After a lifetime of failed marriages, money troubles and ‘medicinal’ marijuana, the world’s greatest country star is hitting the road again

Parked under the shade of a couple of palm trees, in the car park of a cheap hotel in California, the Willie Nelson tour bus does not look like the icon of American culture it undoubtedly is.

The 77-year-old country singer sleeps around 200 days a year on here and has done for decades. Well, on this one and its earlier incarnations. It is called the Honeysuckle Rose III.

One of his best-known songs, On the Road Again, is about this bus and the home-from-home way of life it represents.

Nelson’s actual home is a farm in Luck outside Austin, Texas, near to where he was born and raised. That is where his fifth wife Annie and two of his seven (possibly nine) children live.

But this bus is the home where his heart is. There are some homely touches: a collection of American Indian necklaces draped above the dinette, a toaster, family photos on the wall, a miniature stars-and-stripes sticking out of an ashtray.

But these are not what you notice first: that would be the smell of marijuana. He smokes it every day and has spent a lifetime campaigning for its legalisation.

Indeed, just as the Beatles once smoked pot at Buckingham Palace, so Willie Nelson once had a toke on the roof of the White House, which is certainly one way of putting across your point.

The second thing you notice is the world’s most famous stoner himself. He has an unassuming air about him, is scruffy in a black T-shirt and jeans, and is quite diminutive at 5ft 6in. He is sitting in a halo of light in the corner, fixing me with his dark starey eyes.

His fingers are long and crooked and, as he talks, he steeples them, as if in prayer. His cheekbones are sharp but you suspect his chin, hidden under a white beard, might be a little weak.

His waist-length mane of greying hair hangs over one shoulder and is not in plaits today, nor is it hidden under a stetson or held back with a bandanna, which it often is.

But there is no doubting that this is the man who was once described as ‘Jesus on a bad hair day’, which perhaps explains the popularity of the T-shirts and bumper stickers you see across the United States that ask simply: What would Willie do?

His reputation for being mellow is partly to do with his languid manner, partly the way he dispenses homespun wisdom in a measured Texan drawl.

He speaks in short, croaky sentences and lets you know when he has finished by smiling gently or giving a soft chuckle.

Actually he speaks through his songs which, in their unassuming way, are as seared on the American musical landscape as those of Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday or Jimi Hendrix. Like them, he is a touchstone for his own genre.

Crazy, the spare and haunting song he wrote for Patsy Cline, is said to be the most played jukebox recording of all time, so let’s begin with that.

I ask him what he thinks it was about that song that gave it such universal appeal. ‘The simplicity,’ he says. ‘The song itself is not that simple, there are a few chord changes, but the idea is simple.’

He’s written so many, about 3,000. Does he remember writing that particular one? ‘Sure. In that same week I wrote Night Life and Funny How Time Slips Away, I felt like all three had something.’

I ask if he ever wakes up with a new melody fully formed in his head? ‘Often, and it seems to have come from nowhere. There are only so many notes so there must be only so many melodies. I don’t really question it. I think maybe I’ve heard something like this before, but that’s OK. It’s what I’m hearing now.’

He has recorded more than 100 albums, and sold more than 50 million of them. His latest, Country Music, is out this summer and will be accompanied by a European tour.

The songs have never stopped coming, it seems, but does he worry that he will wake up one day and find the inspiration fairy has flown away?

‘Yeah I know there will come a time when it is no longer there so I have to take advantage of it while I can. Roger Miller (the honky-tonk singer), a great friend of mine, said sometimes the well goes dry when you are a songwriter and you have to live a while and let the well fill up again.’

Nelson is wont to have a joint before going on stage to perform, but can he also write music stoned?

‘I’m not sure whether it makes me more creative or keeps me from being more creative. I can’t give the weed too much credit, though, I think it’s mostly down to me.’

Nowadays he smokes the stuff through a vaporiser, which he considers healthier than a joint. ‘Yeah I smoke it most days. But there were several days recently I went without smoking it, to prove I could.’

Does it worry him that since he began campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis several decades ago it has become much stronger and that there have been a number of studies that show that skunk, which is 25 times stronger than the pot Willie would have started out smoking in the Sixties, can cause psychosis?

‘Really? I’ve never run in to that much. But you’re right, there are stronger strains out there now than there used to be with the old Mexican dirt weed. But I think people have built up their tolerance a lot over the years.

‘To someone who smokes all the time it isn’t necessarily stronger. I think it depends on who is smoking it. It’s not for everyone. It’s medicine and if it’s not your medicine you shouldn’t make it so.’

When I ask him what he makes of his reputation for being mellow, whether that is how he would describe himself, he blinks slowly and gives a little nod.

‘The outward appearance can deceive. Sometimes there is a 36-piece orchestra going off in my stomach.’ He directs a thumb over his shoulder. ‘I’ve got a punching bag in the back of the bus there. It helps me let off steam.’

