“It was really wonderful. He looked totally confused that he wasn’t being asked about Metallica or his mental health,” is how Jamie Cullum remembers having heavy metal maestro Lars Ulrich on his radio show. “He proved he was a proper, genuine jazz fan, and half-way through he said, ‘Man, I’m really enjoying this.’ He was really surprised.”
As are we. This does not appear at first glance a natural pairing of musical soul mates - Cullum, nearest this country has to a proper jazz-pop star, with his comforting, warm, mellow sound, and Ulrich, legendarily combative, mercurial drummer with the world’s most successful head-bangers. But, for Cullum, this was a pleasurable return to the sound that first punctuated his rural youth.
“I was that 15-year-old, head-banging at a Pantera concert,” he explains, chatting in a quiet pub, closed to all but this local legend. “A lot of the music I fell in love with first was hard rock and heavy metal, and 15 - Nirvana, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix. I saw a great musicality in it, and I graduated to jazz through that, because they were also playing fast and very technically. It was never about the front man, always the guitar solo.”
Cullum remembers being much influenced by his late grandfather, a poetry-writing, violin-playing, incredibly tall maverick. “Meanwhile, I was this 12-year-old who looked five,” is how Cullum remembers his younger self, with great affection. “I was an absolute idiot, wearing polo-necks, reading Kerouac, watching Woody Allen movies, and jazz fitted right into all of that. My interest in that whole world became very genuine, but perhaps started off a bit affected – a mixture of right and wrong reasons. I was always drawn to non-commercial music, perhaps pathologically so. Now I can love R Kelly and not be embarrassed.”
If the notice of a wider audience came via television host Michael Parkinson’s patronage – having Cullum regularly on his show – the young musician almost failed to notice it. By then, his vague 20-year plan consisted only of making good sounds and getting a gig at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho. But things soon changed, as his CDs started walking out of the shops.
“I had no idea what was going on,” is how Cullum remembers that time. “I was working on a cruise ship, and my brother called to say my tracks were on the radio.”
Sharing that journey from jazz clique to mainstream success was Cullum’s friend Amy Winehouse, and it clear he remembers her in equal fondness and absolute musical respect:
“She’s someone I came up with, and I was around her and her music so much, and heard so much of it in its gestational period. I remember when she was supporting me, her album Frank came out, and I said ‘she’s going to outsell every single one of us by millions and millions one day’, and it was a rare occasion when I was proved right. She was one of those people I was around who made me realise how much work I had to do, and still do. And she’d tell me that as well!”
And put the work in he has. Fast forward a decade, and here we are – Cullum preparing his sixth album, working on his weekly radio show and ensconced in family life with his wife, cookery writer and former model Sophie Dahl, and their baby daughter Lyra. So, is it still possible to tap into that polo-necked prodigious creativity?
“Now I have other demands on my time that are not flexible, I just can’t wander into the studio at 2am like I used to,” Cullum acknowledges. “If I have an idea in the middle of the night, I will go and get the bare bones down, but mostly you can learn to tame it to your needs. Going into the studio knowing you’ve got three hours gives you more purpose, that’s quite good for me because, left to my own devices, I can be quite haphazard. And I think that whole belief that it’s all inspiration is a misunderstanding – everyone has to sit there and bash it out like you’re on a building site.
“You have to accept that there are those times when you’re playing piano all day and nothing happens, and they’re just as important. It’s all part of it. You’ve got to turn up to fish.
“Plus, a huge business side takes over. That can make it harder because now when I’m writing music, it’s not just about the tune, it’s about where and if it will fit on my next album. So I think it’s important to put aside thinking about what anything is for, and instead just doing it.”
One case of “just doing it” is his weekly radio show – “something I love, but had no idea how difficult it was to do, I’m still a complete novice”. Another was the soundtrack to Gran Torino, which meant working with Clint Eastwood and his son to Golden Globe-nominated effect. If this is my first sniff of my suspicion that Cullum’s life is far more glamorous than he would admit, he is quick to reject any suggestion that he might have scaled the walls of Hollywood.
“I was completely ignored at the Golden Globes. The only person who wanted to talk to me on the red carpet was Fearne Cotton. And because we’d worked so quickly on the music, I hadn’t even seen the film, and I was answering all these questions about it, just hilarious. So the next day, with an immense hangover, Sophie and I went to queue up, buy tickets and see it at the cinema – so glamorous!”
A supermodel wife, an invitation to the Golden Globes - ignored or not - doesn’t seem to fit with the original 20-year plan Cullum had for himself. How does he stay down to earth and at the keyboard?
“Making a debut album seems so easy now. The challenge is to keep people interested in my music, which means getting better at what I’m doing. I’m not a nervous, neurotic person, but it is inherently dealing with a part of your soul and putting it out there. And of course I want to push myself further.
“My pure love is playing music. Walking into a room with great musicians is still more fun than anything else I can think if. . Anything that seems super-glamorous, as you go through your career, you realise that much of that other stuff is a bit flaky, which is fine. But the music, that part is not flaky, and it always gives me what I need, really.”