The Singer and the Song (Part I): Jamie Cullum

In this new three-part interview series, vocalist Nicky Schrire explores the intersection between the jazz and singer-songwriter genres. A jazz singer-songwriter herself, she often wonders what makes for a successful genre-blending song. And, inversely, when does an attempt at weaving song and story within the parameters of an improvised, jazz context fall short of the mark? 

Jazz has always been progressive when it comes to borrowing from other musical genres, be it Robert Glasper’s R&B-infused music or Lionel Loueke’s West African-influenced, delicately complex compositions. More recently, the hybridisation of jazz and the singer-songwriter genre has gained popularity, especially amongst jazz vocalists putting pen to paper. While the American Songbook tradition saw popular songwriters like the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin at the fore, this multi-hyphenate genre looks more to contemporary singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell for inspiration.

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For Part I of this series, Schrire chats to British vocalist, pianist and songwriter Jamie Cullum. Cullum is an award-winning musician whose early-career appearance on Parkinson sparked a bidding war for his sophomore album (the honours went to Universal Music). Cullum’s brand of jazz is often described as “pop-jazz” but Schrire still remembers the first time she heard his 2002 album “Pointless Nostalgic”. Cullum managed to seamlessly weave jazz standards, originals and a Radiohead cover together with a consistent approach and acoustic songwriter sound. His attention to detail delivered a cohesive album that was both jazz and incredibly modern, direct and fresh. He’s been a trailblazer for a more contemporary jazz vocal sound and style of songwriting ever since.

Jamie Cullum sitting in a diner booth
Jamie Cullum. Photo credit: Danny North

London Jazz News: How would you define the term “jazz singer-songwriter”?

Jamie Cullum: It’s something I’ve thought about a lot because, to me, the idea of being a jazz-based singer-songwriter is where you don’t only prize music and lyrics very highly, but you also prize a certain understanding of harmony. A somewhat more adventurous approach to the harmony and the time feel and the way of delivering the song, but not at the expense of trying to deliver a powerful song. Because I think often the balance is off. It’s quite a hard balance to get right. For example, sometimes I will write something in this genre and feel like I need to dial down the jazz a bit. The jazz element is just a chord moving. It’s adding in a five before a two minor. Or taking the harmony into an interesting space that certainly makes me go, “Ooh, what’s that?” Steely Dan obviously did it very well, possibly in more of a muso way.

It’s not something that I’ve found I’ve ever been asked to talk about. But I do feel strongly about it because when you’re writing in this genre, if we can call it a genre, you’ve often got people who’ve been spending a huge amount of time working on their instrument and working on their beautiful voices at the instrument, but actually they haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about lyrics. I find a lot of jazz singer-songwriters rely on things about the sun and feeling good and stuff like that. I’ve definitely done that too but I think I grew up also really loving lyricists. I studied literature and I’m from a family of readers, so I kind of had a head start there. And I’ve always loved words. It’s hard to do both. I’m not saying I do both magically well, but I do really make an effort to make sure every element of that is served strongly.

LJN: I call them “Dear Diary” lyrics or excessively ethereal – the ones about the sun and the feelings. Your first major-label album, “Pointless Nostalgic”, came out in 2002. It had a lot of jazz standards on it but it had a few originals too. And then you had more originals on “Twentysomething”, which came out a year later. How did you feel about your original material alongside the standards?

JC: I would not have considered myself a songwriter then. Although, during that period I wrote a song that people love more than any song I’ve ever written. It was the second or third song I ever wrote called “All at Sea”, and was originally just a few lines of poetry. I know I wrote it in a journal and it became a song. But if someone had asked me, I would’ve said, “I’m a musician.” I wouldn’t have said “I’m a songwriter.” I hadn’t really contemplated what a songwriter was at that point. And I think the idea of having originals on an album was probably because of thinking, “Okay, what did Harry Connick Jr. do? Oh, he had eight standards and three originals. I can do that.” And the idea of coming up with an arrangement of a song or an original take on a song felt like songwriting at that time. I don’t really feel like that now. Now, if someone were to say, “What do you do?”, I’d say, “Oh, I’m a songwriter. That’s the main thing I’m interested in”.

