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 (former guitarist for the late 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.

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!

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!

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


  1. I loved reading your interview with Rehya. She is such a talented musician!!! I've been a big fan of Rehya for years. Thank you!