Jamie Cullum on Billy Joel, Sufjan Stevens + His New LP, ‘Interlude’
Jazz may have been born in America, but the U.K.'s Jamie Cullum has been bringing the genre to new, bigger audiences for over a decade.
Not only does he have six albums under his belt, he's also played various notable festivals including Glastonbury, Coachella and SXSW. Influenced by everything from rock to pop to hip-hop, Cullum has been able to take these sounds and infuse them into his music. While he's known for his own original work, like 2013's 'Momentum,' he has decided to go the traditional jazz route on his new record, 'Interlude,' which hit the streets on Tuesday (Jan. 27) via Blue Note Records.
Taking us back to the standards of the genre, he covered Nina Simone's 'Don't Let Me Be Understood' with Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter. But being the type of artist that likes to bend the rules a bit, Cullum also went for more recent songs and put his own twist on Sufjan Stevens' 'The Seer's Tower.' He also recorded the album live like how it was done in the past.
"One of the songs on the album is 'Don't You Know,'" he tells us. "The producer was still setting up the mics, and he said, 'Why don't you run something down?' Because when you record it live, you can't change the sound so much in the production process. So I let everyone play and didn't even realize we did a take because we were really just trying something out. And we were just rehearsing and didn't know that they were actually recording. I sung it once then went to the control room and said, 'OK, we can record it.' And [the producer] said, 'You just did a cut.' It was a very casual and unforced way of recording things."
Cullum took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about the making of 'Interlude,' touring with Billy Joel and his one resolution for 2015. Check out our exclusive conversation below:
What's your favorite part about touring in the states?
There is always something special about coming to the U.S., especially as a musician. There is a culture of live music where you don't necessarily have to know exactly who the artist is or have heard of the album. I think there are a lot of people in [the U.S.] who genuinely go out to live shows to seek out new music. I really love it and find it to be a very welcoming country to travel to, and I eat more when I'm here as well.
What are some of your favorite U.S. cities?
Well, I haven't been here so much. There are so many places that I love going to, from Louisville, Ky. to Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., and then there are certain bars I like. Where are you calling me from?
I'm in New York.
Well, New York is a different beast, isn't it? It's so different from anywhere else in the states. There are record stores I love in New York and restaurants I love. I have a pocket of friends there so it feels like I'm coming home -- my wife has family there as well, so coming to the U.S. is now for a lot of reasons. We can see some family in New York, and we can spend some time in Los Angeles for the nice weather.
You're Billy Joel's opening act and already did a few gigs with him. How do you feel sharing the stage with him? Was there anything that you learned from seeing him onstage?
Yeah, so much. If you sit down and play the piano and sing, you're immediately indebted to Billy Joel, Elton John and many other people. Billy Joel is someone that I listened to a lot and loved in the past anyway. First of all, opening for him has been a dream and playing Madison Square Garden was a major way to kick off. I've been playing at a pretty high level for 12 years now so I didn't realize just how nervous I would actually feel to be opening for Billy Joel. But I did it and have done a few shows on this tour now, and it's been an amazing experience playing a big venue.
I think the main thing I took away from him apart from how one can have so many hit songs is that he makes an enormous arena feel like a small venue. He makes it so intimate. There's not much happening on the stage. There's no choreography, but you are rooted to that spot, listening to the songs and you feel like you're in his front room. To get that level of intimacy is a real gift, especially when you're making people feel like they're in a small room when they aren't in a small room.
Let's chat about your new album, 'Interlude.' It's been out in the U.K. and just hit stores in the U.S. this week. What can fans expect from this record compared to your past work?
It's more of a jazz record. I haven't made a jazz record like this in a long time, but this is a much more live album that focuses on the jazz repertoire and playing. I think it's a lot like a lot of the things I've been listening to recently. I have a radio show in the U.K. that I do once a week, so I get to listen to a lot of new jazz stuff -- the stuff I've been listening to has been very clean and very crisp sounding. I wanted to record something that sounds dirty and a bit bluesy and filthy. I went into the studio with some collaborators I met whilst on the show, and we recorded the whole thing live on the floor in two and a half days -- all fully live, not fully planned, keeping all the mistakes in. You can even hear what we're drinking when we're making it. It's got quite a dirty feel to it in the sense that it's imperfect. Although it's a traditional sounding jazz record, it's through the eyes of a bunch of English boys who kind of love it without having the same weight in the history of it.
