Interview: Paul Kelly catches his Christmas Train, making gravy and Nina Simone

Michael Hili

“…flour, salt, a little red wine, and don’t forget a dollop of tomato sauce for sweetness and that extra tang.” is a phrase that is ingrained in so many of us. Paul Kelly‘s “How To Make Gravy” has become synonymous with the festive season since its release in 1996. Not only that, but the 21st of December, has become Gravy Day, due to its opening lines “Hello Dan, it’s Joe here, I hope you’re keeping well, it’s the 21st of December, and now they’re ringing the last bells”. It’s fair to say that this song has legs.

With a guiding hand on the tiller of the festive season, Paul Kelly has taken the next logical step of helping us out with festive playlists, by releasing his own Christmas album, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train. It’s 22 tracks long, with a wide variety of musical styles. It spans ancient and modern, secular and sacred, it’s multi-faith, and from raucous to delicate. It’s an extraordinary collection of songs helped out by a bunch of his mates and various family members.

Those that helped out included vocalists Marlon Williams, Waleed Aly, Lior, Emma Donovan, Kasey Chambers, Kate Miller-Heidke, Vika & Linda Bull, Alice Keath, Sime Nugent, Alma Zygier, Emily Lubitz, Jess Hitchcock and Dhungala Children’s Choir. He called on many of his family to help out, including his nephew Dan Kelly, siblings Mary-Jo and Tony, and his daughters Maddy and Memphis Kelly.

There is also a new version of “How To Make Gravy”, and a new film clip for it. See below for the clip. It was put together by his partner Siân Darling, and has clips sent in from fans, including some cameos from Brian Nankervis with his family and Gretta Ray.

I caught up with Paul a week before his scheduled December series of Making Gravy Christmas concerts, restricted this year to Melbourne and Brisbane. We had a chat about the album, the fabulous artists he worked with on the album, and whether not getting Nina Simone was a greater sin than wearing too much cologne.

Paul Kelly

You’re only a week or so away from your Making Gravy concerts. All set?

Only eight days to go now – December the 9th is the first one

Are you ready? …. practise going well?

Well, we start practice on Monday, then it’s three straight days before the show. The band has the set-list, and they are doing their homework!

We had a pretty good run in July this year. We were very fortunate to be able to play for 5 weeks, in Queensland and Tassie. We are fairly match fit, I guess is the word.

I’m in Sydney, so we’re very sad that you aren’t coming up our way this year.

Yep – we’re missing it too. We’ll be there next year.

Paul Kelly
Photo: Bruce Baker

The album, congratulations, when did you start working on that?

We did most of it through March/April, when we had a window of getting into the same room to play together. But it has been brewing for quite a while. We recorded “The Friendly Beasts”, the song with Kasey Chambers and Dan Kelly about three years ago. I’ve been recording the odd Christmas song here and there and putting it on the shelf. I knew at some stage I would get together and do most of it, to finish it off.

It’s very broad – you’ve gone far and wide to curate the tracks on this. You can see the sheer depth of it.

Yeah, it was a lot of work (laughs). It had a long build-up. It probably goes all the way back to when I was doing Christmas shows with my son Declan on RRR, a community radio station in Melbourne. From 2007 for 5 years we did a 2 hour special playing Christmas songs. I ended up researching Christmas songs, and I wanted to do a different show each year, so I was always on the lookout for good Christmas songs. You soon realise there’s so much good material out there.

There’s beautiful classic choral music, great folk songs. I really like calypso music and there’s plenty of those. Every culture has a Christmas song, so there’s a lot to draw on.

It evolved as I got into it, there were always surprises in the making of it. The very last song to come in was the Latin one, “Intonent Hodie”, that Alice Keath came up with after I realised we didn’t have a Santa song. So we ended up with a Saint Nicholas song, with a hymn based on Saint Nicholas as the origin of Santa.

It was a bit of a roundabout road, but the basic idea was fairly set from the start, that it would be a broad record with a range of singers. It was always the idea to have different singers in different songs to give it variety.

I appreciated that you’ve gone multi-faith. The Hebrew song is in there, you have Waleed reciting the Qu’ran in English. It’s a nice educational experience for a lot of people.

Yeah – for me it’s an obvious connection to make, but I’m not sure if it’s been done on a Christmas album before. The basic Christmas story is the birth of Jesus, and there’s a whole chapter in the Qu’ran, and I really wanted to include that. There was a lot of back and forth between me and Waleed about that, because there’s a lot of protocols, about reading the Qu’ran, particularly when read in Arabic. There’s more leeway with the English translation.

