Jamie Cullum on the magic of the holidays, and clinging to the familiar

Jamie Cullum has been keeping busy this year, despite the many challenges we’ve all had to face.

Having sold 11 million records worldwide, Cullum suddenly had to put the brakes on this year’s global tour in support of his eighth album, Taller. But he continued his creative output: books, a web series, his BBC Radio show (which you can hear on JAZZ.FM91), and now, a terrific holiday album.

The Pianoman at Christmas features 10 original tunes played by 57 of the best musicians in Britain. Produced by Greg Wells, the record is a joyful homage to the festive season that meshes Cullum’s sharp songwriting with a big, orchestral sound.

Cullum joined us to talk about the new record and the unprecedented circumstances under which it was made.

What was your relationship with Christmas growing up. Was it a big deal in your family?

It’s funny, I guess it was a big deal in a very middle-of-the-road British sense — even though my family background is very, very non-British. My mom is from India and Burma, my dad was born in Jerusalem. So, I’ve got Jewish, Indian, Burmese and a little bit of English. But because they were first-generation [immigrants] to the country, they were like, “We have to have Christmas, like all the other British people do!” So, we ended up having a very traditional Christmas in the old-fashioned sense. Christmas tree, Santa Claus, turkey, too much family in one room, all the traditional Christmas stuff. Certainly very different from how their parents would have had it in their countries of origin.

As I get older my cynicism sometimes grows, but for some reason Christmas still holds this special place. Have your feelings about it evolved or been strengthened through family and where you are in your life?

I think you’ve described it very well. If you’re lucky enough to grow up in a nice enough family, generally Christmas as a child is a wonderful thing. And then in your twenties perhaps, you’re too busy hanging out with your friends and Christmas becomes a bit of a bind — I have to go here, I have to do this. And then, if you’re lucky enough to start your own family, you start to see Christmas through the lens of your own kids and bringing all the family together. I see that, but for me I also see it as a beacon of hope and ritual in the dead of winter — something to work towards, like a three-foot floating life raft in the middle of a storm. We put up the lights, we have some nice drinks, we light the fire, we get together, and we try to make the best of a tough part of the year. We mark the passing of another year, we mark the passing of time with a sense of joy and melancholy and togetherness and all off those things, and that’s the reason — that ritual and the familiarity of it. One of the reasons why I think it’s so important this year is that we’re clinging to anything that feels familiar.

I can’t imagine the challenge of trying to put your own imprint on the theme of Christmas. How much thought happens before you sit down at the piano or the page?

A huge amount. As any songwriter knows, if you think it takes a certain amount then you have to multiply it by a hundred. I do firmly believe that anything is original as long as it’s through your own lens. Every human being has a different experience of being on planet Earth. Just by occupying a different space in consciousness, we all have a different way of thinking about the world. With Christmas, we all have these familiar feelings, but I just tried to put my spin on it. It’s a combination of my memories: my joyful ones, my melancholy ones, my cynical ones, my humorous ones, my childhood ones, my grown-up ones. I threw this all in there and made copious notes. I practically wrote short stories for all these songs. I imagine it’s a bit like writing a musical, actually. But it was a really pleasurable experience, and a very cozy thing to do during lockdown.

I get the sense that songwriting has become much more the focus of where your energy goes. Does it get easier when a song is done — to know when you have to put it down?

I laughed when you said “easier,” but I guess it probably does get easier to know that you’re not necessarily going to improve it; you’re just going to push it left or right. With The Pianoman at Christmas, once I wrote a version of a song, I would step away from it and then go back and play it on the piano and sing it to myself like I was playing in a bar to a bunch of semi-inebriated people on Christmas Eve. That was the test. If it stood that test in my mind, then it was finished. But for me, there’s always a tinkering process. Every time I sing it, I’ll notice maybe a slight hole in the melody where it could be more exciting, or perhaps I haven’t made it grow enough at this point, or maybe there’s a line that’s a repetition of the line before. I’ll be refining that until literally the day we stop pressing record.

