She tilts her head back; stares at the ceiling. ‘I was a loner. I didn’t really need friends. I could be among people and still be alone in my own little world. I was a peculiar child. I am a peculiar grown-up.”
As soon as she left school, at 15, Shirley Bassey went to work in the packing department of a sausage factory, supplementing her weekly wage by singing in working men’s clubs. ‘I was happy there. I had a great time. Every Thursday there was the factory club: archery, darts, dancing. I was happy until success entered my life, then it was downhill. Success spoilt me. It took away my happiness. There were so many demands put upon me. I will be happy again when I retire.’
The success almost never came because at 17, having toured with a review, Memories of Jolson, she became pregnant. She had the baby, Sharon, but instead of giving up her career she continued to sing, and released her first single, ‘Burn My Candle’, two years later. Sharon was raised by Shirley’s sister Iris for eight years before going back to her real mother, whom she’d known until then only as ‘Auntie Shirley’. ‘The baby was a secret. Not many people knew about it because I can be very private, just as I can be very public. But I could look after myself. I’m a rat. You must never corner a rat because she will go for your throat. I would punch someone out if they had a go at me. I had a reputation in the nightclubs. People learnt not to cross me.’
And yet, for all the feistiness, she did allow people to get close to her. She looked for a father figure in men, having not known her own father, and it is telling that both her husbands became her managers. Her first, Kenneth Hume, was 11 years older than her. They married in 1961 and divorced in 1965. Two years later Hume, who was suffering from heart disease, died of what the coroner, who reached a verdict of accidental death, described as an ‘incautious overdose’. Bassey had a second daughter, Samantha, during that marriage, but tests showed that Hume was not the father. In 1968, when her career was at its height and she became a tax exile, she married an Italian, Sergio Novak. That marriage lasted 13 years (they had no children, but in 1971 he and Bassey adopted her niece’s son, Mark). ‘The trouble was,’ she explains, ‘the husbands would want the social life then, after a while, I would feel suffocated. I couldn’t switch off. It was a 24-hour thing.’
Is the fact that she is still performing, still making herself unhappy after 50 years, tantamount to failure? Long pause. ‘I suppose. I have found happiness in my work but not in my private life. The one takes from the other. I had to take from my private life to make my public life successful. I had to make a lot of sacrifices.’ Sacrifices? ‘When you are a singer you are constantly worrying about losing your voice. In the old days I was doing two shows a night. I would dash off to a nightclub and do a midnight cabaret. As you get older the situation gets worse, you don’t go out as much, instead you rush back to your hotel and put your head over a steam bowl. It’s sad because all your peers are out enjoying themselves.’
She did once lose her voice, didn’t she? ‘Yes [in 1985], when my daughter [Samantha] died. I walked out in front of 10,000 people in Sydney, opened my mouth to sing “Goldfinger” and nothing came out. I tried again and nothing. It was like a nightmare. I wanted the stage to open up.’ Her 21-year-old daughter had drowned in the River Avon the previous year. Her body had been found under Clifton suspension bridge. Does Dame Shirley think the loss of her voice was psychological rather than physical? ‘We cancelled the tour and I came back to London, saw a throat specialist who referred me to a vocal coach and, after a year, my vocal chords had been strengthened and the physical problem was over.’
What about the mental one? ‘I was grieving. The trouble was, I had nobody to talk to about my daughter’s death. I couldn’t even talk to my other daughter about it. I was guilt-ridden. By not being able to talk to anyone I hadn’t been able to come to terms with it. The shock had been too much. Even when I got past that stage and went back to work, I thought, “Don’t talk to anyone about it because they really don’t want to listen.” Which was true. People didn’t want to know. I would start talking about it and they would always interrupt with something that happened to them, as a way of comforting me, I suppose. But no one had an equivalent story to mine. My only option was to go to a therapist who I could pay just to listen. But I didn’t. I didn’t want to get hooked on that. I know too many people who get hooked on therapy.’
She had become reclusive in the months following her daughter’s death, moving to her home in Switzerland and spending her days comfort-eating chocolate and cheese. After a year she checked in to a health clinic, took on an exercise regime to lose weight and went back to work. ‘My instinct had been to hide behind my mountain. But after a while the mountain got closer. The place was getting smaller. Peter Finch [the award-winning actor with whom she had had an affair] told me when he was leaving Switzerland that every morning the mountains were getting that much closer. It was chilling. It came true for me. One morning they had come closer.’
Shirley Bassey blamed herself for Samantha’s possible suicide, partly because she had always gone away on tour and left her children with a nanny. ‘I never disciplined my children and I suppose that made me a bad mother. I was never disciplined by my mother. I never knew what discipline was. My mother never told me off or spanked me. As I grew up I began to fear that the men in my life would try and tame me. If you tried to discipline me now you would just get abuse. It’s too late. Come to think of it, there was no contact of any kind in my family. There was not a lot of love. We were not tactile.’ Was that reflected in her relationship with her own children? ‘Yes, though I probably cuddled them more, but not much more. If you’ve had that as a child, you will have it as a grown-up. I’m not demonstrative. I have to pretend on stage. Pretend to be the tactile person I would like to be.’
Bassey admits she had a tendency to spoil her children, buying them extravagant presents as a way of compensating for her prolonged absences. Her adopted son Mark nevertheless fell out with her, sold his story to a tabloid – about his mother’s drunken rows and strings of lovers – and went to live in Spain. Her sister Marina also sold her story, claiming that Shirley had sidelined her family in Wales. ‘My success became a barrier with my family,’ Dame Shirley now concedes. ‘They couldn’t relate to me and I couldn’t relate to them. But then I never could. I was just in the way.’
