It's been nearly 20 years since British piano sensation Jamie Cullum broke out with his signature brand of jazz meets pop. Now with the release of his new album Taller, Cullum switches gears, letting the songs speak for themselves. As he prepared to take the new music on-tour, he let Keyboard in on the stories behind the new music.
Your new album “Taller” is just out to great acclaim. Can you tell us the story of how it came to be?
It was a really interesting process. The last time we met, I had actually started on what I thought this album was going to be. That coincided with a time in my life where I had to re-think quite a few things. I guess I was struggling a bit personally, and I was writing songs that didn’t seem like they were “squared-up” with who I was becoming as a man. I actually scrapped a whole bunch of songs I had written, which I’ve never done before. I was still doing some writing for other people, and playing various festivals, but I took a bit of time away from making records.
What kinds of things were you struggling with?
There’s no tidy answer for the sake of an article. I just felt that there were ways in my life that I was starting to come up short, and that had revealed itself in my day to day life. I needed to open up more. I actually posted on Instagram that I “needed to do some emotional housekeeping,” which was a brilliant term that my wife came-up with. I needed to understand my past and my family’s history, and I also needed to learn how to open-up more in my personal life. So it was a process, and I realized that the songs I had been writing didn’t match-up to this deeper appreciation I had for how much life can throw at you. By the time I started writing again, I feel like I had changed a whole lot. The first song that turned-up in my life at that time was “Drink.” When that song was completed, I felt like I had set the bar. It felt like a watermark for where I wanted the rest of the album to go.
The last time we spoke, you had just released your album Interlude, which was much more of a “jazz” project. But this album feels much more like a songwriter’s record. You seem to be celebrating the moods and messages of these songs, not simply using them as a springboard to solo over.
You’re absolutely right. I think sometimes it’s a bolder choice to not play a solo. Sometimes when you’re writing songs and you want to communicate something, maybe the best way isn’t to improvise. Maybe it’s through the lyrics. I’ve spent so many hours totally enthralled with instrumentalists who can really play and communicate through their chords and solos and lines. When you hear people like Chick [Corea] or Herbie [Hancock] or Eric Reed play, you can really hear their souls speaking. But sometimes when you’re writing a song, instead of channeling Herbie, you need to channel someone like Carole King, or Bon Iver, or Randy Newman or Tom Waits. There are some songs on this album where I’m using my facility - I’m someone who has worked in jazz and is still discovering it. But sometimes maybe the way to let the lyrics speak is to have as little going on as possible. Or to focus on the production, or to make things even simpler. That’s something that [producer] Troy Miller helped me bring to life. There are few musicians on this planet that are technically more gifted than he is, but actually his goal on this record with me was to make sure these songs communicated something.
I feel like there’s an almost Nina Simone-level of honesty on the album. It cuts right to the core.
I’m very touched by that, thank you. I put this record out there and I honestly didn’t know what people would make of it. But for me, there's no point in doing this anymore if the music doesn't feel honest. I’m not out there nipping at Ed Sheeran’s heels. [Laughs] So I may as well put something out there that’s more vulnerable because that’s how I’m feeling. And learning to share that sentiment is a bit of a new skill for me.
I was struck by the wide array of soundscapes on the album. For instance, you go from the opener “Taller,” which has a sort of Phil Spector “Wall of Sound” impact to it, to the second track “Life is Grey” with its almost childlike sense of simplicity.
Definitely. The lyric on “Life is Grey” is a very personal one about understanding the greyness between the two poles that we can sometimes miss if we demonize people or alternately make them into heroes. And the truth is the unglamorous grey bit in the middle. That song also talks a little bit about the terrible fire we had in London [the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire] that I saw as I was driving into London. That made me think about the unspoken idea of how we value certain people over others, and how many of those victims were refugees who were new to this country.
That’s not to say that grey is a dull color. Grey is actually where all the colors are. And musically, I just saw it as a song that would start out very small – with the preamps gained-up really high on the upright piano, and a very dry vocal. And then gradually it would bloom and open like a flower.
I read in the press materials that a lot of the music was recorded in Troy’s studio. Did you work a lot in your own studio as well?
We started a great deal at my studio, and the rest was done at Troy’s. We did horns, background vocals, drums at his studio, and we mixed the album there as well. We also did strings at Paul Epworth’s Church studios. But the songs were bashed-out at mine in the way I imagine Randy Newman does – they’ve got to sound good with just me on their own. There wasn’t a demo-ing process as such this time. A lot of things were captured in their rawest form.
