How I wrote ‘Gran Torino’ by Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum

The multi-award-winning songwriter, musician and broadcaster reveals how crossing paths with Clint Eastwood led to co-writing his movie’s title track

After clocking up over 10 million album sales and his successful weekly jazz show on BBC Radio 2, Jamie Cullum is a celebrated musician with a career spanning more than 20 years. His legendary live shows have seen him perform and work alongside artists as diverse as Herbie Hancock, Pharrell Williams, Kendrick Lamar and Lang Lang, whilst his major label breakthrough, Twentysomething sold millions of copies, and made him the fastest-selling British jazz artist in history.

That album and its follow-up Catching Tales saw him nominated for a BRIT, a Grammy and numerous other awards around the world. He was even nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song in 2009 for Gran Torino, which he co-wrote for the Clint Eastwood movie of the same name. Here’s how it happened…

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Gran Torino

Released: 10 November 2009
Artist: Jamie Cullum
Label: Decca
Songwriters: Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Kyle Eastwood, Michael Stevens
UK chart position:
US chart position:

“The song I wrote for the Clint Eastwood film Gran Torino… that was a turning point for me. In a sense that prior to that I always felt like songs were something I wanted to do and I thought of myself as someone who writes song, but I would be slightly reticent to define myself as a songwriter. I would’ve said [I did] many different things, and I also write songs. And I think after I did [Gran Torino], I was really pleased with the song and the way it went down, and how it came together, that gave me an awful lot of confidence and it felt like the songwriting gods were tapping on my skull going, ‘Come on, write more songs, be confident about it!’

“I met Clint through his son Kyle who’s a great jazz musician. He lives and works in Europe, basically, but I think he lives in America too. I got to know him a little bit and because he’s such a great musician, and lots of people know him, you don’t automatically think of him as a conduit to his father at all. It was around the time that I was playing in America a lot and I think his father came to one of the gigs I was doing and just really enjoyed it and found it quite different to what he was expecting. And I think, while he was working on Gran Torino he mentioned my name, or Kyle or his musical collaborator mentioned me, you know, ‘Why doesn’t Jamie work on this with us?’

Jamie Cullum

Jamie Cullum: “I tried to speak as him. I used the music as a way to speak and I improvised a lot of the lyrics.”

“They had the idea of the first two notes of the song, that really simple line. Clint said he immediately heard that music coming through his brain while he was looking through the camera lens. So he played that to me and said, ‘Could you write a lyric and flesh out the song?’ So I took that melody line and a second part that he’d come up with there, then I added to the rest of it and wrote the lyric from scratch, recorded it in my home studio and sent it back to him in America, and he loved it. He didn’t want a single change. Then about a week later I went to Los Angeles to record it completely live in his house! It was in the front room of his guest house in Beverley Hills, or wherever it is there.

“I think I would’ve been overwhelmed by the gravitas of that, maybe if it was two or three years before. I think I jumped into it. I was nervous but I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ After it was done and it was in the movie – I didn’t even see it, I only read the script, I didn’t see the movie until the day it came out, actually. I couldn’t go [to the preview] because I had gigs elsewhere. So I based the lyric off the script and saw the movie afterwards and it was quite an amazing thing to pay for a ticket along with everyone else, knowing that the song was going to be part of the movie. It was beyond a dream.

“I read the script like I would read a novel. I tried to just embody myself in the character – a lonely old man who has this past, who’s very distrustful of the people around him, for various reasons – and I tried to speak as him. I used the music as a way to speak and I improvised a lot of the lyrics. I thought about his character feeling like he’d lost control of the world of the around him, how people who are distrustful of strangers coming into their neighbourhood, and how – throughout the course of the film – the trajectory is to realise that nothing’s under our control and actually you just need to embrace the community around you, whatever that may be. And I had this idea of someone who’s so desperate to be in control that he’s trying to align all the stars, so that’s why I’d written that: ‘Realign all the stars above my head’. And then I thought about him being a veteran, so you know… ‘Battle scars and worn out beds.’ Those images just grabbed me. The script was so good, it all came to me quite quickly and I just had to kind of put them in order. I had to do that thing that songwriters have to do which is do a bit of ‘grunt work’ – you know, write out a lot of images, get them in order and see how they can fit together, a bit like building a house, really.”

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Jamie Cullum’s version of Gran Torino appeared on his 2009 studio album The Pursuit. Find out more at jamiecullum.com

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