He owns his own pub in London and, by his own admission, has downed plenty of pints, first as a soldier, then as a pop star.
So James Blunt seems like the perfect choice to present new reality series Beer Masters, which challenges five teams of home brewers to create their own ale inspired by the iconic beers of Europe.
Well, sort of. ‘I really thought I’d died and gone to heaven,’ says James of the new gig, his first TV presenting role. ‘This is my dream job, even if my technical knowledge is limited to a bit of home brewing as a student and my knowledge of beers is limited to drinking them. I’ve certainly had a fair amount of experience. I’ve spent 17 years on a tour bus which is basically a mobile bar that never runs out of beer. And soldiers have a pretty good reputation for drinking, too.’
With that, James, who shot to fame in 2005 when his first single You’re Beautiful spent five weeks at No 1, is leaving the judging to those far more qualified, such as the head brewers from Camden Town Brewery and Stella Artois, while his co-host Jaega Wise is a beer sommelier.
He owns his own pub in London and, by his own admission, has downed plenty of pints, first as a soldier, then as a pop star. So James Blunt (pictured) seems like the perfect choice to present new reality series Beer Masters, which challenges five teams of home brewers to create their own ale inspired by the iconic beers of Europe
Across five episodes, pressure builds as the teams brew different styles of beer. They’ll learn the processes, history and culture behind top European brands then head back to their home breweries to work on their concoctions.
The teams will also be set a ‘serve challenge’ in each episode, from designing their own beer label to developing accompanying dishes. Each week, a beer will be awarded gold and a place in the final and the overall winners will see their beer launched and sold commercially.
‘It’s a competition dedicated to the love of beer,’ says James. ‘It’s celebrating the finest beers Europe has to offer and finding out what makes them. What the teams create in their kitchens and sheds is phenomenal.’
James bought his own pub, the Fox & Pheasant in Chelsea, with his wife Sofia Wellesley in 2017 to save it from property developers and has since transformed the dilapidated boozer into a local gem.
‘It was so bad it used to be called The Fox & Unpleasant,’ he laughs. ‘I’ve invested a lot of love and time and we now brew our own Fox & Fez ale, a fantastic beer loved by all the locals. I try and get down there three times a week. The staff are obviously slightly embarrassed by me and try and keep me pot-washing downstairs. I’m occasionally allowed behind the bar to pull pints.’
Despite the fact he has two No 1 albums, four Top Ten singles and has sold over 20 million albums, he jokes that we’d all had enough of him after You’re Beautiful became a global hit.
Yet this month, he risks more opprobrium by releasing a new single, Love Under Pressure, one of four new songs to appear on a greatest hits album, Stars Beneath My Feet (2004-2021).
James (pictured) bought his own pub, the Fox & Pheasant in Chelsea, with his wife Sofia Wellesley in 2017
In 1999, James (pictured) was deployed to Kosovo as part of a reconnaissance battalion targeting Serbian forces for NATO bombers
‘I wanted to call it Greatest Hit… And Songs I Wish You’d Heard,’ he laughs. ‘I wrote You’re Beautiful when I saw my ex-girlfriend on the Underground with her new boyfriend who I didn’t know existed. We passed each other, caught each other’s eyes, but didn’t do anything about it. I went home and wrote a song in about a minute and a half and I’ve cashed in on it ever since.’
He must be bored of the song now though, 17 years on? ‘No, as when I do a live show it’s not the only song I play. I see it as the biggest blessing of my life as it’s the cornerstone of my career. Without that song, I wouldn’t be doing world tours. I’d still be touring north London. My very first album had this phenomenal, socking great smash hit, how fortunate is that? Most musicians would kill for that. The Rolling Stones are still searching!’
He admits that the global success of You’re Beautiful was startling. ‘It was a little frightening when I got the phone call to say it was at No 1 and the album too because I’d never envisaged that. They say fame changes you but it doesn’t really – the rest of the world changes.’
MY BUSKING WITH BEAR
Among James’s first musical forays were busking jaunts with TV adventurer Bear Grylls, his friend at university.
‘It was a gentle mugging of people really. Bear and I would approach couples and ask their names. Then we’d sing a song about them – “When young John becomes a man, oh, well yes, when Ann becomes a lady, all she wants to do is have a baby”,’ recalls James. ‘We’d basically wear them down with this song until eventually they’d say, “Please, have 50p and let us go.” Bear and I are still in touch today and he’s a fantastic person.’
A young cub: James’s old pal, Bear Grylls
So how does he deal with critics? ‘If you’ve just played to tens of thousands of people and then you see one negative comment and your brain seems to be obsessing about that one comment, you’ve got to laugh at yourself,’ he says. ‘I generally feel very lucky. We put musicians on pedestals but we’re all court jesters.’
James has performed since restrictions lifted, will tour the UK next February and start his world tour in March. ‘As if the nation hadn’t suffered enough, the very first live show that was at full capacity was mine at the Royal Albert Hall back in July,’ he says. ‘I pity them, but they seem to be enthusiastic.’
Born in Hampshire, James lived the itinerant childhood of an Army child. His father was a helicopter pilot and his grandfather and great-grandfather were soldiers too. He was educated at Harrow School before studying for an aerospace engineering degree at Bristol on an Army bursary. He then began his military training at Sandhurst, rising to the rank of captain in the Life Guards.
