Jamie Cullum: I want to collaborate with Kanye West

In town earlier this month, Jamie Cullum talks about his success as a jazz-pop singer – from drinking with fans to hugging Barack Obama in the White House

By Pamela Chow. Photos: St Regis Singapore & Pamela Chow

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Jamie Cullum performing for an intimate crowd at Jazz Legends at St Regis earlier this month.

Stepping into the room, Jamie Cullum greeted us with a confession. “I got into music a little bit by accident… I thought it was a much more effective way of impressing girls,” he cheekily admitted.

In town for Jazz Legends at St Regis, Cullum then sat at the suite’s grand piano and belted out an improvised medley, including a smooth remix of “Singing in the Rain” and Rihanna’s “Work”. This English jazz master was meant for greater things than impressing girls.

After 15 minutes of crooning, piano thumping and string plucking, Cullum sat down for an “afternoon tea” chat with us.

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HOW DID YOU START YOUR CAREER IN JAZZ?

I grew up in the west of England, in the countryside, but I became obsessed with African-American jazz musicians, all these people in New Orleans… You can imagine how weird it is for a 13-year-old white kid from the English countryside learning this song!

Cullum proceeded to play the first song he ever learned, Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans”.

WHO WERE YOUR FIRST MUSICAL HEROES?

I really did start off wanting to be a guitarist in a rock band… Getting into a lot of heavy metal from nine to 12 [years old], I was listening almost exclusively to bands like Slayer, ACDC [and] Iron Maiden.

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WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE THING ABOUT PERFORMING FOR ST REGIS?

I get to stay at these amazing places! We talked about a way that it could work and feel authentic and not, I don’t know, daft, like sometimes when you see a musician holding some detergent or something.

These cocktails are pretty damn good too. [Laughs]

DO YOU TAKE ANY MEASURES TO PROTECT YOUR VOICE, ESPECIALLY BEFORE SHOWS?

I don’t drink a ton before I go [on stage]… But the main thing is I try to get a lot of water and more sleep… The worst thing is going to a noisy bar and talking to people.

I actually invented something to help singers; it’s like a cup with a steam pipe coming out of it, so you can get steam straight to your vocal cords. I hope to make lots of them and give them to singers one day.

YOU SHOULD PATENT THAT.

You’re right – do you want to go into business? [Laughs]

HOW WAS IT LIKE PERFORMING AT THE WHITE HOUSE FOR THE PRESIDENT?

It’s such a great thing to drop into conversations, isn’t it? I’ve had to stop myself from doing it when I’m around friends… I’m still coming down from it actually, it was amazing.

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An acclaimed and award-winning jazz musician, Jamie Cullum in fact started out wanting to be a guitarist for a rock or heavy metal band.

HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING CALLED A “CROSSOVER ARTIST”?

I think if you asked me that 10 years ago I’d have thought it sounds a bit unauthentic. But I think as you get older you realise that “crossover” basically means that you’re appealing to people outside [your] genre…

I know I’ve got something to say and I may not be the best piano player or singer, but if you put it all together you get me… But having said that, I have no problems being called a crossover artist!

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH CRITICISM?

All you can bring to the table is your own vibe, thoughts and story… You develop a thick skin. Anyone who makes stuff and puts it out there has to accept that you’ll be called things you don’t like…

Or you can be like Woody Allen and just not read anything that’s written about you, ever.


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WHAT’S YOUR MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE WHILE ON TOUR?

I will have to say playing at the White House. I’m sorry to just drop that into conversation again. [Laughs] Prior to that it was meeting and working with Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino. That was definitely my go-to dinner party story.

DID YOU GET TO SPEAK TO THE PRESIDENT?

When I spoke to him personally, the first thing I said to him was, “I’m British!” And he said, “Oh, that’s okay! We’re happy to have you here.”

After I played he came up to me and said, “Great job.” And he gave me a hug. It was amazing.

WHAT ABOUT YOUR BEST EXPERIENCE WITH FANS?

I have a core group of fans that I’ve gotten to know – they’re people I have a drink with after the show, they follow me as avidly as any fan would but there’s a relationship that’s been going on for over ten years now.

I know their first names, their children’s names, their husband’s or wife’s name… I think that’s really nice.

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Before our interview, Cullum treated us to a delightful improvised medley of old and new jazz renditions in the Presidential Suite of St Regis.

HOW ARE YOU INTRODUCING JAZZ TO THE YOUNGER GENERATION?

You break people down by giving them something really appealing and then you do something a little bit weird and out there. You create a space for listening and to be out of your comfort zone… [It feels like] You’ve been fluffed.

FLUFFED? LIKE FLUFFED PILLOWS?

Yeah. [Laughs] You’ve been, um, prepared, shall we say. Absolutely – like a pillow.

WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO COLLABORATE WITH NEXT?

I’ve always really idolised Tom Waits. I’ve [also] been talking for years with John Legend about doing something with him, although we might piano each other out. [Laughs]

I think Kanye West is always doing something interesting and he has really open ears and clear appreciation for similar types of music.


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ANY NEW PROJECTS THAT FANS CAN LOOK OUT FOR?

There’s a guy who produced Kendrick Lamar’s new album, he’s called Terrace Martin – I met him at the White House! – and we’ve been talking about doing something together.

IF YOU COULD PLAY ONLY ONE SONG FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

If there was ever this bizarre situation, I would choose “Rhapsody in Blue”. That actually is a goal of mine – I fully intend to learn how to read music someday.

Jamie Cullum performed at Jazz Legends at St Regis on May 13.

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