Tracey Emin’s art is self-obsessed, profane, attention-seeking and frequently funny. And the woman herself? Nigel Farndale meets the artist as she prepares to make an exhibition of herself in Oxford


At last the entry buzzer sounds and Tracey Emin’s face – foreshortened, pinched, small behind big sunglasses – appears on a video monitor on the wall of her 60ft-long studio, a former sweatshop in the East End of London.

As she waits for her PA to open the door she chews on her cheeks, purses her lips, looks over each shoulder in turn. It is mid-afternoon. She is sorry she is an hour and a half late. Been asleep. Jet lag. Got back from New York yesterday.

She says all this with a smile like a tenpin strike in a bowling alley. It is a disarming smile; a schoolgirl’s; a knock-jawed, snaggle-toothed schoolgirl. At 39 Tracey Emin is too fast to live, too young to die – it says so on the long black T-shirt she is wearing over jeans ripped at the knee.

Her skin is olive; colouring she gets from her father Envar, a Turkish Cypriot who says he has fathered 23 illegitimate children. Tracey, whose mother Pam, a blonde East Ender, was Envar’s mistress for ten years, reckons the real total is more likely to be 11.

A table runs almost the length of the studio, scattered with works in progress, some destined for ‘This is Another Place’, her first solo exhibition since 1997 which opens in Oxford next month; there are photographs, scraps of material, collages, spiky figure drawings.

Although Emin studied painting at the Royal College of Art – she won a place there despite leaving the secondary modern school she attended in Margate without any qualifications, having been a truant from the age of 13 – she soon became disillusioned with it. She turned instead to conceptual art, installations mostly, using a range of media including video, neon, embroidery, patchwork and the written word – her work often being based around a single punning phrase.

Her PA has said she needs to make a final selection from the photographs laid out on the table. The gallery is getting desperate. Task completed, Emin taps a couple of pills out of a bottle of Advil, pops them in her mouth, pulls the ring on a can of Red Bull and takes a swig.

She then hands a stack of letters over to her PA. One of the envelopes, she says, contains another fucking demand for payment for those fucking blood tests she had done. She has already paid the fucking bill but they keep sending reminders. Every fucking week. Some computer fucked up, probably.

Blood tests? “What happened, right,” explains Emin, “this summer I couldn’t have a holiday because of all my fucking deadlines.” She says this quickly, with dropped ‘h’s and ‘g’s, in an Essex accent undiluted by years in London.

“I was really distressed. Herpes outbreak every 20 seconds. Lesions on my face. Eating my face away. Steroid cream. I couldn’t concentrate and was pulling my hair out. So I had some tests.”

Being persecuted by a computer for unpaid blood tests sounds very Tracey Emin. Imagine if she threw the letter away and someone retrieved it from her bin – they could claim it as an artwork, I suggest. She frowns. “No, they couldn’t. Some students sent me a letter saying they were going to come and get my bins, right? And I said if they do I would fucking kill ’em.

“It wouldn’t just be a case of taking legal action, I would grab hold of them and personally slap them. It would be a real invasion of someone’s privacy to do that – unless you were Liz Hurley trying to get a sample for a paternity DNA test.”

She laughs gummily, her dark eyes creasing into a single line.

Hey, I say, maybe art dealers of the future could solve questions of attribution that way: they could run a DNA test on the stained sheets she uses in one of her exhibits, for instance. Another frown.

“You wouldn’t have to because my signature is on my artworks. It’s like when my cat went missing and I put up posters and people started collecting them. My name wasn’t signed on them. And people stole them to try and make a profit and I thought that a bit off.

“I was really upset. If I say it isn’t art, then it isn’t art. It’s like there’s loads of stuff I want to get rid of and I thought I could go down Brick Lane and have a market stall, but people will collect a pair of my shoes and an old CD box and put it all together and say they have a Tracey Emin. But it wouldn’t be because I wouldn’t have authentised it. What’s the word?”

Authenticated? “Right.” She yawns without opening her mouth and rattles her bottle of pills absent-mindedly. Does it give her pause for thought that it would be pretty hard to tell apart a Tracey Emin that she had created and a Tracey Emin that someone had cobbled together from going through her bins?

