Jamie Cullum Biography
Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit Of Love
Jamie Cullum is an artist deserving of superlatives but more complex than a simple set of adjectives can depict. If you know him as "just" a jazz musician or from his strikingly creative way with cover versions (among them, Radiohead's 'High & Dry' and Pharrell's 'Frontin') you're just familiar with the tip of the iceberg.
'The Pursuit', his fifth album and first new solo record in four years, is summed up by its title, taken from Nancy Mitford's classic novel, The Pursuit Of Love. "In life, we pursue everything. Life is one long pursuit," says Jamie and the album is just such a pursuit – a combination of his eclectic music tastes and enduring love of Jazz and its timeless standards.
It is a record that mixes his heritage with a thrilling selection of modern influences. Describing its sound he moves from Cole Porter to Rhianna to Aphex Twin in the same sentence. Jamie is a performer capable of delivering constant surprises with a talent elastic enough to evince a four-to-the-floor acoustic Ibiza song on the same record as a lushly recorded Jazz standard.
The making of 'The Pursuit' was a marathon not a sprint. Having decided to take time off after two years touring 2005's 'Catching Tales' and the juggernaut of praise and press that followed the previous album 2003's 'Twentysomething', Jamie turned to other projects. "I took a whole year off," he says, "I played in other people's bands and worked with other artists, I Dj'd, made dance music with my brother and travelled." He also found time to build his own studio, Terrified Studios, in London's Shepherd's Bush – "I call it that because I am so unknowledgeable about technology that I'm usually terrified when I'm in there," laughs Jamie.
All the songs on 'The Pursuit' began life at Terrified Studios and in Jamie's kitchen before recording moved to Los Angeles for three months over the summer of 2008. While work there with producer and long-time associate Greg Wells proved productive, some of the work from Jamie's kitchen made it to the final product. "We realised there were some things we couldn't recreate in any studio," Jamie reveals, "There's a Rhodes solo on a song called "We Run Things" which I played on two different organs in LA but in the end we used the performance I recorded in my little kitchen in London!"
Recording in LA meant changing the techniques and routines Jamie had developed on his previous records. "I didn't want to make this album with my old band or my old producer," he says, "I needed to frighten myself." While many of the songs were put together by Greg and Jamie in the studio, a selection of stellar talent contributed their musicianship. Members of Beck's band joined the sessions while the horn section that featured on Michael Jackson's Thriller also appear. "Getting out of your comfort zone is such a cliché for your third or fourth album," Jamie says sincerely, "But, you know, it really worked."
By the autumn of 2008, Jamie had a finished album and was ready to present it to his record company when the utter oddness of his career intervened. Clint Eastwood came calling again. The pair had connected through Clint's son Kyle, a fellow Jazz musician and Jamie ended up contributing to the Clint composed soundtrack to John Cusack's 2007 film Grace Is Gone. Now he was back with another assignment.
"He asked me to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He loved the performance and after the gig, he threw the script of Gran Torino at me and said, 'I want you to write music for this'." Among his many other skills, Jamie Cullum does a mean impression of Clint Eastwood. Jamie ended up recording the song at Clint's house and the film was re-cut around it with a score based on its motif. It's the kind of odd couple you usually only find in the movies but Clint and Cullum have ended up friends. "We hung out talking about girls and drinking beer," Jamie grins.
Gran Torino (the song) with music by Clint Eastwood and Jamie and lyrics by Jamie alone, was nominated for a Golden Globe. Jamie found himself involved in a whirlwind of interviews and press appearances to promote the film. All the time, he was collecting ideas and inspiration for new songs. It seemed like the record might not be finished after all.
"I had more songs and new experiences to draw upon," says Jamie, "I'd been doing the Rhianna cover and thought, actually I really want this on my album." Covers have always been part of Jamie's DNA as a Jazz musician but the art of selecting contemporary songs has become ever more difficult as every girl band and their dog in a handbag is doing them now. After covering Rhianna's all conquering uber-single "Umbrella" for some time, it's ubiquity led Jamie to choose another of the r'n'b poppet's tunes – "Please Don't Stop The Music". His striking version was inspired by his love of the "sexy lyric" and retools the original in a brilliant way.
"I wanted to reference more of my contemporary musical influences," says Jamie. While his crate-digging, band-discovering love of music has been present all along, The Pursuit is the first record where he has allowed these impulses full reign. "People who have seen me play live and read things I've written will already know that I've got a very eclectic taste," he says, "But the average person will just think of "What A Difference A Day Makes". I've never had a problem with that though. Singing a song like that and doing it well is one of the hardest things you can do."
Ten years on from his first self-funded release, Heard It All Before, Jamie is still (here's that theme again) pursuing new sounds and new ideas in his music. "We've had a lot of musicians who've arrived fully formed recently like Alex Turner or Jamie T. They knew what they wanted to sound like and said it straight away. When I made my first record it was a stab in the dark, something to sell at my wedding gigs."
"I think I've come close to fully realising what I should be with this record. I didn't know who I wanted to be when I was 19," he continues. Growing older has even made him question whether he should play his early hit, Twentysomething, anymore. "There's a lyric in the song that says, 'I'm a twenty something, leave me alone,' and I'm not going to be soon," he reveals. Jamie's (whisper it) 30 this year. It still may get an outing though: "It might be a great tour gimmick to change the lyric," he ponders.
Though he says he lived his "twenties to the fullest", in recent years the up-and-downs of his personal and professional life have fuelled an even more powerful creative drive. His personal happiness (exhaustively and often inaccurately documented by the tabloids) is at the heart of one of the album's most important songs – 'Love Ain't Gonna Let You Down'. "I've never written a love song that didn't have a joke in it before," Jamie admits, "The only pure love songs I'd sung before that were by George Gershwin."
'Love Ain't Gonna Let You Down' is also the song that ties up the album's over-arching theme in the lyric "the pursuit of love consumes us all". But for Jamie, the love he documents is not just the romantic one that obsesses the red tops but a love of music that shines out from every track. The Pursuit is an album that starts with a track featuring the Count Basie Orchestra recorded live at Tony Bennett's studio in New York and ends with a dance track and a jazz standard combined with trip-hop beats.
Despite possessing a talent that has seen him pursued for collaborations by Carole King, Burt Baccarach and Clint Eastwood as well as beat-boxer extraordinare Killa Kella and hip-hop big hitter Pharrell, Jamie is still far more interested in writing songs than seeking acclaim. "When you concentrate on making music, the whole point is that you never stop and are always trying to move on. Unless you're P-Diddy I guess," Jamie laughs. "The only thing I have to live up to is making an album that I'm proud of." On the strength of this astounding record, that's yet another pursuit he's succeeded in.