It must be nice to have your daughters, Maddy and Memphis on there. They’ve been on a couple of your other albums of course.

Yeah – it’s always nice to be recording with them. We’ve done tracks over the years, but to have them on a Christmas album is really pleasing. In fact, I’ve got quite a few family members on “Little Drummer Boy”, as we sing it every year on our family Christmas carols. My Melbourne siblings are on there. I couldn’t get the Brisbane ones down, unfortunately.

You mentioned in the liner notes that there is a rivalry on “Little Drummer Boy” with the Queenslanders versus the Melbourne crew.

Yeah, there’s always some vigorous discussion about the timing, and whether you count a 3/4 bar, or a 4/4 bar. It became a running joke, and one year the Melbourne gang did “Little Drummer Boy” and we recorded it and sent it to the Brisbanites and then it was on. We always try and see who can do the better version.

Have they given you any feedback on this version?

(laughs) Yeah, I think they are all very happy. But the funny thing is that this year they are very happy that my sister Mary Jo and Dan Kelly, my nephew, who are usually part of the Melbourne contingent will be in Brisbane this year for Christmas, so the Brisbane faction is very heavily strengthened, so we will have our work cut out down here. Especially as Mary Jo leads the carols in Melbourne. Having her away will change things up for us.

Alice Keath looks like she was very instrumental in creating this record

Very much so, I see her as the spirit of the record. When I first envisaged the record I knew there would be a block of songs with my band and various singers but I always knew there would be a block of songs with myself, Alice and Sime (Nugent), because we like to blend our voices together.

Alice is classically trained, she has sung a lot in choirs, and she and Sime, her partner, have their own band Sweet Jean. They write their own songs and have a deep understanding of folk music as well. She’s really good at straddling the bridge between classical, pop and folk. So something like “Coventry Carol”, which is really quite well known in the classical repertoire, is normally with choirs, but we worked with it to be more intimate. It’s folk and pop meeting classical, where you can hear the breaths, not something you would generally hear on the classical recordings.
Sime and I are singing bass parts, we’re not trained opera singers, and she was coaching us in vowel sounds, and was very instrumental.

The trio of Alice, Jess Hitchcock and Kate Miller-Heidke on “Coventry Carol”, all had the advantage of being classically trained and working in pop music. They know how to do it. I just left it to them.

Alice was the one who discovered the Latin hymn after I said I didn’t have a Santa song. The next day she said she’d found a hymn about St Nicholas and she recorded it at home, and it was beautiful. It sounds like a folk song when she does it. It’s a very obscure piece

 

Yes, it’s a beautiful song. You weren’t tempted by Bob Dylan’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” from his Chrissy album?

I so love his “It must be Santa”, with him in the Santa hat and a fight breaking out. Maybe I’ll do a proper Santa song next year. I can add songs to the record, on the streaming platforms. That’s one advantage of streaming……

Also, Alma Zygier on “What Are You Doing New Years Eve?” is another highlight …

Yes, it’s a classic that song. There’s a great version from Nancy Wilson I’ve always loved, and I wanted to finish the record with a New Years Eve song. It’s a good way to finish off a Christmas record. I’ve seen Alma play lots, and I’m friends with her parents (Willy Zigier and Deborah Conway).

Alma is a very compelling performer. All the versions of that song are pretty much a jazz standard, so I thought it would be great to do an intimate version with guitar and voice. Her and Willy – father and daughter. I suggested it to them, and they just did it at home.

The beauty of this record is I would suggest to someone ‘can you do that song’ – and they’d do it – I’m curating, but not having a big hands on. with every track That’s the trick, pick the right people to do the job and you are in safe hands.

You’ve had the Bull sisters (Vika and Linda) for a long time. It’s fair to say that they are the right people for the job.

Very much so. In the case of “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” (Linda has the solo) – it has been the closing song at our shows for a few years now. It’s been a highlight for us, we know the song really well. It was first or second take in the studio. Vika came in the same day, and I sent her the Bellrays versions of the song “Christmas Train”. They wrote it, it’s on their record, and I always thought that it would be a perfect fit for Vika. She came in and got it first or second take too.

It was just a matter of the band hanging on. With Vika and Linda when they walk into the studio. You’ve got to be ready. They don’t muck around.