“No, you’ve got Andy Warhol time capsules, right? He got a load of things and put the date on them. And you could say they were just things he collected and they weren’t art. But they were art because Andy Warhol knew specifically what he was doing.”

She got annoyed not long ago when someone asked their friend to write to her saying they were terminally ill and could she send a photograph with her signature. “I did and wrote them a nice letter, and they framed it with the photograph and put it in an auction and sold it as art for £2,000.”

Has she ever, as an experiment, tried to get away with calling a non-art object, her coffee mug, say, art? “No, I’m not interested in that. But I challenge all the people who paint pictures of ponies in the New Forest to call what they do art. They might paint pictures but that doesn’t make them artists. You have to have integrity about what you are doing. You have to be able to justify it to yourself.”

Good point well made. But doesn’t it sometimes feel as if she is cursed with a Midas touch when all she has to do to turn an everyday household object into a valuable art object is to say that it is a valuable art object? “No, ‘course not. The bed took a bit of persuading. Still does in some quarters.”

Ah yes, the bed; the art work of which she is most proud. In one of his recent columns Craig Brown wrote, “If Tracey Emin were put on earth for anything, it was surely to make humorists redundant.

“A few years ago, I wrote a jokey piece about her, inventing a spoof exhibition called ‘I Want To Die Now, Alone and Mouldy, Hating Everyone, Always and Forever’ in which her main exhibit was called Skid Marks on Clean Linen. A month later she exhibited her unmade bed with soiled sheets for the very first time.”

If non-gallery-goers hadn’t heard of Tracey Emin before My Bed – stained sheets, old newspapers, used condoms, ashtrays, empty vodka bottles – they couldn’t help but hear of her afterwards. It was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999 and bought by Charles Saatchi for a rumoured £150,000.

Some thought it risible, others said it showed Emin was attuned to her times. Is she sick of defending the bed? “Not really because I will have to carry on doing it as long as I’m alive. It’s my bed and I will defend it. Do you remember those two Chinese men who jumped up and down on it?”

Yes, very funny that. She gives me a perplexed stare. “I didn’t think it was. I should have pressed charges against them. You can’t go around destroying other people’s property. I cried. I did not think it was funny.

“Someone violating my artwork and my space for their own publicity. Fuck. You know. A lot of my income would have gone if the bed had been damaged, because people wanted to buy it. That artwork was not a joke and it wasn’t to be laughed at.”

“It depressed me because the bed was the result of a “Galileo” moment. Me thinking of the bed out of the context of my bedroom. There it was. Every time I had to install the bed I had to go back to the place where I was when the bed was like that, in my head. I was delirious. Hadn’t eaten for four days. Just been lying in the bed depressed. I was nearly dead from lack of water. Then I saw it. Boom!!”

Does she ever wake up and think the world has gone mad? “No.”

Does she ever think she has gone mad?

“I have. I think, in terms of giving up and having some sort of breakdown, yeah, that’s happened to me. Some f-ing journalist said, ‘Oh, I bet Tracey Emin will commit suicide if she doesn’t win the Turner Prize.’ What a terrible thing to say. They wouldn’t say that about a Booker Prize nominee.”

Maybe it’s because people know so much about her, things she has let them know, through the autobiographical elements in her work? And one of the things they know is that she once tried to commit suicide by throwing herself off the harbour wall at Margate, while drunk, after a botched abortion.

“Yeah, but how many other people out there have tried to commit suicide? Some people might have found it helpful that I brought that up in my art, because they would know they were not the only ones feeling suicidal. Doesn’t mean I’m a raving fucking lunatic.”

“It’s like if they see the abortion work I’ve done. So many people don’t talk about their abortions, then six months later they crack up.”

Ah yes, the abortions. A doctor told Emin she was sterile after a bad attack of gonorrhoea in her teens, but then, at the age of 26, she became pregnant and had an abortion. Not long afterwards she had a second abortion. Did holding her predicament up to public scrutiny, through her art, help her overcome her guilt about it?

“Yeah, lots. I felt so fucking guilty. The reason I did was that the doctor at the time made me feel guilty by telling me I would make a wonderful mother, refusing to sign the papers.”

Was he right, does she think, in retrospect? “No, ‘course he fucking wasn’t. He would have been right if he had signed the form as soon as I had said, ‘I cannot have this fucking baby.'”

