DAVE CLIFTON was questioned by Tony Cummings
Tony: Who is Mark Russell and how did you come to produce an album with him?
David: I first met Mark Russell at the Mean Fiddler in London when I was auditioning for Tanita Tikaram many years ago. Tanita had a four million selling album called 'Ancient Heart' and a hit with a song called "Good Tradition". I had been recommended to her management company as a guitarist and mandolin player. I passed the audition! Mark was the keyboard player and we played in Tanita's Band for just over two years, touring all over the world and doing all the usual mad promotion - TOTP, Wogan, Alive and Kicking, and so on. They were quite social tours and a lot of fun. When all the touring finished we stayed in touch, yet both going our own ways in terms of career. Mark went on to write and record film and TV music (Men Behaving Badly, Saving Grace, Cold Feet, Fat Friends etc) and presents the Radio 3 shows Late Junction and Mixing It. I went to play for Mary Coughlan and then Julia Fordham, touring and recording mostly in the USA, Europe and Japan with her. I subsequently recorded two albums with Andy Piercy and set up a production company to release them. These were specifically sacred worship albums, the first being 'Praise God'. During the making of the second one, 'Psalms Hymns And Spiritual Songs' I suggested that Mark write the string arrangements for two songs. I got back in touch with him, and he did an excellent job. Mark and I have always got on well musically and a few years later, when I felt it was time to realise one of my long held visions, Mark was my first choice as co-producer because of his choral background. He had been a cathedral chorister, as had I, and we both have a great love of choral and contemporary music. We actually started my 'Hymns' album first!
Tony: What were the circumstances which led to you being commissioned to co-produce the 'Christmas Carols & Songs' album?
David: I am not sure commissioned is quite the right word! As I said, I had actually started work on the 'Hymns' project with Mark, part of the same vision, which is to breathe new life into some of the powerful traditional sacred music which is so much part of our history and heritage. I have four lists in the back of my Filofax which I have carried around for some 10 years! Projects I am longing to record; they are only now coming off the paper. I suppose this has all developed through my worship leading at church and is rooted in my years singing and playing both sacred and popular music. Back to your question. On the way to a meeting Mark and I had planned in the West End, to discuss the next stage of the hymns project, I had a call on my mobile from Shirley Ferrier, the head of Integrity Music Europe. I act as a consultant for the company on a freelance basis and have been involved with several of the projects they have released, including co-writing and playing on 'City Of Gold', which is actually how I first met Shirley, and putting compilations and other projects together. She told me that Sony (with whom they have a high street distribution arrangement) were keen to have a Christmas project to release this year, and was there any way I could put my 'Hymns' album on hold and make the Christmas one now?! Bear in mind this was June! Oh, and there was a catch. I would have to fund it through my production company! At this point I have to say that if there is one person in this industry I trust, it is Shirley Ferrier. We had both recently been away on a retreat weekend with writer and musician friends up north, to meet and talk through future projects. During this time there were some amazing and unexpected spiritual moments, the significance of which we were only to understand with hindsight. Seeds were sown! I drew a deep breath and replied that Mark and I would look at diaries; I would talk to the bank, and if it was at all possible, we'd do it. And it was, so we did. Well, it wasn't quite as simple as that, as you can imagine! My vicar always said that faith was spelt r-i-s-k! By the way, the CD cover artwork was painted by a good friend, Charlie Mackesy; he is an incredibly inspirational artist, and I am really pleased that he has contributed to the project.
Tony: One of the outstanding parts of the album are the contributions by the Peterborough Cathedral Choir. What's your connection with Peterborough?
David: I used to sing in Peterborough Cathedral Choir as a child and I love choral music. The plan with both the 'Hymns' and the Christmas recording had always been to unite the best of the musical traditions that we are so privileged to enjoy - choirs, strings, modern band and programmed sounds and so on. I was invited to an old choristers reunion at Peterborough and during the evening the Archdeacon spoke and told of the crisis facing many of our cathedrals and their choirs. Peterborough recently suffered a serious arson attack, and many cathedrals have trouble recruiting choristers and lay clerks (the men who sing the alto, tenor and bass parts in the choir). He asked us to think of ways of creating a new awareness of our great choral tradition. It confirmed what I already thought might be a good plan, which was to incorporate the choirs on the recording, so I went to see the master of the music, Christopher Gower, and also wrote to the Dean. They were all really enthusiastic and supportive, so we took it from there and made plans. I came up with a shortlist of pieces which I felt should be included, Christopher suggested adding the lullaby "Suo Gan" and then we put the dates in the diary. Actually it is the first time that the boys and girls choirs have been recorded together and they sound excellent, as you so rightly pointed out. They also sing a piece each ("Bethlehem Down", girls choir and the boys sing "Suo Gan (Lullaby)". The girls also sing "How Far Is It To Bethlehem" as the arrangement seemed to suit their voices better. We are giving the artist royalty element due to the choir to the Cathedral Music Fund to help with all the costs of running the choir. It is amazing to think that services have been said or sung in that building since 1152. By the way, Mark used to be a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral in London, so we really enjoyed the whole process. There were some technical nightmares for our location engineer, Gerry O'Riordan - over 50 sets of headphones being one of them! Oh, and a temperamental vintage valve microphone.
Tony: Haven't some of the carols become hugely hackneyed? How did you approach recording material which is so familiar to everybody?
