Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Tis the Season: Interview with Rehya Stevens

Rehya Stevens' new album Tis the Season has been garnering rave reviews since its November 12 release.  The acclaim is well-deserved - Tis the Season is one of the best holiday albums of 2021.  

Tis the Season, briefly previewed earlier here on Merry & Bright, is an album of bows and ribbons, candy canes and hot chocolate, Santa and Christmas magic.  With nine original songs by Rehya and three superbly done standards, Tis the Season is everything you could ever want in a joyous, energetic, get-you-in-the-spirit Christmas music album.  Rehya explores a variety of musical styles, all with an inimitable essence of the holiday.  Rehya and her team of musicians and collaborators have delivered, just as surely as a certain gentleman hailing from the North Pole.

All the info about Tis the Season can be found at Rehya's website.

Rehya Stevens Music - get Tis the Season and Celebrate, Rehya's first album of Christmas music.

In addition to being an amazing musician, Rehya Stevens is one of the nicest and most generous people around, and she took time from her busy schedule for a super-insightful and in depth interview with Merry & Bright.  Please enjoy learning more about Tis the Season, creating music in a pandemic, and Rehya's at-home co-worker, among other topics.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Q & A with Rehya Stevens


Merry & Bright: Welcome back to Merry & Bright Rehya! You’re becoming a regular here in our little hangout, and that’s a good thing

Rehya Stevens: Thank you, Aaron, it’s a pleasure! I appreciate your friendship and support of my music all these years!

MB: You have gifted our 2021 holidays with your second Christmas album, ’Tis the Season, and it is wonderful! From the first note through the last, it’s heartwarming, joyful, and just so Christmassy. It’s just what we need this season after the past 20 months we’ve all been through. Can you tell us a little about your journey with this album through 2020 and 2021?

RS: Well, it was quite an effusive album to make during such an uncertain, depressing time. Honestly, making this music was a wonderful escape from the heavy hearted state of affairs we were all reckoning with. During the making of much of this album, I worked with a producer named Tom Keane, whose work I’ve admired since I was a kid. He’s written and produced some of my favorite songs, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him. Anyway, we would get together and chisel away on tracks for a few hours, then talk about the chaos in the world, chisel away some more, talk about the chaos some more… and for me, it just felt right to be making music that is universal, and immediately relatable, because hardly anyone was relating well in the universe between 2020 and mid 2021. Families were fighting. Communities were torn apart. Friends were estranged. Social media was an on-going battle of words.

All I know is, the more I focused on the making of this record and providing joyful music for people, the better I felt. The better I felt, the more music I made. So what started out as ‘oh, maybe I’ll record a few new Christmas songs…’ turned into a full fledged Christmas album with 8 originals and 3 covers. On an existential level, I’d like to think that the creative process of making this music had some healing effect on the world. I know that had I not had such an uplifting album to work on, my time in quarantine would have been pretty dreary but because of this music, my soul was lit up and dancing through the darkest stretch the world has seen in awhile. It’s amazing that music has the power to lift us that way. I’m so grateful for that gift, and the ability to share it with people.


MB: How do you feel ‘Tis the Season compares with Celebrate? I would never ask you to pick a favorite, because that’s like asking a parent to pick a favorite child. But do you think ‘Tis the Season is an evolution of your Christmas music, or perhaps a partner album that complements Celebrate?

RS: I think ’Tis the Season is both of those things - an extension of - and an evolution of Celebrate. So many changes in my own life - and in the world shaped the making of these two albums.

Jon Kubis and I created Celebrate over a two year period in both Orange County and Boyle Heights (in downtown LA). Our commutes were intense and sometimes after hours in traffic, we’d get to the Boyle Heights studio and wind being up unable to record because the walls were paper thin, and the bleed (not to mention the smells - no kidding) was so bad. On top of that, we had merciless schedules to contend with during the process. Under the circumstances, it’s quite a testament to our friendship and work ethic that we managed to make an album like that with so many moving parts. What’s interesting to me is that even with all we were up against, as a body of work, Celebrate is so soothing and spiritual. I’m very proud of that. Only in retrospect, it’s clear that I was trying to create a space that I wanted to dwell in emotionally, that felt non-competitive and authentic.

The music business has such an exhaustive hierarchical pecking order, no matter where you are on the ladder. I had been longing for more simplicity in my life for a long time, and a sense of unconditional acceptance, belonging and safety. I think that’s the musical space we created. It’s a record that is emotionally and spiritually nurturing.

