Nine Songs: Jamie Cullum
Admittedly, back in December 2020 when Christmas with loved ones was suddenly and panically called off, the last thing on most people’s minds would have been, but what about the Christmas songs?
But it’s fair to argue that opinion on the sweet and sickly melodies that decorate the period became even more polarised, as people fell into two camps: those who winced them away like a cheap mulled wine and those who, in their desperation to manifest some sense of familiar festivity and comfort, guzzled them down and hoped for solace.
Such a backdrop must have made it a strange time for an artist to release an album of original Christmas songs, as Jamie Cullum well knows, sharing his ninth studio album The Pianoman At Christmas last November and re-releasing a deluxe edition this year with classic covers featuring the likes of Lady Blackbird and Kansas Smitty’s.
“Everything felt strange,” he recalls from his home studio. “I really noticed how differently you could promote the record, in the same way that people have noticed how differently we can all work, for better or for worse, from our phones and bedrooms and studios and whatever. It was amazing what a huge amount of space there was from not travelling, and the narrowness of what a Christmas album could be. Jack White talks about limitations when you're starting a project, I wrote that album in one big flow, and it felt like a miracle when it came out last year because obviously touring got cancelled. Somehow we managed to write and record it and somehow it came out and connected with people, despite all the odds.”
Connect with people it did, flirting with the Top 10 regardless (or because) of the grim and grey period it was. It’s little surprise, though, that the nostalgic cadences that gently punctuate Cullum’s favourite style of playing, somewhere between blues and the Great American Songbook, should suit the concept of a Christmas song, and is why he was drawn to it in the first place.
“Christmas is a time to close in and get cosy and create your own little world inside your house, and somehow this Great American Songbook style music, with its gorgeous melodies, rich orchestration and familiarity and kind of solidness, it's a very rounded thing and it kind of invites you in like a Christmas scene. As a songwriter I got really excited to try and add to that, and I've recorded a lot of that style of music, so I thought it would be a different and original way to do it.”
Covers from “Winter Wonderland” to “Have Yourself A Very Merry Christmas” aside, Cullum’s own take on the yuletide tradition, polished with the production of Greg Wells, taps into these tropes so sharply at times that in moments such as “The Jolly Fat Man” and, fittingly, “It’s Christmas”, it’s hard not to sway with a little childlike joy.
His own two children are understandably a tad more excited for waking up on the 25th than their dad’s songs about the day though, he admits. “I disappoint every interviewer when I get asked about the Christmas album, because it's so not a part of our family life. Practising and writing is part of it, but entertaining people with it is something I leave out.” So what is a typical Christmas in the Cullum household? “Well I'm hoping it will be typical, like everyone else. But it's very much the same as most peoples: too many people in a room that can't quite hold everyone, round a table that's not quite big enough, that's got too much food on it. And pure chaos, as soon as you throw kids into the mix the chaos adds up even more. So ideally, our house will be full of people, children, food and mayhem.”
Frankly, it’s hard not to feel comfortable talking to Cullum, and as not just a musician, but a radio presenter and evident music fan, he’s an ideal subject for a Nine Songs feature. It helps that he’s a fan of the feature, mind. “Do you know what? I'm really past doing things like this where I'm using it as an opportunity to show off how broad my music tastes are, haha! I love this column because I think it's a chance to express some real honesty about music tastes.”
In offering up with enthusiasm and a poetic clarity, in his pivotal Nine Songs, many of which he has performed or recorded himself, Cullum uncovers a myriad of stories, from the turning points in his development as a jazz musician, his complicated religious upbringing, his friendship with Amy Winehouse, and how he first met his wife.
“Back in the days of terrestrial TV, there was something on in the afternoons on a Sunday that was a kind of pop culture show, and I used to watch it because it was one of the few things on TV where you could see things about computer games, I can't remember what it was, but they'd have a 'Game of the Week'. Games were never on the TV when I was young and I love computer games, but there was also always a bit about music; Ben Folds Five were on it and I'd never heard of them before.
