The backstage noise was distracting until somebody closed the door to Jamie Cullum's dressing room. The jazzy pop singer-songwriter is calling from a venue in Italy, where he's set to perform in a little under an hour. Nervous?
"No, I'm fine," he says in his dusky British accent. At 26, the handsome pint-sized crooner comes off as a confident pro, a calm, cool, collected vet who has played the game for years. Yet from time to time, as he talks about his latest album, Catching Tales, Cullum bubbles with the excitement of a wet-behind-the-ears musician.
"It's about taking pictures of time," he says, referring to the album's title. "When you take a photo, you're catching tales. You're catching a time, which is how the songs work on this album. They're very visual."
Cullum, who plays a sold-out show Saturday at Washington's 9:30 Club, released the well-received Catching Tales in October. The CD, his second for Verve, is the follow-up to 2004's critically acclaimed Twentysomething, the artist's first album to make ripples in America.
In his native England, though, Cullum had already made a much bigger splash. With his lighthearted major-label debut, 2002's Pointless Nostalgic, the singer connected with hipsters and teen girls alike. But with the fuller, better executed Twentysomething, Cullum's fame reached beyond England. His sardonic, witty love songs, scratchy, swaggering vocals and interesting blend of musical styles (Tin Pan Alley, '70s AM pop, faint traces of hip-hop) pushed worldwide sales of his sophomore album past the 2 million mark. Thanks in part to key TV appearances and pictorials in Esquire and Vanity Fair, Cullum generated a fair amount of buzz in the States, where Twentysomething sold a respectable 400,000 copies.
"In the States, we've toured, and it's a nice, organic, very real way of doing it, building it up," he says. "We stormed in quite big in England, at the top of the charts. ... It's more building with the audience in the States, which leads to stronger fandom."
It also helps that Cullum's subsequent output reflects more of the artist's strengths. Though uneven, Catching Tales blossoms here and there with melodic, lyrical beauties. The energetic piano man is a gifted songwriter, whose style melds elements of Stevie Wonder, Randy Newman and Cole Porter.
"I can honestly look back and think I sound better on this record," says the London-based performer. "I'm actually integrating [the artists] I like better. On this one, you have songs that sound like a pop song, a rock song and a jazz song all in one song."
Catching Tales shares some similarities with its predecessor. As he did on Twentysomething, Cullum approaches jazz and pop standards, namely "I Only Have Eyes For You," as modern pop tunes. The arrangements are embellished with electronic flourishes. The originals ("London Skies," "Photograph") are done as if they've been around a while, uncluttered with bright acoustic touches. A veteran producer, the generally tasteful Stewart Levine, oversaw both albums.
Though the scope of the new CD is more expansive than Twentysomething, Catching Tales isn't without its flaws. The programmed treatment of some cuts falls flat. "I Only Have Eyes For You" is misguided with its faux trip-hop arrangement. "Get Your Way," which samples Allen Toussaint's "Get Out of My Life Woman," is a dated-sounding jazz-and-hip-hop mash-up. And although the arrangement of "I'm Glad There Is You" is pleasant and airy, Cullum's interpretive skills here aren't quite up to snuff. So the whole thing feels listless.
He's much more vibrant and more believable on his own songs. "Photograph," an album highlight, brings to mind Minnie Riperton's 1979 classic, "Memory Lane." As Riperton did in her song, Cullum stumbles upon a photograph that sets off a wave of bittersweet emotions. The beautiful, slightly melancholic "London Skies" recalls the more romantic side of Joe Jackson.
"Now, I feel more obliged to break the rules with the music and experiment," the musician says. "It comes from confidence and playing with different musicians."
Cullum has about 10 minutes before he's due on stage. He sounds a bit giddy; he's ready to get out there.
"Music - I love it, you know. I'm always working on new music," the singer says. "I like to let it go where it goes. It's like an affliction. I just can't stop."
Jamie Cullum's Saturday night show at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W. in Washington, is sold out.