In juxtaposition, ‘Tis the Season was made during a time of social distancing, utter simplicity as far as daily life was concerned, and complete worldly upheaval. It was easy to focus on this record, because there weren’t any live gigs or sessions happening. All the musicians I needed were in-town and available - without a single scheduling obstacle. There was zero pressure of a deadline, so I was able to work at my own pace, guilt-free. I tend to tinker and try to ‘beat’ my performances ad nauseum - and there was no limit to how much of that I could do - which I loved. I recorded and produced all the vocals for this album at home, and loved it. Tom lives 5 minutes down the road from me, so the commute was a dream - and the whole process was pretty relaxed.

Like most people, I was longing for a friendlier, more compassionate world. I missed being with friends and family, but even more so - I missed sharing common ground and civility with people that I no longer saw eye to eye with. There are a lot of fun-loving songs on the album that remind me of childhood, when politics didn’t matter one bit - when you just played with people you loved to be with, and shared your world openly. There is also a good dose of romance on this album, because there was more space for intimacy during quarantine. On the spiritual side, “Wonderland of Winter” is a song that is lyrically symbolic. For instance, the bridge; “Even though the skies are dark and gray/The cardinal still sings her song/Echoing such beauty in refrain/In a winter wonderland” was born from the perspective that we become like the cardinal ‘singing a song’ when we celebrate in dark times. With this album, instinctively - I think we provided a spirit of levity that the world had lost. ’Tis the Season as a whole is very festive and open hearted. I think of it as a high energy Christmas morning record, while I think of Celebrate as a reflective evening record. But, you’re right - I cannot choose a favorite. I love both albums equally. They both offer something nourishing. Sometimes you need immersive tic, other times you need to play all day long. Both of these things go a long way, depending on what scratches the itch.

MB: I’m going to pick a few of my favorites from ‘Tis the Season and ask you to tell us about them – how the song came to be, any anecdotes about the writing or recording, or just what you’d like your fans to know about it. Let’s start with “The Old Red Sleigh.”

RS: “The Old Red Sleigh” was written while I was on a bike ride in January of 2019, a few months after Celebrate was released. I was pedaling along thinking how nice it was to finally be outside ‘playing’ and not in front of a computer screen or in a rehearsal room - when the melody rattled through my brain. I thought, “Oh, no!!! Am I going back into the studio this week?!” Anyway, I tried to just focus on my ride, but 4 hours later, I was cruising back home to record the song. As soon as I’d figured out the chords, I sent a work tape to Tom, and he agreed to produce it. Tom is so masterful as an arranger. I couldn’t have asked for a finer producer for this song - he knocked it out of the park! His son Mason has a rich baritone, so I hired him to be ‘Santa’ - and sing all of those barbershop style background vocals. The western rhythm section and the 50’s sounding hollow body guitars (played by my friend, Gene Siegel) — are so irresistibly nostalgic to me. The track captures the classic childhood ‘anticipation of Christmas’ buoyancy that I was hoping for. It certainly captures the way I felt at Christmas time as a kid. I wanted to be so good for Santa - and it was so incredibly difficult. My sister and I were always squabbling, or snooping for presents. One year, in the middle of the night, we unwrapped every single one of our gifts, then wrapped them all back up and put them back under the tree. Our wrapping skills were terrible, but not worse than our ‘mock surprise’ faces on Christmas morning. Everyone in the family knew what we’d done. We were so naughty. We just couldn’t wait until Christmas morning, I guess. It was too much - too exciting. We had no self control.


MB: How about “Please Come Home”? This one hits hard right out of the gate with a solid bluesy beat – amazing song.

RS: Thank you so much! There was quite a talented crew on this piece. Jon Kubis produced the track, Griff Hamlin played those hard hitting guitars, and I wrote the song with my friend Gene Black (guitarist for Joe Cocker). Anyway, “Please Come Home” is a blues-rock song about reconciliation and redemption. For someone with a lot of stubborn pride, the most excruciating thing can be to admit when I’m wrong. I’m a very passionate person, so it’s not easy to hold back what I’m feeling - whether it’s the good, warm fuzzy stuff, or the bad stuff. I’m not a passive-aggressive person - I’m just up front and honest about all of it, which can be really constructive at times, and incredibly destructive on occasion. I’ve known people who live lives of pride, with big foolish walls - and no room for error is offered to others - and I’ve never wanted to live that way. There wasn’t a specific scenario that this song was written about, but I have certainly felt the painful tug of war between pride and reconciliation. The holidays provide space for self reflection - but it can be so hard to pick up that phone and call that person who deserves an apology from you. It’s a brave act to make that call - without pride, without expectation. You give that person a gift of compassion when you yield to taking the initiative. Even if there isn’t immediate forgiveness, the planting of the seed being intentional - provides healing on some level. Christmas can be so many things. Not all of them feel fruitful or look like a holiday spread from Better Home & Gardens. Every year is different. Some years feel like failure seasons. Some years feel like a total blur. Sometimes, the holidays are messy, because we’ve been messy and careless or experienced painful losses. This song provides a space for confession, extending the olive branch, and hopefully, forgiveness and mercy. I hope it encourages someone to give up their pride, and wear their heart on their sleeve a bit.

