New Orleans musicians talk about the challenges of making Christmas music.
[Today’s story on local artists making Christmas music in the New Orleans Advocate began as a much longer story than the paper could run. I cut it down to the version that they used, but here is a fuller version—one that also includes thoughts and music by Quintron and Miss Pussycat and Bantam Foxes.]
Earlier this month, Cyndi Lauper released her version of “Hard Candy Christmas,” the song Dolly Parton sang in the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Lauper’s take is sadly typical of many recordings of Christmas music as it adds nothing but her voice to the song. British singer Tracey Thorn amplified the song’s dark undercurrent when she sang it in 2012 and left some question as to whether she’d be as “fine and dandy” as the lyric suggests. Lauper didn’t embrace that grit or Parton's feisty optimism when she sang the song. The only thing fresh is Lauper’s voice, which lacks even its signature accent.
The challenge Christmas music poses for musicians is how to give their recordings a reason to exist. Countless versions of the best known songs are already in the world, and most are blandly professional. Nothing’s wrong with them, but nothing’s particularly right either.
Last week, New Orleans’ Sweet Crude got in the Christmas music game when it released a recording of “Sleigh Ride” on Soundcloud.com, but it did so with style. According to band member Sam Craft, Sweet Crude heard the high spirits that are central to the band’s vibe in the song, as well as an emphasis on percussion and voices that are at the heart of its sound. “We arranged the song so that it would stand up amongst the rest of our music in a Sweet Crude live set,” Craft says. “So, it had to be dance-y and playful in that 21st-century indie pop manner that we espouse. That meant dialing back the tempo a bit, but filling that newly found space with loads of claps, clacks, shouts, tight harmonies and drums.”
Because of the joyousness of the band’s sound and its emphasis on singing, it’s a bit of a surprise that “none of us are too big on Christmas music,” Craft says. Because of the nature of Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s sound, it’s similarly surprising that they are. In 2001, the two made their own Christmas special, North Pole Nutrias, featuring Miss Pussycat’s puppets and a sometimes abrasive soundtrack by Quintron. It was tough to read their attitude toward the holiday from the half-hour show that aired locally on Cox Cable 10: Was it a goof on Christmas entertainment or their own personal riff?
The latter, it turns out. “I really love Christmas music,” he says, but not all Christmas music. It has to be sincere, even if sincerely weird, so he has no use for punk Christmas songs. “It’s always like, Ha ha, let’s make fun of Christmas,” Quintron says. “Or Do a traditional Christmas in a punk way—Wouldn’t that be hilarious? No, it’s not actually hilarious.”
Last year, Quintron and Miss Pussycat jumped at the chance to record “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bell Rock” for a compilation titled Psych-Out Christmas, partly because it was his chance to appear on an album with punk legend Iggy Pop, who also contributed a version of “White Christmas.” Quintron used to DJ Christmas Eve nights at WTUL, so he knows the canon of unusual Christmas songs and also saw this as an opportunity to “do instrumental versions of songs and give them a weird, psychedelic, electronic Quintron twist without any irony whatsoever,” he says.
He decided that he either had to write a song for the album or cover something very obvious and classic. Since he didn’t feel like he had a classic Christmas song in him that spoke from the heart, he opted for “the Christmas song of all Christmas songs,” he says, and ‘Jingle Bell Rock,’ because it worked really well with a beat he’d created on the light-activated synthesizer he invented, the Drum Buddy.
“It’s also Miss P’s favorite Christmas song, so she made me learn it,” Quintron says.
For songwriters, the challenge is heightened. What fresh do you have to say about Christmas? For Dustan Louque, the answer was his roots. He grew up in Cajun country, spent time in Brooklyn in the early 2000s when he released an album on Atlantic Records’ Lava subsidiary, and recorded “Along the River Road” this fall to sing about the Christmas bonfire tradition that he grew up with.
He hadn’t written one sooner because “I could never whip myself into enough of a positive state of mind around Christmas,” he says. Louque too has an ambiguous relationship to Christmas music. Since most secular Christmas songs involve snow and wintry wonderlands, he had a hard time connecting to them. He has fond memories of Elvis’ Christmas Album and Vince Guaraldi’s music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, but he got away from it over the years. “That Aaron Neville album [Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas] really hit home when it came out,” he remembered. “Beyond that, it never really did it for me.”
This year though, he had a breakthrough. “I thought about where I grew up,” Louque says. “Every year when they light the bonfires, I always well up, like a full tear. The culture still goes defiantly into the future. Despite all the crap that happens in the world, these traditions go on, and I was trying to capture that vibe. Remembering the past and giving these fires meaning.”
Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin is not only into Christmas music, but he thinks about its history. Griffin sees the early ‘80s as the last heyday for Christmas pop songs. During that time, The Waitresses recorded “Christmas Wrapping,” Run-DMC put out “Christmas in Hollis,” and Wham! released the surprisingly durable “Last Christmas.” Particularly inspiring was Band Aid, the supergroup of British stars that earned Bob Geldof his knighthood as they sang “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time,” with proceeds from the single’s sales going to help feed the hungry in Africa.
Griffin and songwriter Sam Hollander formed Band of Merrymakers with that model, focusing less on the song—which has not aged well—and more on its methodology. Band of Merrymakers brings together famous friends including Natasha Beddingfield, Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and The Tantrums, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, Christina Perri, and Mark McGrath to trade verses on songs, with proceeds from their recordings going to The Recording Academy’s outreach program to musicians in need, MusiCares.
“Fifty cents of each album goes to MusiCares, and that’s a lot,” Griffin says. “MusiCares spent more than $5.8 million helping musicians on the Gulf Coast after Katrina, whether it was to replace instruments or health issues or housing issues. I can’t think of a better thing to do with my time.”
Band of Merrymakers put out the single “Must Be Christmas” in 2014 and recently released its debut album, Welcome to Our Christmas Party (Portrait/Sony Music Masterworks). The band’s lineup and the exuberantly pop sound has made the band a natural for seasonal television, and it performed the almost too-bubbly “Snow Snow Snow” on NBC’s “Christmas In Rockefeller Center.” Band of Merrymakers have also appeared on The Today Show, The Hollywood Christmas Parade, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!
According to Griffin, writing the songs was intimidating. “Some of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century have penned Christmas classics,” he says. “There’s such a rich tradition of songwriting, and we chose to take that as our challenge and our charge.”
Musically, Griffin and Hollander merged two very different inspirations. Hollander wanted Band of Merrymakers to sound like “The Polyphonic Spree produced by Phil Spector,” while Griffin was in love with the end of the Broadway production of Green Day’s American Idiot, when everybody in the production walked on stage with an acoustic guitar to strum along and sing “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”
“We took that big, strummy, chorus-y cast recording-of-‘Hair’ kind of thing and mixed it with that big wall of sound,” Griffin says.
Collin McCabe of New Orleans’ rock band Bantam Foxes is wary of the softer side of Christmas music, preferring instead Christmas songs with some muscle such as Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run and ” AC/DC’s “I Want a Mistress for Christmas”—“songs that aren’t really Christmas-y but are about Christmas,” he says.
The band records as often as it can, so cutting a Christmas song was an excuse to get back in the studio. It helped that Bantam Foxes had a number of gigs during the holiday season, so they’d have occasions to play a Christmas song if they had one.
Early in December, the band released “I’m Too Broke for Christmas,” a song that came to McCabe startlingly quickly. “It’s weird,” he says. “It’s the quickest song I’ve ever written, and it’s got some of the most positive response of any song we’ve ever put out.”
It’s a simple song, he says, but it takes an unexpected turn near the end and completely changes direction as it turns into a heavy, sing-along moment on the title phrase. “Jared [Marcell, the band’s drummer] had the idea for the thing at the end where it goes full-on ‘Hey Jude’,” he says.
When Bantam Foxes went to record the song, they faced a fundamental Christmas song question: sleigh bells or no sleigh bells? They’re omnipresent to the extent that they border on a holiday cliché, but as McCabe’s brother and bandmate Sam observed, “Other than you mentioning Santa and Christmas a couple of times, we need some Christmas flare.”
Bantam Foxes have been surprised by the speed with which the song has become the third-favorite song of theirs according to fans on their Bandcamp.com page, much the same way that Sweet Crude was pleased that “Sleigh Bells” has already become popular live. Producer Don B was thinking specifically about the opportunities the holiday presents when he chose to introduce two new artists he is working with, Reil and Sammi, with a new Christmas song, “When the Snowflakes Fall.”
“I wanted to do a Christmas song because it’s a special time of year, and when you do a Christmas song, you get a lot of attention that month,” he says.
Don B is the son of New Orleans’ R&B pioneer Dave Bartholomew, and he’s not being cynical—or no more so than artists making Christmas music have always been. Christmas songs have always represented a moment when the artist stepped momentarily out of his or her career to sing about the songs of the season, and they’ve always cut them with an eye on sales that Christmas season and in future holidays as well.
“The song never gets old,” Bartholomew says. “It could outlive me.”
“When the Snowflakes Fall” is an R&B slow jam, and Bartholomew likes to think of it as following in the footsteps of Donnie Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” The Emotions’ “What Do the Lonely Do at Christmas,” The Temptations’ Christmas songs, and “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole.
“Those songs stand out,” he says. “They’re classics, and they’re still not old to me.”
When Bartholomew sat down to write the songs with Rael and Sammi, the women knew that they wanted the song to have some grit and soul, and were on guard not to make it to “merry merry” or “candy music,” according to Bartholomew.
“We wanted it to sound new but have an old school feeling at the same time,” he says.
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