Jamie Cullum says losing his friend Amy Winehouse was a ‘huge tragedy’


Jamie reflects on life in the spotlight (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images Europe / Metro.co.uk)

Musician and presenter Jamie Cullum, 42, on being starstruck, judging his early work and the tragedy of Amy Winehouse.

What are you up to right now?

Songwriting and being a parent. I’m doing some gigs around the world over the next six months, which I’ve been waiting to do for the past two-and-a-half years.

I did some in October so I’m back in the zone but it was the longest period of time where I haven’t performed. It’s a muscle that needs exercising, travelling to another country and playing, then travelling somewhere else.

It’s a full-on existence and when you stop, you forget whether you can do it. So I’m approaching it with excitement but also nervousness.

You’re playing at Cheltenham Jazz Festival after it being stopped for
two years…

All of these collective music experiences are coming back, which is great news. Cheltenham and me go way back.

I grew up near Chippenham and it was one of the few festivals that was happening not far from me that had this wide range of jazz.


CHELTENHAM, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05: Jamie Cullum performs on stage at The Big Top during the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on May 5, 2012 in Cheltenham, United Kingdom. (Photo by Steve Thorne/Redferns via Getty Images)

Jamie and Cheltenham Jazz Festival go way back (Picture: Steve Thorne/Redferns via Getty Images)

Will you see anybody else?

It’s an amazing line-up. Great collaborations are born in environments like that. I’ll see Lady Blackbird, Jordan Rakei, Moses Boyd and Kansas Smitty’s House Band, all of whom I’ve collaborated with and play on my Radio 2 show.

And to be able to see Mulatu Astatke, the creator of Ethio-jazz, in a nice tent in Cheltenham is a gift from the heavens.

Did lockdown make you very creative?

I think there was something about the predictability of it that was quite good for my own personal creativity.

And I did write my Christmas album during that time. I do a lot of drawing too and I love taking photographs and listening to music – and obviously I do my radio show as well.

Wasn’t your wife Sophie Dahl involved with your album, The Pianoman At Christmas?

She’s always creatively present. She’s obviously an incredible writer and has amazing taste and when you’re with someone and they’re creative too, it’s
a thing you do together.


Jamie Cullum and Sophie Dahl

Jamie and Sophie Dahl have been married for 12 years (Picture: Getty)

It’s 20 years since your first album – has that made you reflective?

It’s actually more like 23 years since my first album, which is amazing to me.

Like a lot of people, I did a big sort out during lockdown and I found old flyers for gigs I put on myself and the old payslips from when I was making my records.

Sometimes I look back on things with a sense of horror – not because I don’t like it, but because I always want to be moving forward.

What do you look at with horror?

If you hear your voice, the way you play the piano or a certain lyric and you think, ‘I wouldn’t do that now’.

But as you get older, you’re kinder to that child you see on the front cover of a record.

What about your pinch-yourself moments?

I worked with Pharrell Williams after I did a cover of his song Frontin’ years ago. I was so busy pinching myself that I didn’t make the most of it.

I was young and so overawed by the situation.

Cut to 15 years later, when I’m writing a song for a Clint Eastwood film, with Clint and his son, Kyle, who’s a fantastic musician as well. I could have been too busy pinching myself then, but a few years on, you realise your worth.


MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - APRIL 16: Pharrell Williams attends the Inter Miami CF Season Opening Party Hosted By David Grutman And Pharrell Williams at The Goodtime Hotel on April 16, 2021 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)

Pharrell Williams is a Jamie Cullum fan (Picture: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)

How did you hold it together being young in the public eye?

I managed to do a lot of that out of the public eye because it was before social
media.

It’s so different now. I meet a lot of young artists who have a real sense of self-assuredness because they have no choice.

I remember seeing Alex Turner from the Arctic Monkeys for the first time and he arrived so beautifully fully formed and confident, with such a sense of his gift but also how to present himself to the world.

I had no idea at all, all I knew is that I liked playing music and I liked hanging out with other musicians. I clung to that.

You saw Amy Winehouse lose her way…

It was such a huge tragedy. We were friends, particularly in the early part of her career – we weren’t so close in the last four or five years when she was mega-famous.

Her life was so different at that point. It never got anywhere near that kind of level for me. But also, I was always a bit of a nerd and hung out with people who did the same things.


Mandatory Credit: Photo by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock (509907g) Paul Carrack, Ruby Turner, Mavis Staples, Ian Hunter, Jamie Cullum and Amy Winehouse 'LATER WITH JOOLS HOLLAND' SHOW CHRISTMAS SPECIAL, LONDON, BRITAIN - DEC 2004

Jamie and Amy Winehouse on Later with Jools Holland in 2004 (Picture: Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock)

You’ve done some brilliant covers. Do you get feedback?

The best was Pharrell when he heard Frontin’. That was a huge moment for me.

I remember him walking down the red carpet at the Brits in 2003, and someone asked who he was most excited to meet from the British music industry and he said Jamie Cullum.

Cullum is at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, Apr 27-May 2, cheltenhamfestivals.com and on BBC Radio 2 every Tuesday at 9pm.

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