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I read that because of the lockdown, your wife Sophie Dahl has had a presence while you were writing — coming by the piano, dropping a line here and there. It sounds like a lovely creative place to be during a difficult time. How much did that experience help the process?

She was an amazing cheerleader for this record — and that’s not to diminish her creative input. She was very much there while these songs were taking shape, in a way that she wouldn’t normally be. She was working on her own book too. It was such a weird situation, such an incongruous, surreal thing to be writing about sleigh bells and Santa Claus in March and April. It was unseasonably warm here as well. But it was also quite romantic. When I first played her the bones of [the title track], she was so encouraging. She said, “I think these are some of the best songs you’ve ever written.” Who’d have thought it, on a Christmas album? But she really gave me a great deal of creative life force, as she often does because she’s a creative person as well. We encourage each other.

What kind of hurdles were there in the recording process?

The way a lot of big-band recordings are made now, they’re made in a very clean way; there’s quite a lot of separation between the instruments so you can really control it. This is not my preferred way to make big-band records. I like a lot of bleed in all the microphones. I like a lot of filth in my music. But we couldn’t do that. So we had to slightly… not manufacture filth, but we had to encourage filth. Everyone was two metres apart, there were screens between everyone, but we would get all of them to play together and then we’d play the recording back into the studio and set up a mic to record the sound of the room with everyone playing together. All of that stuff is mixed in by some very talented person, including the mixer and co-producer Greg Wells. The players we had on the album were incredible, too. We couldn’t lose, even with the COVID-19 restrictions.

Greg Wells is from Peterborough, Ont. We always feel like he’s one of ours. How did that relationship come to be, and what makes it work so well for you?

We originally met in a random writing session when I was 24, with a really big pop songwriter called Kara DioGuardi. I’d been put with her — as sometimes happens when you’re a young, up-and-coming person in Los Angeles — and they were trying to get me to write a hit, putting me with all these songwriters. And I was trying my very best to not have a hit, putting too many piano solos and everything. She said, “Let’s go to the studio of my friend. He’s really talented. He’s into jazz as well, but he also writes pop tunes.” I thought that could be interesting. And it was Greg. We didn’t write a hit that day, but we did write a song for Nick Lachey called Ghosts. I met Greg on that session, and we spent the whole time talking about Count Basie, Keith Jarrett, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and all the stuff that we loved. We had an absolute blast together. I was blown away by his talent, and he by all accounts enjoyed working with me. We spent three months in the studio making The Pursuit, just me and him, really. We stayed in touch over the years. I sent him the demos of The Pianoman at Christmas and told him that we need this to sound like Count Basie but for the 21st century. He said, “Let’s do it. I want to do it.” He cleared his schedule. I’m far too small-time to be recording with him these days. Genuinely. He’s like, “Sorry, I’ve just got John Legend here, and then I’ve got Taylor Swift tomorrow, and then I’m off to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I’ve got two and a half weeks in August and I’d love to do it.” He doesn’t do things just because they’re big; he does them if he’s passionate about them. He felt very passionately that this could be a great record, and he really brought it to life.

I’ve gotten to speak with a lot of musicians this year and talked to them about whether they’ve felt creative or inspired throughout all of this. You got an album out of it, so I’m guessing you were relatively inspired. But are you optimistic, both as a musician and as a person, as we move forward?

I don’t know if I’m crazy enough to be optimistic. I wouldn’t say it was as straightforward as creatively inspiring… I think in some ways, I was clinging to these songs as a way of dealing with my anxiety. It’s not necessarily a healthy thing to do, but nonetheless that’s what came out. I really hope for the best for next year. I have friends who have lost people during this time and were not able to be by their side at the hospital. It’s been a troubling time for that reason. I don’t quite know where I’m ready to put all that yet. But I certainly have hope. I hope we can all enjoy things en masse next year. Not just my own gigs, but just going to see things together. I want to see some live music. I want to get out there and enjoy things and feel like we’re living again.

This interview has been edited and condensed.