Jools Holland, I’m warned before we meet, doesn’t like being thought of as a television personality first and a musician second. Touchy subject. Best avoided. Don’t mention the small screen.
That presents a difficulty because, although Holland is one of Britain’s best-known pianists, his renown rests on the long-running and influential music programme he presents on BBC TV, Later with Jools Holland, where he is often found sitting at a piano stool jamming with guests.
He is therefore in the curious position of being a famous musician who isn’t so well-known for his own music, in spite of keeping up a busy recording and touring schedule with his band, the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, with whom he has new album out.
Called Moving Out to the Country, it is a collection of country songs featuring an impressively eclectic array of guest vocalists, including K.T. Tunstall, India Arie, Lulu, Tom Jones and Marc Almond.
The mix of names is reminiscent of a Later… episode, where artists of many different styles come together to play live under the same roof, with Jools acting as the pianist-ringmaster.
“One of the reasons I wanted to do a country music album is because the songs are so fantastic and beautifully written, the great ones, that they hit the root of your feelings like an arrow,” he explains. Some of the covers are faithful to the originals, others, such as an atmospheric rereading of a Waylon Jennings song featuring Brian Eno, transform them utterly.
“I won’t reveal the secrets of Brian’s craft, the machine that he used, and how he set it up in the studio,” Holland says with a flicker of a mischievous smile. “Suffice to say a special table was brought in and we all stood back and left him to it like an amazing scientist.”
The catalyst for the album was a song he wrote with Solomon Burke, the great soul pioneer. “He is the ‘King of Soul’, make no mistake of that. He invented all those styles of singing that inspired people like Otis Redding. He loves country music and said, let’s write a song called ‘Moving Out to the Country’.”
Holland, with his bone-dry humour and understated conservatism, is a very English character (“I like a pub that just has smoking and drinking and no food. Food makes it smell,” he says, lamenting the decline of the Great British Boozer). Yet as a musician he is powerfully drawn to American music, especially from the first half of the past century.
“If you really start going to the roots of country music, you end up coming back here because a lot of the songs are based on old folk songs that would have been sung in Scotland, Ireland, Wales,” he reasons. “Interestingly enough, a lot of country artists have got Welsh names, have you noticed that? Buck Owens. Hank Williams. Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Born in Deptford, south-east London in 1958, Holland grew up listening to old music – boogie-woogie, R&B, jazz, blues (“The first song I ever heard was ‘Careless Love’ by Bessie Smith, which my mother used to sing”) – which offered the tyro pianist greater inspiration than the pop music of the day.
“In the late 1960s there weren’t any records with piano on. It was all guitars. The only people in the pop charts who had pianos in their records were The Beatles.”
In 1974 he joined the rock group Squeeze as keyboardist, playing on hits such as “Cool for Cats” and “Up the Junction”, though the band’s leanings towards Kinks-style classic English pop offered him limited musical opportunity as a pianist.
He went solo in 1980 but his first album was a financially disastrous flop. It was at that low point in his musical life that his TV career took off when he joined the irreverent, innovative music programme The Tube, which he co-presented with Paula Yates between 1982 and 1987.
“The Tube was a great success and I became a household name, which I hadn’t really been before – except in various undesirable households,” he says when I broach the taboo topic, fearing a thunderclap of displeasure but receiving instead a mildly garbled explanation of how he grew disenchanted with TV.
“By the end of The Tube, I realised that while I didn’t mind the world of television, it was such a long-winded process – endless meetings with people – that I thought, I don’t like this really, what I like doing is playing music.”
The Tube’s demise was hastened when Holland caused a national scandal by accidentally swearing in a live trailer broadcast in the afternoon, peak children’s viewing time. He returned to his life as a musician. “There’s an old Italian saying, I think: he who plays the piano stays sane. So I think it stopped me going mad.”
Having rejoined Squeeze and then gone solo again, he resumed his TV career as the host of Later… in 1992. Its simple formula – live performances and interviews – is one of the rare cases of television doing music well.
As the range of collaborators on Moving Out to the Country shows, it has also helped him assemble an enviable contacts book of musicians, which leads me to wonder whether he thinks presenting it has helped or hindered his own music. “I think the two probably help one another,” he replies. “If they didn’t do that I wouldn’t do them both.”
He has a distinctive TV persona, somehow managing to radiate both irony and bonhomie, so how would he characterise his piano-
playing? “There’re a lot of bits of things mashed together that end up being me. The fact that it’s played quite aggressively and stridently and with a certain feel . . . So long as they know it’s me, it doesn’t matter. That’s all you can have.
“The great thing about the piano is, it’s the same box but different people make it speak in different languages. It’s like people say that pianists in brothels used to suddenly play a hymn just because that would make everyone pay attention, or a player in a church would suddenly play a bit of boogie-woogie to wake everyone up. It’s quite nice putting them in different contexts.”
A thought strikes him and his eyes light up. “Maybe that’s what this country record is about. It’s the hymn in the brothel of modern Britain.”
‘Moving Out to the Country’ is released this week.