A fire gently flickers in the living room of Tom Chaplin’s London flat which sits on the corner of a well-appointed square in the shadow of the Shard. Like estate agents playing on the psychology of olfaction by having fresh coffee brewing and bread baking in houses to make them appear homely to potential buyers, The Big Issue instantly suspects the former Keane frontman of trying to direct the right mood for his second solo album – Twelve Tales Of Christmas.
He denies it’s intentional, of course, saying he only lit the fire as it was cold. It is, but not that cold.
One of the things that I’ve tried to promote about my own story is that being vulnerable and telling people about your weaknesses is the opposite in a way of weakness
Disarmingly tall and with a warm handshake like a disciplinary hearing, he’s dressed in black jeans, well-worn high-tops and a grey hoodie that echoes the slight grey streak in his quiff, the only outward sign he’s approaching the end of his 30s. He spends the interview slouching in different shapes on a purple sofa the size of a hatchback, fruitlessly hunting out the optimum comfort spot.
Just up the hall, heaped boxes of LPs and CDs in his kitchen are to be autographed to sell on his online store. He is also writing cards to fans picked at random but complains his handwriting is now “terrible” and his arm aches from all the scribbling.
As part of the tour for the album, Tom busked up and down the country in association with The Big Issue. He’s been deep in Christmas mode since the spring, having to hang lights in the studio while recording the album as a seasonal simulator (“That was our feeble attempt at trying to make it Christmassy”). He was invigorated by the challenge of making an album by November as its theme came with an immoveable deadline. “It’s not like you can shift Christmas to the middle of February so I could get the album finished!” he laughs. “It sharpens the mind.”
Thanks to everyone who came along to a #BigIssueBusk over the past few days.
— The Big Issue (@BigIssue) December 4, 2017
It is made up of eight originals and four covers – Walking In The Air, The Pretenders’ 2,000 Miles, Joni Mitchell’s River and East 17’s Stay Another Day. Was this a brazen attempt to muscle in on that sweet Michael Bublé Christmas cash? “I didn’t think in those terms,” he says defensively. “But I do really love Christmas and never lost my childlike wonder for it.”
When he talks of Christmas as a child, it’s hard not to see it as a scene out of the kind of mawkish Richard Curtis films that Americans can’t seem to get enough of – tales of choir-singing in splendidly dusty old churches and his parents secretly jingling bells outside the window to suggest Santa was nearby. Despite this sense of blissful perfection, his album is more Last Christmas than Wonderful Christmastime.
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“There is quite a big thread of melancholy,” he says, pointing out that Another Lonely Christmas and We Remember You This Christmas, as well as the East 17 cover, all focus on mortality. “There was an unintended thread of death running through the album!”
With that in mind, was it really all Christmas card scenes growing up? Well, yes and no. Obsessed with remote-controlled toys, he once got a radio-controlled plane. Fizzing with excitement, he took it to the top of a hill, propelled it into the sky and… threw it straight into a tree where it smashed to pieces. “Within the space of three hours, it was simultaneously my best and worst Christmas,” he groans. He also, correctly, identities certain traditional foods as the vilest part of the season’s customs – like a gastronomical endurance test. “I hate mince pies!” he gags. “I think they are revolting. Christmas pudding is disgusting as well.”
Now on his second solo album, he wants to carve out some distance between him and the band that made him famous.
Day one of the #BigIssueBusk in Borough Market, London! Huge thanks to @ChoirwithNoName for singing a couple of songs with me & to everyone who came to watch. The full video of today's busk is over on my facebook page. Birmingham, St Philip's Cathedral tomorrow. 1pm. Can't wait! pic.twitter.com/NYa2bGgHTA
— ✨Tom Chaplin (@tomchaplin) December 2, 2017
After almost a decade of false starts, Keane finally hit pay dirt in 2004, with debut album Hopes and Fears selling 2.8 million copies in the UK alone. Chaplin was catapulted into enormous fame and considerable wealth, but developed an unquenchable taste for alcohol and cocaine.
“I should have been enjoying it, relishing and cherishing every minute,” he says of that first rush of fame. “But I wasn’t really able to because of where I was mentally and emotionally.”
The fallout from that time was appalling. “I got very close to losing my family,” he says of the hedonism of his life before rehab. His only vice now, he says, is his vape but he retains the guarded eye of the recovering addict in the run into a British Christmas, where reckless abandon with alcohol is not just encouraged, it’s demanded. As a spokesman for Mental Health Awareness Week, he also knows how hard this time of year is for the lonely and those with mental health issues.
“One of the things that I’ve tried to promote about my own story is that being vulnerable and telling people about your weaknesses is the opposite in a way of weakness,” he says. “If we do more as a society to rid ourselves of the stiff upper lip and that stoic approach to things, it would make for a much healthier world.”
— John Dingwall (@johndingwall) December 4, 2017
He is now designated driver for his friends when they go clubbing and claims he’s fine with that. “I manage that part of my life,” he says of his addictions. “What I focus on and what keeps me healthy is writing and being a trustworthy and reliable member of my family.”
He quietly hopes at least one of the songs from the album – the epic Under A Million Lights seems the most likely contender – becomes a Christmas standard, but accepts this is far from a given. “That’s why it was quite hard to do a Christmas album, particularly with original songs, because you know you’re trying to break into this place that is a stronghold,” he says, unintentionally conjuring up images of Noddy Holder and Cliff Richard chasing him off with a brush.
At the moment I am the one drawing the line underneath Keane. I am not aware how much we have been offered to reform
Despite just about everyone except The Smiths and ABBA reforming, he’s not totally ruling out Keane leaping on the reunion gravy train, but equally not ruling it in. “I am not aware of how much we have been offered [to reform],” he says. “At the moment, I am the one drawing the line underneath Keane.”
If he lucks into that coveted Christmas hit, the annual royalties windfall would mean no economic coercion to reform the band. For now, there’s work to be done to try to achieve that but, come Christmas Day itself, he can finally take his foot off the accelerator.
“Ever since I got myself well, I’ve gone at life with reckless abandon,” he exclaims. “I have thrown myself into every opportunity that I could. I probably need a bit of a pause from doing it all.”
Twelve Tales of Christmas by Tom Chaplin is out now