What’s that saying about the pram in the hallway being the enemy of creativity? Or, at least, a trip-hazard?
Jamie Cullum is having none of that. When his wife gave birth to their daughter in early 2011, the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist was, naturally, overwhelmed. He and Sophie Dahl, the writer and model, had married the previous year. Their young family was already blooming. How could he not be inspired?
Cullum had previously filled his life with performing, recording and writing. While studying English and Film at Reading University, he made his debut album, Heard It All Before. Post-graduation and in the wake of the release of the self-financed Pointless Nostalgic (2001), he’d spent most of his twenties travelling and touring and collaborating, first ripping up the jazz rulebook, then later following his muse wherever it took him. That meant collaborations with everyone from Pharrell Williams to Los Angeles production maestro Greg Wells, and genius reimaginings of tracks by Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Buckley, as well as of jazz standards aplenty. It meant working non-stop for seven years as he promoted major label debut Twentysomething (2004) then the follow-up Catching Tales (2005).
Then with 2009's The Pursuit, that all-consuming musical passion meant touring the world tirelessly, winning over global corner after global corner, notably America and multiple geographical nooks and crannies therein (“good evening Birmingham, Alabama!”).
Life was music, life was rich, life was good.
Enter, happily, brilliantly, fatherhood.
“Suddenly, I had a lot less time!” Cullum, smiles. “So the feature of this new record that persisted throughout the making of it was: not thinking.”
This, of course, doesn’t equate with “not caring”.
“I didn’t think about what was expected of me, what I should do, what my fans were going for. I had a studio – well, a room at home. I had instruments set up. And I just went in there almost entirely on my own. I would sit behind unfamiliar instruments – like the drums – and just start writing. I wrote two songs making a beat on my phone. I wrote a song on the ukelele. It was the things that were at hand rather than painstakingly tracking down the right kit and players that I needed to do that particular jazz song…
“It was very much finding that hour that I had spare, and just getting on with it… And,” he says with a slightly alarmed look, “I’m only starting to worry about it now!”
This, of course, is that point in the biography where we’re meant to say, “he needn’t have worried…” Well, ah, seriously, that is kinda the case.
Jamie Cullum’s sixth album is the sound of a man both at peace with himself and in playful, creative battle with his inspirations. For the first time he’s recorded with his live band; for the first time he’s written most of the songs himself, with the occasional help of his brother Ben. And never before has he used, in the case of many of the songs, the original easy-going, DIY home demos as the blueprint for the finished articles. For a while iPhone apps and cassette recorders were his go-to “instruments”. It’s also, probably, the first Cullum album that was largely penned while the artist was in his pyjamas.
This new album is called Momentum with good reason: it’s the pop-filled sound of on artist on a creative role, bursting with ideas and inspirations, and allowed full creative reign by his new label, Island.
"After I moved label, I did wonder whether I should just go in and cut an album of jazz standards - in some ways what the wider world expects of me." he reflects. "But it just felt like the wrong time to do that. I've always acted on instinct and my gut told me to focus more on my songs this time around." And Sophie said to me, ‘go in this room that you’ve set up and have fun. And don’t think about sweating your writing at this stage. Why do that? Just go and have fun.’ So I literally did,” he grins.
Out in their rural home, Cullum - in all the right ways - let himself go. “And fun for me is going in there and beating shit out of the drums for an hour.”
Appropriately, Momentum begins with the thumping beat of The Same Things. Cullum acknowledges that the song is a declaration of intent. “It falls between my love of New Orleans jazz and Beyoncé, with a screaming organ solo in the middle. The chaos and fuzz of a beat-up transistor organ seems more appropriate at the moment than a tender piano solo!" he says, adding that the funk-filled party vibes of Anyway – produced by Lily Allen collaborators Future Cut – was written in two speedy hours and features more rootling swagger of Farfisa “The moments of keyboard soloing are all raucous and juke-joint, like I heard in the kind of places I encountered in the American south on tour – that more visceral blues and New Orleans end of jazz.”
Much closer to home is a song like Sad Sad World. It began life on a train journey into London, with the electronic beat and part of the keyboards being completed before he pulled into Marylebone Station. He describes the song “as the beating heart of the album” – its reflective, melancholy-tinged lyric in fact “makes me very happy when I hear it ’cause it reveals a new level of understanding of myself and the people around me."
At the other end of the vibes spectrum is When I Get Famous. It was recorded with big band zip, party-on clamour and big, louche, echoey vocals from Cullum in the London studio of cult young jazz producer and vinyl champion Nostalgia 77. “He’s so punk in the way he does it,” nods Cullum approvingly.
In an album bristling with pop songs, picking the first single was always going to be hard. The inspired rerub of Cole Porter’s Love For Sale has already been released as a teaser. It incorporates a sample from Roots Manuva’s Witness (1 Hope) (“I always put that tune on my compilations”), a rap from the man himself, and live production from San Francisco’s Dan The Automator.
