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Interview: Jamie Cullum talks about life and jazz

He might  still look boyish,  but at nearly 34 and a dad for the second time, Jamie Cullum is most certainly growing up as Barbara Hodgson found out

Musician Jamie Cullum
Musician Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum once  described himself as having the soul of a jazz musician. But his genre-mixing music makes  it  impossible  to confine  him to  a box, which is just the way the  singer-songwriter and instrumentalist likes it.

If his soul is jazz,  then his heart is that of a poet and the English graduate has such a bright and expansive way of speaking that he almost waxes lyrical just talking about coming  to Sage Gateshead.

He’ll be kicking off a short UK tour here in October in celebration of the release this summer of new album Momentum and, besides playing   piano at an intimate gig at the venue,  he says he’s been up  to listen to music there too and enthuses about our  creativity.

“Sage Gateshead is such an amazing place,” he says. “It’s like a brilliant shining beacon of truth and beauty in the UK.

“It seems so much good stuff is happening there.”

Good stuff has been happening for Jamie too. He became a dad again in March, with a second daughter  to wife Sophie Dahl, the former model and granddaughter of writer Roald, and his new album is now out.

This is the  sixth studio album for the Essex-born musician,  who grew up in Wiltshire and has been immersed in music all his life, including  pop and hip-hop in his school days, and has sold  more than 10m records around the world.

While rooted in jazz, his career has seen several changes of direction but, as he points out, it’s only the older generation of real traditionalists who think strictly in terms  of specific genres.

“You don’t find it with young people at all,” he says.

“They’re open to change.

“They’ve grown up around a music culture that’s open and more about  sharing.

 “It’s different now, from roots music to cinematic screenplays to Louis Armstrong...”

Musician Jamie Cullum
Musician Jamie Cullum

With Momentum – which saw Cullum experiment with everything from iPhone apps to charity shop keyboards and cassette recorders –   fans will find something different again. 

It reflects a more  grown-up   Cullum and he’s described it as being about “that crossover period from youth into adulthood where you still have one foot in each”.

It’s a time you look at the world differently and more clearly see both the ugly and beautiful.

It’s also a time for reflection, and album tracks such as  Everything You Didn’t Do address issues like ‘have I done enough’? and ‘have I achieved all that I thought I would’?

Cullum says parenthood  “gave  me more of a feeling for the deepness of things and I looked at the world around me”.

So, alongside the “amazing amount of joy” from having children   comes more of an awareness of darkness and “the difficulty of bringing kids into a world that’s far from perfect”. It’s all seeped into the songwriting, but it  had never  been his  intention to set out to embody that crossover period.

Explaining the album title, he   says: “I didn’t start out to write an original album –  I thought it might be covers – but I got this incredible momentum.

“I felt I was writing songs with a great sense of permanence.”

And, while it’s not his style to analyse his creative process – preferring  just to get on with it,  a narrative revealed itself.

“Once I had 15 to 20 songs, there seemed to be two camps: one, my younger self without responsibility, then  looking at this new-found life of a greater sense of responsibility.

“I did it without thinking – I tend to  examine afterwards.”

He mentions “a new-found confidence” and “new experience” but says: “You can  over-think things a bit too much.”

So what of those questions: has he  done enough and has he  achieved all he thought?

“Not at all,” he answers.

“With everyone, whether you’re the Queen or whether someone who works in Burger King, there are still a million thing you haven’t done.” Those who find they have achieved it “are  probably dying,” he says.

“I’m no exception. There are tons of things I want to do, musically, personally.” His work “all feels part of evolution in a sense”.

He adds: “When I finish something  I always feel a sense of satisfaction – I’m very proud of everything I have done  -– but  I just do it and move on.

“I might think, ‘I could have  done that differently’; ‘I’ll do that  next time’, but  my mind is already on what happens next.”

So no surprise that he already has “little bits bubbling away”, besides the  jazz show he  presents on BBC Radio 2: “I love it, sharing the music. It’s an extension of what I’ve done all my life”.

And he still has that soul of a jazz man?

“Absolutely,” he says. “Although Momentum is much more bold, take off the skin and  the skeleton of the album is still the jazz man.”

Beautifully put.

Jamie Cullum plays Sage Gateshead on October 18. Visit  www.thesagegateshead.org or call 0191 443 4661. His album Momentum is out on Island Records.


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