One assumes from his plaintive songs that he has a strong streak of melancholy running through him.

‘Well the country songs themselves are three-chord stories, ballads which are mostly sad. If you are already feeling sorry for yourself when you listen to them they will take you to an even sadder place.

‘Sometimes that’s good for your mind. It doesn’t hurt to feel sad from time to time. It’s better than having a drink when you feel life has abused you, because that way you can end up a drunk.

‘We enjoy making ourselves feel sad. People will pay good money to come and cry. Give me a hundred bucks for a ticket and I’ll make you cry!’

And are there any that make him cry? ‘You do have to be careful singing these songs over and over again because they can become self-fulfilling. Some of my songs I find quite painful to sing because they remind me of certain times in my life.

‘There are some I have written and recorded which I don’t perform for that reason. I don’t want to go back there. There are some though, like Crazy and Night Life, I can keep doing because they have become standards, general rather than specific.’

The episodes in his life that he would rather forget no doubt feature his hard drinking and womanising. His first wife left him because of his drinking, but only after tying him up in a sheet and beating him with a broom.

His second wife found out about the woman who was to become his third wife when she mistakenly opened a letter about maternity payments.

Then there was the night in 1970 when he dashed into his burning house to rescue his guitar and his pot.

Another drunken night ended with him playing chicken by lying in a busy lane of traffic. He later said: ‘It was one of those Russian roulette things.’ He also once said: ‘Hell, I only drink so much so people won’t think I’m a dope fiend.’

But the most painful time in his life was not to do with drinking. In 1990, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) informed him that he owed them $32 million. Thanks to bad financial advice he had been using tax shelters, which were disallowed.

After lengthy negotiations the IRS halved the demand, but he was still forced to auction off most of his possessions. Friends bought them and then sold them back to him when he regained financial stability.

It was at this point that tragedy truly struck. His alcoholic son, Billy, killed himself. ‘Everything else just fell into insignificance.’

It’s all he has to say on the subject of his son, so I ask instead what his IRS experience taught him about the nature of money.

‘When you don’t have it, it seems more important than when you do. And when you do have it you realise it can’t buy you happiness or health. A man with $10 million is no better off than a man with $9 million. Trying to get by without money can be a chore. But it can be done.’

It must have been stressful not knowing whether he was going to be able to pay it off; were there sleepless nights? ‘I think all along I knew I would do OK. I live one day at a time. I don’t worry about yesterday and I’m not concerned much with tomorrow.

‘You only need one pair of shoes at a time. As long as you have enough to eat and somewhere to sleep, it becomes about what you need versus what you can afford.’

Nelson is approaching his eighties; why does he still work so hard and give himself such a punishing schedule if not for material gain?

‘I do it because I just really love playing music. I enjoy playing for an audience. I would do it for free and have done it for free many times, playing in bars when I couldn’t afford to, just because I love doing it.’

Sounds like he’s never going to retire. ‘I think that would be the hardest thing to do. To quit the road. To quit playing music. Being on the road in my tour bus, it’s what I enjoy.

‘I would get tired in a day or two if I stopped doing this. I’d get fidgety. Restless. I want to see what’s happening over there. I want to play with this singer over here.’

He has worked with an astonishing range of performers, including Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Sheryl Crow, Elvis Costello, Eric Clapton and Norah Jones. He even had a hit with Julio Iglesias (For All The Girls I’ve Loved Before).

‘I don’t sit and plan these things,’ he says. ‘I just believe in letting them happen and going with the flow. With Sheryl we hit it off real well and decided to hang out more. She’s involved in a lot of the things I am. Against the war, fighting for the protection of horses, the bio fuel.’

Nelson is known as Bio Willie. His bus runs on biodiesel and he has set up his own filling stations in Texas to supply it to truckers.

‘I don’t think I converted Sheryl to biodiesel; she was pretty wised up to it. We’re trying to get others to use it more, because the more of that we use and the more solar energy and hydro and wind we use, the less we will have to go around the world looking for oil.’

His childhood love of country music came from watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, the singing cowboys on the silver screen. ‘I wanted to ride my horse, shoot my gun and sing my songs like them,’ he says. (Like his bus, his acoustic guitar has the name Trigger, after Roy Rogers’s horse.)

Why is the idea of the cowboy as hero, as semi-mythical figure, still popular, does he suppose? ‘I think it represents a freedom people can relate to and aspire to. It’s a romantic ideal. Everyone wants to be a cowboy at heart. Truck drivers are the modern equivalent.’

While teaching Sunday school in Fort Worth, Nelson began playing at honky-tonk clubs. He then went to Nashville and wrote for other people, most notably Roy Orbison and Patsy Cline. But as a performer, success eluded him and he returned to Texas in 1970.

