Hove jazz singer and pianist Joe Stilgoe on his new Christmas album
PUBLISHED: 06:38 12 December 2019
Copyright © Scott Rylander 2016
Acclaimed jazz singer and pianist Joe Stilgoe has a packed schedule Christmas, including gigs in Brighton, Hastings, Chichester – and the Royal Albert Hall. He talks about family festive traditions, carol-singing with The Rolling Stones, and his new Christmas album
Those of us despairing at the encroachment of Christmas into the autumn months might spare a thought for jazz singer and pianist Joe Stilgoe, who spent the July heatwave in a Hastings recording studio, wearing a Christmas jumper and singing about Jack Frost.
But as Joe explains in the Hove home he shares with wife Katie Beard, a theatre director and choreographer, and daughters Sylvie, four, and Clementine, one, he kept one story in mind. "Mel Torme, who wrote The Christmas Song [the festive classic performed by Nat King Cole] was with another writer friend in a villa in Palm Beach. His friend said 'Oh man, it's so hot it's like chestnuts roasting on an open fire.' Mel wrote the song there and then. So I think all great Christmas songs are written in deep heat." If nothing else it is certainly a compelling reason to take a lot of tropical holidays. Making a Christmas album seems almost overdue for the man the Observer called "a songwriter of uncommon originality", an old-fashioned entertainer as adept at onstage repartee as tinkling the ivories. In fact, he says, his first ever public gig was a Christmas show in a Balham pub in aid of the charity set up by his father Richard Stilgoe, The Orpheus Centre. "It was perfect, because you've got a friendly, already quite drunk, audience who are ready to have fun."
Eventually Joe started to amass more and more material for Christmas gigs at venues such as Ronnie Scott's. His festive extravaganzas at The Lyric in Hammersmith have become a popular fixture of Radio 2's seasonal schedule. "There's just been a lot of demand, although the demand has mainly been from myself," he says. "I wanted a mixture of songs that people are already familiar with and love but that haven't been done to death, plus whenever I cover a song I like to put my own spin on it. That is really hard when you have these songs that are so well known. The Nat King Cole version of The Christmas Song is just glorious, but I changed it to make it a bit more reflective. "As soon as you get to Christmas a whole new feeling takes over people. They become, I think, more sociable, more benevolent and more fun. Those were the feelings I wanted on the album - I wanted fun, lovely feelings of sharing and kindness."
One of the two original songs on the album is about Brighton and was written the year Joe moved here. December Lights was inspired by his first sight of the starling murmurations over the West Pier on a winter beach walk. Another, The Night Before, is about Christmas Eve - his favourite part of the festival. It seems right to ask at this point what ingredients a Christmas song needs: "Well, you could probably do a whole TED Talk on this," he replies. "For me sleigh bells are quite important. Scratch that: very important. They aren't on every song on the album but there's a good smattering. A Christmas party song, whether it's Slade or Elton John, is big drums, sleigh bells and children's choirs."
They are all ingredients he has applied with gusto to the new record: Canterbury Girls' Choir perform on a song written by the late Peter Skellern, a 1970s pop star who formed a piano double act with Joe's father Richard. "Rest in Peace isn't overtly a Christmas song but it's very special for this time of year and I wanted to pay tribute to him," says Joe. Comedian Rob Brydon, who has been a guest at Joe's Christmas concerts for years, also appears: "We met at a very swanky party where we ended up singing carols with The Rolling Stones," he laughs, still not quite believing it. "I was playing the piano and Mick Jagger was holding a carol sheet, it was quite surreal. Lulu, Tom Jones, Goldie, David Furnish - they were all there. I did a little turn - a little 15-minute cabaret thing, for what was quite a scary audience of well-established performers! Rob came up to me afterwards and said 'I thought you were really good'. It doesn't normally happen that people I admire so much and who are so well-known take the time. So we met and got on and did a few things together. Then I asked him this year if he would grace the album with his warm, deep baritone." Other guests include Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Amy Dickson and Ben Castle, who performs on a version of Little White Berry by his father Roy.
Joe is big on family tradition himself: "The tree will go up 1 December even though the needles start falling off, it's always important to eke it out as long as possible. Last year I put the fairy lights up and managed to cut through the wire for the burglar alarm, which then went off, so it was quite Home Alone-ish." He is performing at the Royal Albert Hall up until Christmas Eve, "…then I'll drive straight home and kiss the girls goodnight, help Father Christmas with the stocking. Last year was my daughter Sylvie's first proper Christmas and this year it's pretty much all she's talked about. She is nearly five and it's almost bewilderingly exciting for her. I will be away for the build-up which is sad because I love that part and I love being together on Christmas Eve. But hopefully she will come and see one of the shows at the Albert Hall because it will have a family feel, singing along with carols and all that stuff."
And will music form part of the big day for the Stilgoe family? "I suppose because music is my job, and my wife is in the theatre, we don't rush to it as much as other families for whom it's a real treat to get together around the piano. But if we're at my parents' house Dad will always get on the piano and play some carols in a semi-organised fashion. We always try to have a party for friends where we hand out carol sheets and it's raucous - very high renditions with far too much harmony. I love it. Every year I think: why can't we have constant revelry for the whole 12 days of Christmas? But people really lose the will by day six."
It seems almost impossible that he won't have lost the will himself given his packed schedule of festive shows - including dates in Brighton, Hastings and two sold-out nights at Chichester Festival Theatre. But with his appetite for audience interaction, Joe seems a natural performer. It wasn't ever thus: "Growing up, I liked making people laugh and I liked performing but I was the one in class who would go bright red as soon as I spoke. I was a blusher up until really recently and I still feel like I do it now, but I think I've hidden it with lots of red wine. Growing up I was terribly nervous about speaking and I do find it odd that I feel so comfortable on stage because that shouldn't be my natural home. I fought my way through it because I knew there's no point doing what I do unless it's comfortable for the audience and they feel like I'm a friend. I've done a lot of concerts when I'm not even allowed to speak between songs, you're on and then off, and I find that quite tricky. It's like walking into someone's house and not saying hello, and just starting to cook."
When we meet, Joe is penning new songs for an adaptation of Julia Donaldson's children's book Zog. It follows his much-lauded work on a musical version of David Walliams' The Midnight Gang for Chichester Festival Theatre as well as a new musical of The Jungle Book. Writing for theatre - especially children's theatre - is a fairly recent and much-appreciated career development, he says. "I never thought I would write a musical, especially because of my dad having so much success [with Starlight Express and Phantom of the Opera]: it felt like that was his thing. He sort of fell into that by accident as I have and I have inherited his appreciation and love of theatre so I do have huge ambitions. Writing for theatre is now a big part of my life so I have to juggle that with performing. I love it, but you never feel like you have enough time really. I want to be a dad and a husband as well and that is as important to me as everything else."
Joe Stilgoe's Christmas Album is out now on CD/download/stream on Storyville Records