To understand why Paul Kelly would make a Christmas album nearly 30 records deep into his career, it helps to know how he spends his own festive season. Kelly is one of eight siblings and, traditionally, the gatherings feature a large and diverse cast; “the odd stray, new and old flames, gossip, singing”, as he wrote in his memoir, How To Make Gravy, “and much discussion and planning of food”.
Branches of Kelly’s family extend through Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. “We’ve all got our children and our children’s children, so if we all got together now it might be too big,” he says. Usually, there’s a get-together on Christmas Eve, where carols will be sung, before people drift back to their own camps and to in-laws for the day itself.
But this year Kelly’s eldest brother, Martin – father of nephew and bandmate Dan – won’t be there. He died on 4 December last year, aged 69, after a short illness. “We were fortunate to get up to Queensland last year just before the borders closed,” Kelly says. “It was a really close call, but we saw him two days before he died, and stayed on for the funeral, so we were very fortunate to be able to do that.”
Martin’s spirit is all over Kelly’s new album, Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train: a collection of seasonal songs performed by Kelly and collaborators including Emma Donovan, Marlon Williams, Lior and Waleed Aly. “I think of Martin as the heart and soul of this project, he was the older brother who was a big influence on us younger ones,” he says. “He protested against the Vietnam War; he grew his hair long; he was the one playing these weird records – the Moody Blues and Pink Floyd – and bringing new ideas into the house.
“How to talk about Marty? He was an unusual man. He was religious, had a strong faith, but it was not narrow, it was very broad. He was a deep humanist. That was definitely in the back of my mind putting this record together. I wanted to make a big-hearted, generous, open record … hang on,” he says, and – just for a moment – Kelly loses his composure. He takes a breath. “I just wish he could have heard it.”
While Martin’s death might have provided the spur, Christmas songs have been a growing Kelly obsession for years. His own Yuletide classic How To Make Gravy led to fans dubbing 21 December “Gravy Day”; in his memoir, he lists “some other Christmas humdingers” – 18 of them, not one of which makes the final 22-song cut of Christmas Train. When this is pointed out, Kelly is surprised: he’d forgotten all about it. “I should have checked that list!” But that, he says, proves a point: Christmas songs are a tradition as rich as the festival they accompany.
For five years, from 2007 to 2011, he and his son Declan would perform a two-hour special of Christmas songs on Melbourne radio station 3RRR. They never played the same song twice. “Christmas music gets a bad rap, because people hear the same carols and pop songs in supermarkets and shopping malls,” he says. “There’s so much great Christmas music out there that gets held up by all this stuff.”
And Kelly’s “Making Gravy” Christmas tours – in which he headlines a lineup he also handpicks – are rapidly becoming their own tradition. On Saturday at Brisbane’s Riverstage he was joined by locals Ball Park Music and Sycco, as well as Melbourne-based Emma Donovan. As on the Christmas Train album, Kelly often ceded lead vocals to others, including Donovan for The Virgin Mary Had One Son, and Linda Bull for Darlene Love’s classic Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home).
On the album, traditional Christian classics (versions of Silent Night and Little Drummer Boy) rub up against Shalom Aleichem, a Hebrew prayer sung by Lior; and Surah Maryam, a chapter from the Qu’ran which tells the story of Mary, recited by Waleed Aly. “It’s like someone reading a bedtime story to their children, that’s what I really liked about it,” Kelly says.
There are also songs that represent Christmas in the austral summer, including Swing Around The Sun by Casey Bennetto, author of Keating! The Musical. It speaks of “miles of scrunched-up paper, yards of burning skin / an alcoholic vapour ’round the yellow-lidded bin”. Kelly couldn’t believe the song hadn’t already been recorded: “We had to put a lot of work into that one, not the least because there’s 19 chords in it.”
There’s also a new take of How To Make Gravy. Like many of Kelly’s best-known songs, the song was not a hit on release (it peaked at No. 37 in 1996), but has become part of Australia’s cultural fabric.
Kelly took some persuading to record it again, simply because “it’s [already] out there. But friends I was talking to about the record – and the band – were really surprised that we weren’t recording it again. We play it so much, it plays us, as much as we play it.”
The Christmas Train might not stop here: with so many songs left undone, including those 18 aforementioned humdingers, there might be a sequel. “The ways people listen to music now, with streaming, [means] you can add to things,” Kelly says. “I could do one or two a year for five or 10 years and then we’d have enough to make a third volume.”
And that, as he says in his memoir, is the best thing about Christmas: “It comes around every year so you always get another shot.”
First published in the Guardian, 21 December 2021