FOR Paul Kelly fans, December 21 is Gravy Day.
The date has become an unofficial national celebration in Australia (mostly on the internet in recent years with fans posting gravy photos and recipes with the hashtag #putyourgravyout) that stems from a lyric in Kelly's much-loved Christmas song, How To Make Gravy.
"Hello Dan, it's Joe here, I hope you're keeping well. It's the 21st of December, and now they're ringing the last bells."
The song has become synonymous with celebrating Christmas in Australia, soundtracking summertime barbecues and family get-togethers over backyard cricket since it was first released in 1996.
The "letter to home", written from the perspective of imprisoned character Joe, has taken on a life of its own as a modern Christmas classic for reasons that the treasured singer-songwriter behind other hits - including Dumb Things, To Her Door and Before Too Long - can't exactly put his finger on.
"Yes, well, you never know what a song is going to do," Kelly said from his home in Melbourne earlier this week.
"You make 'em and put 'em out and they just take on their own life. That's the beauty of it, I suppose."
The 66-year-old recalls how the song came to be when he was asked to record a track for a charity Christmas album in support of The Salvation Army.
He originally planned a cover, but when the song he picked was already taken by another artist, the organiser of the album asked if Kelly would consider writing a Christmas song himself.
"So that's how it started," Kelly says.
"Then I was thinking, 'Well, how do I write a Christmas song, how do I sum up the feeling of Christmas' and I thought, 'Well, maybe I'll write it from the point of view of someone who can't get home for Christmas' and then my next thought was, 'Well, why can't they get home?" and then my next thought was, 'Oh, well, maybe they're in prison?' and then once I had that idea that was the key to writing the song."
How To Make Gravy celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, which coincides with the November 19 release of Kelly's first Christmas album, Christmas Train.
The eclectic 22-track album is not your typical Christmas record.
The album spans carols, pop songs, poems and hymns, both modern and traditional, chosen by Kelly who collaborated with a long list of guest artists including Marlon Williams, Kasey Chambers, Vika and Linda Bull, Emma Donovan, Lior and even his own daughters, Maddie and Memphis.
"I have always had an interest in Christmas music and I have always been struck by the great variety and how much great Christmas music there is," Kelly says.
"It often gets overshadowed by the music we hear in supermarkets and shopping malls.
"We tend to hear the same carols over and over, and the same pop songs over and over, but there is really such a great wealth of Christmas music out there.
"Classical, traditional, choral, gospel and folk, as well as pop music, of course, so I wanted to make a record that reflected that great range in the Christmas traditions."
Originally planned to be recorded in 2020 but postponed to this year due to COVID, the Christmas album is a project that Kelly has long had on his radar.
The album's origins stem from many things: his own love of Christmas and childhood memories of singing carols with his family, the popularity of How To Make Gravy and the series of Christmas shows he performed on his son Declan's radio program in Melbourne in the early 2000s which opened him up to discovering a treasure trove of Christmas music.
"Christmas was a big part of my childhood," Kelly says.
"I had a big Catholic family, so Christmas has always been about family getting together and we sang carols over the years.
"That was part of the tradition for us to get together on Christmas Eve and sing carols and Christmas songs like Jingle Bell Rock, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer..."
He set out to create a 10-track album, but soon realised that he needed to dig deeper in order to make an album that conveyed all the layers of the Christmas story.
"When I first started thinking about a Christmas record I thought, 'I won't overdo it, I'll just do 10 songs'," he says with a laugh.
"Then I realised that if I wanted to get the range across that I wanted, and the variety, then I would really need to stretch it out.
"The Christian story is obviously spread all around the world but the story of Jesus and Mary is part of Islamic culture as well.
"There is a whole chapter in the Quran about Jesus and Mary, so I wanted to do something along those lines and, of course, Jesus was Jewish so I wanted to see if I could somehow make links there as well."
The album is a diverse exploration of Christmas through music and spoken word, including Linda Bull's version of the Phil Spector-produced 60s pop jangle Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) and a country-tinged cover of traditional song The Friendly Beasts.
Kelly performs Silent Night, with the accompaniment of steel guitar, and his childhood favourite Little Drummer Boy on the album alongside a re-recording of How To Make Gravy and the single, Christmas, which is a cover of a nostalgic 60s pop-inspired track about Christmas in Australia by Melbourne pub band, The Large Number 12s, that has Paul Kelly written all over it.
One of the album's highlights is New Zealand singer Marlon Williams' powerful rendition of O Holy Night (Tapu te Po) which he sang in Maori with the backing of a children's choir at the suggestion of Williams himself.
"A lot of people have said to me that it is their favourite and I am really happy with the way that one turned out," Kelly says.
"I thought O Holy Night would suit Marlon, but I didn't know if he would be into it or not, so I rang him up and said, 'I'm doing a Christmas record and would you be interested in doing O Holy Night?'.
"He said, 'That's my favourite song, I've been singing it since I was a kid. I've sung it in choirs, I've sung it in different languages. I'd love to do it'.
"So I knew the stars were aligning in a good way when he said that.
"Part of the beauty of this record was that a lot of the time if you picked the right singer for the song, most of the work is done.
"You just let the singer do their job, you know, I don't have to tell Vika how to sing or tell Linda what to do, or Marlon.
"Get great singers, get them with the right song and let things unfold."
Last weekend, Kelly returned to the stage with his band comprising Vika and Linda Bull, Dan Kelly, Bill McDonald, Peter Luscombe, Ash Naylor and Cameron Bruce in Melbourne for two Making Gravy shows, which have become an annual festive season tradition, at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl.
The show travels to Brisbane this weekend.
"That was the first time we had played in Melbourne for two years so it was very emotional," Kelly says.
"The crowd was emotional, we were emotional. I've never heard a crowd sing along so loud, so it's been really good to get back playing again."
Paul Kelly's Making Gravy show from Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne, recorded on December 10, will be streamed on December 21 at 8pm. Visit www.emusiclive.com for locations and timings. Tickets are $20. For full tour dates, visit frontiertouring.com/paulkelly
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