It was totally gale-force that song …

They were in and out of the studio in four hours and we had two songs down. It was brilliant.

On stage as well, they are a big part of it. It looks like they are keeping everyone in order

Yeah, they are great on stage. We know how beautiful they sound. They are really good in harmony together, and they lift up a lot of my songs with their harmonies. And they can take the lead and command the stage. Visually they are really entertaining, the way they move. They’ve got it all.

Vika and Linda
Vika and Linda Bull – (photo by Bruce Baker)

and what about “How to Make Gravy”. That song has ingrained itself further and further into our culture.

Yeah, funny thing, you never know what things are going to do with a song

And now we’ve got Gravy Day – how great’s that!

Once you record a song and put it out there, it does its own thing. It has always been a fun song to play. It has its inbuilt gear changes in it. Even though it doesn’t have a chorus, it follows these other rules.

Normally in a song you have a chorus that gives you the uplift or shifting gear. The song definitely has a gear change. It’s a total fluke. It’s a song that I guess it plays us, rather than we play it.
We start the song and we get on the ride, and you know it’s going to take you where you need to get to.

You tweaked the lyrics – from “Just a little too much cologne” to “he never did get Nina Simone” – that threw a few people…

(laughs) Yeah, I’ve been singing that line for a while now. There’s always room to change a line. I came up in folk music, so that’s a part of it, lyrics can change as songs grow old.

So, what’s the greater crime – too much cologne or not getting Nina Simone? For me, it’s not getting Nina Simone.

Well, some people don’t. Anyway, it’s a good rhyme. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone in real life.

Did you ever see her live?

No, did you?

Yeah, once in the State Theatre in Sydney 1992 I think. It was like being in a rapturous church. There was so much love, it was pretty wild.

Are there any other songs that could have been on the record?

Maybe the Ron Sexsmith song, “Maybe This Christmas”. I thought Dan Sultan could do a great job on that, but the timing wasn’t right. Maybe down the track. I think he would be great. I love Dan’s singing, especially when he uses the low register of his

Yeah – he’s a total dude. I thought the Marlon Williams track was another highlight

For me definitely. It was especially pleasing as it wasn’t the easiest track to pull off. We planned on him coming over to do it with the band. We recorded all the tracks with bands live with the singers, but we couldn’t do it with Marlon. So he did a little phone demo, a raw recording, with a falsetto with what he thought the choir could do.

That was the map for the song. So we went to the studio and played together to the phone. We pumped his phone recording through big speakers in the studio, and got our version down without the vocals.

We then added his vocals in Auckland, and then got the Dhungala Children’s Choir which Jess Hitchcock organised. We got them to come in and add their parts. It was over the course of a couple of months trying to get that song together. I’m really glad we persevered because it was worth the effort.

What about Christmas day for the Kelly’s. What’s in store? You’re obviously missing a couple of people this year.

Our big gathering is Christmas Eve when the siblings and their children, and their children’s children get together for carols. Christmas Day people tend to do things in smaller groups with their part of the family, with in-laws and so on. Everyone brings a plate. It’s pretty casual. If the weather is good we sit out the back. We’re doing it at my place this year and we’ll stumble through a few carols.

Have you written any songs lately?

No – it’s been pretty slow. As I write a song, every time we get in the studio, we record them. When we did the Christmas recordings we recorded a few new songs, which are now in what I call the ‘odd socks’ drawer. I’m slowly piling them up. I haven’t written much this year, but it’s been pretty busy. Doing the record, getting the tour in, and the lead-up to putting the record out. Everything about this record took a long time.

It must have been a nice project during lockdown

Yeah – it was great, but it took a long time. We tried out a lot of different things

For sure, it’s twenty-two songs – it’s pretty generous. I thought how on earth did he manage to put that together…

Yeah, one by one.

Boxing day, the Ashes are on. Are you getting out to the MCG?

I usually go 2nd or 3rd day. Boxing day – I go to a mates place, a fellow test cricket devotee, and we watch it on TV.

Thanks heaps for your time. Finally, anything we should be listening to

I’m watching The Beatles: Get Back. I’ve been having a bit of a Beatles thing at the moment. They were a great band. Experimental in everything they did.

 

Paul Kelly

 

Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train is out now. It can be purchased on vinyl, CD and other merch bundles HERE. You can keep up to date with all things Paul Kelly on his website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Header image credit: Michael Hili

Bruce Baker

Probably riding my bike, taking photos and/or at a gig. Insta: @bruce_a_baker

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