“I played a bit of piano then, but I was more interested in the guitar. I was really into Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers and drum & bass and hip hop, a lot of the stuff that my peers were into. I loved the piano, but I saw Ben Folds Five playing and heard them playing a song called "Battle of Who Could Care Less", which is off their first big album. I loved it instantly, I was like, 'What is this?' Amazing harmonies, and there was no guitar, but the fuzz bass did everything. I saw Ben Folds hurling a drum stool at the piano and standing on the piano being a total rock star but looking a bit like a nerd. I kind of recognised part of myself in Ben Folds; he was a bit bookish and nerdy, but a bit punky at the same time. You couldn't quite put him into an obvious box, and I loved it straight away.
“Me and a friend got tickets to see them play at Shepherd's Bush Empire, and I knew I loved the band, but when they played they had this new song called "Army", which was going to be off their next album - "Well I thought about the army / Dad said, son you're fucking high" - it was a real moment.
“I wasn't thinking I'd be a musician for a living at that stage, but seeing Ben Folds Five, hearing the piano played in that way and seeing it treated in that way gave me a real sense that maybe I could do something onstage and maybe I would too. It was purely inspiring. The lyrics were funny, they were insightful and had great rhymes, the music was ambitious, it had different movements to it, but you could still dance to it and people were still moshing to it. It brought a lot of things together that I hadn't seen before.
“Their use of piano with bass with the overdrive pedal on is a signature Ben Folds Five sound, and that classical flourish he does over the lyric "I've been thinking a lot today", and that build up into the outro horn section, with the fuzz bass playing those low notes, and almost classical-style melody rising up and down while he sings a surreal, wistful, sweet lyric. It's a moment when the song becomes quite serious and melancholy.
"I've interviewed him as well, and he talked about that trio record from Elton John, the live one 17-11-70, that made him see the potential for what a piano can be on stage. This album and this band did a similar thing for me.”
“What does Nina's rendition add to the original? Everything. Randy Newman is my gold standard songwriter, and he has a very particular way of delivering his songs, his conversational and beautiful voice, and his voicings at the piano are so elegant. He has the elegance of Bill Evans at the piano, I think. He doesn't play like him, but there are no unused notes in his voicings, and as a piano player that's something you really look out for, someone who really knows their shit and is not just playing the same notes either side of their piano chords.
“He's clearly a truly gifted songwriter and as important as a melodist as much as a lyricist, but I think Nina Simone is my favourite artist of all time. For me, she brings together the beauty of jazz and blues, the giftedness and technicality of any of the great jazz musicians and singers, but importantly, and above anything else, she has the grit and soul of anyone from Bessie Smith through to Iggy Pop, do you know what I mean? It's all in there, the yearning and sadness of early blues, the power of bebop and jazz, and the snarl of punk and rock and roll. So when she sings these lyrics, the true desolation of this song, yet the romanticism of it at the same time, is all the more apparent and brings it out in a way that Randy Newman doesn't, I think.
“My sense is that she brings so much of her classical musicianship into anything she plays, and she has a great sense of those contrapuntal melodies, where you can have one thing in one hand and one thing in another. I think that speaks a lot to her character as well. She was really in touch with her shadow; her angel came out in her music, but her shadow came out in life and at times in her music as well. I think that's the compelling thing about her, she's a shining light and a dark, interesting soul who lived out loud and in the shadows as well.
“I think she's the most compelling artist of all time really. She's one of those artists, I think particularly when you're a bit of a muso kid like I was, you learn to love artists like Nina Simone a bit later. I always thought she was great, but I think her true power was as someone who can translate human aspects into music that are beyond technique and anything flashy, who can do it with a human cry.
“I think that's something you relate to a bit more with maturity, but I can only speak for myself. In the same way that you learn to love Bob Dylan's voice a bit more, you don't see his imperfections as imperfections, but more just a part of why it's perfect. As I've gotten older and realised how wonderful and tragic life is at the same time, and how grey life is - and I don't mean grey as in dull, but in that heroes and villains are a bit of myth - the nuanced power of Nina is something that greatly impacted me from my 30’s onwards.
