To quote a famous song, it’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. Christmas is – with very few exceptions – recognised as a time to down tools, to appreciate those around you, to spend time with those close to you, and for some it comes with the bonus of eating and drinking your own bodyweight in less than a week.
There is of course much in the way of music to accompany such merry-making, from composers recognising Christmas for its eternal function as a Christian festival to those recognising the season of goodwill from an atheist perspective. No-one is turned away – and this year there is the chance to compare two very different approaches to the festival in new albums from Aidan Moffat and Engelbert Humperdinck.
musicOMH spent time with both earlier this month to discuss their respective Christmas releases – Moffat’s with RM Hubbert, Ghost Stories For Christmas, and the octogenarian Humperdinck on his first Christmas album since 1980, Warmest Christmas Wishes.
Perhaps inevitably, Humperdinck took a more traditional approach. “I wanted to make it happy. It has all the ingredients of everyday life, like my version of Driving Home For Christmas. The songs tell the story about Christmas – Please Come Home For Christmas, or don’t worry – I’ll Be Home For Christmas. We whittled it down to these ones. Some of the songs are not known that well over here, like Still Still Still, and O Tannenbaum is quite rare. We got two new songs as well – Around The Christmas Tree, which I think will be a standard of the future, and A Christmas For The Family. I wrote part of the lyric with that one – and part of Silently Falls The Snow, with my daughter Louise. It’s a German song, called Leise rieselt der Schnee, and it’s very big in Europe, so we decided to give it an English lyric and to bring it here, let us have something fresh to listen to at Christmas.”
“We were an inch away from doing East 17’s Stay, but I don’t have a white coat. I got a jumper in ASDA though, and it’s so comfortable that I can’t take it off.” – Aidan Moffat
Moffat and Hubbert found their album crept up on them by stealth, as the vocalist explains. “It was originally going to be just one song, A Ghost Story For Christmas, as a 7” release. We wrote it in April and May. We were then doing some more songs in July, and started recording in August. By the time it got to September I woke up one morning and we decided to do the album. The writing took the most time but we were only in the studio for six days. It was the complete opposite of the last album.” And indeed, Christmas album was the last thing on his mind. “Deciding you are going to make an album coming out in December from September is madness. I think Rock Action have done a pretty amazing job to be honest. I’ve always been into Christmas songs though. Arab Strap had a few – and Ode To Plastic Mistletoe is a reworking of one. I’ve always been interested in Christmas music.”
Both include covers, naturally, with Moffat taking on two well-loved standards in Mud’s Lonely This Christmas and Yazoo’s Only You. “Lonely This Christmas is a good song but the way they made it, with the strange Elvis voice, it feels like a sort of novelty song mocking Elvis. We were already doing Yazoo’s Only You but added the Flying Pickets backing. I was looking at a list of the songs and we thought we would do it. We were an inch away from doing East 17’s Stay, but I don’t have a white coat. I got a jumper in ASDA though, and it’s so comfortable that I can’t take it off.”
Humperdinck goes back further, with songs by Chris Rea, Bing Crosby and Franz Gruber. “My version of White Christmas is a Django Reinhardt type of arrangement, it’s very fresh. Did you like the version of Silent Night? It was arranged by my music director Jeff Sturgess, who I have had since 1973, and who quite recently passed away. Before he passed away he did this version of Silent Night. His wife told me that even in his pain he said ‘I’ve got to finish this job for Enge’, you know? He finished it, we did it, and that’s how it turned out.”
As is often the case, both albums were recorded in high summer. “It’s difficult,” says Humperdinck, “but I always consider myself to be a thespian of song. As a thespian you have to act the part out and create the images in your head, and why you’re singing the lyric. That’s what I did, to try and make it sound like Christmas. It was in the ’90s while we were doing it! But you’re in an air conditioned studio.” Moffat also enjoyed recording cold weather songs in the hottest season. “We had good fun with The Fir Tree especially. It was based on an old Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale which was actually really dull, but I ripped it apart and took the good bits, and added a typical bit of English ‘class-ism’, a kind of ‘don’t get above your station’. We used a lot of sound effects too. It’s amazing what you can do with half an hour on an iPad.”
On religion the pair differ markedly. Moffat’s approach is atheist, leaning heavily on Charles Dickens. “You can’t do Christmas without him. The last song on this album (The Recurrence of Dickens) is from an essay he wrote, a kind of precursor from A Christmas Carol. He was writing about things already happening, representing the change of culture – he doesn’t mention God or Jesus, and instead concentrates on the human side. I mention that you can be kind all the time, you don’t have to wait until Christmas for that! As an atheist it’s more helpful for me. In Scotland it does seem like Christianity is on the way out, and religion in general. These are strange times that we live in but with Dickens the message is not so much about the Nativity and Christ, it’s about family and memories. Christmas is all part of one bigger, longer story.”
