Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train – A Journey Worth Taking

By BrianWise.

Having already written one of the great Christmas-related songs nearly a quarter of century ago in ‘How To Make Gravy’ it has taken Paul Kelly that long to finally release an entire festive season album. 

Christmas Train, is an eclectic 22-song double album which includes some classic Christmas fare (including a reworking of ‘Gravy’) but also includes a Latin hymn, a Hebrew song, a reading from the Qur’an, and a traditional Irish folk ballad. Kelly and his band are joined by large cast that includes vocalists Vika and Linda Bull, Marlon Williams, Kasey Chambers, Lior, Alice Keath, Emily Lubitz, Kate Miller-Heidke, Alma Zygier and Emma Donovan, along with Waleed Aly (on the spoken word-piece from the Qur’an). Contributions from the Kelly clan include nephew and band-mate Dan, siblings Mary-Jo and Tony and Paul’s daughters Maddy and Memphis. It just might be the best Australian Christmas album ever.

I assume that when you were young, Christmas might have been quite similar to mine in a way. Midnight mass and then big gatherings with families on Christmas Day. Would that have been the usual pattern every year at Christmastime?

I think the midnight mass came in a bit later. I remember midnight mass more at Easter than at Christmas. But it might have, it’s a long time ago. But yes, big family gatherings. I’m from a big family, eight of us siblings and big clan, lots of cousins. So yes, Christmas Day’s always been… as a child, it was, yeah, fun, chaotic, exciting, mysterious. These days we tend to celebrate Christmas more on Christmas Eve. That’s with my siblings and our children and their children. So, three generations and we’ll get together and bring food and stumble our way through carols. Christmas day, people tend to want to go off with all the separate families, and partners, and so on.

I guess it’s changed in some ways, hasn’t it? The context of Christmas Day’s change for a lot of people, hasn’t it? As you grow older, as you have families and things like that, it changes over the years, doesn’t it?

Yeah. But of course, when you have children, it keeps renewing because children love Christmas. So yes, with my own children, Christmas has always been exciting. Now they’re all grown up and they’ve got kids so it’s now exciting for the grandchildren. So, it sort of keeps renewing.

And as a grandparent, you get to buy the grandchildren the presents that you wish you’d been bought when you were young, perhaps as well. And you can get to play with them as well.

No, not so much. They put in their orders these days. No, I just do my research with the parents and say what do they want? No, different presents to what I would’ve had as a kid. Yes, it’s a different world.

The latest edition of The Monthly contains quite an extensive essay that you’ve written titled ‘Oh, Carols!’ – as opposed to Chuck Berry’s ‘Oh Carol’ – and a selection of songs which I presume are some of your favourites as a Christmas stocking of songs. It reminds me that this double album you put out, this is quite a large project. This isn’t something that you could not sit down and churn out in a couple of weeks. This is a very big project.

Yes, it’s been brewing for quite a while over the last few years, thinking about it. We’ve recorded some of the songs earlier than two or three years ago. The song ‘Christmas Must Be Tonight’ was recorded 18 years ago. That was for a Christmas charity record but we didn’t really appear anywhere else; so, that’s on the record too.

In some ways it goes all the way back to 2007 when I was doing the Christmas radio show with my son, Declan on Triple R. He had a weekly, regular show for quite few years called Against the Arctic, and then he invited me one Christmas to come and do a Christmas special of two hours and that was fun. Then we got asked to do it again and we continued for five years doing these Christmas shows. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves too much, so in the course of that we discovered a lot of Christmas songs, and that’s when I probably went deeper and deeper into researching and finding out more about Christmas songs. Also, my friend Brian Nankervis who’s from RocKwiz, they would do a Christmas special each year and we would often talk about songs. He loves lists like I do so we often, still do, swap: ‘Have you heard this Christmas song?’ So, we still swap songs.

So, over the years, I’ve built up this huge playlist on my computer, on my iTunes of Christmas songs. So, it was drawing a map for material for this record. But it’d been in my mind for a while to do something like this with an array of different singers.

Well, the choice of songs in The Monthly article, like on the album, it’s a very eclectic selection. I have to say, it was interesting that you chose the Bob Dylan song ‘Must Be Santa’, which I hated when it first came out, that album. But somehow, I’ve been drawn to it because of the enthusiasm of it – but sometimes that the trick with Christmas songs, isn’t it?