Although she’s close to her first daughter, she doesn’t seem to need other members of her family. What about friends? ‘I can count my friends on one hand. I’m not very comfortable with people around. I suppose it goes back to being a loner as a child. Lonely, basically. I would go to the matinée with friends, or to the thruppenny hop, but I was always basically alone.’ Another problem was that her fans were always telling her they loved her. ‘If someone can declare their love for you just because you sing a song, it devalues the words. And it was as if lovers became fans when they said that. The whole business is freaky and I’ve had 50 years of it. But what was the alternative? To be married at 17? I would probably have had 12 kids by now. But then I had the voice.’
She often talks of her voice as if it were separate entity. ‘I don’t know where my voice came from. It was like some gold dust went down my throat one day. Maybe I am an alien. Maybe my mother never gave birth to me. Maybe I dropped out of the sky.’ She nods to herself, her hands shake. ‘I’m going to find love one day and then I will never sing again.’ She has never found love? ‘No. Not enough to make me stop singing. I was young when I married. My first husband was in the business so it was more like a partnership. I didn’t learn from my mistake, I did it again and, second time, it was even worse. We were talking about contracts in bed. Maybe I’m not meant to find love. Maybe I’m meant to be tormented.’
She has certainly had a strange effect on men – in 1957, for instance, a jilted boyfriend forced her at gun-point to strip naked in a hotel room, and armed police had to break down the door and rescue her. ‘In my past I’ve had boyfriends who liked what they saw onstage,’ she says. ‘They wanted a trophy. They wanted “Shirley Bassey”. Then they would get jealous if another man came up to talk to me, and I started behaving like “Shirley Bassey”. I would say, “Make up your mind.” No wonder I have a split personality.’
Does she worry about not having companionship as she approaches her eighth decade? ‘I’d hate to be alone as I get older. If the singing was to stop tomorrow, I would hate to go on on my own. I still have a lot of romanticism, or how would I be able to sing a love song with conviction?’ She could fake it. ‘No, it is genuine and I have to keep a tight rein on it because if I let my emotions go when I was singing, then…’ She trails off, examines her fingers. ‘I’ve been so close to tears on stage. But it is fatal because your voice box closes up. I cried once before opening at the Pigalle [restaurant in London]. It was nerves. And frustration. I’d gone up to the nursery to see my daughter [Samantha] and she was so independent, doing her own thing, and I was trying to play with her and she was, “No, no, no.” And she was only three! She didn’t want to know and I couldn’t stop crying. I was in a terrible state.’
Does she take anything for her nerves? ‘That time I did. A doctor gave me something for that particular time because I said if it ever happens again, I won’t go on. He gave me a tranquilliser but it left my nerves dead and you need your nerves. You need the adrenaline. If the adrenaline doesn’t flow, the nerves take over. Your hands go like this [she exaggerates shaking her hands]. After that, I took to sipping cognac before I went on. I developed a taste later for champagne instead.’
The champagne drinking, like her love of furs and diamonds and big houses, became part of the Shirley Bassey legend. But after her daughter Samantha died she became less hedonistic and materialistic. She sold her houses in Switzerland and Sardinia. ‘I didn’t want property abroad again. I didn’t want staff abroad again. It had lost its magic. I had become possessed by my possessions. When you are travelling and wanting to be free your possessions start crowding in on you. The more things you own, the more you have to look after them. I rent a place in Monte Carlo now and I have a place in London. I still like my jewellery and my shoes. I’m a serious shopper – I have a black belt in shopping. But the houses and the cars in every place, that’s all gone.’
Has she ever tried writing a song about that dark time in her life? ‘No, never. I’ve never written my own material. I don’t even write poetry or keep a diary. I will never put down anything intimate again, even in love letters. Because it can be used against you.’ Not only did she become suspicious of men declaring their love for her, she also found it difficult to articulate her own affection for men. ‘I’d heard so much of it and seen so little success. All these people professing their undying love,’ she sighs. ‘just words, just words. But I think I’m getting there.’ She hesitates. ‘I met somebody.’
Really? ‘Yes,’ she says with a throaty giggle, her hand covering her mouth. ‘Yes, yes. It’s early days yet but can you see the glint in my eye? Can you see this smile on my face? Everyone who knows me says, “You look different. What are you up to?” Well, it’s this. Quite new, but it could be it.’ Given what she said earlier about never finding love, that is quite a declaration. ‘I know! I know! And I’m old enough and wise enough to say this is what I want this time and to go with my feelings. Whenever I’ve ignored my feelings in the past it has been a disaster.’ Does he work in her business? ‘Indirectly.’ Her voice softens. ‘He has a great sense of humour. I like being with him. He makes me feel comfortable. It’s early days, though, so I shouldn’t really be saying this. I mean, he might say, “Sorry, I don’t want to settle down.”‘
At this point, Dame Shirley’s assistant enters the room and the mood is broken. ‘He’s convinced I’m mad!’ the singer says with a laugh, nodding at me. ‘He’s been analysing me! But he hasn’t seen the funny side of me yet! When I’ve had a couple of glasses of champagne the stories come out, that’s when you see the funny side. Ah well, another time.’ Yes, another time. I’d like that.


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.