Vocal jazz superstar Jamie Cullum talks to us about life in lockdown, the romance of Christmas, the enduring appeal of jazz, and his very niche interests
Reader’s Digest: You’ve recently released your very first Christmas album, The Pianoman at Christmas—what inspired you to make one at this point in your career?
Jamie Cullum: It’s an idea that has floated for a while because I operate in that kind of jazz world and it seems to be a sound that really works at this time of year. I resisted it for a while. I think in my twenties I would’ve thought that it was kind of corny. But as soon as I hit upon the idea of doing an originals album, it started to feel more interesting to me because I’m quite a nerdy songwriter type, in the sense that I’m really fascinated by what makes songs tick. I spent the majority of my time picking apart other people’s songs and trying to work out what makes them great, whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Frank Ocean.
I’m really interested by the fact that the sound palate is different at Christmas, the melodies are different, the chord changes—everything about it seems to sit in this holiday theme.
RD: It’s such an unusual time to be releasing a Christmas album with the pandemic raging in the world—did you find that it added an extra dimension to the record?
JC: Well, it certainly adds an extra layer to some of the songs. I feel all songs do take on different meanings as the years go by and the meaning you gave to a song originally can have a totally different, almost unintentional, meaning ten years later. They take on a life of their own.
I realised that after writing the “The Jolly Fat Man.” It’s a song about an atypical Santa Claus; not one who’s only going to reward non-naughty children—my Santa Claus has come to rescue us from “a long and lonely year.” And this Santa Claus “doesn’t read newspapers or join debates”, so it’s totally through the lens of 2020, without me even realising it while writing it at the time. I think, as a songwriter, you just have to trust your instincts.
RD: The record also features gorgeous cover art with you and your wife, Sophie Dahl in a cab, coming back home from a Christmas party—tell us a bit more about it.
JC: I thought really carefully about creating a timeless image for the cover. So many Christmas albums have these brilliantly kitsch covers. Like the Ray Charles one is just him sitting on a sleigh or Nat King Cole is sitting by a fireplace—it’s great. And I thought, What can I do that feels original… really Christmassy but not obvious?
My wife helped me come up with the idea as she was quite present during the writing of this album like she hasn’t been in the past, because I wrote all these songs at home, in lockdown. The kids were at home and we were home-schooling a lot, so it was actually a very romantic time and I feel like the album has a lot romance—Christmas has a lot of romance.
Sophie has great ideas, she’s very creative. Our love is real. It seemed like a very festive thing to do without it being an image of something like me handing a child a Christmas present or standing in a winter land landscape.
RD: How has lockdown been for you in general?
JC: I was supposed to be on tour the whole year, so I would’ve been on and off planes, going to different places. So during a time when all those choices were removed, it was a shock at first, but I think it was the kind of shock that made me very aware of how lucky I am to be a father and a husband and living in a house with a garden.
Having that space made me feel very lucky among all that horror and the confusion of it all. I’ve noticed it’s very hard for people to explain their feelings around lockdown and gratitude. I think a lot of people feel guilty about the fact that some of this [pandemic] has been positive, even despite all of it being really difficult. I think we haven’t quite worked out the language for it yet, me included.
RD: What have you been occupying your mind with during the lockdown?
JC: It’s a really good time for reading. The first half of lockdown I got stuck into the second part of Philip Pullman’s new trilogy, The Secret Commonwealth, and it’s such a surreal world but also very familiar, that I felt I was living it at the time. I read that at a precisely right time, and that was wonderful.
I also found myself reading quite a few books about the natural world. I read a massive novel by Richard Powers called The Overstory which is about trees, and so I got really interested in trees after that. I’ve read The Secret Life of Trees, and started getting really curious about the trees around my locality. The underground network of roots and fungus is fascinating!
And then I got really interested in octopuses and read an amazing book about them called Other Minds. Makes you realise that this alien world we’re looking for in the sky is right here on our planet. I felt quite connected to the natural world during this time and it has been a real pro of this lockdown. That’s always been a problem throughout my life, I need fewer niche interests [Laughs].
RD: Your Radio 2 jazz show is celebrating its tenth anniversary—how does it feel after all these years? Does it still excite you?
JC: My job has always been quite varied because it has many different aspects to it, it’s never really been the same each day. Until I got my radio show, which is more or less doing the same thing every week. But I love the regularity of it, the predictability. What is not predictable, though, is the amount of new music and new musicians that are coming through, and the level and depth of jazz to discover and play on the show.
I’m also always amazed by how much the listeners love being introduced to new artists. Because I have this kind of niche-interest-vibe to me, sometimes it’s easy to forget that maybe people don’t know who John Coltrane is. And maybe there are people out there who have never listened to Miles Davis or Art Blakey. Getting to present that on a really big radio station like Radio 2 is just so exciting and I really haven’t tired of it at all.
RD: How do you curate the music you play on the show?
JC: I have a few friends we share music with. We send each other really cool stuff—it’s like being a part of a book or knitting club. So that has constantly flown through my life. I get sent a lot of music and I’m very a curious person so I listen to new stuff and seek new things out every day—it’s part of my personality.
And how I select the music for the show is a combination of instinct, and things that I think are good and people will really enjoy. Sometimes it’s just about wanting to shine a light on something that hasn’t had enough attention.
RD: What’s a recent example of that?
JC: British jazz has had an amazing resurgence recently, there are a lot of great new young artists coming out. They’re all in their early twenties. And nowadays, having a great technique as a jazz musician is just a given; all of these 22-year olds can play as good as anyone can. Now it’s about artists bringing their own originality.
There’s a wonderful young female composer and instrumentalist called Nubya Garcia and I’ve been playing her a lot on the show. You notice people starting to really take these artists to their hearts. I see how playlists work on the radio: if you keep playing certain hits, eventually they become a hit. I think in my own small way, if I keep playing these artists and talk about what makes them great, people start to really take it on board and I notice these artists taking off. Having a small part in that is a wonderful privilege.
Nubya Garcia. Image via wiki commons
Part of the job of the show is to present music. It’s so easy to go into niche-land and do a show that a lot of people want to turn off. I think curating a show gives people a journey to go on, something that’s palatable but adventurous. And suddenly you’re bringing the old and the new together; you can join all the dots together. I’ve learned that from Gilles Peterson really, years of listening to his show. He’s been a bigger influence on me than any musician has.
RD: What’s on your agenda for the next few months?
JC: I don’t know how soon the touring’s going to start. I imagine sometime next year. In the meantime I’m just going to be here looking at trees, hanging out with my kids, doing my radio show and writing some new songs.
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