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“It Was A Labour Of Love” – Paul Kelly On Making Music For Christmas

Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train, the Australian pop and rock musician’s first Christmas album, includes just one original composition: a re-recording of Kelly’s modern Christmas classic, ‘How to Make Gravy’, originally released in 1996.

The rest of the 74-minute double-album consists of Christmas carols and folk traditionals; adaptations of poems by John Donne and Thomas Hardy; little-known songs written by Kelly’s friends from the Melbourne scene; and covers of Christmas-themed songs by The Band, Caetano Veloso and The BellRays.

The album is loaded with guest vocalists and instrumentalists. Alice Keath and Sime Nugent, of Melbourne duo Sweet Jean, appear on ‘Silent Night’ and the Australian Christmas carol ‘Three Drovers’. Marlon Williams sings lead vocals on ‘O Holy Night’, which is translated into te reo Māori to become ‘Tapu te Pō’.

Kasey Chambers and Dan Kelly, two of Kelly’s most frequent collaborators, appear on ‘The Friendly Beasts’, a traditional Christmas song that dates back to 12th century France. Dan Kelly plays banjo on the Christian hymn ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’, which is rejigged as an Americana ballad.

Kate Miller-Heidke and Jess Hitchcock join Kelly, Keath and Williams to harmonise on the English traditional, ‘Coventry Carol’. The Christmas spiritual, ‘The Virgin Mary Had One Son’, is sung with passion by Emma Donovan and Vika and Linda Bull, in the style of the Staple Singers.

A few tracks depart from the Christian master narrative, too. Kelly invites Lior and Emily Lubitz, who’re both Jewish, to perform the Hebrew song ‘Shalom Aleichem’. On ‘Surah Maryam’, Waleed Aly, a Sunni Muslim of Egyptian heritage, reads verses 16-34 from chapter 19 of the Qur’an.

Music Feeds spoke to Kelly about the song selection, the guest artists and the decision to include songs from Judaism and Islam.

Music Feeds: What are your favourite Christmas albums?

Paul Kelly: An all-time favourite has been Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You. I play that every year. There’s another great New York/Puerto Rican one by a couple of guys, Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. It’s called Asalto Navideño, which is Spanish for “Christmas assault.” It’s a mostly pretty upbeat party record, great music to play when you’re in the kitchen or getting ready for Christmas Day.

MF: There’s a cover of ‘Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)’ from A Christmas Gift for You on your album, but you mostly avoided the big Christmas pop songs. There’s no ‘Fairytale of New York’, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ or anything like that.

PK: ‘Fairytale of New York’, it’s a great song, but I’ve maybe heard it one too many times. There’s a lot of great Christmas songs that we hear over and over again every year, so maybe some of their magic wears off.

MF: You did include a few carols and traditional Christmas songs, like ‘Silent Night’, ‘Little Drummer Boy’ and ‘O Holy Night’.

PK: ‘Silent Night’ never gets old for me. It’s such a beautiful melody. I sort of picked things that I really like. I did want to have a range of songs; I wanted to have pop songs and popular songs as well as just things I’ve discovered along the way.

MF: Alice Keath and Sime Nugent perform with you on ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Three Drovers’, and Alice appears all over the record. What’s the history of that partnership?

PK: Alice sang on a couple of things on my sonnets record [Seven Sonnets & a Song, 2016], so I’ve known her for a while. I see her as the binding thread of this record in some ways, because she’s in a lot of things. She’s in ‘Three Drovers’ and ‘Silent Night’; she’s singing on ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing; she did the harmony arrangement on the Lior song; and she sings on and organised ‘Coventry Carol’ – that was her idea, that song.

The Latin song, ‘Intonent Hodie’, was all her idea. We’d finished pretty much all the recording and I realised I didn’t have a Santa song. We started talking about Saint Nicholas, who is where Santa is derived from, and the next day she came back and said, “I found this old hymn from the 14th century in Latin. It’s about Saint Nicholas and I’ve done a little demo of it.” And that’s pretty much what’s on the record.

MF: Was it Alice’s idea to sing some of the original German lyrics on ‘Silent Night’ (or ‘Stille Nacht’) as well?

PK: Alice is fluent in German so she coached us, Sime and me, in the German verse. And then we sang together in Hebrew on Lior’s song, so Lior coached us in the Hebrew. So I sang in German, Hebrew and English and Alice sings in German, Hebrew, Latin and English.

MF: Emily Lubitz also sings on ‘Shalom Aleichem’ with Lior, Alice and yourself. It’s a Hebrew song, but it’s not a Christmas song. What made you want to put it on the album?

PK: I just wanted to make a point that Jesus is strongly connected to the other two of what I would call the one-god religions: Judaism and Islam. The Islam connection is very obvious because there’s a whole chapter of the Qur’an about Jesus and Mary. Jesus was Jewish and he preached Jewish law, he quoted from the Torah, so I thought it’d be great to have the Jewish side or the Hebrew side represented on this record.

My partner, who’s Jewish, Siân, she said, “What about ‘Shalom Aleichem’? It’s an all-year-round song, it’s sung on Fridays at Shabbat, but the lyrics talk about ministering angels, peace and kings. And it sounds like a carol.”

MF: The track ‘Surah Maryam’ features Waleed Aly reading verses from chapter 19 of the Qur’an. He speaks over an ambient arrangement. Was there any talk of Waleed singing on that track?

PK: We never discussed him singing it, but I went to him for advice about getting someone to sing those verses because there’s a rich tradition of the Qur’an being sung. We discussed that back and forth, but we decided it didn’t feel right in the context of a record with pop songs and non-religious songs as well as Christian songs.

The thing I like about those verses is the emphasis on Mary’s pain in childbirth, her agony. She says she wants to die. As far as I know, we don’t get that in the Christian story. They have hardship, there’s nowhere to stay, they have to go to a stable, Jesus has to sleep in a manger, but in the Christian story, it’s like, they get to the stable and then, oh, Jesus is born – it’s a miracle! They skip the whole labour part.

MF: A lot of thought and effort has gone into this album. Was it important for you to make sure your Christmas album was also a substantial addition to your catalogue?

PK: I’ve been thinking about it for a few years. I mentioned Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You – that record has a whole lot of different singers, so that was a model. I always wanted to have different singers singing different songs. I thought that would really help with the range of material.

A few of them took a lot of work and back and forth, so it was a long labour, but a labour of love. Hard work and fun.

‘Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train’ is out now. Today Kelly has also shared a new video for his iconic and beloved track ‘How To Make Gravy’. Watch that video here below.

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