Several weeks ago the first recording session for my upcoming Christmas album took place, in the basement studio of a home in Edgewater, NJ. We laid down 11 tracks in about 9 hours, a marathon day that was hot and sweaty and tasty! I grilled chicken, made a pasta salad and brought homemade hummus and pita chips along with a dozen cupcakes to keep filling the band’s tanks. And plenty of water. Our engineer, Paul Kim, in whose studio we recorded, even had plastic cups with our initials on them and a carafe of cold water at the ready all day. We needed it. You can’t use air conditioning in a recording studio. If you do, you hear it on the recording.
But hold the phone -- how did I get to a point where I was recording a Christmas album? What’s the back story? It began, appropriately enough, with the red coat…
Back in late November, 2017, I was walking on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on a Sunday, wearing an old, long, shoulder-padded red wool coat. (I had bought it in 1989, my first year in New York City, after quickly discovering that my Deep South attire was pathetically inadequate for a Northeast winter).
Suddenly I heard this voice call out behind me, “Would you mind if I photographed you in your red coat?” I said, “Sure!” Turns out the photographer was a young professional photographer who herself had just moved to Manhattan and had been in the same worship service as me at
Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Later that day, she sent me the photos and as soon as I saw them I thought to myself, “I’d like to do a Christmas album.” Just seeing the bright red color on a gray, cold day…
This wasn’t the first time I’d thought about it. After my first album, “I’ll Be Seeing You,” came out several years ago, around Christmas, a number of people said, “You should do a Christmas album!” But other things took precedence, including live performances and life stuff. And you have to save your pennies to self-produce albums, which are expensive to do, and then there is the massive amount of time involved. But, there I was, staring at the red coat photo and saying to myself, “let’s do it!”
Where do you start to put a Christmas album together? And how do you make an album that is unique when there are soooo many Christmas albums out there already? It began with a lot of listening. I listened to all my own albums and borrowed those of friends. taking a lot of notes on a yellow legal pad. I went on YouTube and listened to hundreds of Christmas songs by singers and groups as diverse as Ella Fitzgerald, Kathleen Battle, Mel Torme, Luther Vandross, Amy Grant, Doris Day, Michael Buble’, the King’s Singers, Pentatonix, and on and on…
I began to slowly compile a list of favorites, print out music of them (musicnotes.com) or find copies among my own Christmas sheet music collection. I went through choral Christmas music, from my past as a choral director, to see if any of those tunes could work for a vocalist and band.
I then created different files of music - the “Maybes," the “Definites," and eventually the "No-Way-I-Can-Do-That-One" file. I even had a "Love-This-But-Not-Right-For-My-Voice" file. Know thyself.
What I realized in doing all this listening is:
a) There are actually not thousands of Christmas songs but more like hundreds (not including choral music).
b) There is an incredible variety of Christmas albums out there, from hip-hop to chamber orchestras to country and western to jazz. Something for everyone. The quality and artistry varies, from high to low! Some seemed to be slapped together without much thought, but for a buck.
c) Vocalists tend to do the same 100 songs over and over.
d) It’s really, really hard to find sacred songs that work for a singer and
her band. Most sacred songs are either hymns (thus repetitive and not varied in structure), classical gems such as “O Holy Night” and “Jesu Bambino” (sung in a past life as a classical singer), or choral music (not well-suited for solo work.)
Now, granted, I didn’t listen to every Christmas album ever made, and probably missed a lot of all-time favorites. But three months of listening to a diverse array of tunes and artists began to develop in me an idea of what I want to put out there, into the Christmas album world. I forgot to mention that I was also singing through all my files of songs almost daily, and asking a lot of questions.
Does my voice work on this? Do the lyrics resonate with me? Is this a good key? Is it a great tune? Can I have fun on this? Could this highlight the band? How could I do this one differently from every other take on it? Why have the lyrics here gotten lost because the tempo is always too fast? Is this too trite, melancholy, silly, sappy?
The answers to those questions – and what songs I settled on – in the next installment.