Jamie Cullum: ‘I channel a lot of emotional intensity into my music'

The musician, 41, on what he owes Michael Parkinson, the joys of cultural freedom and why he’ll feel nervous when he’s finally able to perform again

Growing up in a very provincial village near Swindon, in Wiltshire, I struggled to articulate why my family was different. My parents were immigrants. They had it drilled into them to be as British as possible, live a very British life, observe the Britishness of their existence. I think they were culturally cauterised. A mixture of people came in and out of my household from my father’s Prussian Jewish contingent, who for a large part of their UK life were often too frightened to have a German accent or observe their Jewish faith, and my mother’s Indian Burmese contingent, where everyone had darker skin and ate different foods.

I didn’t feel that different. I just thought I had a bit of a tan, and that everyone’s aunties brought them lime pickle for Christmas. My parents were dealing with being first-generation immigrants in this country. I had way more cultural freedom than them, but felt less able to acknowledge my heritage when I was younger.

There was a lot of music in the house. Music and culture – high and low – were held in very high regard. We had a piano, guitars, my brother had a drum kit – we were encouraged to play music. I certainly wasn’t held up as some kind of prodigy, though it was noted I could hold a tune.

Appearing on Parkinson was a big breakthrough moment for me. I had made two albums and I was slowly starting to get known within the London jazz scene, but I was guileless and very un-media savvy. Michael took a big chance on me. I’ll always be grateful. It had a huge impact on the course of my career.

As a kid I wasn’t as demonstrably emotional as I am now. I grew up in an era when men weren’t encouraged to be vulnerable. When I started performing in bands, I discovered I could channel a lot of that unexpressed anger and sadness and emotional intensity into music. That was my conduit.

When it comes to creating music I don’t think it matters if you’re an arsehole or not. It’s certainly not my method, but you can be an arsehole as long as you’re really talented.

I love work. I feel grateful to be able to do my work. But work is another planet – I only go to visit it. My family – my wife and my two kids – they’re my absolute centre.

My family has sparked a sea change in my creativity, particularly being married to someone like Sophie [Dahl]. She’s a very curious person, wise and authentic. She’s made me want to make things that have a greater sense of depth. Having said that, not everything needs to be heavy. For God’s sake I’ve just made a Christmas album…

An honest partnership makes you really look at yourself, at the choices you make and the ways you experience the world. Curiosity can only be good for making art. It can only give more depth to your work.

I feel a bit less confident at the moment because I haven’t performed for a long time. When I think about 2021, I think, God, I’m going to be nervous.

If I didn’t have music I’d write novels. Fiction. I’d love to write fiction. I’m married to a gifted novelist, I know how hard it is. I have three half-started novels that I attempted to write as a pretentious 17-year-old. They’re somewhere in the attic and will hopefully never be found.

Jamie Cullum’s new album, The Pianoman at Christmas, is out now


Nick McGrath

The GuardianTramp

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