By Jay Cridlin
For Jamie Cullum, there is no magic formula for picking a great cover song.
"It's more when I'm sitting at the piano and playing random chords, and literally, the song ends up under my fingers unannounced," said the jazz and pop singer. "That's how Don't Stop the Music turned up."
To illustrate his point, he moves to a piano and plays the opening notes of Rihanna's R&B hit, then starts to croon: It's getting late . . . Making my way to my favorite place . . .
"It's like an earworm," he said. "That's the way it comes about. Then it starts to feel right to me."
When it comes to his music, Cullum likes to keep things unpredictable. The Grammy- and Golden Globe-nominated artist is known for unexpected collaborations (Pharrell Williams, Clint Eastwood) and covers (Kanye West's Gold Digger, the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army). His most recent release, The Pursuit, is certainly the only pop album of the past year to include songs by both Rihanna and Stephen Sondheim (Not While I'm Around, from the musical Sweeney Todd).
His live shows are notoriously wild as well — the hyperanimated Cullum, 30, works without a set list, leaps atop his piano and races across the stage from instrument to instrument. He has been known to whack his piano so hard the keys end up streaked with blood.
On Monday, Cullum will kick off a U.S. tour in Miami. Last week, we caught up with Britain's bestselling jazz artist by phone from his home in London, where he was packing for the trip to the States.
Are you prepared for the heat of Florida in July?
You know, it's kind of in my blood. My mum's side of the family are all from India, so I'm pretty okay with hot weather.
You've talked about preparing for tours like you're preparing for a marathon. Is that the case here?
Yeah, it is. It's a year-round marathon, you know? Especially this year, I'm touring for most of the year, and the problem is when you're touring, if your health falters mid-tour, it takes you loads longer to get back on track. So instead of having a cold for two or three days, you'll have it for the whole month, because your sleeping patterns are (expletive), and you're never quite eating properly. It comes with the territory, so you need to make sure you start off with the best intentions. Either that, or you just stay drunk the entire time.
I think the first song of yours I heard was your cover of Radiohead's High and Dry. What was your mind-set, doing a cover of Radiohead when you didn't have a name for yourself yet?
Nothing. I just don't think like that. When I started out playing music, I was not the kid in front of a mirror with a hairbrush, dreaming about being on stage. I played music because I loved it, and it was a good way to meet girls. It's a very pure intention. When I was playing Radiohead, I wasn't thinking, "Oh my god, what are people going to think?" I was thinking, "Oh, this sounds great, I love playing this." That purity of intention changes as you go through the industry and get older and wiser and stupider in equal measure. All I try to do these days is try to not worry about whether people think it's cool or not; just think about whether it feels good and whether it's truthful.
How do you avoid coming across as a novelty?
It's all about ownership of the song. The one rule I always have is, if a tune doesn't feel like I've written it by the time I've finished messing with it, I've probably not done it justice. All the songs I've covered, I claim ownership of in my own brain. Whether the audience feels like that, I'm not sure. But they certainly feel like my songs. I write the lyrics in my lyric book. I change the chords. I make sure that I own it.