That spirit of adventure and brio is also evident in Everything You Didn’t Do and Edge Of Something. The infectious, singalong former was initially sketched out with Cullum sitting behind his drumkit; lyrically the latter, with pounding piano and sweeping strings, is about “learning not to run away from things that really mean something”.
With Momentum – and by channelling momentum – Jamie Cullum is enjoying a newfound musical freedom. Although, he acknowledges, “it is kind of a backwards musical freedom. In some ways I started out in a lot of people’s eyes playing pure jazz with an acoustic jazz quartet – so I was free of the shackles of the commercial music industry. But even back then I had strong desires to be more of a writer and make the production bigger and do things that were very contemporary.
“But because I never felt like I was a pop star, or I was anything like the people I saw on television, I’ve never really purely been able to go down that route…”
Doing the BBC radio programme has also served to open him up. He’s sat with Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis and Ahmad Jamal, rapt as they discuss their craft. “It just makes you realise how important it is to focus on exactly what you want to do when you’re an artist.”
It’s taken thoroughly modest, totally grounded Jamie Cullum a while to come round to the idea of thinking of himself as an artist. To be honest, he still squirms at the idea now, even if just the inspired covers he tackled during the sessions for Momentum – a James Blake-inspired tilt at Anthony Newley’s Pure Imagination (from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory), and a bold jazz rendering of Björk’s Unison – offer evidence aplenty of Cullum’s free-thinking artistry.
“I’ve always said, oh I just like to play music, I like jamming, and whatever comes out is the best… And that’s still the truth. But I‘ve started to think of myself now in terms of someone who creates stuff for a living. And I had to wait for that to come to me. So being able to distil something down to the simple hook of Everything You Didn’t Do or Edge Of Something or Sad Sad World – well, it’s actually been hard for me to come around to that more simple and direct way forward. But that’s exactly where I’m at right now. And it feels entirely correct and exciting.”
Like he said, he’s on a roll. He has momentum. And he won’t be stopping anytime soon – backed by his road-hardened band of brothers, Cullum can’t wait to perform these new songs around the world.
Inspired by the creative breadth of projects he was a part of since Catching Tales, and having liberated himself from the usual recording constraints of schedule, equipment and instruments when he built his own aptly-named Terrified Studios in London (a nod to his admitted intimidation in the face of technology), Cullum approached The Pursuit with a loose, experimental atmosphere that was only hinted at in his earlier albums. With recordings in hand from his new studio and his home kitchen (where he has dozens of keyboards so he can write & record when finding inspiration from two of his other great passions – cooking and eating), Cullum moved the project to Los Angeles for three months, recording the bulk of the album with veteran producer/musician Greg Wells (whose extensive resume includes work with Katy Perry, One Republic, Mika and Rufus Wainwright) and a stellar assortment of musicians, including members of Beck's band and the horn section that played on Michael Jackson's Thriller.
"It was intentional to work with a new producer and new musicians, and to record in a city that I didn't know that well," Cullum states. "I needed to frighten myself. Being in unfamiliar territory forced me to do things differently, and to operate on a hyper-sensitive, hyper-alert level. Having turned 30, I just felt like I needed to do something different."
Cullum's risk-taking approach to the recording sessions paid off, fostering an anything-goes vibe that yielded some of the most inventive arrangements and compelling performances of his career. "It was a very positive atmosphere," says Cullum, who plays piano, guitar, bass and organ on the album. "A lot of the tracks were just me and Greg Wells and an engineer. That continued to give it a homemade feel, and gave us the feeling that we could try anything."
Cullum's willingness to defy convention has served him well during his lifelong pursuit of musical fulfillment. He began playing piano and guitar at the age of eight; in his mid teens, Cullum was in & out of rock bands playing guitar, drums and piano; he was also the drummer in a hip-hop combo, eventually finding his way back to jazz through the samples used in his favorite hip-hop recordings; and Cullum spent the end of his teen years living in Paris, where he honed his skills performing in local jazz clubs before going on to become the biggest-selling British jazz artist of all time. Cullum has won an enviable reputation as a magnetic live performer, playing freewheeling concerts that emphasize spontaneity and improvisation—and which rarely employ a set list.
The restless artistic spirit that animates The Pursuit is encapsulated by the album's title, which was inspired by Nancy Mitford's classic novel The Pursuit of Love. "It's my fiancé’s favorite book, and the line in 'Love Ain't Gonna Let You Down' that says 'The pursuit of love consumes us all' is a reference to that," Cullum explains. "The reason I made it the album title was that I've come to realize that life is one long pursuit. Being a musician is not about any obvious goal; it's about appreciating the journey as opposed to the destination.
"The artists I most admire," Cullum concludes, "are people like Miles Davis and Tom Waits, who make all kinds of different records, and change and evolve over the years, but still remain themselves. That's what I aspire to. I'm only about five per cent of the way there, but I've got time."