Keane's Tom Chaplin Covers Joni Mitchell's 'River' for Christmas Album: Premiere

Courtesy of Universal Records
Tom Chaplin of Keane

Keane's Tom Chaplin didn't want to go prancing through the snow on his new holiday album, Twelve Tales of Christmas. So rather than doing the usual formula of writing a new song or two and covering a selection of the well-worn favorites, Chaplin penned eight songs for the set and chose some decidedly non-perky songs from others -- including Joni Mitchell’s "River," which is premiering exclusively below.

"There is a danger with Christmas; You can go down the entirely 'Jingle Bells' and romanticized version of it, but that wouldn't have been me," Chaplin -- whose own childhood Christmases were "pretty magical" -- tells Billboard. "There's always melancholy in the music I write and the music I enjoy, so I wanted to bring a coolness or sort of integrity to it, more of an indie angle to Christmas, because that's what I know. To write something that sort of feels superficial didn't seem like the right kind of mood for me."

Making the set primarily new material came from the "momentum" Chaplin felt after releasing his first solo album, 2016's The Wave. "It was an outpouring of creative energy that had been sorted up over many years, and I just loved that process and learned so much," he says. "I felt so energized, and I wanted to find a project that would keep it going. I wanted something I could sink my teeth into, and for many reasons I felt a Christmas album felt like the best thing to do."

When it came to choosing covers, Chaplin "wanted to pick songs I could bring something different to and reimagine those songs." Those included the Pretenders' "2000 Miles" and "Walking In The Air" from The Snowman, which Chaplin considers "very big departures from the originals." Mitchell's "River," meanwhile, is more faithful to her version, partly because "it's much more in the ballpark of the music I enjoy" but also out of reverence for Mitchell herself. "I'm not even a 10th as good as singer as she is," Chaplin acknowledges with a laugh, "but we carried on, regardless. Obviously there's the challenge of singing it, which took quite a few goes. One of the biggest differences is the dry-room drum, which brings in more of a kind of modern-day slant to it, sort of a Radiohead-style technique." 

Chaplin and his collaborators also added Theremin for an extended outro that brought a different flavor to the track. "That was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever been part of in the studio," Chaplin reports. "Obviously ('River') doesn't have that originally, so we figured out something that felt right in terms of the chords and everything. We wanted something that sounded sort of wail-y and very mournful, and it took the Theremin player a while to find the right space in the room where the air and everything felt right, which was fascinating to watch. It's probably one of my absolute favorite moments on the record."

With the Christmas album due out Nov. 17, Chaplin is looking forward to some family time in England with his wife and their four-year-old daughter. "That's the golden zone for Christmas," he says, "and I'm sure I'll be doing exactly the same as my folks did for me and trying to bring as much magic to it for her as I can -- which we need in this day and age in the world." He plans to start working on another solo album next year and says he may even "get stuff out there even if it's not a full record." Keane, which has been largely dormant since 2013, remains in dry dock for the foreseeable future.

"There's a lot of stuff that would need to be worked on, mainly between me and Tim (Rice-Oxley) and our kind of absurd and enigmatic friendship," Chaplin says. "I haven't actually seen him for a while; We've both been engaged in other projects, and the more time that elapses I feel like the more strangeness kind of exists between us. I think the feelings between us are love and envy and resentment and great respect -- a great kind of mess of contradictions and powerful emotions, and the longer that time goes on the more that space is filled up with that stuff. We'll have to address all that if we are going to make a go of it again and I'm probably quite fearful of that. But I'm aware of how much Keane means to people and how much great stuff we did, and I'm very proud of that. I'm not turning my back on it at all. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."

Twelve Tales of Christmas Track List

1. Walking In The Air
2. Midnight Mass
3. 2000 Miles
4. Under A Million Lights
5. River
6. London Lights
7. We Remember You This Christmas
8. Stay Another Day
9. For The Lost
10. Another Lonely Christmas
11.  Follow My Heart
12. Say Goodbye