Yes. I think also why I really like that song too, is the clip, the video. Very funny. So, that makes it. Bob Dylan wandering around with his hat on and all the mayhem going on around him.

I think Target used it as a theme for one of their [Christmas] ads. I hope he got paid a lot of money for it, I’m sure he did make them pay a lot of money.

Knowing Bob, it would’ve been a payday for sure.

So, that selection reflects the eclecticism of the selection on the Christmas Train album. How difficult was it to hone that list down? How difficult was it to hone it down to 22?

It wasn’t that hard, I guess. Sorry, it’s not a very good answer but I don’t know, it wasn’t that hard. I don’t know if I had a whole lot more extra songs that I wanted to do on my Christmas album. I’ve got the Christmas playlist, I know and love a lot of great Christmas songs. But I felt with the songs that we’d chosen, and I chose most of them but not all of them. Alice Keath was a big part of the record in many ways. She suggested ‘Coventry Carol’, and she came up with the Latin hymn about St. Nicholas called ‘Intonent Hodie’.

We’d recorded everything and thought it was all done and suddenly realised I don’t have a Santa song, and I wasn’t going to do the Dylan one. I said, ‘I don’t have a Santa song.’ I was talking to Alice. And then we started talking about St. Nicholas who was sort of the forerunner of Santa – a bishop from the fourth century who was known for his good deeds and gift-giving. Next day, Alice rings up and says, ‘Oh, I found this 14th-century hymn about St. Nicholas, it’s in Latin. I’ve had a go at playing it and singing it.’ And she sent it to me and it’s pretty much what’s on the record, she turned it into a folk song, she played guitar. I loved it and I said, ‘Oh, that’s great.’ So, she went and polished it up a bit more and added violin and another harmony, and we had a track.

So, a song like that I had nothing to do with, and that was just one of those surprises that turned up making the record. I knew I wanted some carols and ‘Silent Night’ was always a definite walk-up because it’s my favorite Christmas song. ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is a big family Christmas song when we do carols. And ‘Arthur McBride’, that had been lurking around in my mind for quite a while. I mean, the only thing to do with Christmas with that song is that it takes place on Christmas Day, but that’s a great song.

I didn’t have a whole lot leftover that I thought, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done that.’ There was ‘Maybe This Time’ by Ron Sexsmith. I thought of that would be good but maybe next year. I mean, another good thing about having records out on streaming services and so on, is that you can add. So, imagine I could add another song to it next year and maybe add a song a year and just keep it going, fashion it up sometime.

That’s a good idea. Then add a bonus disc, or whatever, to a re-release at some stage. How important also was it to cover different cultures as we become more aware of what’s going on around us. You obviously were aware of that and you wanted to cover different bases in that regard as well.

Well, I knew about the chapter in the Qur’an about Mary and Jesus. So, well aware for a long time that Islam honors Jesus as a prophet and the story they tell is a very similar one, right down to an angel appearing to Mary and saying, ‘You’re going to have a special child.’ And she says, “No, how can that be? I’ve never been with a man.” So very striking similarities to the Christian story. So, I thought that we really should have something that represents that. I mean, a great way, I thought, to open up Christmas with a Christmas story. So, I contacted Waleed Aly and started discussing that. He was a bit surprised at first when I said, ‘Do you want to be in my Christmas record?’ But he helped me a lot, working out how to do it and discussing what to do.

Of course, with Lior singing a Hebrew song, to me, that was a real obvious connection as well because Jesus has strong links to Judaism, he was Jewish, he quoted from the Torah. So why not try and find something that’s going to work on a Christmas album from the three big cultures that believe in one God, make those links. I was excited to do that. The Hebrew link wasn’t quite as direct because there wasn’t really that story in Judaism but I thought about Hanukkah because Hanukkah’s around the time of Christmas, but that wasn’t right, it was not the right commemoration, not the right theme.

Then my partner, Siân who’s Jewish suggested this song, or prayer called ‘Shalom Aleichem’. And it’s a beautiful song, it sounds like a carol. The translations in English talks of ministering angels and peace and kings, so I said, ‘That’s perfect.’ So, I rang up Lior. Again, he sort of said, ‘What? You want me to be on a Christmas record?’ Again, we talked about a way to do that as well, and that turned out really well with both of them, they were good sports.

