Jamie Cullum is an artist that, hopefully, needs no introduction. He has sold over 10 million records worldwide, and the turnout at all of his sold-out shows in our country to date proves that his talent, creativity and charisma definitely appeal to the Polish audience. The one thing I know for sure is that they very much appeal to me, which is why I’m particularly excited to share our conversation. In it, Jamie talks about his new album The Pianoman at Christmas, his great love of music and the importance of keeping that love alive as a creator.
I’m so happy that he get the chance to talk about your new album, The Pianoman at Christmas. You have already released a couple of Christmas songs in the past few years including “It’s Christmas”, which opens the record. What made you feel like this year was the right moment to make and release an entire Christmas-themed album?
I guess it’s been my plan for a while to do something that added to the Christmas conversation. Working with Robbie Williams last year inspired me to contribute my own thing. I had some ideas and notebooks, and, as you said, I had this song written. We recorded it, but I wanted to rerecord it because I wasn’t happy with it. Then I thought, I’m gonna write some more songs in 2020, and I’ll make and put out the Christmas album in 2021. Then my tour got cancelled because of the pandemic, so I suddenly had all this time and space to make music, and the Christmas project got accelerated. It was curious because I suddenly found myself writing these Christmas songs in March, April, May. It was very warm in the UK around that time. We were in the pandemic, my wife and I were home-schooling our children in the morning, and I’d be writing these Christmas songs in the afternoon. Once the initial shock of COVID and the lockdown had worn off a little bit, it was a really joyous and quite romantic thing to be doing. I really enjoyed it.
…so you wouldn’t have made the album this year if it weren’t for the pandemic and lockdown? How has the current situation around the world influenced your creative process?
I don’t think I would have had the chance to make it this year. It was a beautiful surprise. As I said, I always wanted it do it. I think there was something about the clear space in my brain that seemed really fertile for ideas to come in, be really imaginative and quite ambitious about these songs and the way they are produced and put together.
What were your biggest influences while making the album? How did you move away from them to find and express your own voice?
Adding to the Christmas music conversation is quite a challenge because people really love the Christmas songs that we know. They are classics for a good reason. There are maybe thirty or fifty songs that everyone knows, and that is quite a small pool. Trying to add new ones to it was a challenge, but I think that a lot of the music that’s well known and really popular around Christmas is written in a style that I’m quite familiar with and quite comfortable working in. I feel like I could write these types of songs. I listened to the Christmas songs I loved, like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and I thought, what would my version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” sound like? and so I wrote a song called “Beautiful, Altogether”. I also love “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town”, and my version of that was “The Jolly Fat Man”. I tried to use my understanding of composition, my own sense of humour and sense of lyric writing to make something that worked within this framework but was also, hopefully, signature of being me. I tried not to be too psyched out by the classics because I think that that’s definitely possible.
The classics were just starting points.
Exactly. So often a lot of writing is done like that. You imitate to create in so many ways. David Bowie did that, so if he did that, then I’m sure it’s okay.
How did it feel to transfer all the ideas and feelings that went into writing these songs from your home studio to the iconic Abbey Road Studios?
As you know, it’s one of the great studios of the world. It’s historic for The Beatles recording there, we were in Studio 2 as well. It has the feeling of holy ground, a great church. But it is also a great place to make music. It’s a beautiful room to make music in. I just felt so lucky. When we were in there, it felt like Christmas. This was like my ideal Christmas present. To have some of the best musicians in the world recording my music at Abbey Road literally felt like Christmas, so that’s an appropriate reaction, right?
Definitely. I guess that getting together with all the musicians after you had been at home for an extended period of time must have been really special as well.
It really was. For a lot of the musicians that came to the session, this was the first thing they did after lockdown, so there was a real feeling of catharsis.
We have mentioned influences. As an avid listener of your radio show, I have to ask if hosting it and interviewing other musicians has impacted your own music and you as an artist. If so, how?
