The Pianoman at Christmas

The Pianoman at Christmas

“There is always a job for a piano player at Christmas,” Jamie Cullum tells Apple Music. “Back when I was 17 or 18, I remember trudging through the snow to get to gigs at pubs or department stores to play ‘Jingle Bells,’ and ever since I’ve been fascinated by Christmas music.” Decades since his days of novelty pub gigs, the singer-songwriter releases his debut Christmas album. Inspired by a self-described “nerdy songwriter challenge” to see if he could come up with 10 new compositions to fit the genre, Cullum sat at his piano at home during the coronavirus lockdown, juggling homeschooling his children with writing seasonal melodies and heartwarming lyrics recorded on his voice memos app. Once it was fleshed out, he contacted his longtime collaborator Tom Richards to help write arrangements for what would become a 57-strong big band of musicians who recorded the album in luscious orchestration at London’s Abbey Road Studios. The result is a modern classic for the holiday season. Harking back to the deep-seated swing of jazz luminaries such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington—plus the Christmas-themed work of the likes of Ray Charles, Joni Mitchell, and Sufjan Stevens—The Pianoman at Christmas deftly weaves its way from the joyous cacophony of “It’s Christmas” to the Latin-jazz-tinged “Hang Your Lights” and to the plaintive balladry of “Christmas Caught Me Crying,” exploring the melancholic undertones of this celebratory period. Read on for Cullum’s thoughts, track by track. It’s Christmas “This song sets the agenda for the album. It feels really Christmassy, but actually, the tune is about how the world is polarized and we fight all the time, so perhaps the holiday celebrations might be a moment for us to all pull together and say, ‘I understand we all have differences and that we don't agree on everything, but we are all human beings, poking around in the dark and trying to find our way towards the light. So why can't we all get along for just a few days? It might teach us something.’ It's a quietly subversive song.” Beautiful, Altogether “My attempt to write a song a bit like ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’. The thing I love most about Christmas is when all your favorite people are crowded around a table that no one can quite fit around. ‘Altogether’ means when we're beautiful en masse, despite all the chaos and the noise and the fact that the room is too hot and crowded. I wanted the arrangement and the sound of the music to feel like you're walking into that cozy, welcoming room.” Hang Your Lights “I was thinking about Ray Charles’ songs and his cheeky, 1950s-style lyrics, saying things like ‘Turn your lamp down low/Girl, I love you so.’ So I wrote, ‘Hang your lights on me/Put yourself at the top of my tree.’ And then the song progresses and you have this really powerful, roaring big band. This is the party that was happening while these musicians were playing at Abbey Road Studio Two, which was recorded in real time. The female singers add a whole other element also, like when The Raelettes would come and sing their sections on Ray Charles compositions. It's a Christmas party from beginning to end.” The Jolly Fat Man “This is real Count Basie, Duke Ellington territory. I wanted to write a song that felt like ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,’ which everyone thinks is a comic song, but if you break it down is absolutely masterful. I've been obsessed with it for years. This is where I’m writing with a classic Christmas feel, told through the lens of 2020, when I didn't even realize it. Here, Santa Claus is coming to rescue everyone from a long and lonely year. Santa Claus doesn't read the news or get involved in debates–he's just got a big sack full of presents, and even though things have been really difficult, he's coming to save us.” The Pianoman at Christmas “This song is like the film The Fabulous Baker Boys where Jack Baker is sitting at the piano after a gig at Christmas. He's always at the party playing the piano and he's always getting some kind of girl but never the girl he wants. It was such an enjoyable payoff for me, the idea of wanting to be someone's man, but instead I'm just the pianoman at Christmas, endlessly going from gig to gig just playing ‘Jingle Bells.’” Turn On the Lights “I was thinking about the Sufjan Stevens Christmas records that I love and joyous moments of Arcade Fire-style rock when I wrote this tune. It's all about the momentum of Christmas starting up, with the music reflecting that feeling of something exciting beginning—almost like the anticipation-laden start of a love affair. The feeling in your stomach of knowing Christmas is coming, in particular when you're young, is just such a palpable sense that I wanted to recreate.” So Many Santas “The idea for this song came from images of Christmas that I remembered as a kid, and one was walking around town with my mum, going to Santa's grotto in Chippenham, and then I'd walk around the corner and there would be another Santa in WH Smith's, another collecting charity money, and then a Christmas grotto at school. I used to think, ‘Why are there so many Santas?’ That felt like a good title, so I just riffed on that idea and wanted to add a big-band feel that Nina Simone or Louis Armstrong might have sung on.” Christmas Never Gets Old “This is probably the most traditional idea of a Christmas song on the album. Somehow, despite the fact that we do the same things almost every year, Christmas just doesn't get old. The familiarity of it is the thing that we love about it. This is just me trying to capture that in a two-and-a-half-minute song that references all the classics we love, from ‘Jingle Bells’ to ‘Winter Wonderland’ and ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’–this is my version.” How Do You Fly? “One of my favorite Christmas songs is a tune that you can listen to all year round: Joni Mitchell's ‘River.’ This is the song on the album that I hope can work any time of year too. It's about a child on the border of adulthood who is realizing that maybe the world isn't as full of magic as they were led to believe, that it is actually a lot more of a frightening and confusing place. It's seen through the guise of thinking about the magic that exists around Christmas and how much of that you still choose to hold on to as you get older. The idea is that you should still keep a little magic, even if things don't seem as clear as they used to. It's probably my favorite song on the record.” Christmas Caught Me Crying “This is the album's shadow. We all have a shadow, and to ignore it is a mistake. Christmas has a shadow because a lot of it can be about enforced happiness and enforced jollity. I think a lot of people, me included, can feel very melancholy at Christmas. I think about the people that I've lost in my life—friends and relatives who are no longer with us–and Christmas also reminds you of what a fleeting amount of time we have on earth. We recorded it fully live in the studio with no fiddling about, so hopefully you can hear the purity and the fragility of that on the record.”

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