It’s been a while now since I contributed to the Song Series I’d begun. Life just took me in other directions for awhile with this blog. But the series is back. And this time, I’d like to tell you about the writing and recording of my one and only holiday song.
As I prepared for my very first holiday album, Winter, which came out two years ago, I knew automatically that it would be an album of covers. Who wants to hear an entire album of holidays songs of nothing they’ve ever heard before. Folks want the favorites. And of the faves, there are more to choose from than I could possibly count, and of course I chose an odd collection of songs both classic and fringy. Some old, some not so old. It was important to me that I cover the wide berth of the emotional spectrum that the holidays can bring. Christmas time is associated with joy. But there are plenty out there who anticipate the holidays warily, because they have no romantic partner, because they have no family, because it’s a holiday that plays up the virtues of family, romance, happiness etc, and for those without, it only plays up their failings. I swear, the last thing I want to do is to be a downer about this, because I LOVE the holidays. Always have. But I also have great empathy for those who find that time of year melancholy. And I really wanted to make an album that spoke to them too. So, while there are plenty of happy, jolly songs included on my holiday album, there are also somber and reflective ones. For example, I included the Pogues’ song Fairytale of New York, which is a sentiment about the homeless on Christmas Eve. Guess what folks? That reality exists. And it’s a song of such heart wrenching pathos and nostalgia. Just my kind of song.
A N Y W A Y . . . at the eleventh hour of recording, after having spent months culling through Christmas songs old and new, traditional and not so, and selecting just the right ones to tell Christmas as I wanted to tell it, I suddenly decided that while this needed to be a cover CD, I couldn’t resist the temptation to contribute at least one original. And so, I set about the task of composing my first ever holiday song.
In writing Winter (which became the title track), I wanted a song that rang of Christmas without being overtly Christmasy. Meaning it could be played any time of year and not seem out of place, in the same spirit as My Favorite Things (also on my album).
And then what to write about. A love song perhaps, about falling in love in winter. Love has often happened for me this way, so it seemed a natural to write about. What’s funny is that I’ve actually written very few love songs. That’s just never seemed to be a persistent subject in my consciousness. And even in this song’s case, I wasn’t in love when I wrote it. I’ve been single for a long time now. But, as all holiday songs seem to do, I was made nostalgic for loves of my past that seemed in many cases to have bloomed in winter.
I’m also a winter baby, so this felt very much at home . . . in spite of the irony that I sort of hate snow. But I had to let that hate go, release it for its irrationality, and embrace the magic of snow instead. It actually wasn’t hard to do, as I’d been absolutely mesmerized by a series of photos that my friend Jean Marinelli had recently taken at her folks’ home in Iowa of a hoar frost. I was so blown away by this sight that I HAD to work the term “hoar frost” into my lyric, and in fact, the whole song became shaped around that idea. And yes, in case it’s not obvious, I used one of those breathtaking shots of Jean’s as my cover art, which is also above.
When it came time to go into the studio, we recorded the song live, with the instrumentation of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. I described to the musicians on the day of recording that I wanted a sort of 16th-note feel, but without it being R&B, that stylistically I wanted something a little floatier, and not backbeat-heavy at all. But that was pretty much the extent of my description, as I didn’t really have a firm grasp yet on the sound I wanted. Compositionally, it was a pretty simple form, simple changes. I’ve grown fond of simple folk ideas, and I envisioned folk for this song. So I just needed to hear something first, and shape or grow the song from there. And that’s exactly what we did, which means that even though the song is all my writing, the whole development of the bigger picture was most assuredly collaborative with my awesome trio of artists, Ken Rosser, Randy Landas, and Lynn Coulter.
On the day of recording, in the funky Boho studio of recording engineer John McDuffie, we laid down a track, did a few different takes, and I chose the strongest one. And I instantly knew that I was going to want Ken, the guitarist on this album, and my old pal and longtime musical soul mate, to layer and layer and layer.
Weeks later, the two of us met at his studio alone, a studio he has named Po’Tools (which tickles me; any studio guys out there will chuckle), and I proceeded to tell him what I was envisioning. Over Ken’s basic track, which was played on a Gibson ES-335, the first thing he added was a Jerry Jones electric 12-string “for maximum jingle-jangle, baby!” (Ken’s own words). And then, because one of Ken’s magnificent fortes is looping and texture and grunge and friction and these crazy, wild aural manipulations of his instrument, I asked him if he could give me a layer of something that sounded like snowfall or snowflakes. Now, snowfall doesn’t have a sound, unless you’re talking about a winter storm, and then that’s really just wind you’re hearing. But I had a sound in my head that sounded like snowflakes, and I swear (as I knew would happen!) Ken Rosser just understood what I meant perfectly.
