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Tom Chaplin on his new Christmas album and the festive season in Sussex

PUBLISHED: 11:25 19 December 2017 | UPDATED: 11:25 19 December 2017

Tom Chaplin on Beachy Head Road, East Sussex in a promotional shot for his debut album The Wave © Derek Hudson

Tom Chaplin on Beachy Head Road, East Sussex in a promotional shot for his debut album The Wave © Derek Hudson

Copyright Derek Hudson 2016

Tom Chaplin, former frontman of Battle indie band Keane, has followed his bestselling debut The Wave with a Christmas album

“It’s not a Jingle Bells-style album,” says Tom Chaplin of second solo album Twelve Tales of Christmas, from his family home on the Kent/Sussex border. “It’s more of a conventional album that is formed by Christmas or set in the context of Christmas. I’m somewhere between an atheist and an agnostic, I’m not a big believer in the Bible. Christmas has roots that go further than that – it was a winter festival. There is a magic to that time of year.”

The idea to make a Christmas-themed album came from a desire to keep up the momentum behind his 2016 top three debut album The Wave. The timing seemed to fit perfectly. “I really loved how much inspiration there is to be had from writing Christmas songs,” says Tom. “It’s a great way to frame so many different ideas. In our lives it’s hard to stop and take stock – Christmas is one of those times when there is an enforced break where you can stop and reflect.”

This is captured in one of his favourite songs from the album: We Remember You This Christmas. “It’s a very bittersweet song,” he says. “On one hand Christmas is when we come together with family and friends. But we are reminded of the people we have lost along the way and how sad that is. We raise a glass to celebrate their memories – even though they aren’t there.” Another song which takes a more oblique look at Christmas is London Lights – a love story set in the capital. “I didn’t want to put Christmas in every song,” he says. “London is such a magical place to visit at Christmastime – I was thinking about me and my wife [Natalie, who he married in 2011] wandering around the city up and down the South Bank and Trafalgar Square looking at the beautiful lights at this time of year.”

His choice of Christmas covers is not always obvious. Alongside The Pretenders’ classic 2,000 Miles and East 17’s Stay Another Day is Joni Mitchell’s River, which boasts strong wintry imagery but isn’t often lumped in with other Christmas songs. The album’s tone is set by Tom’s take on Howard Blake’s Christmas classic Walking In The Air. Tom dispenses with the chiming piano arpeggio in favour of a plucked vintage electric guitar, light strings, a ghostly choir and a more soulful deep vocal. “It’s probably the best cover I have ever done,” says Tom. “People associate the song with The Snowman and a little choirboy with a high-pitched voice. It’s hard to hear that song in any other way. The way I went about it was to turn it on its head – it sounds like it should be at the beginning of Twin Peaks! It’s got a weird rock/Americana quality to it. It sounds bizarre to say, but it’s almost sexy – it’s like a love song. The imagery of it becomes two lovers going on a magical fantasy trip. I’m really proud of the way it turned out.”

As frontman of Keane, Tom spent his days singing songs penned by bandmate and old schoolfriend Tim Rice-Oxley, now based near Polegate. The band went on hiatus following the release of a greatest hits album in 2013, but the pair reunited in October 2015 for an acoustic concert at Battle Abbey. Tom says he would never say never to a Keane reunion, but feels driven to work on his own solo material now.

“It’s harder when you’re in a band and there are four of you with your own agendas,” says Tom who, as with the rest of Keane, received lucrative writing credits on all of the band’s songs. “I’m not sure how the writing process would work back in Keane. I might find it frustrating to be singing and not contributing with the writing again. I didn’t have the self-confidence and belief to bring songs into the recording process – I felt in awe of Tim’s songwriting. It was lovely to sing those songs for all those years, but at the same time I think if you’re a creative person you have stuff you want to get out and you have to find an avenue for doing that.”

Tom’s avenue was his debut album, The Wave, which he used to exorcise some personal demons. Keane’s debut album Hopes and Fears was the second biggest selling album of 2004 and has sold more than 5.8m copies worldwide. Following that initial release Tom admitted to suffering from panic attacks, anxiety and depression, which he channelled into addiction. He cleaned up in the Priory in 2006, but following the break-up with Keane and the prospect of a solo album on the horizon he admitted to The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick that he “got back to shovelling coke up my nose” – to the point when in early 2015 he thought he might die.

All of this came out in The Wave – with songs such as Still Waiting talking about a “boy in trouble… dying to get back to the light”, Hardened Heart expressing the fear of losing everything he had and the extended apology of Worthless Words. “The Wave was an incredible outpouring of creative energy,” says Tom. “It had been stacking up inside me for years and all came flooding out with that record. There’s a real urgency in me now to keep doing that. I went for ten to 15 years without writing that many songs, and now I do it on a daily basis. It’s an absolutely vital part of my life. I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time.”

That said he wouldn’t want to go back to the period of his life he explored on The Wave for inspiration. “I said all I wanted to say on the record – it was pretty comprehensive in exploring all that stuff,” he says. He returned to his home turf for a series of photographs by Derek Hudson illustrating each song on the album. Beachy Head Road represented the “road of sadness” in Hardened Heart, he waded into the waters near Alfriston for The River and caught a wave in the sea at Birling Gap for the album’s powerful front cover. “I wanted something that felt familiar,” he says. “A lot of my mad behaviour, to put it politely, was around these parts. I felt like I should join the dots up in and around the local area.”

Tom’s parents still live in Sussex, and his family home isn’t too far away over the Kent border. “A lot of people I grew up with or went to school with in East Sussex have gone to far-flung corners of the world,” he says. “With my lifestyle on tour I was conscious of wanting to remain close to my roots. It’s important to maintain that certainty in my life – I love the familiarity of still being in this part of the world.”

He has happy memories of family Christmases in and around Battle. “My parents helped create a real magic around Christmas,” he says. “One used to hide outside the house and jingle bells, so the other could say: ‘I think I can hear Santa’s sleigh’. It was so exciting and magical. Now I have a daughter who is in that golden Christmas age of approaching four. She’s totally into that stuff, so I can relive it again.” 


Tom Chaplin’s Christmas in Sussex

Shopping - “I always go Christmas shopping in Battle – I think it’s a bit of a tradition for me. They’ve got good shops for Christmas there.”

Lights - “I always make a trip to Westfield to see the Christmas lights – it’s definitely my recommendation for anyone. The lights have evolved over the years and they are amazing. I took my daughter Freya last year and she enjoyed it – I know she will be bowled over this year.”

Carol singing - “I remember doing carol singing at Christmas – we would go in groups and knock on people’s doors to sing carols. It’s not done much these days, but I have memories of doing it in Battle and little hamlets and villages around there like Vinehall and Mountfield.”

Church service - “We used to have a carol service for the school [Vinehall where Tom’s father was headmaster] at Salehurst Church. It was very magical – they lit the church by candlelight. At school we would prepare for weeks. It was something we would look forward to ahead of that long hard time in the middle of winter.”


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