"Between The Beatles and Hymns": Kathryn Williams on What Makes A Christmas Song
Christmas records are a unique cultural canon in their own right. Whatever your religion – or even if you have none – the rituals of the holiday season are so pervasive that the festive soundtrack carries emotional weight. And whether the songs are about rowdy celebration or bittersweet reminiscence, the most popular ones tend to come back year after year after year, forming a gradually shifting shared backdrop as we accumulate memories of the season.
It's hard entering this already crowded landscape, but if anyone can do it right, it's Kathryn Williams and Carol Ann Duffy. Duffy is a poet and playwright of huge renown, and was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom for a decade – the first Scot and the first openly LGBTQ+ person to hold the post. Liverpudlian Williams is a singer-songwriter who has existed on the fringes of the mainstream for many years. She was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize early in her career, but rather than following a straightforward singer-songwriter career, she has followed endless fascinating tangents – making concept albums about Elvis Presley and Sylvia Plath, recording albums for children, and publishing her first novel this year.
The pair came together to make Midnight Chorus, a Christmas album which – as you might expect from two such literary writers - is full of unfathomable depths. But, because Williams is a lover of simple, addictive melodies, and is possessed of one of the purest, most subtly expressive voices in modern music, it's also immediately and wonderfully accessible. We spoke to her at home in Liverpool to find out more about the process, and about where Midnight Chorus fits in the world of Christmas records.
So it's not often you get to start an interview like this, but are you a religious person?
Well, I grew up as a Methodist and I went to church, but when I hit my teens and hangovers started to happen, I started going to church less. Now I have a strange relationship with it: I don't go to church, and I'll always say to people I don't believe in it anyway. I certainly don't believe in church as a thing – it seems like a strange act, like people are doing this play acting when they're there. But I do really, really appreciate people who have faith, I feel like I would love faith. I do meditation, every day I check in in that way, I do feel spiritual, I love my friends who are Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever and respect all of that. But I don't have that sort of belief. Then again, when I've told people I don't believe, I'll get home and in the room on my own I'll go "I do really!"
There is a hymnal quality to these songs, though. Was that a deliberate choice?
Working with Carol Anne, one of our touchstones was that it had to have that traditional, childlike wonder and lack of cynicism in the way it felt. We didn't want to be going against those things, we definitely chose to celebrate the simpler pleasures of the season, those kind of idealised childhood memories, while also putting in the lyrical content that acknowledges darker times and lonelier times.
And the sound of hymns is part of that?
Carols, yes, but I don't think people always associate carols with hymns. I think they're something separate. I know they have religious content, and we've touched on that here with "Mary's Caryad", but when you think of something like "Little Donkey" it's more like the folk stories we share at Christmas, rather than a bible reading. The people who go to church on Christmas Eve and don't the rest of the year, that's partly because there is a magical quality to the feeling.
Carol Ann is a massive Christmas fan: she does Christmas books, her name is Carol because her birthday's around that time, and when we did the first writing for this album it was in Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, which she hires out at Christmas (and which gives its title to a song on the record). She goes there every year to be with friends, she gets a piper to bring in the haggis, she gets local Highland musicians to come and do a concert every night – she has a way of thinking and looking at it which is quite enchanting.
We'd planned to make a record together for a while, but it was her idea to make a Christmas album. I'm a massive fan of hers; when we first met it was at a festival I was playing and I clocked her in the audience, straight down in front of me below this high stage, and I literally did the whole gig with my eyes up towards the ceiling thinking "I can't look at her! It's Carol Ann Duffy!"
So to go from that to then working with her was unbelievable. To be given lyrics by her, I was like a kid in toy shop! Normally when I collaborate, doing co-writes for pop stars or whatever, I do the lyrics and the topline. This time, I might have shaped them a little bit, but the words are mainly her. And it was just a joy. I realised all over again how amazing she is, because the simplicity unfolds out the more you work with her words.
Carol Ann Duffy and Kathryn Williams, Photo Credit: Denise Else
Did you think much about secular Christmas songs while you were working – The Pretenders and Paul McCartney and all those songs that come on shop tannoys at this time of year?
Yeah. The best Christmas songs, the ones that come on every year, have a sort of quality to them that reminds me of when I was growing up in Liverpool, and we would sing hymns at school alongside Beatles songs. And it was only when I got old enough that I realised that Beatles songs weren't hymns and hymns weren't Beatles songs. That space between the two – with a melody that's very easily singable and has its own arcs and colours that you recognise immediately – I find that quite intoxicating. It takes something quite special to get played over and over and over, so I wanted to do something like that.
I'm never going to sing like Mariah Carey, and it could never be that bombastic kind of thing, but I do like it when a gentle, tender song can break through. That's why "Fairytale of New York" worked so well for so many people over the years: it does have a narrative arc, it has those heart-aching moments in it. I love "Last Christmas" too because it has a pathos. You don't want it to be just one-dimensional; those songs carry the adult baggage with them but then at the same time suspend that for the magic... or am I just talking nonsense here?
Is there seasonal music that you'll put on yourself, as opposed to the kind that's just there in the background?
Yes, we put music on when we bring the tree in to decorate and bring the boxes out – stuff like baubles that were my gran's. Our tradition is we listen to Phil Spector's Christmas album – that never gets boring. We listen to the Snoopy Christmas album which is amazing, and we've got a Studio Ghibli 7" singles box set which has a Totoro Christmas song! It's the My Neighbour Totoro theme tune done in a Christmassy way, and the kids love that: my youngest has already asked if the Ghibli singles can be the first thing we listen to instead of Phil Spector this year! I really like old songs at Christmas: I love Nat King Cole, The Inkspots or Doris Day. They make me think of my gran.
How long has the album taken to come together from the initial inspiration?
A while. When we hadn't finished it by last Christmas we thought, well, it'd be nice to put out "Snow Angel" as a single, as a gift to people who needed it. We had quite a few of the songs written before that; it was a few years in the writing, but after that we got Neil McColl to produce it, he redid everything so it sounded good, then we got all the musicians to come in and play. It's been done remotely because of COVID which has been weird, but then that's everyone. All this Zoom stuff has become normal!
Did it coming together during the COVID times change how you thought about the themes of family and togetherness and suchlike?
Yeah. When we were doing the running order, I really wanted "Hang Fire" to be the first track because it's got that line "this bitterly hard year dies". There's quite a lot of references to not being together, and “Midnight Choruses” goes "I could wish you wealth as we form a circle with our hands, but I wish you health – without you I wouldn't be myself". I love the way Carol Ann has moulded those things, like that song has all the sentiments of singing "Auld Lang Syne": remembering people who aren't there, but finding the joy of what's left.
Do you have hopes for these songs? Did the reaction to "Snow Angel" give you a sense that they could become part of other people's Christmas?
Last year, so many people got in touch online, even friends I haven't spoken to in ages, just saying they loved the song and have listened to it loads. I realised when I was looking at Christmas songs, they think it's a lottery, like there might be a track that might go big or carry on for them beyond their lives. Going big is not really my thinking – as you can tell by my career, success has never been part of the plan! But I do feel we wanted to make something that people might sing after us. I like the idea of the songs not being ours. Carol Ann and I really want to give the music for the songs to schools, because what we want is not for it just to be a record, but songs that are available for people. To give it away... that's the plan!
Cover Credit: Gonzales Photo/Alamy Stock Photo
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Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.