It was there he pioneered a new form of country known as outlaw. It broke away from the all-domineering Nashville sound to incorporate the redneck music of Texas and the hippie folk-rock of California. And this coincided with the post-Easy Rider reinterpretation of the Wild West, with Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah making revisionist westerns.

Nelson grew his hair long and pitched his voice up half an octave so that he strained on the high notes, giving him a more affecting sound. His chord changes, meanwhile, echoed his strange, half-toned vocal phrasings.

His breakthrough album was Red Headed Stranger in 1975. After that he formed a supergroup with Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.

‘The term “outlaw” was a marketing thing that someone came up with in Nashville,’ Nelson says. ‘But the cowboy side was something me and Waylon and others could relate to, sure. It made a good story and felt fresh again.’

His campaigning for the legalisation of cannabis and his run-in with the IRS have perpetuated his outlaw image and added to his popularity with the young. Politicians have often tried to tap into his mass appeal but have rarely seemed sure how to handle him.

‘That’s how it feels, yeah. I think my advocacy of marijuana makes the politicians nervous. I’m not persuaded that much by either side because those guys are trying to dodge that issue.’

He tells me he doesn’t have an act, that he is the same offstage as on. Yet he has a very distinctive image: the stetsons, the bandannas, the long hair. Was there not an element of invention to this, given that he started off in a suit?

‘Maybe so. Maybe there is an element of showbusiness. When I got into the country music scene in Nashville, we all got dressed up in the moody suits and rhinestones and boots and hats, and we all looked the same.

‘When years later I first started growing my hair long and beading it and wearing the bandanna, Eddie Arnold, a great singer from Nashville, met me back stage at the Grand Ole Opry and said with a grin: “I know what you’re up to.”’

We talk about his childhood and how his parents, who were musicians, left him when he was six months old in the care of his grandparents.

‘I never felt insecure about it. Never felt the lack of anything. I got plenty of love from my grandmother. She spoilt me rotten. She encouraged my sister (Bobby, who plays piano in his band) and me in our music and got us to sing in church.’

His first job was picking cotton. ‘At the time I didn’t think anything of it but looking back now it does seem like hard work, 12 hours a day, sunup to sundown. Baling hay I made 15 cents an hour, so when I made $8 a night playing the honky-tonks that felt like the big time.’

It left him with a love of farming and respect for farmers (he is heavily involved with the charity Farm Aid, for which he does regular free concerts).

‘I’ve always known the farmer worked hard and didn’t make much money. It is even harder now when the big corporations are trying to run the small farmers out. They are doing a good job of it. We used to have eight million small family farmers, now we only have two million.’

From cotton picking he moved on to selling encyclopedias door-to-door; he seems so laid back now, it is hard to imagine him as a pushy salesman.

‘The training I had was from a great salesman who had a rebuttal to every objection. I learnt a lot. I learnt it is pretty easy to go in and sell someone something they cannot afford. I learnt you can sell someone a set of 300 books when they don’t have shelves to put them on.

‘I would always drive along looking for swings in the backyard then I would know there was a potential customer there, an aspiring family with young kids.’

It sounds cynical but in a way he was selling the idea of the American dream, that anyone could improve their lot in life. ‘Anyone can be a good salesman if they learn to sell themselves first. It almost doesn’t matter what the product is. You have to make friends with your customer.’

What does it mean to be a Texan? ‘I like being from Texas because in Texas no one is in control, everyone polices their own area and there is a whole lot of area down there to cover.’

And everyone carries guns. He chuckles. ‘You don’t have one?’ Does he? He shakes his head. ‘I grew up with a 22 rifle to shoot rabbits, then a 4:10 and graduated all the way up to rifles with scopes to shoot deer and bear.

‘Did it until I got tired of it. Got tired of shooting things. One day I realised it wasn’t that much fun any more so I stopped.’

He prefers golf these days and owns his own course and even he is puzzled by his incongruous passion for the sport. Perhaps it’s a Texan thing.

Speaking of which, George W Bush must make him proud to be a Texan. ‘Well, first off, Bush wasn’t born in Texas. He played on it. But I have to say, when he was governor I didn’t notice him. He snuck through to become president without making any waves.’

Presumably, for all his mellowness, Willie Nelson has had to be pretty pushy to achieve his successes, engaging in a lifetime of the hard sell. ‘I think I know what I wanted. I was hungry. Every day I had to keep going for it,’ he says.

Has he had to be selfish to realise his ambitions? ‘You don’t have to be selfish because your ambition and drive is for your family members as much as for yourself. Along the way you pick up wives and kids and you are responsible for them. You don’t discard them. There is no such thing as ex-wives, only additional wives.’

If he were to bump into his 18-year-old self, what advice would he give him? ‘I’d probably tell him to shut up.’ And with that he gives a wheezy laugh. ‘Yeah, just shut up.’


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.