I also notice that you are credited with playing bass on the album. Was that keyboard bass or actual bass guitar?
I played real bass. By no stretch of the imagination am I a good bass player, but if there’s a part that I’m hearing, I can play it. And sometimes it just works, like the bass part I played on the song “Usher.” It just happened to fit with the wonky groove of that song. [Laughs]
If there’s an outlier on the album, that song might be it, with its unabashed “funk in your face.” How does that song fit into the scheme of this emotionally complex set of songs?
It actually does, although it may not appear on first look. The lyric comes from something my wife said when our babies were little. I was away on-tour, and my wife was alone with two small kids, exhausted and up early in the morning talking to a friend of hers who also had kids. Usher came on the television, and my wife said to her friend, “God, I used to know Usher.” It was just this moment of reflection where she was saying, “My life feels so different.” There’s a comedic element to it, but it also struck me about how time passes, and you look at the life you live now and you don’t recognize the life you once led.
Musically, it touches on a sort of psychedelic vibe, with a Mellotron played through a Roland Space Echo, and that ties into lyric in the song of seeing Usher in a crazy dream where he says something to the effect of, “If you embrace your new life, you may just have a good time.”
Many people know you from your acclaimed BBC Radio 2 show The Jazz Show with Jamie Cullum. Has that work helped you grow as an artist yourself?
Oh, so much. Talking to the greats like Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock and Paul McCartney just makes you say, “If you’re going to bother doing this, try and be as good as you can.” I know that sounds obvious, but it just makes you want to raise your game. When you interview someone, you go into their work sometimes in a deeper way than you may have before. You want to ask smart questions, so you really listen. For example, I was preparing to interview Paul Simon, so I got deep into his life and his music, and his poetry, and his relentless ability to get better and better. And that makes you examine his demons, and the things that still worry him and that he gets hung-up on. You start to get to know the arc of someone’s career. And that makes you ask yourself, “If someone was reading the book about my life, would they think that I really went deep? Would that think I was trying to be the very best I could be? That I was going for things that would make people say, “God, I’ve felt like that, but no one ever articulated it that way before.” That’s what you get from those great artists. You interview them and you think, “I’ve got to work harder.”
Did you use any new gear on this album that you were particularly inspired by?
Definitely. First would be the upright piano this time around. It has a smallness and an intimacy to its sound. In fact, there was almost no grand piano used on this record at all. My manager had a Yamaha upright in his office that wasn’t being used, so I took it and put it in my studio. It ended-up playing a big role on the record. Also my 1973 Minimoog . There’s something about the simplicity of that synth that made me use it on every song before I started really getting into the recording. Also the Hammond organ is really the other main instrument on the album. I have a 1967 A-100 with a 122 Leslie. Some of the album’s parts were cut to tape, so we used that as an opportunity to make things sound a little more “blown-out.” We tended to push the preamps, and I used my API lunchbox to record things at high gain while playing a bit softer. We pushed things just to the point of them “breaking-up” to give them a real presence. The API’s are amazing for that. I also love my Shawdow Hills preamp, as well as the traditional Neve channel strip that I’ve had since my album Twentysomething. And the Telefunken ELA M-251 was the go-to mic for pretty much everything.
There's a song called "Mankind," which is a real Gospel-type track. I started that one off on the Arturia CS-80 plug-in. I badly wanted a real CS-80 and I actually found one on eBay. Then I realized it was $15,000 and I thought, "Maybe I'll just go back to the plug-in!" Another big instrument for this record was the Mellotron. I did a gig with Medeski, Martin & Wood at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival , and I met the guys from Streetly Electronics, who build new Mellotrons. They built me one to my specifications, with all the sounds I wanted on it. That was a process that took nearly two and a half years. And many of the subliminal textures on the album are the Mellotron through a Big Sky [reverb] pedal or a Roland Space Echo. I really enjoyed the textures that it brought to the album.
Have you tried the digital Mellotron?
I haven't. I'm sure it's great, but there's something about the ungainly tape demon that is the original Mellotron that makes you want to make music on it. It's a tactile thing, and it was a real inspiration for me on this record.
Have you played these new songs live yet?
We've just started playing them over the last few months, and I've never had such an immediate reaction to anything I've ever done. Having opened myself up more this time, the way people have responded to the new music has been very moving to me. It feels like a beautiful start.
For more information visit jamiecullum.com