Linda Perry, the prolific producer and songwriter for Pink, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani and others, was in London to get a jolt of inspiration from the city’s trendsetting music scene when a friend slipped her a demo from an unknown singer-songwriter.
It was poorly produced and Perry deemed it mediocre as a whole. Yet the scratchy tenor and lyrical content left Perry transfixed when she heard it three years ago.
“Anybody with an ear could hear that this guy was amazing,” says Perry, who maintained her poker face while she was listening but recalls “kicking my manager under the table like, ‘Oh my God!”’
Now the rest of the world knows why Perry was so riveted. The singer on that demo, James Blunt (whom Perry signed to her fledgling label) has become music’s latest It Boy due to his soulful, stirring single, “You’re Beautiful.” The ballad, about a split-second encounter with a stunning woman that leaves him wondering what might have been, became a mainstay on adult contemporary formats before crossing over to top 40 radio, where it has become a top 20 hit.
“Every time we play it, we get phone calls and messages asking, ‘Who is it?”’ says Sharon Dastur, the assistant program director at pop station WHTZ-FM (Z-100) in New York City. “It’s just one of those songs that people are just so drawn to that people want to keep hearing it.”
But Blunt doesn’t want people to get too caught up in “You’re Beautiful” — because he thinks his debut album, “Back to Bedlam,” has a lot more to offer.
“It’s like a book, like 10 chapters,” he says of the disc, which was released last fall and is approaching gold status. “It seems sometimes ludicrous to sometimes focus on Chapter 4.”
Army experience inspired poignant songWhile the chapters on “Bedlam” may captivate, they may not be as interesting as some chapters in the 28-year-old Blunt’s life. He knew since he was a youth that he wanted to be a musician; he was trained in guitar, piano and violin and began writing songs at 14.
But instead of focusing on music full time when he became of age, he got a military scholarship and served four years in the British army after graduating from college. That led to him being stationed as a reconnaissance officer in Kosovo in 1999 as part of the NATO peacekeeping force.
Blunt’s experience in the war-torn territory inspired him to write the poignant track “No Bravery,” a wrenching account of the tragedy he saw during his time there. When asked about the experience, Blunt’s ocean-blue eyes signal that he’s weary of talking about the nugget of his background that has become so newsworthy. But he believes he managed to make a difference in people’s lives there.
“We were in a country where people were murdering each other and we were directly standing in between them and stopping them from murdering each other,” says Blunt. “Both Serbs and Kosovo Albanians, whose houses were there, whose lives we were defending, were really glad we were there.”
It was after he returned to Britain to serve out his military commitment that Blunt started seriously concentrating on his music — and it didn’t take him long to make golden connections. He caught the attention of Elton John’s management, who signed him up, and then later, the ear of Perry, who snagged him for her label, Custard Records, with the promise of complete artistic control.
He even managed to get his dream producer in Tom Rothrock (who’s worked with Beck and the late Elliott Smith).
“It was the best deal I could have possibly imagined, really,” says Blunt, who moved to Los Angeles to work on his debut.
But even before the album was finished, Blunt began to wonder if it would ever be heard. Custard Records had a distribution deal with Elektra, which underwent cutbacks and layoffs by its parent company, Warner Music Group in 2004, and was folded into Atlantic Records.
Blunt recalls not having enough money during the project. But he remained unflappable.
“My ambition was to make an album that I could hold up and say this one copy of the album documents the songs that I hear in my head,” he says. “I had made an album I really enjoyed — this is the most important thing to me.”
Perry didn’t handle the situation the same laid-back attitude, however (“I’m not the kind of person that waits around for something,” she says with a serious tone).
So she says she wrangled him from Elektra and had his album released on WMG’s East West label, which released “Back to Bedlam” overseas in the fall of 2004. After a slow build there, Blunt took off in his native Britain.
Perry expected the same scenario to occur in the United States as well — and has been pleasantly surprised that it’s “happening a lot faster than expected.”
Already, he’s gotten plum TV exposure on “Saturday Night Live” and the “Today” show, and if there was any question of his growing celebrity status, “O.C.” temptress Mischa Barton stars in his new video, “Goodbye My Lover.”
Dastur says unlike many other British acts, who’ve had difficulty in attaining success on American charts in recent years, Blunt has found a niche by offering an alternative to the hip-hop and rock on radio today.
“We’re definitely seeing a huge star emerging because not only is his singing, but the writing, the music is just so compelling,” she says.
And Perry, who compared him to Elton John, Neil Young and other greats, says the honesty in his music will help him carve out a career as vibrant as those legends.
“He just really is good. There’s no denying him, his passion, his voice, his character,” says Perry. “There’s something about the frequency in his voice ... that makes you just open up and accept it.”