The Sound Cafe
Australia's Hall of Fame Singer-Songwriter Paul Kelly Releases Christmas Double Album
By Jason Schneider.
As he gathered the material for his first Christmas album, Paul Kelly soon realized that a collection of 10 seasonal standards could never cover the richness he wanted to convey. He knew he wanted to make a record that drew out all the emotions and layers of the Christmas story, and in a way that reflected the holiday experience in the southern hemisphere, far removed from the snowy imagery of so many Christmas songs.
The result is an extraordinary 22-song double album that travels across the centuries, from a Latin hymn to well-known carols, from a traditional Irish folk ballad to songs with an unmistakable local flavour, and a sparkling new version of one of the greatest Australian Christmas songs of them all, Kelly’s own “How to Make Gravy.”
“I’ve always been interested in Christmas songs and the variety of them,” Kelly says. “There is a double-edged sword to Christmas music because every year it is everywhere, pumped to you in supermarkets and malls. There is a lot of schlock attached but on the other hand there are so many great Christmas songs and so much to explore. I’ve chosen songs I love, which led me often to wander off the well-worn path, then chosen singers I thought best suited to them.”
The sacred and the secular, the ancient and modern, are all carefully woven into a collection destined to become a part of Christmases around the globe for many years to come. It is delivered by Kelly and his band with a big cast of Christmas helpers including vocalists Vika and Linda Bull, Marlon Williams, Kasey Chambers and Emma Donovan, along with contributions from the Kelly clan: nephew and bandmate Dan, siblings Mary-Jo and Tony, and Paul’s daughters Maddy and Memphis.
Christmas was a big part of Kelly’s upbringing in a large Catholic family in Adelaide. “We had Advent, the month-long build-up to Christmas. There was a small crib in one of the fireplaces with a pile of straw beside it. Every time you did something good or denied yourself something you would secretly put straw in the crib so it would be filled by Christmas, when a statuette of the baby Jesus would miraculously appear in the crib. The statues of the Three Wise Men started a long way off in another part of the house, secretly moving every night along mantelpieces so they would arrive at the crib for the Epiphany on January 6. That was all part of Christmas for us. It was fun and mysterious and had that magic about it.”
For the Kelly clan singing is always part of the season, especially on Gravy Day (December 21), “Sometimes we do it all together, sometimes the Queensland gang do it separately from the Melbourne gang, and we have the tradition of singing carols on Christmas Eve, not very reverentially.”
Part of the joy in Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train comes from discovering fresh ways to treat the best-known songs, from the Hawaiian guitar and ukuleles of “Silent Night,” with a verse in the original German sung by Alice Keath, to an astonishing performance by Marlon Williams singing “Tapu Te Pō" (O Holy Night) in the Māori language. The story of Jesus and Mary has strong associations with Judaism and Islam (the Qu’ran has a chapter devoted to the story); here on Christmas Train singer-songwriter Lior joins Paul, Alice, and Emily Lubitz for an acappella reading of the Hebrew prayer of peace, “Shalom Aleichem,” and Waleed Aly recites the vivid poetry of Surah Maryam. Kelly and his band bring a ’60s-fired energy to “Christmas,” an Australian song of longing for home by brothers Chris and Wes Harrington, and Linda Bull tears up the place on “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” a song originally recorded by Darlene Love on Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift for You.
Kelly explains, “There were so many songs I wanted to have on there. Having the wider frame for this album allowed me to have the songs talking to each other, the way that Arthur McBride has echoes in the Brazilian song “In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day.” There is a Hebrew hymn, an Arabic poem, folk songs, classical songs, rock songs. Then the fun, and the challenge, is to get all those elements to work together.”
“I hadn’t even thought about putting ‘...Gravy’ on the record but when I talked to friends, they all said, ‘Really? You’re not? Just do another version.’ Our live version has evolved from the original recording, so we said, ‘Let’s lay it down and see what we think.’ We have been doing it forever, so it was recorded in one or two takes. It’s 25 years since the song first came out so that’s another reason to have it here. Note that Peter Luscombe played on the original, too.”
The BBC describes Gravy Day, December 21st, as a date “deemed increasingly worth celebrating.” “#Gravyday,” “#the21stofDecember,” and “#PaulKelly” have become trending terms on Twitter, with many posts playing off How to Make Gravy’s narrative. The song’s popularity has inspired media outlets to investigate the protagonist’s possible back story and the key question in the song: “Who’s gonna make the gravy?” Several years ago, Kelly began to acknowledge the trend by hosting Gravy Day concerts.