Tim Hughes meets composer Bob Chilcott, whose music for Katie Melua is a festive hit

When chart-topping singer-songwriter Katie Melua set out to find a choral composer to help arrange the score for her Christmas album, she chose one of the best in the business – Bob Chilcott.

The musician and conductor, who lives in Ascott-under-Wychwood, near Charlbury, has a distinguished back catalogue, but admits he was taken aback to be asked by the singer, one of Britain’s highest-selling female recording artists.

The pair teamed up to record an album featuring women from Katie’s hometown in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The result, In Winter, has been a massive success across Europe, reaching number nine in the UK charts and sparking a sell-out tour.

“It’s been brilliant,” says Bob, a 61-year-old father of five, who started his career in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, and later sang tenor with the King’s Singers.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.

“Katie heard something of mine and got in touch completely out of the blue. I felt chuffed as she’s such a marvellous singer.”

Katie, who scored 10 hits with The Closest Thing to Crazy and Nine Million Bicycles, and had a number one with Eva Cassidy’s version of What a Wonderful World, wanted to produce a winter record with the 24-piece Gori Women’s Choir, recording a series of traditional Eastern European carols, covers and self-penned material.

“She had heard the choir and thought it would be great to do something with them,” says Bob, who was conductor of the chorus at the Royal College of Music and is Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Singers.

“She started visiting them and holding workshops to see if it could work and, as she gained in confidence, we started talking about how we could make it happen. She’d send sound files of the shapes of the songs and I’d work out how to fit in the choir and change things around. Then, when she felt they were good, she’d send them to the choir.

“I visited her in London for a number of months and then, six months later, we decided to record four tracks and went to Georgia.

The team set up a DIY recording studio in Gori’s battered community centre, which, like the town, had been badly knocked about in the Russian invasion in 2008.

“It looked like an apocalypse,” says Bob. “It had been all bombed out.

“It worked fine though, and the choir were wonderful.

“Things worked pretty well. The people are fantastic and I had a wonderful time. I loved it – and the wine is great too!”

The album, which took 18 months to record, features traditional Ukranian carol The Little Swallow (Shchedryk), Romanian carol Leganelul Lui Lisus (Cradle Song), Georgian folk song Tu Ase Turpa (If You Are So Beautiful), Nunc Dimittis from Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, a version of Joni Mitchell’s River and new songs Perfect World, A Time to Buy and Plane Song – on which she recalls playing with her brother in an old rusty Soviet-built plane abandoned in a field after Georgia’s civil war.

“The album has a unique feel of its own,” says Bob.

Despite Bob’s background in classical and choral music – he has composed acclaimed pieces for children’s choirs and a large body of sacred and, importantly, Christmas music – he admits to having already been a bit of a Melua fan. He says: “My wife Kate has a few of her albums which we used to play from time to time.

“Later I even got to re-work her hit song Nine Million Bicycles for the choir, for the live shows.”

He goes on: “Katie is just brilliant and has a huge following.

“She’s a wonderful person. She knows what she’s trying to achieve and is one of the nicest people I have ever met.”

Bob is enjoying his new-found fame as a Top 10 artist.

“It is something I’d never imagined would happen,” he says. “I’m knocking on a bit now, but when I look at the box and see my name on the credits it feel absolutely brilliant.

“I feel really privileged to have been involved. And if something like this comes up again that would be great.

“I don’t think there’s much of a career as a rock star ahead of me though – I just don’t look that good in leather trousers!”

*In Winter by Katie Melua and the Gori Women’s Choir, arranged by Bob Chilcott, is out now on BMG records