“Then I would have had the termination after six weeks instead of waiting three and a half months, which was a million times worse. Of course I felt guilt, because I had this fucking thing growing inside me. He even showed me a photo of his child. He could have been fucking struck off. I wouldn’t have been able to look after it, you see, because I was living on 12 fucking pounds a week.”

I meant was he right about her making a good mother? She grins. “Yeah, I’d be brilliant. But not then. I am a good mum to my cat. I would be a better mother than my mum was to me.”

Would she like to have children now?

“I’m not trying. I would like to adopt. But unfortunately adoption is very difficult in Britain. I wouldn’t pass the vetting procedure, with my history. I used to reckon, when I was drinking a lot, that if I had a baby I would leave it in the pub and not realise till next morning.”

Tracey Emin’s reputation as a hard drinker was consolidated in 1997 when she took part in a Channel 4 arts programme while, as she put it later, ‘totally shit-faced’. She was so drunk she thought she was in someone’s front room, and staggered off the set with the words, “You’re all boring me. I’m off to phone my mum.”

“I’ve been drinking since I was 13. I don’t think I was ever bad enough to go to AA and that, but if I had carried on like I was, I would have been very ill. Matt [Collishaw, her boyfriend, an artist] said if I carried on drinking spirits, he was going to leave me.

“So I stopped drinking spirits in 1999. Just drink beer and wine now. I became very thin because eating is not a priority when you drink. You fill up on Guinness and have diarrhoea constantly. It wasn’t just the health, though, it was the mood thing. I was just so volatile and jealous. I got nasty.”

So when she is sober she is suppressing her nasty side?

“No, I am a nice person. How I am with you today is how I really am, nice. But I am nasty when I’m upset, or angry, or pissed off, or someone has really fucked me over.” She lights up a cigarette.

“Everything gets blown out of proportion when I’m drinking. What I think of as a conspiracy is actually just my fucked up lack of comprehension. Totally paranoid and missing the point.”

In a way, Emin’s public escapades became inseparable in the public imagination from her artistic endeavours, which were, anyway, autobiographical. In this she was indeed attuned to her times, the art world in the 1990s often appearing a triumph of publicity stunt over artistic accomplishment.

These days Emin can be seen in the society pages: posing in Vivienne Westwood, arriving at an opening, a première, a glittering party. She claims she doesn’t like having her photograph taken: is it because when she looks in the mirror she doesn’t like what she sees?

“No, not often. That’s changed because I had an eye operation a couple of years ago, and my perception of myself is better than it used to be. I was really badly short-sighted, dangerously so. Kept having bad accidents because of the vast amount of alcohol I drank. I had to go this close [she holds her hand up to her face] to a mirror to see myself so I always had a really distorted view of my face.”

Perhaps this is why she describes herself as having ‘a full moustache and a unibrow that has to be plucked regularly’. Her teeth make her feel self-conscious in public, too. They went awry due to a combination of calcium deficiency at birth and being head-butted by her twin brother Paul when she was 13. She had a plate fitted for her top ones when she was 18, but gave up on the bottom ones.

“They kept trying to put crowns in but they wouldn’t stay in so I just had these gold pegs hanging down. So horrible. So I used to cover my mouth with my hand as well as going around with really squinty eyes because I couldn’t see properly.”

Are the confessional elements in her art the equivalent of basket-weaving in a lunatic asylum, a form of therapy?

“I do feel the need to do all that but so do lots of artists. If I hadn’t found success as an artist when I did, I don’t know, maybe I would have died, that is what my mum thought. It’s a gift. I am a genuinely creative person whether it’s, like, tidying my drawers at home or doing my collaging here.”

We know the names of everyone Tracey Emin slept with up to 1995 because she sewed them on to a tent, called it Everyone I’ve Ever Slept with 1963-1995, and exhibited it as art. There were 100 names, and they included family and childhood friends as well as lovers.

We know, too, that she was raped aged 13 down an alley round the back of Burton’s in Margate because she has written about it. The autobiographical themes in her work; all true?

“How can they be? I edit constantly.” She takes a puff of her cigarette. “What is the truth when you are 20 it very different when you look back at it at 30 or 40. But the rape is true. The suicide attempt and the abortions are true.