LJN: Were you aware of the slow shift in balance between originals and covers on your albums?

It was about making a balanced jazz album in those days. My original jazz writing was inspired by people like Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg, who were writing things that had a Great American Songbook reference, but that also had a sense of humour about them. Because I’d always loved pop music, there were songs that felt very pop music-y. I’d always loved the one chord to the five minor, that Robbie Williams copied for “Millennium”, the John Barry progression. I thought, “Well, I’ve got this lyric for a song called ‘All At Sea’, and I’m going to use that in it.” It was literally that basic. And I wasn’t thinking, “Well, is this a jazz song?” In fact, I was thinking that maybe it was too pop. If I take myself back to that point, I was frightened of songs that sounded too pop. So I would say, “We should have acoustic bass on it and we should use brushes [for the drums].” But again, that’s very much something that has changed in me.

LJN: Yes, but at the same time, Jamie, 2002 was a very different time to now. So in all fairness, the kind of hybridisation of jazz and certainly vocal jazz, wasn’t then what it is now. And I think if I was in your position, I would have also thought, “How will this be received?” which is a terrible way to go about creating anything. But it’s a very human thing to have in mind. Did you get any negative feedback that you were aware of, that journalists or listeners felt that your music was too pop? And has anybody between then and now ever actually criticised you as a singer-songwriter or said anything that has stuck with you and made you reassess how you go forwards or how you try and better yourself as a singer-songwriter?

JC: Well, criticism is really interesting, isn’t it? I actually find criticism quite useful about other people, but it’s obviously hard to read about yourself. And back in the day when I started, there was no Internet, really. I mean, there was the Internet, but it wasn’t what it is now. So it was harder to read about yourself, yet I still managed to have stuff that was written about me shoved under my nose. Because I got slightly, surprisingly popular during that time (it was a surprise to me and that certainly surprised my record label as well!), I did get a huge amount of criticism from jazz people for not being jazz enough. And then with pop people, I got called “middle of the road”. Are these criticisms? I don’t know. At the time I was so busy and having such a good time and I was playing in front of audiences who clearly loved what I was doing. And it was such a mixture of ages. I saw lots of young people like me who liked lots of different genres and yet I was also aware of how good a songwriter could be.

I was on tour with Amy Winehouse. She was my support act in 2002 and 2003, and we were friends. Whenever she would sing her songs, I was so aware of what a next level of songwriting it was, particularly lyrically. Musically, she always had a real understanding of jazz and that kind of music, but she wasn’t a great kind of technician on her instrument – she played guitar, she played piano. Obviously, with her vocals she was but she was able to do that jazz singer thing with her voice, but with these lyrics that were so contemporary and so full of powerful images that weren’t cliches. I immediately thought that this is someone who’s absolutely a born songwriter and I wasn’t really doing that at the time. Well, maybe I was to a smaller extent, but I was aware of how powerful she was as a songwriter. And so I kind of rather stupidly gauged myself against what she was doing because she was someone alongside me doing it. I just thought, “Oh man, I’m not yet a songwriter if I compare myself to her,” which I think, to be quite honest, most people would agree with.

LJN: There’ll be Amy Winehouses at every juncture and there should be, right? It’s like playing tennis. You always want to play against someone who’s better than you because it’ll take your game up a rung. At what point did you feel comfortable saying, “I am a songwriter and I am invested and involved in the craft of this”?

JC:  I remember it very clearly. It was when I worked on the “Gran Torino” film for Clint Eastwood. I got involved in that and essentially had to kind of take this quite skeletal, excellent bit of music that Clint and his son Kyle and Michael Stevens had worked on. I took that and added other bits to it, but also wrote a lyric from scratch based just off the script of the film. So there was no film made at that point, or if it was, I hadn’t seen it. So I just got the script and was asked, “Can you make this into a song?” I didn’t have time to think about it. I didn’t have time to think, “Oh, my God, can I do this?” It was an incredible opportunity and at that point, I’d written enough songs that my subconscious knew what needed to be done. In a couple of days I delivered something that I was really proud of. Lyrically, particularly, it was something that was a big step on from where I’d been before. During that time I was writing an album called “The Pursuit” and there are some songs on there that I feel are a giant leap in a lot of ways. After that I kind of started slightly overcomplicating things a little bit, but I found I could write from a position of confidence. And that was a great impetus to kind of go forwards.