Jazz has so many different interpretations. What is jazz music to you?
When you go see jazz music, you're experiencing musicians play music that sounds familiar. But they're all playing it in a different way. So when you see it, there's something fresh every night. But in my situation, really over the years, I've become more of a singer-songwriter, and getting back to this has been a real thrill and just a way of singing in this jazz way, which I haven't done in a while.
Nostalgia 77 became an integral part of this project. How did they get involved?
I've been a fan of these guys for about 10 years. So when I met them and interviewed them for my radio show, we got along very quickly. Ben Lamdin, the producer, grew up in the same musical way. So we both fell in love with jazz through sampled music -- we're both kind of geeky record collectors. And I kind of grew up singing in pop bands and rock bands and didn't get into jazz until later, and he came up in a similar way. So we had a similar perspective. And the musicians who I worked with, they were guys who pressed their own [vinyl]. They offer it in a really underground way. They have their own kind of theme, and they operate outside of any traditional musical structures. That really appealed to me as well.
When we got together in the studio, we didn't even imagine that it would be my next record. We were creating something for the pure joy of it, which is why I think it's been successful. It wasn't created with an audience in mind. It was created to do and make something cool, and what we did with it was decided on much later.
'Interlude' has a lot of classic jazz standards in it. How did the Sufjan Stevens' 'The Seer's Tower' make the cut?
I love Sufjan Stevens, and I listen to him a lot -- one of my great idols, I guess. And 'The Seer's Tower' is a very beautiful song. I just wrote the song down and didn't really have an idea if I would do it. But when we were in the studio Ben said I should do another Nina Simone track, 'The Ballad of Hollis Brown.' I wasn't sure about [covering] that, and he wasn't sure about 'The Seer's Tower.' And we're DJs as well, so we love mixing things. So we combined the sound and groove of the Nina Simone song with the lyrics and melody of the Sufjan Stevens track, and we kind of jammed it out in the studio. So what you hear is what we did during the jam session.
You've mentioned the BBC Radio 2 radio show that you do a few times now. How has that feel being on the other side?
For me, it's helpful as a musician. And I guess it's different, too, because I'm asking questions that I genuinely want to know the answer to. When I get to talk to my idols, I can ask them all the things I was always curious about from a musician's point of view. So I find it very inspiring. I see that all the great artists I admire all still work very hard on their technique and music. No one stops. Being a musician is being a lifelong student, and this album is a direct result of being inspired by those people.
Music aside, you also photograph and had an exhibit at the Leica Studio in London. What was the experience like having your own art show?
I was more nervous with this photo show because it was more like you're in the middle of the room with a bunch of strangers, and you're completely naked. It was a really odd experience, but I liked it. I'm a passionate amateur photographer and am studying for my degree, so I've actually studied it a little bit. I've always taken pictures, and I've always been very DIY about it. It seems to represent where I was coming from when I take my own pictures -- so that's what I did. I didn't think about it too much, but it went along with the whole vibe of the record. It felt very natural, and it's really representative of music as well.
With it still being early 2015, do you have any resolutions that you hope to keep this year?
I'd like to be a bit more organized. I'm a classic player-artist in certain ways. I'm extremely disorganized. And now I have two children, and it doesn't work to be disorganized because they are naturally disorganized because they are children. So I'd like to organize my life a bit when I get the chance. I'm not always coming and going. That's my main goal.
So the new album is out. You're on the road. You're going to get organized. What else is on the agenda this year?
I'm going to be recording a whole new bunch of original songs this spring and summer, and that will be my next record. Then I go back and do another standards album, then another original album. It's a good way to stay fresh and excited about the music.
Jamie Cullum's latest album, 'Interlude,' is out now via Blue Note Records. You can pick it up -- and check out Cullum's complete tour itinerary -- at his official website here.