I have loved this John Donne poem for a long time, with that beautiful opening line “Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.” This is a continuation of what I have been doing over the past 10 years, finding a poem and putting music to it. It took a while to get the timing of the words with the music but it came together when I took it to the band. My daughters Maddy and Memphis sing the harmonies. That works out nicely, establishing the family theme that runs through the album.
2 Silent Night
Silent Night is one of my favourite songs so it had to be there. It’s always our last song at the family carols so I was planning for it to be the last song on the record but, after battling with the final order, it went up front in a late move. I knew that the main body of the record would be performed my band, with different guest singers. But I’d recorded a song that came out last year, Sleep Australia Sleep, with Alice Keath and Sime Nugent and thought it would be great if we had that line up with three voices singing harmony all the way through on some songs. It was Sime’s idea to add Shane Riley who plays all the instruments on the track. He is such a beautiful player and we wanted to get that Hawaiian kind of feeling he brings with the ukulele and steel guitar. Alice speaks German and the song was originally written in that language so we thought we would honour that with Alice singing one of the verses in German. We had a lot of fun with this one, swapping around the vocal parts.
3 Swing Around the Sun
I wanted songs that show the Australian experience of Christmas. This one is written by Casey Bennetto, a really talented and versatile songwriter who people would know from Keating! The Musical. Casey runs Christmas shows at the Bella Union in Melbourne and that’s where I heard him sing it. I told him I would like to have a go at it and he sent over the words and a chart. There are about 19 chords in the song! We had to wrestle with this one a while to get all the gear changes working in it. There’s a touch of Louis Prima by the end. The song hasn’t been officially released before so it’s nice to premiere it on this record.
Chris and Wes Harrington are brothers who are part of the Melbourne band scene. They have a band, Large Number 12s. Charlie Owen and Spencer Jones have played with them and we did a song together for an album of songs by the late Maurice Frawley, Long Gone Whistle. I heard this song years ago and stored it away. It’s great fun for the band to play and it happened pretty quickly in the studio. Billy Miller from The Ferrets is good mates with those guys and he does the high harmony part. Again it’s a new Australian song that a lot of people have not heard.
5 Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)
This was sung by Darlene Love on the Phil Spector-produced album A Christmas Gift For You that came out in 1963. We started doing it in our end-of-year Gravy shows with Linda Bull singing. Both Linda and Vika did their vocals on the one day and pretty much did them in one take. Amazing. We added the backing vocals later with Maddie and Memphis and Linda’s daughter Kiki sang with Vika. We kept the family theme going when my son Declan dropped in to the studio with my grandson Juniper. He has had some piano lessons so our keyboard player Cameron Bruce asked him to play the bell parts on a small keyboard.
6 Little Drummer Boy
A bit of a rivalry has built up over the years between the Melbourne Kellys and the Queensland Kellys with Little Drummer Boy. There were a couple of years where we would send a recording up to them and they would do the same for us and we would argue about which version of this was best. Unfortunately we couldn’t get the Queensland Kellys down for this recording but there are a fair few Melbourne Kellys. My sister Mary-Jo arranged the vocals. When we are doing Christmas carols she is the leader.
7 Arthur McBride
This is a traditional Irish ballad I know from the version by Paul Brady on an album he made with Andy Irvine in 1976. That version is incredible, virtuosic but also really soulful too. Arthur and his cousin run into some English soldiers on Christmas morning who try to get them to enlist. Arthur’s cousin tells the story: “We lathered them there like a pair of wet sacks/And left them for dead in the morning.” Years later I asked Paul to tour with me in Australia. He didn’t want to play Arthur McBride at first. As the tour went on I managed to persuade him and it was a big thrill for me to sing it with him because his version is like a mountain. For this record we circled the song for a long time trying to find our own way to play it until the band worked out how to build it and when to bring it down.
8 The Virgin Mary Had One Son
My interest in Christmas songs intensified when my son Declan was a radio presenter at Triple R in Melbourne and he suggested we do a Christmas show on air. We did five two-hour specials between 2007 and 2011 and, as we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, we built up quite a playlist. We played the version by The Staple Singers on that show. Emma Donovan was the obvious first choice to sing it on this record. She didn’t know the song but loved it and was right on the money. We had Vika and Linda there too so we stuck close to the Staple Singers harmony arrangement.
9 Tapu Te Pō (O Holy Night)
I thought of Marlon Williams straight away for this. He came back and said: “That’s my favourite Christmas song, I’ve sung it since I was a kid, I grew up singing it in choirs.” He had sung it in te reo Māori too. When you are curating something like this and a singer comes back with that response you think, “I’ve done well here.” It was tricky logistically because he couldn’t be together with us in the studio. He sent a phone demo and we tried to play to that as faithfully as we could. That demo is a cherished recording of mine. It has crackles and knocks and him singing an odd falsetto suggesting the choir parts . That was the blueprint. He recorded his vocal in Auckland and we had it set up so I could watch and hear the audio. It was Marlon’s idea to have the children’s choir. Jess Hitchcock works with the national indigenous youth choir Short Black Opera and the Dhungala Children’s Choir is part of that. Jess arranged the parts and sang with the choir, with Alice Keath conducting.
10 Shalom Aleichem
Jesus was Jewish and I wanted to find a song representing that in some way. Hanukkah is celebrated not long before Christmas so I investigated Hanukkah songs only to conclude that the cultural context wasn’t right. My partner Siân is Jewish and she suggested this one. It’s sung all year round and has a carol-like feeling with a beautiful melody and lyrics that talk of peace, kings and angels. Perfect! I love Lior’s voice and know the album he did with Nigel Westlake for their album Compassion which set Arabic and Hebrew prayers to music. Alice came up with the three-part harmonies, including a bass part for me. It was fun for me to do a few bass vocal parts on this record.