MB: OK – one more. Please tell us about “Santa Won’t You Hurry.”

RS: This song features the awesome Amy Keys on background vocals! I was so happy that she was in town and available! She tours with Phil Collins every year, but due to the pandemic, she was in town - and I was so glad to have her sing on this track. I love her voice. It’s like rich, velvety butter. On sax, is my friend George Shelby, who killed the solo on this song! Every time I hear his solo, it makes me smile. Tom produced the track - and gave it a classic 60’s feel. I love the tight rhythm section, those big piano glisses and the modulation at the end- it’s all very big, festive and fun.

From a songwriting perspective, it’s about longing and waiting to be with the one you love at Christmas time. Not even the highest octane holiday celebrations can take the place of being with the one you love during the holiday season. I’ve had a few broken hearts, but the one I channeled for this song was my first heartbreak as a 14 year old freshman in high school. There was this really cute guy - a senior at my school who had been leaving insanely romantic letters in my locker. I had never received that kind of attention before, and it was completely intoxicating. Sometimes, his letters were written in Spanish, so on one occasion, I asked my Spanish teacher to translate one of his letters for me. Oh, man, My face turned so red while he read that letter. It was beyond embarrassing! Anyway, I wasn’t allowed to date yet. I was only permitted to talk to this guy on the phone. So, for 2 months, we talked every single night for hours – and I was head over heels! I begged my Dad to let me go out with him, but there was no budging. On the last day of school before winter break, while packing up my locker - I saw my crush kissing another girl quite passionately in the hallway. I was devastated - frozen in place, but I said nothing. I dragged myself home, and barely came out of my room for 2 weeks. I called him up over the holidays, but he told me that he had moved on. I went to the mall a few times over the holiday break with my older sister, desperately hoping I might run into him. It was an absolutely excruciating first heartbreak.

I’m so glad to have had that experience to pull from for this song - because I wanted it to have a youthful, teenager vibe. The listener might never know there was a broken heart involved, because the song is not sad at all - it’s a blast! It’s got that spirit of, “Hey! It’s Christmas! Anything can happen!” It’s that faithful optimism that flips the vibe and makes it fun. I think people will relate to this song because we all want to be with the ones we love at Christmas. This song isn’t just ‘fun’ Christmas - it’s real Christmas, and it comes from a real experience that most people have had at least once in their lives.

MB: You recorded some standards on ‘Tis the Season, including a beautiful rendition of “All Through the Night.” Are these some of your personal favorites? They blend so well with your original songs.

RS: I’m so happy to hear that! Yes, these standards are a few personal favorites. The first time I heard “Santa Baby,” I think I was 9 years old. I thought, “Who is this awful good girl? Does anyone actually give her ALL of this stuff?!” As a writer, I admire the craftsmanship so much. It’s such a cool song - there’s no other like it. Hats off to the songwriters, Joan Javits and Phil Springer! I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during those writing sessions. Anyway, it was so much fun to arrange the background vocals - and I loved developing the character voice for the lead vocal. She makes me laugh, but I’m sure this song frightens every man to death.

“Santa Claus is Comin to Town” is irresistible to me. There was no question that we needed to do a version of it. Even though the song is naturally chock-full of kid appeal, I wanted to bring out the child-like fun of the song just a little bit more. That’s where the inspiration for the background vocals came from, “So you better be good because Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” and all the “Doot - Doots.” There’s a little ‘Dolly-ism’ at the end as well (Dolly Parton is a huge influence in my life). I couldn’t help myself. I pictured her talking to a gaggle of kids with her hands on her hips saying, “So, you better be reeeeeaaaal nice… ‘Cuz Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town!” And just like that, I picture the kids scrambling to pick up their toys, brush their teeth, get into their jammies and put themselves to bed. Jon Kubis produced the track, and I think it’s just perfect — I’m so glad he was up for it and available. It came out so well!

