Approach the holly jolly season, immerse into the refreshing sound for Christmas with The Pianoman at Christmas.
With 10 million album sales to date, a career spanning over two decades — Jamie Cullum is a celebrated musician the world over with loyal fans in every corner of the globe. The English musician spoke to us from the comfort of his at-home studio as he joyfully shares the experience of creating his original Christmas album.
Since there was more said in our interview than we could fit and share in our November/December issue. Here’s complete interview speaking with the English gem.
What’s the inspiration behind your new album?
Well, I have been thinking for many years about doing a Christmas album. I think it is particularly in the style of music that I have worked in for many years; that kind of jazz classic kind of sound.
As a music fan, I love the fact that when Christmas comes around, you go into your record collection, you pull out this like and go like “Oh I haven’t heard this since last December” and it’s like a ritual. I tend to read the same books around Christmas time, I tend to listen to the same records. That is a lovely thing, so I wanted to try and add to these rituals, but I didn’t feel like doing an album of covers because I think it’s been done a lot and I think many people have done it very very well.
I felt like I had more to offer by writing an original Christmas album, so I just decided I was going to do it throughout this year and release it in 2021 but my tour got cancelled obviously like everyone else. So I found myself with this time to write so I started really working on it very busily this year and it came together in a really joyful way. These Christmas songs that spoke of Christmas, but also spoke of the sometimes complicated feelings we have at Christmas as well as the happy ones and the joyful ones and I felt like I had a really rounded record and it came together as The Pianoman At Christmas so here we are.
Could we go a bit more in-depth about the production behind the album and the role you played behind the scenes?
So once the songs were written, I wrote them at the piano just here in my studio in the house. They were just piano and vocal demos to start out with. I wanted them to fit together in the most authentic way, so they wouldn’t need anything. But my vision for it was always with orchestra and big band, as big a band as I could fit in a “COVID studio”. You know I was worried that we might not be able to record like this but we actually did manage to. So I booked Abbey Roads Studios for a week and I enlisted my friend and collaborator, Tom Richards who is an incredible orchestrator and we went in and we recorded it with sixty musicians.
Recording live is beautiful, the luxurious sound of the traditional big band, the timeless string orchestra, the harp, the orchestral percussion, gongs, bass drums, tubular bells, sleigh bells and then I got my friend and collaborator Greg Wells to mix it; who also produced and mixed The Greatest Showman.
And the brief was always to create something that would be beautifully timeless but also with a modern feel at the same time. So I think the collaborators I chose really helped bring that together.
Could you describe the central mood/theme running through the album and its songs?
There’s a song on the album called Hang Your Lights which encapsulates the kind of musical fun we had while making the record. You can hear this wasn’t an album made over email, this is an album made with people in the room but between perspex screens and masks on when they weren’t playing, but musically the fun is present in all that particular song, you can hear the musicians having a great time and that sense of fun was really created in the studio.
But then you’ve also got the kind of I would say that cinematic melancholic wide-screen feel of the song like the Pianoman at Christmas or How Do You Fly, which I think you can’t avoid that feeling at Christmas as well, that there are some complicated feelings around Christmas, you know whether you think about people that you’ve lost, people that are not around anymore; people who have fallen out of love Christmas can be quite a complicated time in your head.
I try to bring those feelings in as well alongside the sense of fun, joy and ritual around Christmas every year and timelessness. I try to bring this feeling of not so much sadness just melancholy because I think that makes for a more complete Christmas feel.
What could you share about your title track of the album “The Piano Man At Christmas”?
The idea for that song came when it was last Christmas I was singing with Robbie Williams, he made a Christmas album and I was a guest on his Christmas Album. And then someone asked me to come and play some Christmas music at their Christmas party and someone else asked me to play the piano on a tv show and I said to myself “man, there’s always a job for a piano man at Christmas”. You can be unemployed all year, as soon as Christmas comes around there’s always a job.
And then I thought about the film The Fabulous Baker Boys with Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer being like a lonely piano man whose lost this girl and I thought about that kind of image of this piano player walking from venue to venue at Christmas time just playing at everyones party but actually missing the woman that he loves cause they’ve broken up or whatever, and I came up with the story of the idea of the song The Pianoman At Christmas.
So the song opens with a sound montage, you can kind of hear the piano man kind of walking through the snow, past the sound of all the children playing and the sound of like Christmas happening to his next gig. He walks into a club and starts singing about you know playing White Christmas to everyone when actually he’s just the piano man and not the man with the woman that he loves.
It felt live a very cinematic story, it felt like a very filmic story and it felt like a story I wanted to tell on this album. That’s the story that front cover is telling as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about the album that the audience would not have understood at a first glance or upon first listening to it?
I think the lyrics of the songs are obviously all original and I think whilst I try to create a timeless feel. Within all the songs you know it’s 2020, because you know all there’s always a song about Santa Claus in every Christmas album, whether it’s Santa Claus is Coming To Town but on my one, The Jolly Fat Man, it’s about a Santa Claus that’s come to save us from a very terrible year and a really difficult time, and he’s not complicated, he doesn’t read the newspapers, he doesn’t join in the debates, he just comes back to make everyone happy.
I think there are little sections in all of these songs that make you realise that although it’s timeless, it’s definitely 2020 and it’s definitely been a very weird time for all of us. So whilst you’re listening to it, you may also kind of notice those reflections as well which I hope can give you a richer feel than you would at first glance.
What message are you hoping for your fans and new listeners could take away from this album?
You know I think the idea of doing a Christmas album can come with a lot of cynicism. I think people can assume that you’re trying to write one so you can have a paycheck every year.
Of course, I write music to make my living but I think writing Christmas songs was a real stylistic challenge for me as a writer and I’m proud as this as I am proud of anything I’ve ever done, and I think people who enjoy my music are really going to enjoy this year after year.
I feel really confident and excited to promote because I love what this album is I think it has real kind of class and authenticity and a real sense of fun and some depth to it so I really hope people get that out of it as well.