Jamie Cullum standing in an empty ballroom leaning backwards

LJN: To go back to what you said earlier. The idea of internal versus external perception is very interesting to me. You said that you were surprised by the success of your early albums and your label was too. It’s funny because I remember quite vividly hearing your first album and hearing your Radiohead cover and thinking, “Oh, this is awesome.” The singer-songwriter influence really appealed to me and it was so contemporary in a way that I often feel vocal jazz should be but isn’t. A lot of listeners like the jazz vocal sound of yore, even if those sounds are coming from singers who were born in 1994 or later. So it is interesting for me to hear you say anything doubtful about your approach given how refreshing and accessible I found it. How do you feel now about those earlier original songs?

JC: I feel stronger about them today than I probably did a few years ago because it’s something that I couldn’t write now. There’s a total guilelessness to “All At Sea”. I remember writing it in my old flat, and I had a gig at the Pizza Express the following week and thought, “I need another song. I’m going to try and write this and see what comes out.” And I did that and I never thought I’d record it. It was never going to be on an album. So I hear something that’s not overcautious of what people will make of it. And as a result, there’s what I’d say are kind of clangers in the lyrics, but actually they’re better for it. They don’t have a perfect rhyming scheme. And some of the images seem a bit innocent and maybe not as good or not with as much depth. But actually I think that gives it more depth. And I think kind of understanding that as an older songwriter now and just digging some of that back into your 44-year-old self is a good thing.

Jacob Collier covered “All At Sea” recently, and he just said how much that song meant to him as a kid, how much it meant to his family, and how much he loves that song. Someone like that tells you that they like your song and you think, “It must be all right then”. I went back to America on tour about two weeks ago and it was kind of a minor hit in America, certainly on what they call adult contemporary radio. It was on all the same radio stations they play John Mayer and Jason Mraz on. So everyone who goes to my shows, in America particularly, they sing every word like it was an anthem. That is undeniably powerful and you realise it doesn’t really belong to you after a while. I’ve always thought that sounded a little trite when I heard other people say that, but they do exist outside of you. That’s a really lovely feeling. I wasn’t sitting at my piano thinking whether it was a jazz song or whether it was a pop song. I probably would have said, “Well, it’s a bit more poppy than usual.” But, as I said, play acoustic bass on it. And Norah Jones had “Come Away With Me” come out, I think it was six months before “Twentysomething” came out. I was asked to go and see a showcase at the Pizza Express in London and I remember thinking obviously she was amazing, her voice was amazing but also the original songs really sounded like they were written by someone who understood the nuts and bolts of songwriting.

LJN: Yes. I think her writing is great, but, I mean, certainly the stuff that she did with Jessie Harris was pretty superb.

JC: Yes, who’d been labouring away as a songwriter for years and written hundreds of songs. But I think that’s what’s fascinating about it, right? Because Norah is a great songwriter and her music has gotten more and more interesting. But it takes a lot of artistry itself to go, “These are great songs and I’m going to sing them.” You know, Frank Sinatra is a great example of that. 

LJN: That’s the thing. I often think it’s wonderful that so many I’d say primarily vocalists are writing songs but I do often think that, perhaps, some of them should be reaching out to co-write or they should actually be outsourcing it. I will say, just the other day I heard Dave Matthews say the same thing as you about a song not belonging to the writer. So I don’t think it’s trite at all!

JC:  Dave’s quite an interesting one, isn’t he? Because there’s a big jazz element to what he does. I forgot to mention how much of an influence Ben Folds, particularly the Ben Folds Five era, was on me because there was some really interesting harmony going on in there and you definitely wouldn’t call it jazz. But most jazz people like Ben Folds Five. That’s all I’m saying!

LJN: And Sting’s another!