“In my film Why I Never Became a Dancer I say that men chanted, ‘Slag, slag, slag,’ at me when I went in for a disco-dancing competition in Margate. That did happen but it also happened every day on the street. So that was actually worse than how I interpretated [sic] it in the film. I don’t lie about things. I’m an honest person.”

Emin considers the question ‘what is art?’ boring – and she may well be right – but a couple of things bother me about her art. Firstly, I’m not sure how much it has to do with aesthetic pleasure, with which, according to my conventional definition at least, art should have some connection.

Secondly, works such as My Bed aren’t particularly shockingly new: 80 years ago the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp was playing with similar ideas with Fountain (an ordinary urinal made extraordinary by being exhibited in a gallery as art), and he made it well enough for it not to have to be made again.

But perhaps neither of these things matter if Emin’s work passes the test of time; does she think it will? She draws on her cigarette, looks at me neutrally.

“We don’t know. It depends on whims. All you can do is try and make each show better than the last. And make sure more people turn up. The Tate has never had such long queues as for My Bed.”

But high attendance figures can’t be a criterion for judging whether something is art or not: large numbers of people used to go to watch the lunatics at Bedlam.

“I know, that is why the art establishment doesn’t take me very seriously.” But it does. “Oh but it doesn’t.” Surely she is surrounded by sycophantic art groupies, stroking their chins and wearing black? “No, I’m not. My friends are more than equal to me.”

Don’t they say what she wants to hear?

“No, my dealer Jay Jopling can be very critical, so can Matt.’

Her brother Paul said her work was ‘a load of old bollocks’: what did she make of this critical assessment?

“Paul just saw what I did from a distance. Now he has a different opinion and he likes what I do. Also, he didn’t like me making work about him. I said he had been in prison, which you are not allowed to talk about because people didn’t know what he was in for, and he does building and carpentry and it was affecting his work.”

What was he in for? “Fraud, I think.”

Has she ever felt like a fraud?

“Not a fake or an impostor but I know what you are saying. Sometimes I do feel, ‘Oh no, what is this in my life?’ I woke up one day and realised I had raped myself and that is the worst rape of all.”

We’re into the realm of Craig Brown parody again. Is the raping herself conclusion something she arrived at after speaking to a psychiatrist?

“Yeah, but not recently. Apart from you! Group therapy with a million Telegraph readers, eh? I did see a therapist for six months. It was to do with the fact I couldn’t cope with everything I had to do. You know, time-management. He taught me to departmentalise. Is that the word?”

Compartmentalise? “Yeah. When I stopped drinking spirits I had a massive boredom in my life. Boredom like you would not believe. If you’re pissed a lot of the time your problem is finding your keys or not falling over things. Without drink, life becomes your problem.”

“Yeah, I find that life is OK. I don’t cry easily and I laugh a lot, until I wet myself. I’ll be 40 in July. Being a women I’m aware of that clock. I look in the mirror and think, ‘I wish that girl of 20 was here now.’ I was in such a mess at that age.

“Up until then I was so naive I thought the sun went round the earth. I really did, because I was never at school.”

And this, ultimately, is why we should forgive Tracey Emin her success. Her solipsism – ‘It isn’t art unless I say it’s art’ – is understandable given that she has become famous for, as she puts it, ‘making things out of bits of me’.

Her seriousness on the subject of herself – ‘I am clever, you know,’ she tells me with a frown, at one point – can seem comical but it is also endearing, and is just one of her many contradictions. Here, after all, is a woman who insists upon her own dignity, yet is careless with it; a guileless person who lives in a bubble of self-regard; a witty artist who seems to have no sense of irony.

Emin compares herself to Warhol, for example, but he wouldn’t have cared less if someone had jumped on his bed. She lacks his nonchalance and sense of absurdity, and, unlike Warhol, she doesn’t seem to get the joke she earns a living from making.

She shows me round her studio; points out some collages on the floor with misspelled words stitched on and then, wryly, crossed out. She doesn’t misspell on purpose, she says. In fact she is learning to spell at the moment – and she shows me her dictionary to prove it.

It’s a sweet gesture and it makes me want to like Tracey Emin. As a person she is likeable – and, yes, as she herself says, she is nice. But as the most famous British artist of her generation, I can’t help feeling, she did get rather lucky.


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.