“All through the Night/The Holly & the Ivy” was recorded in late March of 2020, a week after we were put on stay-at-home orders. All that week, from March 13th on, I woke up with “All Through the Night” running through my head. I had heard the song many times over the years, but the most powerful connection I made with it was during a scene from “The Sopranos” where Meadow is singing the song in the choir. Simultaneously, Chris has hell to pay in a torturous scene out on the dock. It’s so haunting. It had been a few years since I’d seen the show, so it seemed odd that the song and that particular scene were on the front burner in my mind. I thought I should take it seriously, so I decided to record a guitar/vocal version of it. I arranged a piano/vocal that wove in “the Holly & the Ivy” (I’ve always loved the melody), and called my friend Michael NOMAD Ripoll to play guitars. I asked him to put a little Italian flair on it (he happens to be Italian) and man - did he deliver! He sent the guitar parts a few days later, and I must have played it 10 times - in awe of what he’d done. It’s stunning! As the album developed, I wondered where this song would fit — it’s so different from the other tracks in the collection. It wasn’t until I listened to it as the final track, that it made perfect sense. Symbolically, the chaos of the last few years was ‘the night’ ie., Chris out on the doc. The angel singing in the church aka “Meadow” is the more compassionate nature in all of us, if we’re willing to yield to it. In context, the timing and content of this album is like the big festive party after a long war - and “All Through the Night” is like the angels watching over us saying, “Whew! That was rough. Peace, children. All is well. Let this feeling of belonging settle in your hearts, and keep you civilized - all through the night.”


MB: Are you playing any shows through the holidays, so the lucky SoCal folks can hear you sing these live?

RS: I’m performing live, but mostly for private events this year. My hope is that by next year I’ll be able to book a holiday tour or do a series of holiday shows here in California with the guys who played on both Christmas records. Hopefully we’ll be out of the ‘Covid woods’ in 2022. I am hopeful.

MB:
Did you have any ‘co-workers’ at home with you during the pandemic? My canine co-worker buddy Whitley has recently been joined by Miss Millie, a tiny little mini-doxie. They are great company, and I swear that Whitley is learning to speak English. Any co-workers at your place?

RS: Yes! My beloved cat, Sebastian. He is very needy, and sooooo cute! He’s the kind of cat you could love on all day, all night - and it still wouldn’t be enough for him. He really needs a mommy. I’m sure his meow is on some of the vocal tracks. He’s very vocal, and expressive. I don’t mind, except for when he yells at 4 in the morning. Sing on the records all you want Batchie, but don’t wake me up!

MB:
Rehya, you should be very proud of this album. You’ve captured the spirit of Christmas with your music, and it makes me so happy when I listen to it. I’ll close this by repeating back your own words from a message to your fans, “Let’s celebrate and love one another”. Words we need in these times. Thank you Rehya!

RS:
Amen! Thank you, Aaron. Happy holidays to you & yours:)

Monday, December 6, 2021

Singles Night!

Yes indeed, it's Singles Night at Merry & Bright!  What I mean is, I have a couple vintage singles to share with you, both performed by The Cricketones

First up is "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", with "Ding a Ling Dong The Sleighbell Song" on the B-side.

The companion single is "The Night Before Christmas", backed with "Mixie Pixie" a whirlwind of a song coming in at a mere 1:03.

These are pretty much what you expect - kiddie-oriented Christmas songs, probably played dozens of times on a little portable record player back in the day.  But that's part of the joy of Christmas music, and what made so many of us collectors - the records we played when we were young.  I still have the Bing Crosby record I played year-round when I was a wee tot.

One of the songs - I think it's Ding a Ling Dong - has a bit of a skip that was unrepairable.  Part of the vintage vinyl game.

Download "Santa Claus is Coming To Town"

Download "The Night Before Christmas"

Ding a Ling Dong Rama Lama Ding Dong Sh Bob Sh Bop Sh Bop Bop Bop

Enjoy!


Sunday, December 5, 2021

It's a New Music Soiree!

Gather 'round friends for a collection of new Christmas music for this 2021 season.  There's a whole host of great new tunes here, something for everyone.

Do ol' Der Bingle a favor here, good folks.  All of these artists put their heart, soul, time, and energy into creating this music, so please take a few minutes to learn about these artists and listen to their music.  Every stream helps, and if you like what you hear, add it to your playlist or better yet send 'em some $$ love with a purchase. 

One note:  I've included a link or two for each artist/song listed here, but I know that all my readers are astute users of the internet technology, and you can google the artists and songs to find them on your preferred streaming/digital media service.  

Thanks in advance for giving these musicians the time and streams they deserve.

Dallas String Quartet Hallelujah

Dallas String Quartet

Leading off is a new single by one of Merry & Bright's favorite groups, Hallelujah by the Dallas Sting Quartet.  This is a beautiful recording of Leonard Cohen's song by DSQ.  Now, Der Bingle's opinion is that Hallelujah performed with Mr. Cohen's lyrics is decidedly not a Christmas song, but instrumental versions do bring forth all the seasonal feels.  DSQ agrees, and has graced us with this superbly performed version.  Well done, Dallas String Quartet.

Hallelujah on Spotify:

Dallas String Quartet website

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Katie Garibaldi It's Christmas


Merry & Bright fave Katie Garibaldi returns with a brand new single for 2021, It's Christmas.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Laura Cheadle Let's Get Together for Christmas


Award winning singer-songwriter Laura Cheadle presents Let's Get Together for Christmas, a new album with nine holiday tunes, with five original songs including:
  • Let's Get Together for Christmas
  • Christmas in My Life
  • Read Ain't Everything

Watch "Giving You Me for Christmas" on YouTube


------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Kristen Mather de Andrade - Evergreen



Evergreen, a 5 song EP from Clarinetist-Vocalist Kristen Mather de Andrade.  

Featuring:
Riu Riu Chiu
Bring A Torch
The Holly and The Ivy
Union Square
Pat-A-Pan

Kristen's website: https://kristenmather.com/

Amazon link

------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Jackie Burns You Can't Outgrow Christmas from the new holiday musical "True North"


TRUE NORTH: A Magical New Holiday Musical steps inside the world of a modern family who finds the holidays joyful—and challenging. Faced with the uncertainty of their father’s deployment, young Ben and his big sister Kami’s already turbulent lives are shaken again. With a wish, a letter, and some unique seasonal help, the Patterson family discovers what just an ounce of belief can do.

Der Bingle finds this info about True North intriguing and is going to dig deeper, and thinks you should too.  Jackie Burns' performance on this single is wonderful.


With stunning vocals by Jackie Burns (Wicked, If/Then) and soaring orchestrations by Grammy-nominee Chris Walden, “You Can’t Outgrow Christmas” is sure to rekindle joy and inspire hope in a pandemic-weary world.


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Steffi Jeraldo - As Long As We're Together

A new single by Swedish-born Country/Americana Singer-Songwriter Steffi Jeraldo.



Steffi Jeraldo website

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Maggie Szabo and Dylan Chambers Christmas Without You

Maggie Szabo returns in 2021 with Christmas Without You.  Following 2020's Come Celebrate Christmas, Maggie partners with Dylan Chambers for a new single for the 2021 season.



---------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Yule Logs Fezziwig


The Yule Logs, the "Hardest Working Band in Snow Business" treat us with a new album, Fezziwig, with 10 new original songs including:
  • Hannukah Snuck Up On Me
  • Little Drummer Girl
  • No Christmas Lights in Greek Town
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Out in the Cold



Yule Logs Fezziwig on Bandcamp

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Raffi & Lindsay Munroe Silver Bells



Troubadour Music and Craft Recordings announce the release of a special holiday duet of “Silver Bells” by the world-renowned children’s entertainer, Raffi, and rising singer, and songwriter, Lindsay Munroe. Now available as a digital single, “Silver Bells” marks the latest collaboration between the two award-winning artists.



----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Solomon Jaye Bringing Love Back

Solomon Jaye taps into “high energy soul” with his unique fusion of original and classic R&B / Soul music, astonishing acrobatics, and his trademarked ElektroTap dancing which brings the classic art of tap dance into the 21st century. Jaye is an accomplished singer, songwriter, guitarist, dancer and acrobat.



----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Aquadolls Christmas Wrapping


The Aquadolls cover The Waitresses classic Christmas Wrapping.  Great sound and energy!


--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Wes Walls - This Christmas, I'm Coming Home


Canadian singer-songwriter Wes Walls delivers an original single, This Christmas, I'm Coming Home



This Christmas, I'm Coming Home on YouTube:


---------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Connor Eko - Christmas Morning Goodbye


California bay area musician Connor Eko brings us a new original for the 201 season:



Connor Eko on Soundcloud

--------------------------------------------------------------------------

Thelen Creative Jingle Bells


"Creative" is right - check out this new single by Thelen Creative.


------------------------------------------------------------------------------



Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Artist Interview: The Wires

What a great feeling it is to discover new Christmas music!  Even better, when said Christmas music is absolutely killer, AND from local musicians.  That's a holiday tunes trifecta, friends.  Der Bingle hit that jackpot with Winter by the Kansas City strings duo The Wires.

The Wires are Laurel Morgan Parks (violin) and Sascha Groschang (cello).  Laurel and Sascha have been composing and performing together since 2009.  Their music "inspired by imagery found in the natural world, folk styles and modern string techniques" is rich, dynamic, textured, with an extraordinarily full sound.  In addition to performing across our city and region, The Wires are involved in local radio, music education, and many other endeavors in the community.  Good people, The Wires are.

