Keith Christmas: ‘I was really pleased as a songwriter I’d created something a bit different to what I’d done before’

Keith Christmas sounds a relieved man. Having seen his touring schedule decimated during lockdown, the 74-year-old singer-songwriter is finally back on the road with his trusty semi-acoustic guitar.

Keith Christmas. Picture: Stephen Flynn

What was particularly frustrating last year, he says, is that the album all the gigs were intended to promote – Life, Life – was, he felt, his “most complete body of work”.

“The first feedback that came back, people were saying they had got it on repeat play all the time and that was a first,” he says. “That told me that feeling I had was accurate, and I was really pleased as a songwriter I’d created something a bit different to what I’d done before. To that extent it’s been a very successful album.

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“On March 12, 2020 I played at the Roundhouse supporting (Woody Woodmansey and Tony Visconti’s) Holy Holy and had a whole run of gigs (scheduled) from April through to December, but that was it. Bit by bit it became apparent that the next few weren’t going to happen, then the few after that. In the end it became obvious I was going to have to cancel a whole year’s work.

“I was very down and upset about it for a while, but at the same time I’ve got a very nice place to live (in Torquay) and a beautiful wife, and three dogs to take for a walk every day, I couldn’t grumble that personally I was well protected. But it was a frustration, the album was building momentum and I really felt I could have pushed that a lot further on.”

Now he is hoping to make up for lost time.

Life, Life, Christmas’s 14th album in a career spanning more than 50 years, found the singer-songwriter at a philosophical juncture. “The one before it, Crazy Dancing Days, was more political,” he says. “I was raging about what was going on in the country in folk singer fashion but by the time I got to Life, Life a sensed a sort of mellow fruitfulness come upon me and that, I hope, is what the album represented: fruitfulness and mellowness and happiness. There are some really nice cheery songs in there, lots of love songs as well.”

Christmas’s debut album, Stimulus, came out in 1969 and was followed by four more longplayers in the 1970s that featured a starry cast of guest musicians including Keith Tippett, Rod Argent, Pete Sinfield and Greg Lake. He also toured with The Who, King Crimson, Roxy Music and The Kinks.

He remembers the period as a “lovely” time to make music, adding: “When I made the first album we did it really cheaply, that was with Sandy Robertson who was trying to get this stable of artists that he was managing and producing. Everything was done a bit on the fly, but by the time I got to the second album, Fable of the Wings, that was when I got Rod Argent in and Keith Tippett and people like that, and they played some wonderful stuff on it. Pygmy was the third of the Sandy Robertson albums, and it was a wonderful time to be in London, it was a great time to be in this country and to play music. We had some really exciting times.”

Around the same time, Christmas met a then up-and-coming David Bowie at the Beckenham Arts Lab and was invited to play acoustic guitar on his Space Oddity album. He recalls the journalist Mary Finnigan introduced him to the club where Bowie was the opening act. “He was the warm-up for everybody, the resident singer for the club...that’s where I met David and a very nice bloke he was too,” he says, adding that Bowie seemed “very focused on his music”.

“In that sense, I wouldn’t say he was distant, but his music was all-consuming, let’s put it that way. But he was very pleasant and charming, he had a good sense of humour and was very easy to work with. When we put the four tracks down in London we just sat down in the studio together, he strummed the chords and I had a few goes at things and after a little while we said, ‘OK, let’s tape one’, and that’s how we did it.”

Sadly Christmas’s only memories of playing at the first Glastonbury Festival now only consist of “the photographs that people from The Western Daily Press took”, likewise sharing a bill with Bowie at the Beckenham Bandstand, but he was recently involved the campaign to have the bandstand listed as a heritage site – and last month performed a celebratory concert there.

Keith Christmas plays at Crookes Folk Club, Sheffield on September 3, The Crescent, York on September 5 and The Ropewalk, Barton upon Humber on September 9. www.becn.co.uk