David: As I put in my sleevenotes for the CD, carols have always been the people's music and have sown the seeds of much of our modern music, being based upon the dance, which is what the word originally meant. Carols have often been sung in the pubs and meeting houses through the centuries, because they were banned in the churches! Can you imagine carols being that disruptive? People sing about the things they love and care about and people have always sung about their faith and the way it relates to everyday life. Many carols are based on folk song melodies and we wanted to express the vibrancy, fun and excitement of the roots of this music. Things only become hackneyed when they are attempted with little or no imagination and are trotted out in the absence of anything inspirational. Having said that, this is not change for change's sake, but rather a unity of all that is exciting about Christmas music and the Christmas message. I am responsible for putting together a children's choir in my church at Christmas, for the Christingle service, so I am always looking for new ways to arrange and sing our well known and much loved carols. They capture the message of Christmas so wonderfully. Basically Mark and I sat down with my guitar and his keyboard and we went through my back catalogue of arrangements. Then Mark took everything to a new level. He is used to coming up with themes of continual interest because of his film and TV work, so we decided to treat each carol as a musical journey. I have a real thing about the language of music and how so often it doesn't speak the same spiritual language as the words (I especially notice this with hymns). I really wanted us to be able to capture and express the true spiritual meaning of Christmas in our musical arrangements, something to touch everyone, so we kept working at the arrangements until we were happy with them, even if it meant starting again and scrapping the first versions. Mark has made some great string arrangements and also written a new descant for "Away In A Manger" and "How Far Is It To Bethlehem". We will no doubt offend some of the traditionalists, but church music has always been contentious! We want to introduce this wonderful sound and great choral music to a new generation, as well as inspire the family of the Church. People haven't changed. Children haven't changed. It is just that so often they don't get to hear this sort of music approached in a new way. It is not all choral, by the way. We have a great guest appearance from the Canadian singer Jane Siberry, who sings the duet on "Silent Night". And a rocking tribute to REM and XTC on "Rejoice And Be Merry"! Plenty to sing and dance to while you are wrapping the presents and decorating the Christmas tree!
Tony: When did you record 'Christmas Carols And Songs'? Presumably it was a long time away from Christmas!
David: We recorded a 'sounds-like' demo in July, then began in earnest on 4th August this year, working at Mark's studio in Highbury, and also at the Snake Ranch in Chelsea. In the past I have worked with Jon Kelly (Deacon Blue, Beautiful South, Kate Bush, Prefab Sprout) and so I asked if he would mix the album for us. He agreed and has done a fantastic job. It was finally mastered on 14th October, the day after we completed the final mixes! A bit close, that! So it was completed in a little under two and a half months. The choir was recorded on location in Peterborough Cathedral, and Jane Siberry recorded her vocal parts in Toronto. She is a great friend, and I am a total fan, so it is a real privilege to have her agree to sing on the project. By the way the project name is 'IKOS', which means 'window of light', from the Greek. Very appropriate for Christmas. The light of Christ coming into the world.
Tony: Are you still involved with church worship ministry as well as your recording work?
David: Very much so. I am still part time on the staff at Holy Trinity Brompton, leading worship at the church and on conferences and helping with training, teaching and contributiong to the vision of the church. I think it is a great privilege and the highest calling of any musician. I always remember that Vivaldi was a priest (though a fairly wild and unconventional one) and that Bach gave grateful thanks to God for all he ever composed. He also ran his church's music team, by the way! I would love to think that the greatest musicians and composers of our day would once again dedicate all they do to bringing the light, joy and truth of the Gospel message of Christ through all they do. And I don't mean that everything has to be 'churchy'! We should be out and about getting the best music played, recorded and sung everywhere, as well as contributing sacred music to our church services. I am always inspired when I look at the places where - and people with whom - our Good Lord spent most of his time. So get out there folks! Play those songs to a hungry world and have fun. I am very fortunate that this all fits in with my touring and recording work, though it can be a hard balance to keep, especially at the busy times of the Church's year, and when I have a demanding touring or recording schedule. Sandy Millar, our vicar, and Ric Thorpe, the worship team pastor, are very supportive and understanding. This month I am reunited with Julia Fordham again, playing a London concert to promote her new CD. She lives in America now, so it is a while since we played together, and that will be great fun.
Tony: What are your plans for the future?
David: Now there is a question! As I said earlier, Mark and I are four tracks into the 'Hymns' project, which is part of the same vision to arrange traditional sacred music in a way that is very inspirational and unusual. The plan is to include both choral and string arrangements - the idea which we explore in our Christmas CD; there is much to build on from that starting place. It may be that the 'Hymns' album is the next release from IKOS. We will keep you informed. I have written a set of sacred Scripture songs, too, including one with Phil Keaggy, so that is also in the pipeline. David Fitzgerald (founder of Iona) and I have also talked about a very special new project, so we are making plans for that, too. We have played a concert and recorded and filmed a Songs Of Praise under the IKOS umbrella, along with Terl Bryant, Tim Oliver and other like minded composers and musicians. So it is possible that our next project will feature them in a glorious musical extravaganza! It is quite unusual for there to be a simultaneous release of a sacred music CD in both the High Street and the Bible bookshops, so let's hope we are making a way for renewed interest in contemporary sacred music. What else.? I really enjoy playing, writing and singing acoustic/folk music, which is what I first began doing. There are many songs which I've written, either on my own or with friends, over the years - and I would also like to record these, but it is all a matter of time and priority.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.