Aled Jones is walking on air. And, for once, that’s not just a weak pun: a few weeks ago, the former boy soprano-turned-radio and TV favourite surprised passengers on a morning flight from London to Cardiff by performing his most famous song – the one from The Snowman, even though he didn’t actually sing it in The Snowman – at 18,000 feet.
He’s walking on air in other ways, too. Earlier this year, his album One Voice – a collection of duets between the 45-year-old singer and his 15-year-old self – reached number three in the charts, and spent an astonishing 14 weeks at the top of the classical chart. ‘Who’d have thought that album number 31 would be my highest charting album ever?’ he beams. ‘It’s just crazy.’
He even outsold former One Direction poster boy Zayn Malik. ‘But I don’t dwell on that fact,’ he demurs. Oh you should, Weekend insists. ‘Okay, fair enough,’ he laughs. ‘I will!’
Now there’s a festive sequel, One Voice at Christmas, on which Jones, man and boy, performs a selection of seasonal favorites such as In the Bleak Midwinter, Away in a Manger and Silent Night. And, of course, Walking in the Air, in a new arrangement by its composer, Howard Blake – hence the high-flying launch.
‘Howard had the idea to include the Snowman voice this time – so you don’t just get the boy, you also get the Snowman singing along with him,’ explains Jones. ‘Recording it was an emotional experience, because it’s a song that will always be associated with me. It’s been 31 years and not a Christmas goes by where it’s not part of my life. I was a bit embarrassed in my teens when it was playing in shops and stuff, but now I love the song. So it was lovely to go back and do it again.’
Raised in a small Welsh-speaking community on Anglesey, the only child of a teacher and a draughtsman, Jones joined the choir of Bangor Cathedral aged nine, and within two years was lead soloist. A local record company was alerted to his talent after receiving a letter from a member of the cathedral congregation and, by the time he recorded Walking in the Air in 1985, aged 14, he’d already released half a dozen albums.
As every pub quizzer worth their salt knows, the version of Walking in the Air featured in perennial festive choker The Snowman was sung by Peter Auty, a choirboy at St Paul’s Cathedral; Jones’ cover was recorded for a Toys R Us advert three years later, becoming a top five hit and somewhat eclipsing the original.
Jones insists there’s no bad blood. ‘He’s a very successful singer in his own right,’ he says. ‘People make a big thing about some rivalry, but it’s all rubbish. The reason I sang it was because his voice had broken. Howard was the one who suggested me, so off I went to record this song, little knowing it would change my life.’
Change his life it most certainly did. ‘It was an incredible few years,’ he recalls. ‘I’d come home from my comprehensive school, we’d sit round the kitchen table and plough through all these offers. Singing in the Hollywood Bowl, singing with Leonard Bernstein, singing for the Prince and Princess of Wales in their living room, singing for the Queen... Every week was something different.’
Did he ever find the attention hard to cope with? ‘I’ve never known any different,’ he shrugs. ‘I’ve never considered myself to be a star or anything like that. I was just a little kid who was in the right place at the right time.
‘I was teased a lot at school,’ he adds. ‘But, to be honest, you can cope with having 200 kids singing Walking in the Air at break time if you’re spending the weekend doing the things I was doing.’
When his voice broke, he had to find new ways to sustain his career. ‘The alternative was a really painful operation,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t going to go down that route. At the age of 15, I was more interested in football and girls. I knew I’d sing again – whether I’d sing in the bath or in the Albert Hall wasn’t up to me, so there wasn’t much point worrying about it.’
Besides, he’d already begun to establish himself as an actor and radio and television presenter – a second string career he’s successfully maintained ever since, performing in West End musicals and fronting everything from Escape to the Country to Daybreak. Current commitments include the Sunday breakfast slot on Classic FM and his own ITV morning show, Weekend.
He’s also a long-serving presenter of the BBC’s Songs of Praise. How would he describe his own faith?
‘It’s always been through music,’ he says. ‘You would never catch me at a church service with no music, I’m afraid. My connection has always been through the hymns, the anthems, the psalms. Without that, I don’t really feel there’s a connection. My faith is those moments in the darkness on stage where you’re singing a song like Make Me A Channel of Your Peace.’
He went on to formally study both music and acting – but learned his presenting craft at the elbow of the best in the business, having developed a close friendship with the late Terry Wogan. It’s a relationship that resulted in One Voice at Christmas’ most poignant moment – a touching duet of Little Drummer Boy with the man he called his ‘radio dad’.
‘We recorded it back in the day,’ he explains. ‘And sitting there at Terry’s memorial at Westminster Abbey, I thought to myself: if we’re ever going to do something with it, to raise a bit more money for Children in Need, then now is the time.
‘I remember so fondly the session in Abbey Road with Terry. And also just over the years how much of a mentor and friend he was to me. So it’s a bittersweet one. I’ve known him throughout my life, really, so having that on the album means a lot to me.’
When he’s not juggling his music and presenting careers, Jones lives in London, being ‘as un-showbiz as you can imagine’ with his wife Claire and their children Emilia and Lucas. Life, he’s happy to tell you, is good.
So what’s the best thing about being Aled Jones?
‘Gosh,’ he says. ‘To be honest with you, I can’t see many negatives. I’m a very lucky person.’ Then, after some thought: ‘Actually, the best thing about being Aled Jones is you get Walking in the Air sung at you all year, not just at Christmas.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, December 15 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend