Belfast Telegraph

Jamie Cullum: Working with Clint was the easiest thing I ever did

As he gears up to bring his brand of energetic jazz to Londonderry in May, musician Jamie Cullum tells Simon Fallaha why he really did feel lucky to have made sweet music with the Dirty Harry legend.

Most musicians, particularly one as highly-regarded and versatile as Jamie Cullum, are known for catching the musical bug at a very young age and retaining it throughout their lives. 

Unfortunately, for Jamie and his young family it's another kind of bug altogether which leads to us having to hastily reschedule our chat ahead of his appearance at the City of Derry Jazz Festival in May.

"It knocked us all down, one by one, but eventually, it was hilarious," a clearly recovered Jamie says of the stomach upset. "We were all more than a little weaker, and with two little ones around (daughters Lyra, 4, and two-year-old Margot), there was plenty of cleaning up to do. But we all came through it in the end."

Now, 35-year-old Jamie is much more optimistic as he nears his return to the Maiden City. On his previous visit to the former City Of Culture in 2013, the jazz-pop pianist and singer-songwriter jammed with the pupils of St Mary's College, receiving a rapturous reception, and filmed a BBC Radio 4 documentary entitled The Piano Pilgrimage.

This year marks Jamie's first time in the city as a performer, though, as on May 4 he takes centre-stage at the Millennium Forum to headline one of the premier events in Derry's musical calendar.

"The idea of coming back to the city was really precipitated by the making of the piano documentary," says Cullum. "I had such an enjoyable time there last time around, therefore, I decided that if I made one stop in the UK while touring this year, it would be in Londonderry. Their jazz festival is a great and growing festival, and after being so well received on my last visit, I really wanted to come back and be part of it."

Jamie admits he was more than pleasantly surprised by the city's cultural and creative ambience. "It didn't seem that way before I first came," he says. "When you've never visited a city like Londonderry, you're looking at it from the perspective of an outsider, who has to solely rely on the history he reads, watches or hears to learn about the place. And Londonderry's history contains a lot of conflict, which is a pity.

"But then, when you arrive in the city, you're proved completely wrong, because previously you didn't see the city as a whole. What you see from the outside is really only a tiny element of everything there. Similarly, when I went to Ethiopia I found there was a very creative climate. There's far more to the country than just famine."

Jamie's impending arrival here coincides with a very dark period for the arts in Northern Ireland, with organisations facing savage cuts to their budgets. Despite this, he does see a big future for music, particularly jazz.

"There's a place for music and creativity everywhere," he says. "I don't think it's a luxury, I think it's a necessity. Jazz, especially, is an amazing mixture of expertise and practise that can truly come alive on stage. Once you learn it and then abandon your inhibitions in an arena of improvisation, you've created something full of excitement. That's something that goes beyond sitting in a classroom - it's about doing it, and living it. To lose it would be extremely costly, but I don't think it will happen. The human spirit to create is far too strong."

Creation, music and high spirits were all characteristics you could definitely apply to Jamie when growing up. The son of a father who worked in finance and a secretary mother, Jamie, who graduated with First Class Honours in English Literature and Film Studies from the University of Reading, wanted to be a singer "as far back as (he could) remember". Yet he wasn't really convinced that he would make a living from music. Until the age of 19 or 20, that is.

"Even as I paid my way through university by being a musician," he says, "I actually thought I would be a writer, even a music reviewer. I was never the forceful or drama student-y sort. You wouldn't have seen me sing in front of the mirror, or push myself to be on stage. But even back then, I was playing music all the time, in about seven or eight bands."

As Jamie played on, his career gradually moved onwards - and upwards. After graduating he released Pointless Nostalgic, the bestselling album that caught the attention of one Michael Parkinson. It was the springboard for Jamie's appearance on Parkinson's chat show in 2003; he ended the year as the UK's biggest selling jazz artist ever, with his second studio album, Twentysomething, going platinum.

Five further albums have since followed, most recently 2014's Interlude, which features duets with Laura Mvula and Gregory Porter, amid countless tours, projects and more television appearances.

"I'm not one to play a typical set-list," Jamie says of his success as a performer. "What I do when I take to the stage is play what I feel like playing at the time. I also use musical 'tools' such as the stomp box and the looping machine in order to surprise, to be unpredictable. With me, you will see something unique, in which I hope the audience off stage will be as excited as the musicians onstage."

For five years, Jamie has been happily married to writer and former model Sophie Dahl. And it's apparent that her pedigree and background - most notably her famous maternal grandfather Roald, the children's author - have also had a positive artistic influence in his career.

"I find it very helpful that my wife is just as creative as me, for if the desire to do something inventive grabs hold of you, you become more determined to actually do it," he says. "But once you have children, creativity is not always an option. You must focus more on making time to be creative amid the time you need for parenthood.

"I think that being a father is both a plus and a crucial part of life, because you become less self-involved, more focused and much less worried about what other people think. It's definitely improved the way I work!"

A keen photographer too - he says that one of the reasons he fell in love with jazz what its association with the iconic black-and-white photography of the time - Jamie has also parlayed his love of music into a weekly show on BBC Radio 2, which he sees as an extension of what he's passionate about.

"The show isn't about my music. It's about channelling my love of other people's music into something I can do for my listeners through radio. I really got into music because I was a listener; it wasn't until 12 or 13 that I played the piano properly."

His love for music has also spawned a series of collaborations, perhaps most famously with Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood (above). Jamie would co-write and duet with the legendary actor and director on the titular track for the 2008 film Gran Torino, garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song in the process.

"Working with Clint Eastwood was amazing," says Jamie. "We actually recorded Gran Torino in his front room, with the car of the same name outdoors. In a weird way, it was the easiest thing I ever did, because he was so trusting of my abilities. Composing and playing the song was something I could just grab at and run with. He's funny, disarmingly chilled and also a great musician, just like his son Kyle (who performed at last year's City Of Derry Jazz Festival). Jazz runs in the blood of that family."

Music runs in the blood of Jamie's musician brother Ben, too, who Jamie cites as his biggest influence in the profession. "He went through electronic and metal phases while I was in my teens, and those rubbed off on me. But also, at the age of 15, I had an eye-opening summer. I saw Ben Folds Five, Harry Connick Jr, Radiohead and many more, besides reading Jack Kerouac and listening to a Tom Waits record someone gave to me.

"All of those things had a permanent effect on me - Harry Connick's crooning, Radiohead's rock, Tom Waits' jazz, you name it. It was a massive cataclysm back then, and it still is today."

  • Jamie Cullum plays the Millennium Forum, Londonderry, on Monday, May 4. For details on this and other shows in the festival, visit www.cityofderryjazzfestival.com

Striking right note on the silver screen ...

Jamie Cullum's far from the only popular musician to lend his musical talent to the world of film. Other significant collaborations between filmmakers and popular musicians include ...

Badly Drawn Boy - the artist also known as Damon Gough was chosen to compose and perform the entire soundtrack for the 2002 film adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel About A Boy, starring Hugh Grant. Hornby has since discussed, in 31 Songs, how much Gough's song A Minor Incident meant to him

Kevin Shields - the My Bloody Valentine frontman penned and performed five songs on the soundtrack for Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost In Translation. It was later named as the 22nd Greatest Soundtrack of All Time by Rolling Stone

Alex Turner - six original songs from the Arctic Monkeys' lead singer served as a musical backdrop to Submarine, The IT Crowd star Richard Ayoade's debut feature.

Released as Turner's first solo EP, the songs reached Number 35 in the UK album charts

Jonny Greenwood - Radiohead's lead guitarist and keyboard player has scored three films by Hollywood director Paul Thomas Anderson - There Will Be Blood, The Master and Inherent Vice. Greenwood is also composer-in-residence of the BBC Concert Orchestra

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