The man his troops knew as Capt. James Blount spent four years in the British Army, some of it doing reconnaissance in Kosovo, and some of it in the Queen's Life Guard, riding beside her carriage with practiced stoicism.
Now he's a singer whose expressive No. 1 hit, "You're Beautiful" - a soundtrack staple on "Grey's Anatomy" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" - can be heard all over the radio dial.
Military experience is not a common part of the résumé of a pop star, if that is indeed what Blunt is. (He dropped the "o" for his stage name.) Thinking back to previous military-to-music transitions, there's Elvis Presley (who actually served in the military after he was a star) and "Hendrix,'' pipes in Blunt, on the phone from England. "He was a paratrooper.''
Not bad company, but Blunt bears no other similarity to either star. The songwriter makes yearning, delicate, emotional, piano-based music that will likely appeal to fans of Elliot Smith, Damien Rice, Nick Drake, or early Elton John.
Blunt comes from a family tradition of military service, and he credits the Army for exposing him to places where safety, food, and shelter aren't taken for granted. But his debut CD, "Back to Bedlam," is more concerned with love than war.
"I guess as a songwriter you draw on any life experience,'' the affable, quick-talking Blunt says. "On this album there are 10 songs, and 1-1/2 relate to my [previous] job. The others are pretty well balanced about my other life experiences."
Released late in 2004 in his home country, Blunt's debut disc went on to become Britain's bestselling album of 2005. It's at No. 5 on Billboard's chart at present and, just last week, was certified platinum in the US. All this mania was sparked by a pre-Christmas gig on "Saturday Night Live,'' and the success of "You're Beautiful,'' a ballad that reached No. 1 in the Billboard singles chart this week. (It's the first chart-topping song by a British artist since 1997.) Another love song, "High," is the second single. In Blunt's songs, romance certainly crashes - often rapturously - on the rocks. Is Blunt ultrasensitive to love's travails?
"I don't think so, no," he replies. "I think everyone, genetically, would have it built in them to try at some point to share life with someone ... so it's somewhere in my mind. But I don't think I'm over-emotional. You'd probably find other people who say I'm relatively emotionally stunted. Like ex-girlfriends."
"Goodbye My Lover'' is a particularly wrenching farewell to someone he still cares deeply about. "I guess it's [a feeling] that anyone can relate to, whether you've lost anyone, be they alive or not," says Blunt. "It's one of the most incredible, strong feelings of being torn away from someone, especially, perversely, if they're still alive and just out of reach."
The title of Blunt's CD, "Back to Bedlam,'' refers to the infamous London asylum. "For me it was the notion of the mind and the things that are usually kept trapped or locked away in the prison cell of your own mind - ideas or thoughts you don't usually discuss with people," he says. "It's kind of introverted, reflective, isn't it?"
Fans of songwriters such as Blunt often read too much into their lyrics. For instance, Morrissey, the revered former singer of the Smiths, is not at all the mopey character of his songs; he's more a clever, combative sort off stage. Something similar might be said about Blunt. People who listen to his melodies often think they need to console him. "The topics that I write about seem very serious, although I don't think they're necessarily miserable. I think they do have a sense of hope - melancholy with a sense of hope.''
Blunt's military time included stints abroad, and he is about to embark on another tour of duty overseas. He begins his first US tour March 14 in New York, a sold-out run of 21 medium-size theaters. He'll bring a quartet with him and hopes to unveil some new material. But he also plans to rest on his laurels to some extent.
"I don't find it that frustrating playing the [older] songs," says the singer. "One of the reasons I'm looking forward to coming to the States is it is a new audience: They're all new songs to them."