Interview: Jamie Cullum

The jazz musician on hanging out with Amy Winehouse and waking up with Sophie Dahl

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Why would pint-sized, piano-twanging jazz sensation Jamie Cullum get involved in another talent-spotting contest after the chastening experience of being a judge on last year’s short-lived Sky1 reality show Must Be the Music? And not just any old talent show – but one that’s a marketing exercise for a pizza chain.

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With five million record sales worldwide, heaps of critical acclaim, a supermodel wife and a hugely popular Radio 2 show, he can’t be doing it for the money?

“I got involved because this particular venue, and also all the little restaurants I’ve played up and down the country, have given me a great deal,” replies the Essex-born, Wiltshire-raised singer/songwriter.

Long before he met and married Sophie Dahl, Cullum was just another struggling muso. In the wake of a move to London after graduating from Reading University, for four years, “I was doing four or five nights a week at Pizza Expresses around the country – just turning up with my keyboard, playing for 50 quid and a pizza and a Peroni. So they did have this link to live music.”

“This particular venue” is the restaurant chain’s flagship eatery in Soho, central London. We’re sitting in the venue’s basement Jazz Club. The winner of “The Big Audition”, on which Cullum leads the judging panel, receives £5,000 and a gig in this hallowed, bijou space.

“Plus, I got signed down here,” says the 32-year-old, looking around the dark, low interior whose walls are adorned with pictures of jazz legends. “Universal and Sony came to see me perform here, and after that they started a bidding war.”

He’s seen all the greats here: Van Morrison, Diana Krall, Charlie Watts, Norah Jones and Sting. The venue also has personal significance for his drummer: “Brad Webb is fit” it says in graffiti on the wall of the dressing room. It was written by Amy Winehouse, in whose band Webb used to play.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, to be honest,” Cullum says quietly of Winehouse’s death, which happened not long before our meeting. “I spoke to her quite recently, funnily enough. It was just a text, you know…” he adds, tailing off, loath to divulge details. The two were both signed to Universal, and Winehouse supported him in concert in the early days. He pulls out his iPhone and shows me a photo of the two of them cosying up for the camera at the Brit Awards in 2005.

“It’s so easy to say these things, but I remember listening to [her first album] Frank and thinking, ‘Holy s***, I’m so behind’ – in the sense that she was someone doing a jazzy thing but also, just lyrically, she was light years ahead of anything I was doing.

“I remember feeling really quite overwhelmed in her presence. Another amazing memory I have is after the South Bank Show Awards [in 2007]. We’d been hanging out and we were in the Savoy afterwards. And she went to the piano bar and we played standards together for hours. Having the opportunity to see her at those close quarters, singing all those classics… amazing.”

Is there any song of hers that he particularly rates? “Love Is a Losing Game. It’s like a standard. If you’d told me Gershwin had written that, I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Well, he would have been, but only because Jamie Cullum knows his jazz and Great American Songbook onions. He wears his knowledge and enthusiasm lightly on his weekly Radio 2 jazz show. He initially took the slot for six weeks after the death of Humphrey Lyttelton in 2008 “out of respect for someone I’d listened to my whole life”. Since then he’s made the show his own, broadcasting from festivals around the world, hosting live sessions, and interviewing guests ranging from Clint Eastwood to Pat Metheny and jazz-loving Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

“My worry was that people would think I was doing it because I had decided my music career wasn’t working and I needed another avenue!” he smiles. “But hopefully there’s a certain group of people who can think of me as someone who can introduce them to music they might not necessarily have been into before.”

He says that writing on his next album, the follow-up to 2009’s The Pursuit, continues apace, and he hopes to begin recording this month or next, after finishing a run of summer concerts. All things considered, it’d be a heavy workload, even if we didn’t factor in the knowledge that Cullum is a new dad: model-turned-author and cookery-show presenter Dahl gave birth to Lyra six months ago.

Is he having to work on his new music at home, you know, quietly? “Well, I’ve always had somewhere to play music wherever I’ve lived, and where we live now we have a music room with a piano and a drum kit and basic recording set-up, so I can get ideas down. So I’m not disturbing the baby. But of course,” he grins, “being the person I am, I do have instruments in most rooms. So she has been exposed to me playing a great deal, and she seems to like it a lot! Which is great. Thank God! Can you imagine if she didn’t?”

Does Lyra share the wildly catholic tastes of a father who, at a secret show on the evening of our interview, demonstrates his range by singing Jimi Hendrix, Rihanna and Radiohead covers? During the 90-minute set, Cullum also pays heartfelt tribute to Winehouse with a version of Love Is a Losing Game, followed by a tribute to another died-too-soon star, Jeff Buckley. In a cool display of his showman’s musicianship, Cullum segues straight from the Winehouse song into a beautiful rendition of the ill-starred American’s song, Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.

But as to the question of baby Lyra’s embryonic musical enthusiasms, Cullum laughs. “She likes weird Chinese music that comes out of weird toys. The kind of thing you really can’t listen to again but she seems to really like. High frequency stuff. The Fender Rhodes, the sound at the top end, the tinkly stuff, is the frequency that works best for them. It’s fascinating seeing them process stuff like that.”

I tell him that for a busy newbie father he doesn’t look too knackered. “I’ve been groomed!” he jokes, gesturing at the busy clutter of pizza PRs, musical technicians and camera crews fluttering around in this darkened basement in readiness for his gig. And no, the missus isn’t letting him sleep in the spare room through the night feeds.

“No, no, I’ve been there!” he insists – it’s all jazz-hands on deck when it comes to looking after their newborn. “But remember: I’ve slept on a tour bus for many years.” Wee hours sessions, broken nights and the wailing of newcomers – Cullum can handle them all.

Visit pizzaexpress.com/thebigaudition to vote for your favourite act

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Listen to Jamie Cullum, Tuesdays at 7pm on Radio 2