Monday, November 20, 2017

Artist Interview: Russ Hitt

With his new 2017 release "The Longing for Home: Songs for the Holidays", Nashville musician Russ Hitt complements his 2014 release "The Longest Night: Christmas Songs of Lament & Longing" (reviewed here) with another visionary exploration of Christmas music coupled to an emotional spectrum.  This time, Russ moves from the fragile partnership of darkness and hope that was the thematic foundation of "Longest Night" to a multi-faceted journey through the dimensions of "home" with "The Longing for Home".

With five original songs and five interpretations of classic carols, Russ brings forth feelings of wistful nostalgia, wishing for a home faraway or perhaps simply hoping for a place to call home, and the gentle comforts of one's own home, complete with a crackling fire and the sounds of the wind blowing snow outside in the cold Winter night.

As a musician, Russ has a special talent for expressing emotion in his music.  His work is not highly-produced pop, as is so prevalent in each Christmas season's new releases.  Instead, it is created with intent, as an artisan craftsman hand-makes each individual piece.  For me, Russ' two albums occupy a special and unique place in my personal Christmas music collection.

Russ very graciously gave Merry and Bright a very thoughtful interview about "The Longing for Home", his musical influences, and some hints about what might be yet to come.


Merry and Bright Interview with Russ Hitt

Merry & Bright:  Hello Russ!  Thank you for taking time to share some insights about your music with Merry and Bright.

Russ Hitt:  Absolutely...thank you for the opportunity!

MB:  This year you’re releasing your second album of Christmas music, The Longing for Home: Songs for the Holidays, following your excellent 2014 release The Longest Night: Christmas Songs of Lament & Longing.  Share with us the story of these two albums – where does your artistic drive toward Christmas music come from?

RH: Well as long as I can remember I've always appreciated the different seasons of the year.  As a kid I especially loved the Christmas and holiday season's “feel” with all of the decorations, colors, smells...the whole sensory part of it all.  But there's also another reality to the holidays which isn't idealistic or warm & fuzzy that gets overlooked.  These aren't mutually exclusive for most people so I feel it's important to acknowledge both in my music.

MB:  Both of these albums are very thematically strong, focusing in on defined aspects of the holiday season that are outside of the bright colors and sleigh bells that we normally associate with Christmas music.  The Longest Night focused on the sadness and loneliness that can accompany the season, symbolized by the long, dark nights of Winter, but wrapped in hope.  With The Longing for Home you aim toward our emotions about “home” – nostalgia, the missing comforts when away - that are at their strongest during the Christmas season.  Tell us about your artistic vision for The Longing for Home, and how the album came about.

RH:  The Longest Night felt really out of the box and a very important work to pursue.  It was pretty vulnerable for me to put out there.  And I may come back to more of that in the future because it wasn't something I just did to get out of my system, so to speak.  But for the new project that became The Longing for Home, I wanted to explore the idea of “home,” especially around the holidays, and what it may look and feel like at different points in life through different perpsectives, ages, and circumstances.  It was definitely challenging to cover the range of emotions and feelings I wanted to capture.

MB:  Why do you feel that exploring the full spectrum of our feelings and emotions through Christmas music is important?

RH: I think people bury and suppress a lot of their feelings, especially during the holidays.  With so many illusions of idealism, it can be fraught with opportunity for anxiety, stuffed feelings, and a loss of self which is obviously the exact opposite of what the season's supposed to be about!  I want my music to help us be more honest and hopefully recapture the child-like wonder.  And maybe that can help us offer ourselves some kindess and compassion during the Christmas season...then hopefully extend the same to others.

MB:  Both of your albums have original songs as well as your arrangements of some standards.  How did you select the classic Christmas songs to include on these albums so that they become part of the spirit and flow of each record?  And, what is your process to interpret and arrange the standards so that they are a thematic fit in the album?