Winter, released in 2020, is a gorgeous, brilliant album of holiday songs arranged and performed by Sascha and Laurel.  They chose eleven familiar holiday songs, although some ("Once in Royal David's City", "Wexford Carol") are deeper cuts than others ("Silent Night", "We Wish You a Merry Christmas").  Rounding out the album is their original composition "Campbell Street".

What a pleasure it is to share this interview with The Wires about Winter, the arts scene in Kansas City, and other seasonal musings.

Listen to Winter on Spotify

The Wires website

Merry & Bright Interview with The Wires


Merry & Bright: Hello Sascha and Laurel! That sounds so much better than “Hello, The Wires”. Thank you for this Q&A about your album Winter.  Winter is your third album, following The Wires in 2012 and Wilder in 2019. Can you tell us the story of how Winter came about?

TW: Sascha and I (Laurel) have always found a lot of musical inspiration in the wintery months. We get inspired by the contrast of cold and snow and ice with the warmth and crackle of a fire. We used to play a lot of Christmas gigs, but found that arrangements for duo could sound very thin. That coupled with our winter time inspiration led us to recording our third album of holiday music.

Laurel Morgan Parks and Sascha Groschang

MB: Your song selection for Winter is fantastic. A few true Christmas song standards (Silent Night, The Christmas Song, We Wish You a Merry Christmas), but many are not quite as familiar to many, such as Coventry Carol, Wexford Carol, and Once in Royal David’s City. How did you decide what songs to record?

TW: We just loved each of those songs individually - some we had grown up listening to, and some were newer favorites. We also wanted some variety to the record. Some of the tunes have a more celtic feel (like Greensleeves), whereas we had more of a jazzy arrangement with The Christmas Song, and a more Americana sound with The Holly and the Ivy. We're drawn to different folk styles in our original composition, and I think we wanted to showcase some of these styles and their differences in our holiday album.

MB: Sascha and Laurel, your arrangements are amazing. What is your process for transforming these songs, some of which are centuries old, into arrangements for cello and violin?

TW: It's actually easier than how we usually compose - which is from scratch. It was kind of a "relief" to have the melodies all ready written. One of us - Sascha usually- would come up with the secondary chords we were going to use and we'd go from there. We always write together, sitting across from each other. When we come up with something we both like we record it as a voice memo on our phones.

MB: “Campbell Street” is an original composition on Winter. What is the story of “Campbell Street”?

TW: Campbell Street is actually the street I (Sascha) live on. I have two small girls, and Campbell street is kind of an homage to the wonder and awe and joy of seeing and playing in snow for the first time each year. It's the magic of watching them experience winter for the first times.

The Wires

MB: Luckily for me, you are Kansas City based musicians, so I have had the pleasure of seeing you perform live, and hope to again many more times in the future. How has the Kansas City music and arts scene changed in the 12 years that you have been performing together?

TW: The biggest thing that has changed has happened due to the pandemic. It's harder to predict things like concert attendance, COVID outbreaks, and our own illnesses - hahaha. But seriously, the music scene in KC keeps expanding and evolving. We have amazing musicians in this town and have had the privilege of working with many of them. We hope to keep collaborating because that's how things in this city keep fresh.

MB: Winter was recorded at Pilgrim Chapel in Kansas City. Why did you choose that location to record?

TW: Well, we love the Pilgrim Chapel - we've been doing an annual Winter Solstice program for the past several years there, and these songs were first arranged for those shows, so it felt like a perfect fit. Plus it just looks like a storybook! It's so charming and cute and so perfect looking in the snow.

MB: What are some of your personal favorite Christmas songs and/or records?

Laurel: My favorite Christmas album would have to be Amy Grant's "Home for Christmas." I also love Sufjan Stevens' holiday albums. 

Sascha: Growing up, I loved the John Denver Muppet Christmas album - but now, I'm with Laurel, I listen to all of the Sufjan Stevens' Christmas tunes - they have such a fun and folky feel. I also have a new favorite, from an album I actually played on last year from a local band, Barnaby Bright called "Bleak Midwinter".  I've been working with Barnaby for a long time, since before they were even Barnaby Bright!  Their winter album is magical and worth a listen.

MB:
Do you have any favorite Kansas City Christmas traditions?

Laurel: I love going to Union Station and Crown Center to see the giant trees and decorations. Gotta go with children though because they see the magic! I also love driving around and looking at Christmas lights and any ostentatious displays. And, of course, I love playing with Sascha - we usually play a lot of concerts in December and I always look forward to those. 

Sascha:  I also love taking my girls to Crown Center and Union Station - they do it up right! I just like making fun crafts with my girls. The season leading up to the holidays is usually one of the busiest for me as a musician, so it's like a breath of fresh air to have a few weeks off to re-center and just relax.