“And this song is how I first met my wife! We've been together for fifteen years, but we sang this together. We met at a charity event, she was singing it and asked me to play this song. If someone asks you to play this song, and Nina Simone's version, you know that they're the person you want to get to know.”
“I think Sufjan gave me a wakeup call in my songwriting life. I was always a songwriter, but jazz and being a jazz musician, was a little detour. It's not that I don't take that seriously, in fact I'm taking that more seriously than ever right now, I'm having lessons again and trying to really evolve my playing. But I think sometimes when you're a jazz musician, you get so caught up in improvisation and the ability to play and express yourself in an improvisational way through your instrument, that when you go to write songs you have to bring yourself back to the lyric.
“What I think Sufjan does, is that he’s able to bring lyrics with such huge power to the table that you really respond to. They're completely suffused with his own story, and so there's lots of things you might not quite understand, but you don't need to. So he kind of brought me back to the lyric, but at the same time his music has never been any less adventurous; he has the adventurousness of any great composer or jazz musician, whether it's Philip Glass or Miles Davis.
“Sonically it's adventurous as well; this song, "Blue Bucket of Gold" brings to mind a thing I love that happens in songs, it happens on the song that opens Kid A, "Everything In Its Right Place", where you have quite an intimate sounding song that ends up in a beautiful wash of synths or strings, the sonic layer of the song opens up towards the end, and "Blue Bucket of Gold" does this too.
“Also, Sufjan reminds me of my religious background, which I kind of denied for ages. I wouldn't say I'm an atheist, I would have said that, but would no longer. My religious background is quite complicated. My dad was born in Jerusalem, his mum was Jewish but had to put all that aside when she escaped the Nazis and lost all her family in the holocaust, and really didn't rediscover her Judaism until I was a young child really. But at the same time, I was brought up Roman Catholic because of my mum's side of the family who are all Indian-Burmese. My granddad was an orphan from India who was brought up by Franciscan monks, so he and my grandmother had Catholicism.
“So I had all of that in my background when I was very young, so a lot of music I heard growing up in church was very heavy on the ritual and psalms. I think Sufjan's writing, particularly on Carrie & Lowell, has a lot of hymn-like quality to it, and I think it brought me back to that and how powerful a lot of that imagery was as a young boy.”
“Tom Waits is this combination of a maximalist songwriter and sometimes the most economical. I think this is an example of such economy in songwriting, that just hits you in the gut. It really is one of those pieces of music that can generate tears so quickly, the idea of how long you can be around someone, but how much you can lose sight of them, even if you're in the same house as them every day.
"I'm not talking necessarily about marriage, but any relationship with anyone. You know, I'm still here. From the opening piano line to the way he goes up the melody at the very end of the song with the lyric "But I'm still here". And the way the middle part of the song subtly changes within the key.
“I love it when Tom Waits isn't afraid to go a little bit Sondheim and a bit musical theatre with his voice that often recalls early blues singers like Screamin' Jay Hawkins and even Frank Sinatra. It's a combination of how emotional it makes me feel as a human being but also as a songwriter, it's like reading a haiku or four lines by William Blake that seem to encapsulate more about humanity than the thousands and thousands of words of other people.
“I went to see him play in Paris with my wife, and it was quite an amazing situation. We left our hotel room to go to the gig, I was so excited and realised I had forgotten my phone. She said, "Oh don't worry about it, you don't need your phone", so we went to the gig and really enjoyed it and were out really late. It was literally the best gig I had ever seen, and then I got back to the hotel and looked at my phone, and as I had been leaving the hotel my mum had called to tell me that my grandmother had died.
“He sang this song that night as well. I thought it was a very synchronistic kind of thing, because I wouldn't have gone to that concert had I had my phone on me. To me, Tom Waits is someone who channels divine stuff, and is so open to the elements around him. I don't know, it just seemed fitting that I was going to a concert by one of the greatest artists of all time, and I could have missed it if I had my phone on me.”