RH:  That's a fantastic question!  I look through a variety of songs and sit with the music...just the lyrics for messages I may have previously overlooked.  If you get still you can often find a hidden gem or poignant phrase in a lesser known verse of a carol that sticks out and speaks to you.  Then I study the chord structure and look for progressions around the original melody that feel right for what I want to convey.  I never want to veer too far from the original melody so it's always recognizable but the chords around the melody can go wherever.

MB:  As a fan of many musical genres, especially (and obviously) Christmas music, I sometimes hear an album that, to me, sounds like it is exactly what the artist envisioned, a perfect representation of what they imagined as they worked through the production.  David Bowie was brilliant in this respect – delivering albums of amazing cohesion and message that welcomed the listener into the music.  I felt this way after listening to The Longest Night for the first time.  And now, The Longing for Home delivers a similar musical experience.  Now that The Longing for Home is ready for release, do you feel that the final product is an album consistent with your vision?

RH:  I'm very humbled and grateful you were able to hear that in my albums.  It means a lot to me.  Thankfully, I really do feel the album stays true to the original vision.  Throughout the process it's important to keep coming back to check in and make sure the integrity of the vision is still there.  But I do feel like every song in this project does its part to contribute to the collective vision.

MB:  “Refugee”, with the crackling of the fire and the sounds of the wind, is one of my favorites from The Longing for Home .  Tell us the story of “Refugee”.

RH:  Yes, I incorporated ambient sounds on both Refugee and also Finding My Way Home to help listeners go somewhere in their imaginations.  For “Refugee” I couldn't help but consider stories and images of the Syrian and Rohingya people (Myanmar) crises. 

Then there's also a “refugee of the heart”, so to speak, where a person may appear to have everything externally but is lost, lonely and isolated inside. 

I would like to add that a portion of this album's proceeds will go to UMCOR (link added by MB) where 100% of all donations go to various natural and humanitarian disasters that have left people without a home here in the United  States and abroad.

MB: That's very generous of you, and I hope it will inspire our readers to give back during this holiday season.  I've included a link to UMCOR following this interview.  So Russ, who are some of your musical influences?

RH:  A few of my better known influences over the years include Sting, Bruce Hornsby, Tom Petty and John Mayer.  I've recently been listening to Bill Evans...a fantastic jazz pianist from back in the 60's and 70's.

MB:  Here’s one of my standard interview questions:  Do you have a favorite Christmas song or album? 

RH:  That's a tough one but if I had to choose it would be The Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack.  I never tire of it.  To me, nothing sounds more like Christmas than that!

MB:  I know that after all the work to create and release a new album you’re probably ready for a breather.  But, is there another Christmas record in store in the future?  Do you have other themes you want to explore with a future Christmas album?

RH:  Yes, I feel confident there is another Christmas record in store.  I'm just not sure whether I want to go deeper with either theme of my first two albums or explore a new area...or maybe a combination of all three.  But I can say I'm already itching to write again as I had an idea just last week that I need to log so I don't forget!

I'm definitely going to need a break as I've been been juggling everything that has to happen to successfully launch a project as well as post-launch for over a year.  I also have to say I'm thankful and grateful for my family as they have been very patient and supportive along the journey.

MB:  To wrap things up, is there a message you’d like to share with our readers about your new album?

RH:  Yes, I think this album is very versatile, almost chameleon-like, in that it can be everything from great dinner party background music to a calming companion in rush hour traffic to helping someone get in touch with their feelings and emotions throughout the holidays.

MB:  Russ, thank you so much for your time.  You’ve given us Christmas music fans two deeply thoughtful albums of wonderful music.  Have a very Merry Christmas, and best wishes to you and your family!

RH:  Thank you so much for featuring my music and the opportunity to go deeper with some great questions!  Merry Christmas to you and yours as well!!

 UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) website
"The Longing for Home" on Bandcamp
Russ Hitt Music website
Russ Hitt on Facebook
Russ Hitt Bandcamp Site

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