And did he ever give it to me! He created this sound with a PRS McCarty, processed through an Eventide Pitchfactor effect. The only reason I can even articulate that is because I just asked him to recount it to me for this article. It’s all Greek to me. But it absolutely captured what I had intended.
And once that effect was in place, it changed everything else for me. Suddenly I heard the drums differently. The bass differently. But we’ll get to them in a minute.
Ken had taken a solo on the original live track with the Gibson. It was a notier, jazzier solo, something perfectly befitting how the song was originally played by the trio. But once these other layers began to shape the track in a very specific way, Ken felt that another kind of solo was really needed in place of the original.
“The new solo was done on the PRS McCarty, roughly using Lindsey Buckingham’s solo on Fleetwood Mac’s Silver Spring as a model . . . because once we’d put all the layers on, I felt pretty strongly that the solo should just paraphrase the melody and then shut the fuck up. Lindsey’s influence was really just about sound and some articulation things . . . I doubt anyone else would get that without being told . . .”
We both remember it being really hot in the studio when we were doing this, thus giving the musical evocations of snowfall an ironic tinge.
Next I went into yet a third studio, with drummer Lynn Coulter and my mixing engineer Mike Kramer, and had Lynn replace his drum track. Actually, no, he didn’t replace it. He layered, also. Just added to what was there. I played him a Bon Iver track that I have loved for a long time, a song called Holocene. The drums on that song are very floaty and light. So, I had Lynn, whose drumming is just so special (I can’t wait to talk about him more when I write about my songs An Old Black Man Someday and Last Chance Mojo Eye for the Song Series . . . the special things he does with those two . . . whew!) . . . I had Lynn play an almost “train” feel with brushes, and to layer in some shakers, and other high-resonance percussion toys. I wanted everything to have a feeling of lightness and light. Not heavy, not barrelly, not thundering, not bass-drum-y, but floating, and sparkling, and light. I wanted to evoke a startling, blinding, white hoar frost. I wanted to capture Jean’s photographs. And it was slowly but surely starting to do exactly that.
I then sent the tracks over to Randy Landas, our bass player. I asked him if he thought he needed to do something different than what he’d originally played, since there was now so much else re-shaping the song at this point. He gave me back a track with a bass part that was much less percussive, and much more melodic and with elongated tones. It was absolutely lovely. In fact, if I recall correctly, his original bass track was done on a string bass, but the re-do was done on a fretless, which just fits the texture of the song perfectly.
I’d been talking about putting a glockenspiel part on the song, a tiny part I’d actually written for it. And I was just going to play it on the keyboard with a glock patch, but Lynn Coulter encouraged me to practice on his glockenspiel, and then record the real thing. Well, we did! I was so tickled to be able to give myself a glockenspiel credit. But I will confess here that I “helped it out” and strengthened it with a track on synthesizer as well, as my glock chops were pretty sad and pitiful. But still! They’re there! 🙂
Lastly, of course, were the vocals. They had already been cut, on the original live session, but as I lived with the song, and its growing, evolving, developing state, from a bare-bones pop song to a fully thick, rich, textural invocation of snowfall and hoar frosts and white Christmases, I took a page from one of my deepest hearts, the late Elliott Smith. He has this doubled vocal effect on most of his tracks, and I thought that might be a really cool thing to do with Winter. But rather than trying a stereo delay on my original vocal ( I’m not saying that that’s how Elliott did it; I have no idea how he did it), I simply, literally, provided the doubled part . . . I sang along with myself. Two Angelas in unison.
I must say, the song actually sounds like winter. Ambient, washy, and spritely, it evokes snow on the ground, and bobsleds, and snow fights, and down jackets. I don’t exactly hate the snow anymore. Funny how that can happen.
Please enjoy Winter.
I always fall in love in winter
More than any other time
There’s just something about snowfall
And the scent of Christmas pines
I always fall in love in winter
A time of goodwill and peace
There is just no season better
For inspiring a little heat
It can have its reputation
For bleak and dreary days
But the first glimpse of a hoar frost
Will set any heart ablaze
It will set your heart ablaze
I tend to fall in love in winter
when the merry songs of children start
There is just no season greater
To inspire the romantic heart
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.