The chorister-turned-TV-presenter on counting his blessings and why he decided to try his hand at writing Christmas stories
Aled Jones’ path to stardom was littered with occurrences that many would call God ordained. His first break came, aged twelve, after a congregation member wrote to a record company without his knowledge.
Soon afterwards, a fellow chorister fell ill, which gifted young Aled a solo debut album, and a tour of the Holy Land with the BBC quickly followed. The resulting albums were unexpected hits, with All Through the Night reaching number two in the UK album charts in June 1985 – second only to Bruce Springsteen’s record-breaking Born in the USA. Contrary to what many assume, these career highlights took place before Jones shot to fame as the angelic, golden-haired chorister who sang ‘Walking in the air’.
More than three decades later, Jones is still making a living singing the nation’s favourite hymns. But what of his own personal faith? Does he pray about the projects that he takes on, or ask God for guidance? No, he says. That wouldn’t be a good use of his prayer time, and besides, following his heart has always steered him well. This approach seems to have paid off, as he’s successfully morphed from cherubic choirboy to serious TV presenter.
After initially turning down the job at 18 (“I didn’t have the life experience”), he’s now become Songs of Praise’s most famous presenter – a role he’s held for more than 21 years, on top of his other recording, performing and writing commitments. Jones references his work on Songs of Praise often during our hour long conversation, saying that he appreciates what he does “now more than ever” and that hearing people’s “inspirational” stories and being able to “sing and move people” is not something that he ever takes lightly. You could say that Jones and the BBC’s flagship religious show are perfectly suited to one another: both have, arguably, become faces of acceptable Christianity in the UK today, steering an inoffensive middle ground that is simultaneously warm and unthreatening.
But the Welshman’s work is not always without controversy. During lockdown, Jones wrote a daily devotional, Everyday Blessings: Inspirational words of comfort and hope (Hodder & Stoughton) which went beyond the bounds of Christianity and included Buddhist and Islamic ideas, prayers and quotes. When questioned on the unease that some Christians may feel about this coagulation of beliefs, the singer falls back on the popular truism that, at their heart, all religions are “about love and kindness”. Jones admits these sentiments are “simplistic”, and he must know they won’t wash with the more evangelical portion of his audience.
When Covid arrived, the singer found himself with more time than usual on his hands, as tours were cancelled and gigs disappeared overnight. An idea that had been bubbling away for many years had the space to grow. The result, Bobby Dean Saves Christmas (Hodder & Stoughton), is the first of a series of three children’s books that follow a young boy called Bobby, who loves to sing, through a school year. With the first one releasing in time for Christmas and the second for Easter, I remark that it’s interesting that he’s chosen to base two of these three stories around the biggest events in the Christian calendar. Is it savvy marketing, or a reflection of the importance of his faith? I guess you’ll have to read them to find out.
What inspired you to try your hand at children’s books?
I’d got this idea about a boy who is kind of ordinary but, when he gets scared or nervous about something, involuntarily bursts into song. The real world around him dissolves and he goes off on these bonkers adventures. It’s a book about friendship, differences, being scared and overcoming that. It’s got quite a few crazy characters in it – even Father Christmas!
BEING ABLE TO SING THESE INCREDIBLE PIECES OF MUSIC IS WHERE I ALWAYS FOUND A CONNECTION WITH GOD
This first book is about Christmas and the second one is set at Easter – the two most important events in the Christian calendar. Is there an element of your faith in these stories?
There must be, because it’s who I am. In this first book, Bobby and his classmates are preparing for their nativity. It takes me back to being in primary school, sitting cross-legged on the floor, belting out carols and just feeling on top of the world. I’ve always loved Christmas, way before ‘Walking in the air’.
As a cathedral chorister in Bangor, being able to sing incredible pieces of music in a space like that is where I always found a connection with God. I find it very difficult to find that connection if there’s no music. And this Christmas book is full of music.
The last 18 months of not being able to sing in church must have been incredibly hard for you, professionally and personally.
It was very hard. With Songs of Praise, there were about three months when we weren’t filming at all. Then we went back, but not with a live congregation, and you realise just how important that is. Recently, we celebrated [Songs of Praise’s] 60th birthday in Westminster Abbey with a congregation and I almost cried.
You’ve been singing in church since you were nine. Is that how you came to faith?
I remember going to Sunday school and hearing the stories of the Bible. Once a month, we were allowed to go to church. Everyone was in their finery and I just remember the stillness and the fact that there was this kind of magic floating around. And that’s never really left me.
I may not have acknowledged it when I first went to college, when I was probably more interested in playing football and going to the bar, but now, when I walk into a church or a cathedral, there’s always a connection.
Midnight Mass was always my favourite service as a chorister because it would mean I was up later than I’d ever been, and watching everyone was really jolly. I always thought it was because they were singing jolly hymns, but it was probably to do with the fact that they had been to the pub beforehand! But it was always a feeling of fellowship and belonging to something that was greater than just ourselves.
