In Hot Pursuit of Jamie Cullum

Anna Tsekouras
marie claire

He's performed for the Queen, recently married model Sophie Dahl and received a Golden Globe nomination for penning the score of Clint Eastwood's movie Gran Torino. But British jazz musician, Jamie Cullum, now 30, insists he's "not done searching," reflected in the title of his new album The Pursuit.

This is your first solo album in four years. Did you learn anything about yourself as a musician in that time?
I learnt that I produce better work when I'm slightly under pressure and finding it difficult. I think that's the great thing about this record. I made a great effort to challenge myself. Leaving London and recording the album in a different country, like the States was a big part of it.

I heard that you wanted to go to LA to frighten yourself. Your studio in the UK is also called Terrified Studios. Do you think injecting that fear component into your work makes you a better artist?
I think that fear element is maybe not the fear itself, but when you come across a problem in life, you tend to rely on your natural instincts or on the way you've done things before. In life - that's okay - but in terms of creativity, it's great having to think up ways of dealing with a problem in a new way. I didn't know which musicians or studios to call in LA. It means you force yourself to be even more creative.

You recorded the performance of We Run Things from your little kitchen in London – are there certain spaces or certain people where you feel the most creative?
That's a really interesting question. I think it's something about the comfort of being in your own home and writing there. You're in that zen mind of peacefulness and it really allows the mind to create, but sometimes that can also make things stale.

I think limiting yourself to just one place or saying, 'this is the only place where I can be creative,' denies the natural involvement itself really.

Was that part of the reason of going to London and really challenging yourself?
Yes. Although to be honest about three or four weeks into it, I thought I had made a big mistake! But then things started to turn around and I realised that I was making something quite special.

What do you think one of the most important things that you're saying in this album?
I hope its joy in the process of music making and expressing things about life that maybe people haven't thought about before. I think that was always the point of making music and you saying things that people haven't maybe thought about before and give them a new perspective on things. That's what I get from great music.

What can we expect from this album that makes it different from your previous albums?
I think it's just the non-willingness to take the easy path. I could've done standards in a very standardy way and made things sound sweeter and more polished but I chose to give things a slightly rougher and more experimental feel.

There's a danger in doing that because you may alienate all the people who liked your music in the first place if you go too far. But I think this album strikes the right balance between experimenting and retaining the thing about me that people liked in the first place.

What is it that you think people like about you?
I hope it's because I am exactly as I am. I'm not a creation by some company or some committee. I'm pretty much totally myself in my music and in the rest of career honestly. So what you see is what you get. I'm obsessed with music - I'm a music geek. I listen very widely and I try to represent that in my music.

I hope that's what people get from me.

Love Ain't Gonna Let You Down is the most personal song you've ever written. What was it about this time in your life that you were prepared to let the guard down?
Well I think the key thing is that it's not a conscious decision. I just found that this song and this lyric flowed naturally through me. By the time it was done, I didn't know how it had come about. The peculiarity of dealing with strong emotions, like when someone has died or when you've felt extreme melancholy is on par with that when you fall in love with someone - you tend to make these kinds of unconscious expressions.

You've recently married Sophie Dahl. Congratulations on being a newlywed! Do you feel the media spotlight weighing down on you?
I can honestly say that it hasn't impacted on me in any way at all. It is a miniscule aspect of something that is so much bigger than that.

Do you think falling in love has changed you as a musician?
I don't think it changes your music as such, it just allows you to reach greater heights with your creativity. I think hyper-powerful emotions allow you to access yourself - which is why they're so great - which is why being in love is so great. It allows you to access yourself and your abilities to a greater degree.

What can you tell me about the overarching theme in your album: The pursuit of love conquers all? Do you think love for music is different from romantic love?
That's an incredibly interesting question and unbelievably one that I've never been asked before. You have to examine your passion for people and your passion for passion. I find they are both, romantic and love for your art is similarly all-enveloping. It never leaves you. That's what I love so much about music. It's always there. It stays with me at night, by day, during the good times and bad times and I think that constancy of a great love for a person should be as well.