MB: Winter is an extraordinary record of Christmas and Winter songs. You have given us an album that is both spirited and soothing, and full of happiness. Any final thoughts for the readers of Merry & Bright?

TW: Thank you so much!! If you'd like to find out more about our music and current season check out our website at www.thewires.info

MB: Thank you again for your time, and have a very happy and safe holiday season!

TW:
Thanks so much for the interview!  Happy Holidays!


Monday, November 29, 2021

Sharing Time: Bob Parks and the Evangelaires

Joy at Christmas by Bob Parks and the Evangelaires kicks off music sharing this season.  On Joy at Christmas, Bob Parks, Steve LeBar, and and Bill Lehman are a vocal trio, accompanied on piano by Harold De Cou and Ray Felten on bass.  They are joined on guitar with a Spanish flair on a few numbers by Paul Storm and Terry Parks.

This is a very pleasant vocal album, nicely arranged and well-performed by Bob & Co.  The album opener and title track Joy at Christmas, an original by Bob Parks, is a fine little Christmas song, clocking in at a brisk 1:34.  There are several standards on the album, including a ragtimey/barbershoppery "Go Tell It On The Mountain", the always-appreciated "Mary's Boy Child", "Silent Night", and a very reverent "O Holy Night".

Overall this is a quite nice album.  Musically it is in a niche all its own in my collection.  The trio is talented, and the arrangements are pleasing.  Bob Parks has a gentle tenor voice that is well suited to the song selections.  

My only dig is the final song "Born to Die".  I understand the spiritual intent of the song, but man, it kinda sucks all the jolly out of your holly.

Download and enjoy Joy at Christmas by Bob Parks and the Evangelaires

Production Note:  The album had a mostly unrepairable skip at the very beginning of Track 1 Joy at Christmas.  I did my best to smooth & blend.  

Friday, November 26, 2021

Interview with Joanna Wilson of 'Tis the Season TV

Joanna Wilson is a Christmas visual media junkie, a renowned expert nonpareil of movies and television programming related completely or tangentially to Christmas (with some Thanksgiving thrown in for good measure).

Joanna has:
  • written Tis the Season TV, a 770 page encyclopedia of Christmas episodes, specials, made-for-TV movies, and the classic films that we see replayed every year.
  • written Merry Musical Christmas (Volume One), discussing the musical highlights of many  Christmas episodes of favorite television programs
  • written The Christmas TV Companion: a Guide to Cult Classics, Strange Specials, and Outrageous Oddities
  • Watched "A Christmas Story" for 24 hours straight (twelve viewings), and described the experience in her book The Triple Dog Dare (which Der Bingle highly recommends)
  • had a dress made of Netflix mailing envelopes from all the Christmas DVDs she rented (Joanna must have her picture up in the Netflix offices)
  • established the Tis the Season TV and Christmas TV History Facebook pages
  • created the Christmas TV History website, which has in-depth discussions of Christmas-themed television episodes
  • and there's more!  Visit the 1701 Press website for a complete list.
Whew!

Joanna Wilson

Joanna is a great friend to many of us in the Christmas interwebbery world, so she graciously agreed to spend some time and answer a few questions about her work, what's coming next, and Christmas topics in general.  I've gotta say - I love her job!

Merry & Bright Interview with Joanna Wilson


Merry & Bright: Hello Joanna, and Merry Christmas! Thank you for dropping in to Merry & Bright to chat!  Let’s jump right in and talk some Christmas TV. Tis the Season TV is your encyclopedia of Christmas television programs and films. It is giant, extensive, and sits on the endtable next to my chair throughout November and December every year. How did Tis the Season TV come about?

Joanna Wilson: I have a passion for the history of television and film, and I’ve always been a pop culture junkie. However, I also have a Bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a Master’s degree in Philosophy. After teaching college for several years, I knew I wanted to move into writing and research and that’s when I stumbled across Christmas entertainment. I quickly could see that there was a long, rich history of Christmas movies, specials and episodes that was largely overlooked by scholars and critics. I jumped right in!

MB: So, ballpark estimate, how many of the shows and movies in the book have you actually seen?

JW: I’ve been a TV and film historian for twenty years. I’ve been to archives across the country. I’ve seen almost everything that still exists at this point, although new Christmas programs are released each year and I spend months watching them.



MB: As you’re doing your research on Christmas programming, do you ever need to take a break from holiday shows and, say, binge watch “Schitt’$ Creek”?

JW: Yes—but even “Schitt’$ Creek” has a Christmas episode so then it becomes work again.

MB: You have a new edition in the works, right? What can we expect to see in the 2nd edition, and when are you expecting to publish it?