‘When you leave university you can’t just pay back the loan and there wasn’t any desire to be in the Army. I had ambitions to be a musician, but I certainly wasn’t ready to do it when I left as I didn’t have the songs or inspiration. But I’m glad of the experience. It was a great education as I travelled the world in a tank with my team. Now my tank’s a tour bus; it’s slightly bigger and more comfortable.’
In 1999, he was deployed to Kosovo as part of a reconnaissance battalion targeting Serbian forces for NATO bombers. The eyes and ears of his commanders, he’d go out in advance, locate the enemy and report back – at just 5ft 7in, he found it easy to hide in the bushes. ‘It was a benefit to be slightly smaller,’ he says. ‘It was like a much more serious game of hide and seek, with obviously more serious consequences.’
He remembered to take his guitar with him to entertain fellow soldiers. ‘When you get sent to war, you take some home comforts. I took a guitar and strapped it to the outside of my tank as there was no room inside,’ he recalls. ‘I’d bring it out to lower morale… and it’s a pretty tough audience too.’
The guitar survived the war but sadly not the return. ‘I was recording some demos for EMI, and when I came out of the studio they were all saying, “You’re going to be a star.” I got on my motorbike with my guitar on my back, looking pretty cool for once in my life. They all waved me off so I saluted, revved my engine and rode off at 1mph but lost balance, fell over and smashed the guitar. Everyone laughed and I wasn’t signed.’
But he was signed by Linda Perry of Custard Records, an independent label in the States, who could see beyond the posh accent that worked against him at the outset of his career. ‘Linda’s an American lesbian who knows what it’s like to be prejudged,’ he says. ‘She certainly didn’t prejudge me on my accent, just the music, and I’m very lucky she did.’
His first two albums were written in the late Carrie Fisher’s home with Joni Mitchell and the children of Paul Simon and John Lennon regularly passing through. He met Carrie in London through his ex-girlfriend Dixie Chassay, a casting director; when he travelled to LA to record his first album, Carrie offered him her Beverly Hills mansion to live in.
‘I lived with her while I wrote and recorded my albums in her bathroom. She was a remarkable human being. To be in such a creative house, which reflected her creative mind, was a huge influence on me. My first album is called Back To Bedlam – a result of being in the bedlam of that house,’ he says.
His single, Make Me Better, which appeared on his fifth album was written with his close friend Ed Sheeran, who also loves beer. The duo earned notoriety when they claimed a cut Ed had on his face was caused by Princess Beatrice wielding a sword in a mock knighthood at a party at her home Royal Lodge – although they later admitted they’d made the whole thing up and the princess wasn’t even there. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ laughs James. ‘All I know is that I deserve to be knighted and someone, or something, has got in the way.’
THE KING OF TWITTER
James has made a name for himself with some hilarious putdowns to his detractors on Twitter. Here are some of the best…
I cannot stand James Blunt.
Have a seat. I have that effect on people.
I thought James Blunt died.
I did, but you’ll NEVER guess what happened on the third day!?
Who invited James Blunt to the Invictus Games?
Prince Harry. By text. BOOM!
Is there one single James Blunt fan out there?
Most of them are single.
No one really likes James Blunt, right?
Yeah, I bought those 20 million albums myself.
Why have you only got 200k followers?
Jesus only needed 12.
Does anyone else hate James Blunt’s voice?
I never liked the sound of my own voice. Till it made me rich.
He also fooled people into believing he was playing at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding. Speculation accumulated after he edited his Wikipedia page to say he was a ‘classically trained church organist’. ‘I was,’ he chuckles. ‘Look at my Wikipedia page, it’s clear and Wikipedia’s the truth.’
When it comes to real matters of royalty, James is unequivocally serious. ‘For my last two years in the Army, I was based in London with the Horse Guards, the ceremonial guard to the Queen.’ He also stood guard over the Queen Mother’s coffin as she lay in state. ‘That was a huge honour to be part of and very moving at the same time,’ he says.
His music career saw him have a playboy lifestyle with fast cars and links to glamorous women like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and model Petra Nemcova. Things are different since he married Sofia, granddaughter of the eighth Duke of Wellington, in 2014. They have two sons and live in Ibiza, where he drives an imported tuk-tuk.
‘I moved there because I like nightclubs,’ he says. ‘Getting married hasn’t slowed us down, it’s sped us up! We both have the notion that life is for living so we fill it with as much as we possibly can. I have a nightclub at the end of my garden called Nightclub, Where Everybody’s Beautiful. People think I’m a taxi driver in my tuk-tuk; they look at me and say, “It’s you. Oh God… What has happened?!”’
Although James is back performing, he enjoyed extended family time during lockdown.
‘There were devastating moments, but there were some positives. I went home to Ibiza, which I hadn’t done properly for 17 years,’ he says. ‘I went back and discovered things I didn’t know existed, like my children! I was sent home and designated non-essential. I thought that was a wonderfully grounding moment for myself and everyone in the music business. We are non-essential.’
Beer Masters is on Amazon Prime now and The Stars Beneath My Feet (2004-2021) is released on Friday.