Sting’s a great example of that.

Sting and Dave have that in common – an inclusion of all these incredibly brilliant jazz musicians and what that does for the music. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, I always think about Randy Newman and the degree to which he’s so often a one-man band, but that he’s bringing in jazz harmonies and intricacies in construction of the song.

JC: I think with Randy that’s the kind of craftsman, Tin Pan Alley, Great American Songbook thing. But I think with Sting, and I know he loves the Great American Songbook, it’s an interest in musicianship and the nuts and bolts, what I call the “cleverness of jazz” – interesting use of time, interesting use of harmony. Thinking outside of the box of what conventional pop music harmony can add to the power of a song. He’s a great lyricist as well. Songs called “Seven Days” in a seven time signature. Things like that, that the casual listener is not going to know, but they’re going to know there’s something interesting. And to be able to do that with such ease is part of his unique genius that actually I kind of struggle to think of anyone who’s pulled it off quite as well as he has. And then, to get these incredible jazz musicians involved and still manage to have massive hits all over the world and have people listen to it who have no interest in jazz whatsoever.

LJN: They don’t really know what they’re being fed, but they know they like it.

JC: I find that in the music of the Neptunes, particularly with Pharrell. I covered their song “Frontin’”, which is a brilliant example of a pop song that has essentially got a kind of jazz middle. If you listen to the bit where Jay-Z does the rap, there’s a succession of unrelated minor chords that sound like it could be off of Herbie’s thrust. And Pharell’s a big jazz fan. He loves jazz and he loves Gary Bartz and he’s all over jazz. He hadn’t done, like, grade eight piano or anything, but he had a limitless musical mind. He was not afraid to take risks. And some of the language he used was the language of jazz music.

LJN: Can I put you on the spot and ask you who you think is doing it well? If anybody.

Well, it’s a very, very hard question.

LJN: I will add, a lot of people are doing it. Especially in the context of press releases, I’m seeing that label, “jazz singer-songwriter” come up a helluva lot more than it has in the past.

JC: It wouldn’t be a surprise, twenty years ago, to have someone do a Tom Waits song and a Randy Newman song, possibly a James Taylor song. In the first incarnation of The Bad Plus, the piano trio, on their first two records, they had an Aphex Twin song and a Blondie cover. What I liked about it was that it was done by someone who loved not only the jazz music, but clearly loved those songs. It didn’t feel like, “Well, let’s try and jazzify a pop song.” Because it can be quite twee. It’s a tough thing to get right. It just felt so hip.

LJN: So, Jamie, your answer is that an example of it being done well is that it’s actually done by the hands of instrumentalists.

JC: It is, yeah. But my lack of an answer is not to say that I think lots of it is not good. It’s so interesting because generally, if you want to hear a great jazz singer, I probably want to hear them do more of the jazz stuff. Unless it’s a song that I can tell they feel close to. It can end up feeling a bit contrived. I think that’s the difficulty. And I’ve definitely been guilty of that myself. And I really, really try to make sure that the only reason you’re doing it is because it fascinates you. You know, for me, it’s what makes this song tick? What is the thing of this that is exciting me? And it may have two chords, you know, it could be a Justin Bieber solo cover I did online. I did this piano percussion thing and I loved the rhythm of the words. I loved the way the rhyming went over the bar lines. It was the kind of thing that I would never write myself, but I wanted to know how it was written. So I learned it and then did a version of it. So it’s those kinds of things. That’s the way I think about it.

LJN: Well, I could talk to you about this for hours. I find it so interesting.

It is an interesting area of inquiry. I’ve certainly never been asked questions on this kind of granular level about this stuff. Actually, I’ve got to say that I think Gregory Porter has done it well, because I think he has it. He has such a love of songwriting. And it doesn’t just come from gospel music. I think he was the first person in a while who brought a real songwriter sensibility to very jazz music. He wasn’t frightened to write something with three chords, but because of his voice and his band, it felt like a jazz song.

LINK: Jamie Cullum’s website

NOTE: Universal/ Decca have just announced that Twenty Something will be released for the first time on vinyl on 20 October

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