JW: The expanded and updated 2nd edition of Tis the Season TV is coming out in 2022. It has more than twice as many listings as the first one because Christmas on TV is growing each year, and because I’ve worked hard to expand and improve the older program listings too. The 2nd edition also contains more information on each listing. And, there are many appendices and an expanded index to make my research and the book’s content more accessible and user-friendly.

MB: What are a couple of your favorite TV programs that are less well-known? The Rankin-Bass Christmas shows are all great, but there are some real gems that few people know about.

JW: Whoa! Slow down. Most people don’t even know there are TWENTY Rankin/Bass Christmas and New Year’s programs, so there are hidden gems even inside Rankin/Bass’ catalog. However, your point is made. Stop motion animation fans should not overlook last year’s (2020) “Alien Xmas” on Netflix. Made by the Chiodo Brothers who are masters at animation (they also made the stop motion segments in 2003’s “Elf”), the story about an alien invasion at Christmas is adorable. In terms of imaginative storytelling, I don’t think the holiday episodes of the animated series “The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack” (2009’s “Low Tidings”) and “Chowder” (2008’s “Hey, Hey It’s Knishmas!”) get enough attention or appreciation. These holiday stories are bonkers, yet made for kids!

MB: If you could pick one Christmas TV show to have restored and made available, what would it be? For me, it would be the PBS presentation “Simple Gifts” (which I learned about from you).

JW: I think “Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory” from 1966 should have a restoration and official re-release. It’s such a heart-warming story, and beautifully written. Capote himself narrates the Depression-era tale, and Geraldine Page is fantastic as Cousin Sook. I don’t want it to be forgotten.

MB: Do you feel that ‘they made ‘em better in the old days’, or do you see new, great quality Christmas programming coming out every year?

JW: Both. I know TV creatives made high-quality stories and swingin’ Christmas variety specials in years past, and there are still fantastic new Christmas programs being created each year.

MB: Let’s talk ‘the Hallmark Effect’. Hallmark has created a new genre of Christmas television programming that now includes Lifetime and, to a degree, Netflix and other streaming/cable services. What do you think about the impact Hallmark movies has had on our holiday viewing habits?

JW: Let’s be clear, Hallmark didn’t create the romance TV movie genre, and they didn’t even make the first Christmas romance movie. The Hallmark Channel has perfected a formula for Christmas rom-coms that are so popular that other TV networks and streaming platforms imitate the formula. It has certainly given viewers an appetite for watching new holiday movies each year. This year alone, there are more than 150 new Christmas movies being released. Twenty years ago, in 2001, there were 17.

MB: “A Christmas Story” – you watched this absolute classic for 24 hours straight, simulating the broadcast by watching a recorded version in the Summertime twelve times in a row. What was the most surprising thing you learned about the movie after this marathon viewing?


JW: Being immersed in the 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story,” I quickly discerned the difference between binge-watching a series (which we’ve all done) and marathoning a movie over and over. It takes much more mental stamina to endure the same story twelve times in a row than it does to watch a new episode in a series as the whole story progresses when we binge-watch. I also became convinced that “A Christmas Story” is far better written and more complex than I had given it credit for prior to watching the marathon. However, my book “Triple Dog dare” is about far more than the 24-hour marathon of “A Christmas Story.” It’s ultimately about the experience of watching Christmas movies and examining the appeal of holiday entertainment in general.

MB: Kurt Russell has starred as Santa Claus in two “Christmas Chronicles” movies produced for Netflix. In your opinion, where does Kurt rank in the pantheon of TV and movie Santas? Personally, I think he’s one of the best, though no one will ever top Edmund Gwynn.

JW: Yes—Kurt Russell is an impressive Santa Claus. He’s definitely the Santa with the best hair! I admire Russell for steering into the whole discussion of himself as Santa and Elvis Presley, by performing the song “Santa Claus Is Back in Town” within the first movie. Russell of course played Presley in the 1979 TV movie “Elvis” and that song was a hit for Presley in 1957.

MB: I've gotta ask - Fruitcake: Yes or No?

JW: Yes.

MB: Joanna, all of your work – your published books, your website, social media channels, even the Christmas music mixes you put together every year – just overflow with Christmas joy! I think maybe when I retire I’ll apply to be your research assistant 😊 Thank you so much for joining me for this interview. Have a very Merry Christmas 2021!

JW:
You’re hired!

Joanna and the DVD Dress

All the links...

1701 Press website - Order all the books here!



Thursday, November 25, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!  I'm working on new posts for the season, including more new music, more artist interviews, and good stuff to share.  But for today, please enjoy this picture of my home office co-workers, Whitley (right) and Millie.