Was there a point after university when you decided to take your faith more seriously?
I left Bristol Old Vic [theatre school], and I was lucky enough to get the role of Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was the largest musical in the world on tour at the time. I’d come offstage, having had standing ovations, and…I didn’t really enjoy the singing. I don’t know why. As a kid, whenever I sang, I instinctively put my heart and soul into it. And that wasn’t there.
Then I was asked to sing on Songs of Praise. It was really weird, a slowed-down version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘For once in my life’. And I really enjoyed it. Then they asked me to present a programme from Bangor Cathedral, and I sang on that programme as well and, slowly but surely, in coming back to the music I sang as a kid, it made everything else fall into place.
I believe in God and I’ve never been scared to say that I’m a Christian. It enhances who I am. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfect Christian, but I don’t know what one of those is really. As I get older, I lean on my faith more. When [I was] young, it was still there, but I don’t think I acknowledged it as much.
Many people associate you with The Snowman but, actually, you’d already released several albums by the time ‘Walking on the air’ came out…
It’s ‘Walking in the air’ that everyone remembers – which is great because, how lucky am I to be part of everyone’s Christmas? But yes, I’d been singing professionally since I was twelve and ‘Walking in the air’ was [recorded] when I was 15. That was the start of four mad years, really.
Did you find it hard to deal with fame at such a young age?
No, not really. When you’re a kid with a bowl haircut, people are really lovely to you. It was exciting. Monday to Friday, I was in school being a normal kid and then Saturday and Sunday, I’d be jetting here, there and everywhere. It was brilliant.
I also read that a record company got in touch with you after a member of your congregation heard you sing and wrote to them?
Yes, she wrote to a local recording company without us knowing. She was very often the only person in the congregation in Bangor Cathedral on a Tuesday or Thursday evening, and she loved my voice. When the letter came through the post, my dad and I were like: “What? OK, why not?” And that was the start of everything. She’d get a first copy of every album [I recorded] and we’d sit down and listen to it together.
Were you ever embarrassed about being a cathedral chorister, or was it always something you were proud of?
I was teased mercilessly at school but I didn’t really care because I loved what I did. I felt so privileged to be able to sing in a building like Bangor Cathedral.
I’ll never forget walking in there – it was only to have piano lessons. But they asked me to sing a few scales and then promptly asked me to leave the room. I thought: My goodness, I must have been really rubbish! But [the teacher] was actually saying to my mum: “Your son is good enough to go to Canterbury or King’s [cathedral choir school].” My mum said: “He’s not leaving home! We only came in for piano lessons!” So I joined Bangor.
So your parents honestly had no idea that you could sing before that?
We sang at school and I sang for grandparents, but I never thought about that sort of music, really…
It sounds like God had a plan for you.
Maybe! It’s been a great plan if he has! I’m very thankful. Recently, I spoke to a father and mother who lost their daughter [for Songs of Praise]. I come away from those meetings feeling that my faith is enhanced. I feel lucky to spend precious time with remarkable people; it’s a real privilege. I don’t know if it’s to do with Covid, or just getting older, but it’s not something I take lightly at all.
During lockdown, you released a book called Everyday Blessings, which draws on other faith traditions. Some Christians may be wary of losing the Christian distinctiveness, but you seem comfortable celebrating those differences.
Or celebrating what unites us. At the core of everything is love and kindness. I know that sounds really simplistic but some of the best things in life are simple. A lot of the time, we dwell on differences when maybe we should concentrate on what connects us. We might be singing about different things but the heart and soul are the same.
AS I GET OLDER, I LEAN ON MY FAITH MORE. WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I DON’T THINK I ACKNOWLEDGED IT AS MUCH
In 2010, you released a book of your 40 favourite hymns. Have they changed at all in the eleven years since?
I don’t know. I’m seen as a traditionalist, although I recorded ‘In Christ alone’ recently, which I loved. I do see myself recording more worship songs in the future. I’m never going to do a top ten again, though, because it’s just asking for trouble! But I will always love ‘How great thou art’ and ‘Make me a channel of your peace’. They’re great tunes that have lasted the test of time. That’s why I love carols so much; they have a beautiful simplicity. With something like ‘Away in a manger’, people say: “You like that? It’s so childish.” And I think: No! It’s amazing. It’s simple but, goodness me, it’s all there!
What does Christmas mean to you as a Christian?
Christmas is the most magical time of year. I love the music; I love everything it represents. Every year, I’m involved in a charity concert called The Story of Christmas. It’s the start of Christmas for me. Hearing the music performed so beautifully, all the memories just come flooding back. I feel this warmth and joy, and that’s what Christmas is all about. It’s the ultimate story, isn’t it?
Aled’s new book, Bobby Dean Saves Christmas (Hodder & Stoughton) is available now.
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on Saturday 11 December, or download The Profile podcast