11 The Oxen
A poem by Thomas Hardy which I set to music. This is another one of those interesting layers to Christmas celebrations. Many countries have a folk tradition going back many centuries of animals behaving in miraculous ways to honour the miracle of the birth of Jesus. There is the idea of the normal being suspended for a period of time, animals talking at the stroke of midnight, oxen kneeling. There seem to be links between these traditions and the ancient Roman Saturnalia festival associated with December 25. This is a really sweet Hardy poem, he as an adult knowing that the story of the oxen kneeling could not be true but, imagining himself a child again, “hoping it might be so”.
12 The Friendly Beasts
The animals in this one are in the stable with the baby Jesus. The origins of the song go back for centuries and people like Johnny Cash and Burl Ives have done it. I knew the version by the Louvin Brothers and Kasey Chambers loves the Louvin Brothers too. We have sung their songs together sitting around backstage and we did You’re Learning together on the Foggy Highway record. I knew it would be right in Kasey’s wheelhouse. Dan Kelly joins us for the harmonies which ties in nicely with the other three-part harmony songs.
13 Three Drovers
I was on a mission to find an Australian carol to sing. The composer William James and lyricist John Wheeler wrote 15 Australian carols in three songbooks in the ’40s and ’50s. Some of those carols have been really long-lasting. They’ve been recorded often and you still hear them at Carols by Candelight concerts. Three Drovers is usually sung by a choir so Alice, Sime and I had to find our own way to do it.
14 Christmas Must Be Tonight
A song by Robbie Robertson that appeared on the Islands album by The Band. This is a recording I did with Richard Pleasance in his backyard studio in 2003. Pete Luscombe on drums. Gerry Hale from Uncle Bill, who made the bluegrass album Smoke with me, plays fiddle. Richard plays everything else and sings the harmony. I have always loved the song and Pete does too so it’s good to have it out.
15 Surah Maryam
I was aware that Jesus is honoured as a prophet in Islamic tradition and that there was a chapter in the Qu’ran around the story. That is an obvious link and I was keen to have something representing that literature on the record. There is a rich tradition of the Qu’ran being sung but there are strict protocols around it. Waleed Aly reads the English translation in our version. He has such a beautiful reading voice. It sounds like he’s reading a children’s bedtime story and I like that feeling.
16 Coventry Carol
Alice Keath showed this one to me, a carol from the 16th century. She sent me some different versions and one we really liked is by the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, arranged by Alex Palmer and featuring the amazing New Zealand soprano Madison Nonoa. That was our reference. Last year we did a New Year’s Eve show for ABC-TV and afterwards we went back to my place. Alice and Kate Miller-Heidke and Jess Hitchcock were all there and knew it and started singing it as a trio. That was the seed for the recording. Of course the women all sang beautifully in the studio but it took more work for Sime and I to get our parts right, coached by Alice. We were struggling with the top male vocal but when we got Marlon Williams to do it, it all made sense. Alice is a presenter at ABC Classic and one day she saw the great opera baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes in the corridor. She didn’t know him but asked if he could help out. He very graciously agreed to sing the bass part, some of it doubling with me and some going even lower. That’s quite a thrill to have him on the record.
17 In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day
I wanted to make sure the southern hemisphere was well represented. The initial working title for the album was No Reindeer, No Mistletoe, No Holly. I ended up deciding the title was too negative but the sentiment summed up our overall approach. This is a song by the Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso, who has been one of my favourite singers for many years. There are plenty of northern hemisphere songs on the record but I wanted to make sure we had the feeling of summer as well. There is summer in this song though not in a festive sense. It’s a song written under military rule in Brazil and there is menace and fear in it: “Machine guns in the hot sun of a Christmas Day/They killed someone else in the hot sun of a Christmas Day.” To me that song is the twin to Arthur McBride.
18 How to Make Gravy
I hadn’t even thought about putting Gravy on the record but when I talked to friends they all said, “Really? You’re not? Just do another version.” Our live version has evolved from the original recording so we said, ‘Let’s lay it down and see what we think.’ We have been doing it forever so it was recorded in one or two takes. It’s 25 years since the song first came out so that’s another reason to have it here. Note that Peter Luscombe played on the original, too.
19 Christmas Train
A song by The Bellrays, a great, raw sounding garage soul band. I had this pegged for Vika for years and, of course, she just ate it up. That was the hardest song to place on the record because it just jumps right out of the box! Gravy was a way into it and having someone who normally doesn’t play the banjo start the next song was a way out of it.
- Come Thou Font of Every Blessing
That’s Dan Kelly playing the banjo. He learned it during lockdown. I discovered this through Sufjan Stevens’ recordings of Christmas music, a song from the 19th century. You hear it done quite differently by other people but we owe our arrangement in large part to him.
21 Intonent Hodie
Toward the end of making the record I realised, I had this big, sprawling double album representing all these different things about Christmas but no Santa song. I talked to Alice about it and she suggested this, a Latin hymn from the 14th century about Saint Nicholas, the forerunner of Santa. It’s a song usually performed by a choir but Alice makes it sound like a folk song, a beautiful transformation. She did it all, the guitar, violin and vocal parts. Alice has been a secret weapon in the making of this album. She is this sprite who keeps popping up throughout, the spirit of the record.
- What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?
This one is sung by Alma Zygier, who is attracting a lot of notice for her jazz singing. She is mesmerizing to watch live and when I was thinking of including this song knew it would suit her. Rather than the usual arrangement, a la Nancy Wilson or Ella Fitzgerald, she did it at home with her father Willy on guitar, sweet and easy. A Christmas record ending with a New Year’s song felt right. The Beach Boys Christmas Album finishes with Auld Lang Syne so there is precedent.