Listen to ‘Lets Pretend It’s Christmas’
It’s Christmas Eve. It was around this time of year that my mother died, not too long ago. The holidays have not been quite the same since. It’s brought up a lot of questions about what Christmas actually means, among other things. There’s the standard answers, of course. Family, love, giving, selflessness. And there’s the ever-present background noise of some deity’s birthday.
Though I hope some yet-unknown emotional fatigue has me mistaken, I come to think it’s all rather arbitrary. Whether that is true or not, I know that more than a few of us out there are feeling some kind of bitterness over the experience of Christmas as an adult. Cynicism, perhaps. Even those of us without children feel pressure to keep up the appearance of Christmas magic. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that. But I’d certainly like to know why we’re going through all the effort, and I’d certainly like the season to have such a positive meaning to me, too.
Music, as a form of creativity, scratches an emotional and mental itch in a way that is difficult to reach in a visual medium. For someone like me, it opens up new pathways in the brain. Choosing a vibration in the air and a shape in a picture frame are not altogether different, but a creative person has to search a different part of themselves to make that choice. So, around the end of November, I decided to write a Christmas song. I thought perhaps if it didn’t reveal meaning to me, maybe it could become the meaning. It may have done both, but I might have to wait till next year to find out.
When I began the project, the vague idea in my head sounded something like a royalty-free Rudolph. As I smeared some notes out and mumbled into the microphone, it rapidly diverged from anything sounding remotely ‘classic’. This is one of the beautiful things about creating music compared to a photograph. In a photograph you can see an alignment, a cluster of shapes, a tinge of magenta. You can talk to your subject and direct them, or rearrange objects however you want. For someone like me, who is not a ‘native musician’ (a phrase I will be using from now on), you don’t get that kind of control when it comes to sound. To a degree, you have to accept what comes back at you. If it tickles your ears, you accept it.
The process of writing and recording the song involved the support and contribution of a group of creative people. While some basic lyrics were written down from the start, Nethaniel Tyson, Rivka & Jeffrey Buchanan and myself established an overall meaning to the song and filled in empty verses with relevant words. As the instrumentation developed, I wanted to bring some ‘little drummer boy’ percussion into the mix. I initially tried to recreate the feel I was looking for with computer instruments, but the results were too rigid and I had a little problem with conflicting time signatures. Ultimately, percussion was created by Erik Mitchell in several hours of free-styling.
As the project progressed, the sound and feel became more dense and chaotic. It was driving, with an artificial piano sound prominently in the front of the recording. It was 3 minutes of ‘holy-shit christmas’. But, an accident in mixing lead to a dramatic change in tone mid-way through the song, which eventually became the bridge. I liked the attitude and the way the production just seemed to keep getting bigger and messier, the way conversations do when lots of people join them. It was as if this song thought it was the most important song ever; perhaps, itself, an apt analogy for the season.
As the lead vocals became a little more polished, Rivka & Jeffrey Buchanan added harmony and backup, helping to create the ‘Melodramatic Christmas Party’ I had come to aim for.
If you’re at all interested in how I started making music, I wrote about it here.