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King’s Professor Releases Christmas Album in Aid of Prostate Cancer UK

Photo courtesy of James Clark

Roar talks to James Clark, Professor of Cardiovascular and Physiology Education, about the release of his latest Christmas album to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK. Jazz Society President Thomas Walker also shares his thoughts on Professor Clark’s latest release.

Christmas is the season of giving, and this year, Professor James Clark has gifted the public his third annual Christmas album. ‘Silent Night’ is composed of 20 tracks across a range of genres and features some familiar voices. Roar sat down with Professor Clark to discuss his latest release, his love of music, and why he chose to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK.

The origins of the annual Christmas album date back to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and subsequent online learning. “We were all stuck at home, and I have a little home office which I happen to have a piano in, so every time I finished work, I’d swivel around in my chair and start playing the piano.

“I’ve been working in music production I think pretty much all my life […] people would pay me to write music and record music for them, but I’d never actually do any of it myself […] I thought, ‘Well, let’s give it a go’.”

After putting a form online asking students to suggest songs for him to record, James remarked that the requests “came in quite hard and fast, and so I spent most of Covid doing cover versions pretty much like a karaoke request show. It just kind of went from there all year and I thought, ‘Well, it’s Christmas soon, I might as well do a Christmas album”.

“I think it was a week before Christmas I decided to produce this album […] The next year, I took a bit more time doing it, got a bit more PR on board, a bit more advertising, got more people to listen to it, and we had thousands of listeners and raised a bit more money for charity.”

This year, however, James decided to start a little earlier. “I started work on the album in July,” he says, “I thought, no, I’m not going to be defeated. I was promoted to professor a year and a half ago, and funnily enough that means you have more work to do and less time to have fun, so I decided to start my fun much earlier in the year.”

When asked how he went from being a classically trained musician working in music studios to a professor of cardiovascular and physiology education, Professor Clark laughed.

“Oh, God. I mean, bear in mind that there are careers and there are careers, and there are hobbies – which some people take very seriously, and other people just stick as hobbies – and I am one of the former. If I do a hobby, I don’t just do it, I throw my whole heart into it.”

This doesn’t just apply to music where James is concerned: “I was a scuba diver for a while and after doing some diving I turned into a professional underwater videographer doing documentaries the BBC, National Geographic, and other such things. So that was a hobby that became something a bit more serious.”

Music, however, has been a lifelong love for James.

“Music’s always been there. I learned piano when I was seven and my piano teacher was this interesting chap that lived alone in a little cottage in the countryside and was interested in all sorts of weird music, and he introduced me to synthesisers when I was a kid and they were fascinating; you could press a button and make all sorts of funny noises (because pianos are boring), and so I bought synthesisers as a teenager.”

Being a professional musician, however, was never on the cards for Professor Clark. “It never became a career choice. I can’t say that ever in my life I said to myself: ‘I am going to be a musician’ or a producer or anything professionally because I’m not that daft and I realised that I was at school to learn.”

That doesn’t mean that music isn’t important to his day job as Professor of Cardiovascular and Physiology Education: “Interestingly, I gave my inaugural lecture last week – which was jolly exciting – and one of the things I realised while preparing for that is that I actually have used music as my confidence booster throughout my career.

“You have a bad day, your experiments don’t work, so you go home you do something you know will work. And pretty much anything you play on a piano is music even if it sounds dull, so I use that my kind of sanity.”

James reiterated his love of music later on in the interview: “I don’t do Spotify I don’t do all those other things; I just buy albums and listen to them and I’ve got you know terabytes worth of stuff on the cloud I listen to all the time.

“I love it, I love all music and I love it not because it’s catchy or has a nice melody or the singer’s particularly interesting or has a nice background or whatever I just like it because it’s music.”

Professor Clark responded instantly when we asked what his favourite part of the recording process is. “Breaking stuff down. I mean, I love taking songs apart.’

“That process of deconstructing and reconstructing. And, sometimes, reconstructing slightly differently to where the original artist intended it to be, whether that be the tempo or the rhythm behind it or the harmonies or weird stuff you can just add.”

Turning to the album, then, when asked how he found recording the album in July, James simply says: “I am done with Christmas songs.

“It is a bit weird singing Christmas songs in the summer. It’s all been recorded in my house in Sussex, which luckily is not attached to somebody else’s house so, therefore, they haven’t been putting up with it too, which is a bit embarrassing, and we’ve got good double glazing.”

The range of genres tackled in ‘Silent Night’ has received some attention from students. Thomas Walker, president of the Jazz Society, writes: “James Clark takes what could’ve been a standard Christmas cover album and imbues it with a strong sense of character.

“The arrangements are top-notch and show excellent stylistic versatility with traditional Christmas tunes recontextualised in various forms including pop ballads (‘It wasn’t Christmas without you’), jazz ballads (‘The Christmas Song’), Swing (‘All I want for Christmas’) and many more. Thus, Clark’s willingness to explore made this album very enjoyable to listen to.

“The titular track ‘Silent Night’ is inherently cinematic through its use of sweeping strings and a triumphant chorus of singers. Favourites of mine included the opening track ‘The Christmas Song’ and Clark’s version of ‘White Christmas’ which features great jazz-inspired harmonic language.