“A good Christmas album needs to give you the feeling of Christmas, and for the children especially, so that it doesn’t become too modern. You have to make it so the little ones can appreciate it.” – Engelbert Humperdinck
For Humperdinck, moving between his home town of Leicester and Los Angeles, faith is a huge part of the story. “I think a good Christmas album needs to give you the feeling of Christmas, and for the children especially, so that it doesn’t become too modern. You have to make it so the little ones can appreciate it. I’m a Catholic. I pray a lot, and the reason why I went public with my wife’s Alzheimer’s condition is because I believe in prayer. I think the more people pray for her it forms a rosary of prayer in the sky, and it comes down to the person afflicted by this terrible disease, and it helps the healing. I think that’s one of the reasons she is healing; prayer has had a lot to do with it. Church of England, Catholic – it all boils down to the same thing; that we believe in God.”
The latest news is good. “She is making an improvement. I tell everybody – I get information on a daily basis while I’m away, and I heard she went to have her treatment at an acupuncturist, and a doctor said to her, ‘Pat, you remember me don’t you?’ and she replied, ‘Of course I do!’ She hasn’t been speaking for over two years. And she answers you in the proper way – not like yes, or no, she hears the question and answers you according to that question, which is thoroughly unheard of. It’s a miracle. I’ve told everybody I’m out to find the cure and I’ll do anything to do it, and this is going to help other people in the world who have suffered from the same complaint. I can pass on the information and say to them that this is what you have to do.”
Will they listen to other Christmas albums this year? “I know Katy Perry’s got a new song,” says Moffat, “but it’s everything a Christmas song shouldn’t be. I’m in love with the Phil Spector Christmas Album but it’s so ingrained in American culture that’s the way it should be, jazz-pop shouldn’t be like Santa Baby. I’ll have a look at Engelbert’s album though, and see how it is.”
Humperdinck will be listening to his own, it would seem – but how would he answer the question posed in a song on the album, What Will You Be Doing On New Year’s Eve? “I have no idea!” he laughs. All I can tell you is that I’m all prepared for Christmas. My house in England and my house in LA, they’re both completely decorated and ready, inside and out. I put the tree up and decorated it – that’s my job, and my kids don’t help me with that, even if they’re home. It was a pleasure, and I love it. I know that my house in Leicester will be decorated as well, because my niece is there and she takes care of it. When I go home the lights will be switched on so when I drive through the gate I will see everything.”
Time spent in Leicester is important for him. “It’s good to catch up with my sisters and brothers who are still there, to have meals with them. We’re probably going to have a curry as soon as we get home; we have a friend who has a curry restaurant. I love a Ruby Murray!”
Meanwhile Moffat will be closer to hand. “I have children, so it’s one year down south in England, and the other is up here. I enjoy the ‘going away’ ones much better, there are more family. It’s a quiet one here this year, and I notice Doctor Who isn’t on Christmas Day, hence ruining the mention of Doctor Who we made in in the song Weihnachtsstimmung!”
Humperdinck’s second Christmas album comes in his 51st year as a recording artist. Does he have any musical ambitions remaining? “I never know what I’m going to do in the recording world, but I have to start preparations for my new live show. Preparation is harder than work, you know that don’t you? Therefore I will send the next few months putting an act together with new songs. I’ve got many songs to choose from, but mainly people want to hear the regular ones that I’ve customised in shows – A Man Without Love, Release Me, After The Lovin’, There Goes My Everything, The Last Waltz – you know? They want to hear the songs that have been tried and tested.”
How has his voice changed in that time? “As you age the vibrato is supposed to get slower but mine hasn’t, it’s disappeared – and it means I have a more contemporary sound, today’s kind of sound. Not that I want to sing like a young person, but it’s just happened that way. I’m still hitting high notes and got a bank of cash, you know? I’m enjoying my life as a singer, and I consider myself a thespian of song.” Could you have done anything else in life? “I really don’t know. It’s been all about music, and I started off playing the saxophone – but then I realised I’m not that good at it, and I realised the instrument was in my throat. Thank God for that because it’s easier to carry!”
Christmas has a very different effect on both these song writers but ultimately puts them in high spirits, as it does with Jessie J – whose own seasonal offering This Christmas Day, featuring turns from Boyz II Men and Babyface, is out this year. Interpreted as though it’s had an encounter with the Commodores, Man With The Bag is the most successful of her big band Christmas album – while the collaborations, though effective, are on the slicker side.
Much more in keeping with the season is Shatner Claus, a 14-track heavyweight from Star Trek legend William Shatner featuring none other than Henry Rollins, Todd Rundgren, Rick Wakeman and Iggy Pop. It is much closer to Aidan Moffat’s view of Christmas, and offers proof that the season is an all-inclusive one. So while Moffat and Humperdinck get warm in their very different ways, they will both be celebrating family, food and drink – with barely a humbug in sight.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s Warmest Christmas Wishes is out now through Quattro. Aidan Moffat and RM Hubbert’s Ghost Stories For Christmas is out now through Rock Action.