I’m definitely a fan of music. I know that sounds obvious, but I really am. I’m a collector. I really approach loving music as a fan, so sometimes I forget that I play when I’m listening. I think that sometimes when you listen to music as a musician, you listen in terms of is it better than mine? Can I do something like this? What ideas can I get from it? I listen to music as someone who’s a geek, who wants to go to the concert and buy the T-shirt. On the radio, I’m reminded of this every week. I’m playing music to be enjoyed by the people at home and to talk about it. I’m not playing it as a musician, I’m playing it as a fan. There are quite different ways to listen. As a musician, sometimes if you forget to listen, you lose quite a lot of the richness of music, and you can lose that from your own music as well. I found that listening as a fan is really helpful. When it comes to interviewing other musicians, you get great ideas, you hear people you might want to get involved in your own music. But I think, really, it’s just about keeping that fandom alive, and that’s what I get through doing the radio show.
You won this year’s Ivor Novello Award for “The Age Of Anxiety” as the best song musically and lyrically. To me this song, already so rich in meaning and emotions, has somehow taken on even more meaning in the context of what has been happening in the world for the last few months. What does it take to create a song that is both reflective of a given moment and timeless? How do you make that possible?
That’s a really good question… I think the truth is that if you write a song correctly, it shouldn’t box you in in the way you’re supposed to feel. Sometimes that’s the danger of writing a “diary song” about exactly your experience. You use your own experience, but you should open the song up to the world. If you open it up to the world, it can speak to you at a different era. When I wrote “The Age Of Anxiety, the time that we’re in now was not happening. But as soon as the pandemic began and we were in lockdown, the streaming numbers of “The Age Of Anxiety” went up by two hundred percent.
The opening line, I just wanna live inside sometimes, feels almost ironic to me right now.
I know! It’s so crazy. I think that songs are little fortune-tellers. That’s the majesty of songs: they are cleverer than just music, and they are cleverer than just words; together they become something special, and that’s what makes me want to write them, really.
Is there a song on the new album that feels especially personal to you? I have to say that I was especially moved by “How Do You Fly?”.
You’ve listened very closely, and I appreciate that. You’re right, “How Do You Fly?” is definitely the most personal. It is a song about a child coming on the borderhood of adulthood, wondering whether they have a place in the world as an adult and realising that the world is much more chaotic and frightening than they were led to believe. This is looked at through the lens of whether they still think that Santa Claus comes down the chimney as well. It seemed to bring all these things together. It is an emotional and personal song, probably the one I’m most close to on the record. I’m really glad it spoke to you, I’m really proud of it.
What would you like people to take away from listening to The Pianoman at Christmas? How would you like them to feel about it?
I hope this album feels like a warm hug. The curtains closed, the fireplace on… But I also hope that whilst it brings some real joyfulness and Christmas spirit, it also doesn’t shy away from talking about some of the complexities of Christmas, some of the sadnesses and confusion caused by all the crazy emotions that happen around Christmas. And I hope that it feels like a timeless record that you’ll want to reach for next year, and you’ll think, this is fresh, I love this, I look forward to this in the years to come.
How do you feel about returning to the stage, hopefully next year? Do you think it will be different for you compared to previous tours? Will you have a newfound appreciation for performing in front of an audience?
Definitely. It’s very strange because this has been the longest period in my life where I haven’t been touring at all. I’m really excited to be playing again, of course, but I’m also quite nervous. Not about coronavirus, but I’m nervous because I’ve gotten so used to being at home with my kids and my wife that it’s gonna feel like quite a jump into the unknown to be back out on the road again and be away from my family. I have a real mixture of emotions about it.
My tickets have been sitting in a drawer for over a year now, so I’m definitely excited for that moment.
I know, it’s crazy. It is amazing how long people have had the tickets for. I think the lovely thing about the time we’re playing music again is that everyone is going to be so happy to see live music again and will not take it for granted anymore. I include myself in that, both playing and seeing live music. It’s gonna be really cathartic, and I’m looking forward to the day we are all in a room together, singing and dancing, and we’re not nervous to be there with each other. It’s gonna be really exciting.