“What I didn’t expect on a Tuesday afternoon in November on the Eastbound Jubilee line was to be struck by the sudden urge to import a Norwegian spruce Christmas tree and to bask in its glory whilst James Clark’s newest Christmas album ‘Silent Night’ played in the background. I would highly recommend this album to people at King’s who have ever wondered what Michael Bublé would sound like if he also conducted post-doctoral research into the development of novel carbon monoxide releasing molecules.”

When asked about a certain beat drop, James spoke about the challenges of producing genres outside of his comfort zone. “I don’t understand what makes dance music work, but I do know when it sounds nice.

“I’d already done all the other stuff that bit of swing into jazz, bit of rock, bit of Blues bit of standard pop and piano and I thought I need something that’s slightly different that I’ve never done before and over lockdown, I actually met online one of our King’s students that I didn’t know existed but he’s a bioengineering student who does EDM and remixing and stuff.

“I bumped into him in the Franklin Wilkins building about six months ago and I asked him, ‘Look. If I did an EDM track and send you the rough mix, would you give some advice?’, and he did. So, he wrote back to me with a whole list of what was wrong with it, and I fixed it.”

As for his favourite track, James settled on ‘All I Want for Christmas’. “I love weird arrangements; I love playing with brass instruments. I’m not a brass player so to have a brass band at my disposal is quite fun. I did a swing version [of ‘All I Want for Christmas’] this year which is kind of cool and I quite enjoyed that.

“Also, I’m quite proud of the Kylie sound too, because I didn’t want to do that one but my wife said to me: ‘James, you’ve always been dancing around the kitchen to that song. Do it.’ So, I did it.”

‘Silent Night’ features a range of staff members, not least our very own Vice-Chancellor and President, Shitij Kapur. James told us how this collaboration, and the other featured singers, came to be a part of the album.

“Last year I found a few people I knew who claimed they could since, and so got them in to record them. I didn’t realise this but of course, we don’t have a recording studio at King’s, we’re not that fortunate. But we do have a controlled environment chamber that I run in Shepherd’s House, which essentially is a soundproof room. It has really thick walls and double doors and it’s all very nice, so I converted that into a studio.

“People from outside of our faculty, from chemistry and all other places came along and it was really nice to get them involved.

With regards to Professor Kapur, James said: “it was quite an interesting thing. I emailed him back in the summer and said, ‘Look. I’m doing another Christmas thing, would you mind singing on one of the songs?’ And there was radio silence for a few weeks, and eventually I got an e-mail back from his team saying ‘No, but he’s but he’s willing to help out any way he can’.

“So, I said fine, so I wrote a script for him, and I sent him a list of things I wanted him to say, including some of the things I wanted him to say for the song but a lot of things I didn’t want him for the song so he didn’t know what he was saying and why he was saying it.”

Thomas Walker praised the singers, stating that: “The vocals of Clark as well as the chorus of singers are top notch and are mixed very well in the tracks. The suitably brief Shitij Kapur cameo was also delightful.”

When asked if he would ever involve the student population at King’s, James said: “If they’re willing.

“I mean, I did put a request out I’m lucky in that I run a lot of courses and modules and programmes, and I asked everybody, and none of them came forward. I think they’re just nervous about doing it. I would love students to get involved but maybe the students can do their own album and we can compete for the number one position.”

All of Professor Clark’s Christmas albums are in aid of raising money for Prostate Cancer UK, which he chose after his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2020. Despite having his research funded by the British Heart Foundation, James said that “it’s a personal thing now.

“Cancer’s a bastard, frankly. I can’t do anything about it because I didn’t work in that field, but I want to do something to make people aware of it. If it just means that more people thought about it, yeah. Maybe going for a PSA check, or maybe thought about going to their GP.

“They’re nice bunch, too, they’re only based in Tooley Street which is just across the road [from Guy’s Campus], so I’ve been to their offices and had a chat with them a few times and I’d like to do more for them. I think we’ve got opportunities at King’s to do more work for smaller charities that need money.”

Looking forward to next year, James said that he’s “in a bit of a pickle” since he’s run out of songs to cover, but seemed set on carols. “I think that’s all I’ve got left.

“I’ll do some arrangements, we’ll have some traditional organ accompaniments and some singing songs, but we’ll also do some weird string quartets and wind orchestras and stuff, and then do some Christmas carols. I did two in this album just for fun, just to test the waters. So, I think next year will be carols.”

When Roar asked whether he would consider branching out into music videos for 2024, James told us this is a box he has already ticked off and received an award for:

“This is my previous history, you may not know about this, I was producing comedy videos for Christmas for many, many years as part of my school. So, the cardiovascular division every year we had a Christmas party and every year I would have done a comedy pop song.

“I won a Lab Grammy Award from a company that does medical devices that every year did an award ceremony for innovative things.”

Although he didn’t commit to producing a music video for his album next year, James didn’t rule it out completely.

“Maybe, maybe. Watch this space.”

You can listen to James Clark’s ‘Silent Night’ album here. If you would like to donate to his fundraiser for Prostate Cancer UK, click here.

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