“I sang this with Amy Winehouse a couple of times. We toured together in the early part of her career, she was my support act, which I laugh about, and many people like to joke on my Twitter about how hilarious that was. She was always the most talented person in any room she was in.
“We were good friends around that time, we spent a lot of time together. She was a magic person: unpredictable, fiery and just achingly, achingly talented. She was always playing Ray Charles in her dressing room, and we really connected over Tony Bennett and Ray Charles. I think we also ended up singing "Night Time Is The Right Time" on Jools Holland together a year later or something.
“They're bittersweet memories for me, because we were close for about five or six years, then for many reasons we were not so close after that. I think our lives went in quite different directions. But those memories of our time talking about Ray Charles and how this vocal on "Hard Times" is probably one of the best vocals ever committed to three-and-a-half minutes of music. So I hear this and I always think of her and our friendship.”
“Around my jazz awakening, around fifteen or sixteen, there was a lot of A Tribe Called Quest, hip hop-lite bands like Us3, but also Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and The Beatnuts. A lot of hip hop that had jazz and soul with a lot of breaks. Jamiroquai was a sound I was really getting into, and I then found my mum and dad's Stevie Wonder records. So sounds that had a lot of jazz in it, and a particular type of jazz. I became enthralled to the sound of the electric piano, the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
“Then Roni Size came out with "Brown Paper Bag" and the New Forms album that had a lot of electric piano on it. My brother was at uni studying music, and he came back with this record, Head Hunters, and said ‘You've got to hear this, it's got drum & bass, funk and all the best things about the acid jazz we love.’
“I'll remember until my dying day my green Akai Walkman on the bus on the way to school, walking to the bus stop in the pouring rain listening to "Chameleon". The second half to it particularly, not the beginning section with the synth bass opening, I always fast-forwarded to the middle, where the drums pick up and the string pad comes back in, going back to Sufjan Stevens and Kid A to open up the sonic landscape, and that Fender Rhodes solo. I can sing it for you note for note, and I learnt how to play that piano solo, and dreamed about owning my own Fender Rhodes electric piano.
“When you start to learn jazz solos note for note, you naturally start to get much more serious about jazz. That's the next step, when you're learning an improvised solo and learning exactly what they're doing. For me this was the birth of that, this ‘70s funk sonic adventure period of Herbie Hancock that was so hip and still sounds amazing.
“These days I'll play it when I'm testing a set of speakers or headphones, similar to albums like In Rainbows or Kind of Blue, it's almost like a palette cleanser, because for me it’s the pinnacle of what something can be in a certain type of genre. It will definitely come out on a regular occasion.”
“Twentysomething was a big success, and I'd kind of infiltrated the Top 10. I was successful, but the music press were quite dismissive of me. Radio One didn't know what to do with me, so when I got a BRIT nomination, they invited me on and said do the single at the time, which was "These Are The Days", but then asked if I could do a funny hip hop cover. I said sure, but they had no idea how much I was into my hip hop.
“I didn't feel the need to prove anything, I loved anything The Neptunes did and the song "Frontin'", and of course the middle section where Jay-Z does the rap is total Herbie Hancock. It was for Jo Whiley's Live Lounge, and my band members were both real jazz guys and weren't necessarily into Pharrell, but we worked it out in the soundcheck about half an hour before we went on air and recorded it fully live. That's the version that everyone ended up hearing, and I think it took everyone by surprise; we weren't doing it ironically, and I know a lot of people don't think this now but at the time it was quite a shock to people.
“Jo loved it so much that she played it to Pharrell a couple of days later when he was on her show and he loved it. So at the BRIT Awards about four days later, he was on the red carpet, and the interviewer was saying 'So Pharrell, who are you looking forward to meeting tonight?' and he said 'Jamie Cullum!' Everyone was like, 'What? What the fuck are you talking about?!' So I met him and we got talking about Herbie Hancock, Gary Bartz, Roy Ayers.