I mentioned that we see Christmas in a different context. Of course, people, it’s not always a time of joy and cheer for everybody. You’ve already written one of the great Christmas songs about that in ‘How to Make Gravy’, haven’t you? There are different emotions at Christmastime, I guess you become aware of them depending on your circumstances, don’t you?

Yes. I guess the big daddy of them all of Christmas songs, ‘White Christmas’, first done by Bing Crosby is a song about not being there for Christmas. So, there’s a whole genre you could say of Christmas songs are about not being there, or wanting to be there, or longing to be there, or you can’t be with the one love. The O’Jays, ‘Christmas Just Ain’t Christmas Without The One You Love’. So, that’s very much part of Christmas, and I think it’s also for songwriters: a way of writing about Christmas is writing about the longing to be there, which is a way of, I guess, intensifying the feeling. But it’s true in our lives as well. For various reasons people can’t be with the ones they love on Christmas Day, or around Christmas, and it’s a source of sorrow.

Let me just quickly ask you about a couple of the other songs. ‘Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)’ originally done by Darlene Love on Phil Spector’s Christmas album, I reckon is one of the best Australian renditions of a Christmas song ever. Linda [Bull] does a sensational job on that song.

Ah, she sure does. We had that song pretty well in our bones and muscles, I guess, because we’ve been playing it as our closing song in the Making Gravy shows over the last few years, so that was one of the first songs on the list. She and Vika came in and they did their songs on the same day. We just set up generally with all the artists who sang, they came into the studio, the band would rehearse the song, had it ready for them so they could just walk in and sing. Vika and Linda came in on the same day, they both got their songs down in first or second take. They were done and dusted the two of them, they had two songs done in four hours, ‘Christmas Train’, the title track, and ‘Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)’. And both of them in their own way just smashed it out of the park.

Casey Bennetto’s song, ‘Swing Around the Sun’, sounds like a classic from the ’30s or ’40s, doesn’t it? You think you’ve heard it before but it’s a terrific song to include.

Oh, it’s a beautiful song. He’s a great songwriter and he can write any kind of song. Well, I heard that song at one of his Bella Union Christmas shows, which he has every year. I’d gone down to sing something at it, and he sang that song with the band and I said, ‘What’s that one? Who wrote that one?’ He said, ‘Oh, I did.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s good. Would you consider maybe letting me record it?’ And this is about five or six years ago. He said, ‘Sure.’ He sent me a demo of it and chord chart. We needed the chord chart, there’s 19 chords in that song, I counted them up, I think. It goes everywhere and modulates, it’s really fun to play.

It is a great song. Casey writes a lot of very humorous songs but this is just in a classic mode.

Yeah, but it’s definitely got Casey’s wit all through it, which I really like.

Paul, there’s one from, I guess, from left field for a lot of people would be ‘Christmas’ by The Large Number Twelves. You must have had your ear pretty close to the ground to come up with that, the Chris and Wes Harrington song.

Well, they’re friends of mine and I’ve seen The Large Number Twelves over the years many times and spend time with Chris and Wes. We like watching test cricket together, we go off and go to Bill Miller’s place to watch the cricket, then often pull the guitars out, have a sing. They wrote that song in 2003, and I’ve been aware of it for a long time and I just sort of had it earmarked to do. That’s one of the songs that we recorded about three years ago, but I asked if we could do it, so at one of our sessions we recorded it.

It’s terrific. And I particularly like your version of ‘Arthur McBride.’ you talked about that before, which Paul Brady did, but that is a great song.

That’s a great song, and the Paul Brady version is so definitive in a way, it’s a virtuoso performance by Paul. I’ve loved it.

Of course, an album like this is tied to a particular time of the year, but the great thing is it comes back every year, so it’s going to last for a long time, isn’t it? As you said, you can add to it if you want to.

Yeah, Christmas comes round every year and that’s such a great thing. There’ll be more Christmas records next year, they just keep on coming.

Well, this is certainly a very enjoyable one, and congratulations. And thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Thanks, Brian.

Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train is out now through EMI Music and is available HERE now.