Writing Christmas songs tricky proposition
Last holiday season, Albany rock trio The Charlie Watts Riots were looking for a Christmas song to perform at their Christmas show. There was just one problem — there didn’t seem to be any left for the band to leave its mark on.
“We were going through different covers of songs that we could play and we just couldn’t agree, because either the songs were terrible or they had been sort of claimed by other bands,” Seth Powell, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, said.
“[Saratoga Springs trio] The Figgs do an unbelievably great cover of ‘Father Christmas’ by The Kinks, and we sort of overlap fan bases with them and everything else. There’s just a ton of examples — you can’t play ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ because Bruce Springsteen does that one. Either the songs are ridiculous — we’re not going to do a rocking version of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ — or another band has claimed the song.”
So Powell, bassist Mike Pauley and drummer Joe Putrock decided they would simply try their hand at writing their own. Pauley originally brought in the chorus line for the song, “The Christmas Fit,” which summed up the band’s conundrum quite succinctly — “There ain’t no Christmas songs for us to play.”
“One of the lines in the song goes, ‘The Figgs own The Kinks and The Boss have Clarence Clemons,’ ” Powell said. “It’s probably one of the most literal songs we have, but we sat down in a room, made some tweaks, and it kind of wrote itself within two hours.”
The hard-rocking, tongue-in-cheek song caught on locally last year, getting regular airplay on WEXT, Exit 97.7-FM. Already the band has the song on its set list for this holiday season, performing it at a Thanksgiving eve show at Valentine’s.
“When we played it at the Thanksgiving show, people knew it and sang along,” Powell said. “We often lament, or wish that it wasn’t a Christmas song — I think it’s probably one of our catchiest songs, and we can’t play it year-round.”
The Charlie Watts Riots aren’t the only local musicians who have opted to write their own holiday song, rather than attempt a tried-and-true, traditional Christmas song.
Dave Graham, singer and guitarist for local punk group The Blisterz, took a stab at writing a Christmas tune in 2004. The song, “I’ll Call Santa Claus,” which has never actually been performed by The Blisterz, takes a different approach from most holiday music. In the chorus, the song’s narrator threatens to call Santa Claus as The Grinch and Jack Frost, and later Graham’s own children, get into fights in the verses.
“I wanted to write something that would maybe be useful in helping to keep my kids behaving during the Christmas season,” Graham said.
“The challenge I guess was trying to come up with [a subject] — people write about the season, and so many Christmas songs have been written already, so what can you sing about?” Grahm continued. “There was a comedic factor involved — I don’t take myself too seriously, and that rubs off in my writing style. It comes off as a funny story, but a lot of it has some kind of truth to it.”
Something to call their own
Singer-songwriter and drummer Steve Candlen, a regular at various bars and clubs throughout Saratoga Springs and the Albany area, has written a handful of Christmas songs, including “Christmas Moon, Shine on Me” and “Christmas Kiss.” This year, he also recorded vocals for a new Christmas song, “Tonight is Christmas Time,” written with Spanish musician Erik Nilsson and his production company Hitfeeling Bazzmental Trakz.
Christmas songs come easily for Candlen, who fills his solo shows with both original and traditional holiday tunes around this time of year.
“When you come around Christmastime . . . and you’re playing solo gigs, people want to hear some Christmas songs, so why not write your own Christmas song?” Candlen said. “It’s nice to have a couple of my own, to express myself and put my 2 cents in there.”
Singer-songwriter Kevin McKrell is certainly a fan of Candlen’s Christmas music, calling “Christmas Time” the “best local Christmas song I’ve ever heard.” McKrell should know — he’s been a part of folk duo Christopher Shaw and Bridget Ball’s annual holiday show, Mountain Snow and Mistletoe, for many years, alongside percussionist Brian Melick and multi-instrumentalist John Kirk.
Christmas is always a busy time of year for McKrell, and, although he insists he’s slowing down, he’s still involved with plenty of holiday shows this year. In addition to the two Mountain Snow and Mistletoe shows at The Egg this year on Dec. 15 and 16, McKrell will lead his own group, The McKrells, at holiday shows in Pawling, Oxford and two dates at The Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs, Dec. 21 and 23.
He’s also working on a holiday CD titled “Snow Day” with the current lineup of his band, featuring his daughter Kate McKrell, Melick and fiddler Sara Milonovich. The CD will include an original Christmas song McKrell wrote last year, “Christmas Train,” as well as an original instrumental from Milonovich.
“Christmas is a fairly big thing with me. Every year I also do some paintings of Santa Claus that sell really well; a lot of people like those,” McKrell said. “I try to write some new material for the holiday shows every year, coming up with Christmas songs.”
Holiday songs don’t come as easily to McKrell, however.
“Every year I give it a shot, and I’ve only actually had two that have been on albums — I recorded one on a CD called ‘Travelin’ Man’ that came out two or three years ago,” McKrell said. “But I try to write one every year for the shows, and some work out and some just suck. I was thinking about it. . . . How many songs have I written, how many? Hundreds. How many do I like? Maybe five. How many have I recorded — 40 or 50. How many do I actually like — right now, none. We’ll see what happens next time.”
Song about dignity
Speaking of Mountain Snow and Mistletoe, Shaw and Ball have written plenty of Christmas songs themselves. They’ve released two Christmas albums — the first, also titled “Mountain Snow and Mistletoe,” was recorded in the summer of 1991, when the two folk singers first moved to their home in the Adirondacks and helped kick off the annual shows. A sequel, “Mountain Snow and Mistle Two,” was released in 1994.
Shaw’s original song “Ten Dollar Christmas,” from the first album, has become a favorite at the annual show. The song tells the story of a man in Saranac Lake, hard on his luck during the Depression, who cuts down a Christmas tree on state land for his family. He ends up being fined $10, but the officer collecting the fine notices the man has a litter of puppies for sale. The officer buys one for $10, then spreads the word. By Christmas Eve, eight others have come to buy puppies.
“I think it tells a story that people are open to hearing at Christmas, because it’s about dignity,” Shaw said.
The story comes from Shaw’s grandfather, who used to tell it when Shaw was a little boy. When it came time to write the song, it flowed easily, and Shaw kept things simple.
“One of the things that we’ve learned over the years of doing all these holiday shows is that people don’t like their holiday songs messed with much,” Shaw said. “They have a clear idea of what they consider holiday songs. . . . There’s a lot of story songs — ‘Good King Wenceslas’ is a story song. Almost all of them are pretty simple, musically, if you think about it. When I sat down to write [‘Ten Dollar Christmas’], I wanted to keep it simple and tell the story, and that’s what I did.”
Ball’s “Light a Light,” also from the duo’s first Christmas album, has become the theme song for the annual Mountain Snow and Mistletoe shows. The song references the custom of placing a candle in the window for Christmas.
“It’s just a lovely symbol, and I was thinking about that symbol, and all it means at Christmastime — welcoming a stranger to your door,” Ball said.
The song also came easily to Ball, who draws from childhood memories of Christmas when she writes holiday-themed songs.
“When you’re a kid, Christmas is perfect — there’s no burned cookies, no presents you forgot to get,” Ball said. “It’s perfect when you’re a kid; it’s exciting, wonderful. There were no problems, and if there were, you didn’t know about it.”