“He knew his music and I knew my music, you know? I went and worked with him in Miami for a few weeks on his solo album, In My Mind, and we worked on some stuff for me, which sadly never got the chance to develop in the way I would have liked, but it was a thrill to be in his orbit and be around him in a time when in the Top 10 there would be five tracks that The Neptunes produced - Justin Timberlake, Gwen Stefani, Kelis, all that stuff. To have that as part of what my career was becoming at that time really changed everything; it gave me a huge opportunity in America, and it's still a song I play nightly. And I meet people of your age and that was your entry point into this type of music, you know? It was done totally off the cuff and done with love and enthusiasm and a little bit of musicality.
“Having watched the way Pharrell works, he doesn't have music theory knowledge, but he knows music so well that he'll sit and sculpt out chords on a keyboard and put them together, and it's so exciting, because you can hear him discovering the chords as he plays them. He sits there at a keyboard and is just exploring, not overthinking, just pulling stuff out of the divine universe.”
“This is a much, much lesser-known Frank Sinatra tune. I don't know what your average Line of Best Fit reader is like, but this is one that has a touch of Scott Walker about it, it's dark and interesting.
“With Frank, it's very easy to lionise the 1950s Capitol era, but in this ‘60s era where he was definitely out of public favour, he had these dark, interesting albums. It's a flagship song for me with regards to loving the great crooners. My mum has a great love for Sinatra, Bennett, Tony Williams, that kind of crooner and that kind of sound. The big voice, with great control and great melodrama to some degree and an amazing feel of swing. Real poise and elegance.
“There are so many different readings you can give Frank Sinatra and his career, but I can guarantee most people won't have heard this song, but if they put this one on headphones and turn the lights off, they'll be like, ‘That's a freaking jam.’”
“Harry Connick, Jr is an artist I didn't speak about as much as I should have done in the early part of my career, because I think you try and cast off your early influences - I was chatting to Nadine Shah about this the other day. The truth is that seeing Harry Connick, Jr on TVAM when I was ten was a huge influence on me.
"He's an artist who brings New Orleans into the world of jazz; obviously he is from New Orleans, but the tradition of modern jazz piano or bebop jazz piano and the New Orleans style are quite different. They obviously meet, but there's different rhythms, there's the Creole aspect, there's the traditional jazz aspect and there's the dance floor aspect. It's kind where New York, Chicago and New Orleans meet, and Harry brings all those things together.
“Here he's performing with one of the New Orleans greats, Dr John, who's a direct link to Professor Longhair and James Booker and all these great people. So by falling in love with Harry Connick, Jr and particularly this song, he opened my world up to this lineage of New Orleans musicians. It's a classic kind of gateway drug. You know, he was talking to Lorraine Kelly about Thelonius Monk, about Herbie Hancock, about Jon Hendricks and about Professor Longhair. Heroin-taking piano geniuses, and this is as I'm getting ready for school, eating my Frosties.
"People like that do a major, major service. They're cultural smugglers, and if you've got a fertile mind that's ready to be filled and someone like that comes on and plays... I dreamed about being from New Orleans. I was born in Essex but felt like I was living in New Orleans, or that I should have been born there.
“This was the first tune that I learnt note for note. I sat at the piano for days and days after school and I figured it out, and when I got my first piano gig at fifteen, I used to play this twelve times a night. Imagine this fifteen-year-old who looks about ten in Castle Combe, singing "Do You Know What It Means To Miss Orleans". Looking back on it it's very funny, but it's a part of my journey I feel really appreciative of.
“I've played in New Orleans a few times, and obviously it's changed, but you can still grab hold of parts of the original. I think I might have actually chosen to play this, which is possibly a fool’s errand, but I have been back there to play quite a few times since, so hopefully it didn't go down like a lead balloon.
"Out of these Nine Songs, I probably enjoy playing this the most, because it reminds me of the beginning of my musical journey. Sitting down and learning these kind of chords and all the extensions and that musical movement, it's a different kind of harmonic interest that is ten lifetimes worth of study. So to have begun that with Harry Connick, Jr and Dr John feels like I was very lucky.”