On the Radar - No 218: Very Well

Daniel Abercrombie of Very Well
Daniel Abercrombie of Very Well
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THE canon of Christmas songs seems to be forever stuck in the past.

Our love of familiarity and comfort at this time of year doesn’t afford much space for new seasonal standards, and the conveyor belt of cookie cutter X Factor winners has ensured that the Christmas number one is either forgettable (Leon Jackson’s When You Believe, anyone?) or reactionary (Rage Against the Machine).

So ideas like the Christmas Songwriters’ Club, a collection of musicians tasked with producing original festive tunes (one rule: no covers), has to be welcomed. This year the project comes to fruition with a show at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh on Saturday night, a big step up in size from its former venue of choice, at the Leith Dockers Club.

Daniel Abercrombie, of Edinburgh band Very Well, is the driving force behind the Christmas Songwriters’ Club, although he doesn’t claim credit for the original idea.

“It came from the guys in We See Lights actually. The first year we did it there were maybe four bands at the Leith Dockers Club and it was all very merry… very, very merry. There is a YouTube video somewhere if you search for it. We have always held it two or three days before Christmas Day so there’s a feeling it kicks off the Christmas celebrations. It’s a good challenge to all the performers to see if they can write a Christmas song – no covers allowed!”

The challenge has proved to be irresistible for many of the capital’s finest songwriters, with some very fine results, as Abercrombie recalls:

“Adam Stafford blew the Dockers away with a one-man orchestral piece two years ago, – very different to the normal songs we get. Also, We See Lights referencing Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses, with Cold Noses and John D McIntosh’s song from 2011. There’s also an annual unwritten competition to see who can wear the worst Christmas jumper, that’s always a highlight.”

The 2012 edition of the Christmas Songwriters’ Club promises to be the biggest and best yet. Not only has it graduated to the Queen’s Hall, a venue normally reserved for the top names in classical, jazz and folk, but the line-up is packed with talent: Scott Hutchison (Frightened Rabbit), Withered Hand, Adam Stafford, author and playwright Alan Bissett, eagleowl, TeenCanteen, The Machine Room, Easy Tigers, Jesus, Baby!, We See Lights and Stanley Odd. Abercrombie is looking forward to a few surprises on the night:

“It’s going to be different to the Dockers Club, but I’m hopeful it will transfer over. We just want everyone to have fun and celebrate Christmas, whilst being entertained! We’ve got a fantastic line-up and a really good mix of performers. We don’t know what everyone is going to do until we hear it on stage, so it’s quite exciting.”

Completing the roster of songwriters is Abercrombie himself, on performing duties with his band Very Well. This started out as a solo outlet for his material but was soon expanded with his friends Stuart Brunton (guitar), David McManus (drums) and Adam McMillan (bass).

“I’ve played in bands since school, we had a little bit of joy and lots of fun. When that slowed down I started doing a few shows on my own and picked up the guitar again. It’s taken me a while to find chord shapes and my own way of playing, but I’m getting better … I’ve known the rest of the band for a long time, they’re close friends, we’ve played music together for a long time. I just felt it was time to put a name to it and get our act together.”

While the past year has been one of formulating their sound, Very Well will play more gigs in 2013, Abercrombie says:

“We recorded Dead Happy and Honey Well at The Depot Studio and just put them out as free downloads for people. It’s been a fun year just practicing, especially for me hearing songs I’ve been singing in my living room played by a full band. We have a beer rota for practices, make of that what you will… 2013 will bring our first gigs and the continued enjoyment of playing music with my friends.”

For Abercrombie himself, the challenge of writing a future Christmas classic is all about getting the balance of moods right: “Mournfulness. It’s so hard to write a joyful Christmas song without sounding corny! Some can do it with a smile, I struggle,” he says.

And his own favourite Christmas song of all time?

“I’ve got a soft spot for Chris De Burgh’s Spaceman Came Travelling, but I think the best one is Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses.”

• The Christmas Songwriters’ Club is at the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh on Saturday (22 Dec), from 7pm. Tickets £10, with all proceeds going to charity.