Just one of those things is recorded totally live, with no cuts, no edits. How do you feel about the way the industry is changing and the fact that music isn't recorded live as much anymore? Should we mourn the loss of purity?
I think that people get what they want. You can get that kind of music that is really processed and really produced and it sounds amazing like if you listen to Timbaland, Rihanna and Beyonce. This is all very heavily processed music which is amazing with great voices on top. It can be done brilliantly and it can also be done really badly as well.

There's a lot out there and I think the great thing about the internet and Twitter. People can find what they want. There's no excuse for saying, "That's shoved down my throat, I don't know what else is out there." I think there's incredible music out there and no need to criticise it. It can be taken for what is: fun, hooky and somewhat disposable music.

I know you've had varied influences, are there anyone that people would be shocked to hear that you like?
I'm sure its dozens of people. I have an unhealthy interest, slight obsession with David Bowie, to Rage against the Machine, Metallica and everything else in between from electronica, Egyptian and Ethiopian jazz to country music.

I often call myself a listener before a musician because I spend so much time listening to stuff and spend almost all of my disposable cash on records. It occupies nearly all my waking hours and certainly all the space in my house! It's just hard for me to talk about the breadth of my musical interest. It is just totally who I am.

You've said, "In life we pursue everything – life is one long pursuit." What has been your greatest pursuit?
I think it's realising that whoever you are, whatever your level of technique, it's all about having something to say and finding a way to say it. Even if that means you have one finger and the ability to play one note. There's a great quote from John Lennon who said "I'm an artist and if you give me a tuba, I'll bring you something out of it."

It's not always what you can do it's what you can say and how you choose to say it. Realising that was part of my pursuit. Worrying that I wasn't good enough for this or I wasn't a good piano player or a good enough singer. I think the important thing is decide you have something to say and working out how you want to say it.

You won over Clint Eastwood having worked on the soundtrack to John Cusack's 2007 film Grace is Gone. You also wrote the lyrics for Gran Torino that was nominated for a Golden Globe. Was that the pinnacle of your career?
It totally felt like one of the highlights of my career and probably was, in fact, the highlight because it just came about in such a true and organic way. It wasn't forced and it came at a time in my career where I had the skills to really take on that opportunity, because sometimes I think opportunities can come too early in your career and you don't know how to cope with it. This came to me when I was ready for it.

How did you feel when you found out you had been nominated?
I felt incredible pride that I had this opportunity and I took it that was the great feeling and when I saw the film for the first time. I actually went to the Golden Globes and I hadn't even seen the film (I had only seen the rushes from when I was in the studio). When I first saw the film - I couldn't believe that my music was in such a great piece of work, I was so proud of it. I'd be ruined forever more if I ever did another film again. You know, where do you go after doing a Clint Eastwood film?

Is there a plan to do more films?
I'd love to but it's like your first meal being caviar, where do you go after that?

Do you feel at this moment in your life that you've reached the top?
Yes, it is an incredibly happy time but it never means that I should stop searching for and striving to be better and better. I feel like I'm 5 per cent there. I can't sit back and say right I've done it. It's really just the beginning.

You came from a working class background, but were raised with a strong sense of music appreciation. Are your parents brimming with pride?
My parents both have the souls of artists but never had the opportunity to do or the luxury to pursue that. I think they're proud because my brother and I gone on to do exactly what we've wanted to do and we haven't squandered the opportunity.

What would you say to young people who have found their inner music geek and are just starting out?
I would say it's just so important to focus on why you want to do music and what you want to do with it. These days, people get so obsessed with making it and getting that record deal or getting some level of fame or being on telly. Find that part of yourself that wants to make music for the joy of it. Then find those skills, whether it's playing a harp or flute, and keep doing it and doing it. I would say use all the tools at your disposal. Use MySpace, use Twitter, use Facebook and get the word of what you're doing out there and just do it! Don't think you have to wait for some TV personality to scoop you up; don't think that you have to wait for the record label or this validation. If you've got something to say, work out how to say it in the most passionate and pure way possible.

The Pursuit (Universal) is out in late March, with an Australian tour slated for April.