Home for the Holidays: A Christmas Songbook – 'All the artists offered up their time for free to support the project and the charity'
- David Pollock
- 12 December 2016
Scottish bands collaborate on a download album, songbook and two-day mini-festival in aid of Shelter Scotland
The very recent death of Greg Lake – known to more for 'I Believe in Father Christmas' than his work with King Crimson or Emerson, Lake and Palmer – is somehow symbolic of the current languid state of the sleigh bell-adorned Christmas single, which has been firmly supplanted in recent years by the X-Factor's greedy hoarding of the seasonal number one spot. Let's offer Christmas thanks, then, for Home for the Holidays, an Edinburgh-based original Christmas song project which will manifest as a download album, a songbook and a two-day mini-festival at Summerhall, all in aid of Shelter Scotland.
'Home for the Holidays had a bunch of different starting points,' says organiser Bart Owl, also of eagleowl. 'There was the Christmas Songwriters Club, which usually holds a charity gig of original Christmas songs, but we knew they were taking a year off this year. Graeme (Anderson) from Book Group had previously organised the 'Gimme Shelter' fundraiser shows for Shelter Scotland, and his band had the idea of doing a gig and an album around Christmas. When they got in touch with me I got quite heavily involved, I thought it was such a great idea. It all kind of snowballed from there. No pun intended.'
It certainly has. The songbook itself – created partly because the costs of producing a physical book are lower than those of producing an album, and partly to encourage communal sharing and reworking – has ballooned to nearly forty tracks. Nineteen of the acts involved will play over two days this weekend at Summerhall, with food and merchandise stalls and a raffle. Think school Christmas party with great music and you're there.
'All the artists offered up their time for free to support the project and the charity, it's been incredible,' says Owl. 'I know I have to say this, but it's true; there isn't a bad track on this album, they're all really special in their own way. And for a compilation of nearly forty songs, that's such an achievement. Even people I don't know personally, but whose music I really respect and love, have been so enthusiastic about the whole project, like Scott from Frightened Rabbit, Euros Childs and Stephen from Sweet Baboo. There's such a range as well, from solo acoustic troubadours to indie pop, psych-rock, spoken word and hip-hop. It's an amazing mix, and it shows there's no set way to write a Christmas song.'
eagleowl - 'Lets Save Christmas (The Ballad of Nakatomi Plaza)'
Bart Owl: 'I wrote it for the Christmas Songwriters Club a couple of years ago, an annual 'originals only' Christmas gig that this whole project owes a massive debt to. It retells the story of the 1988 movie Die Hard from the perspective of Nakatomi Plaza, the building taken over by terrorists. I thought it was far too silly and planned to play it just once at the gig, but it got a really good response – I genuinely think it's one of the best things we've ever written. I dislike a lot of aspects of Christmas, but I didn't want to make some morose, naval-gazing thing. We recorded it at Song, by Toad's Happiness Hotel, and I remember telling Matthew (Young) it would be really stripped down and lo-fi, just me and Clarissa (Cheong). Four weeks later we had fifty overdubs, a child choir, brass, glockenspiel… It was hard to know where to stop, but if the writing is good, if it's from the heart, it's okay to embrace cliché.'
Book Group – 'Christmas Morning Hangover'
Graeme Anderson: 'It's an upbeat festive number reflecting on friendship, family and drunken shenanigans at Christmas time. All the usual suspects! A Christmas song has to be reflective of the person singing the song and telling the story, and for me Christmas Eve was always a big deal growing up, with everyone hitting the local to catch up, people you hadn't seen all year reappearing and too much drinking - which meant Christmas morning could be hard work. It hit peak trouble one year when I barricaded myself into my old bedroom with my bookcase, the words 'you're going to ruin Christmas for everyone!' still echo in my ears today. There hasn't been a Christmas classic for a while, I think most larger bands seem to want to avoid that tag now. Maybe it's uncool? But I think they should be a compulsory release for every band.'
ballboy – 'WWSD (What Would Santa Do?)'
Gordon McIntrye: 'It's a story of falling in love in Edinburgh during the days leading up to Christmas. I started out by taking a walk through the city, thinking of the things I'd done and imagining some other scenarios. That set the mood for the story I gave to the couple in the song. After that it's down to the words, phrases, imagery and rhymes… I didn't really worry about cliché or relevance, I just tried to write a song Bart would like. I think there will be more (big hit Christmas songs), they help mark time, for good or ill. We remember Christmas songs and link them to our lives and shared experiences. Maybe one of the songs on this album will be the next 'Stay Another Day'?
Savage Mansion – 'Advent Calendar'
Craig Angus: 'Christmas has been completely milked in a commercial sense, so we can all buy our friends sweaters they won't wear and waste several tons of food. It's a far cry from being a child and getting incredibly excited about everything. Anyway, the closer the song gets to Christmas Day itself (one verse just counts from 1 to 24) the protagonist lightens up and accepts Christmas is fun, and that it's cool to chill with the people you hold close and swap gifts - but perspective is necessary. The words make a Christmas song, so I worked with the lyrics first and then put the musical arrangement together very quickly. Maybe there's a bit of melancholy in it, too… It's a sad coincidence that Greg Lake just died, because 'I Believe in Father Christmas' is my favourite Christmas song and it has that feeling. I think horns are very Christmas, there's a Walkmen song called 'Stranded' and it's the most Christmas-sounding thing in indie guitar music. The best songs of any kind put you in a specific time or place, and that varies from person to person because we have very different experience and outlooks. It's a shame the Christmas song's died out, it was all sabotaged by Simon Cowell. Nobody remembers the winners of X-Factor, but we all remember Greg Lake.'
Jonnie Common – 'Yippee-Ki-Yay, Father Christmas'
'Writing a Christmas song based on the film Die Hard had been on my to-do list for years, I gave it a stab once but it didn't come to anything. When I learned eagleowl had done this very thing, I congratulated Bart and he was very encouraging, telling me to give it another go. My song pivots on the disharmony between the central married couple; I popped the film on while writing and I was struck by how my perception of John McLane had changed. I'd never really thought about what his separation from his wife said about him, so that became the focus of the track - the idea that he could strive to become a better person, catalysed by the desire to spend Christmas together as a family. Any track featuring sleigh bells offers itself up for consideration as a Christmas song, however reluctantly; for an extreme example of this, see 'I Wanna Be Your Dog' by The Stooges. I'd agree the traditional Christmas song is dying out, I don't know if it's related to how music is currently consumed, but I do know I'm getting older and any "hit Christmas single" of the next decade isn't going to affect me like the ones I heard at school discos. Maybe the strongest feelings about Christmas are forged in childhood and what's powerful about Christmas songs is the way they revisit those emotions.'
Tanat – 'Santa Someday'
Sarah Tanat-Jones: 'It's a cheerful, messy, upbeat song which I recorded in one afternoon in my bedroom, using handheld percussion, my Spanish guitar, my voice and my feet to stomp out the beat. I really enjoyed making it, I was aiming for the Kirsty MacColl school of songwriting for this one; cheerful, homemade, accessible and humorous. I like the bittersweet tension of songs that combine melancholy lyrics with an uptempo musical style, so this song is about being lonely at Christmas, with some subtle humour in there - angry humour, the humour of the chronically single. It's not an autobiographical song. Not any more, at least. I'm all for some clichés, Christmas is one big cliché and I embrace it. We no longer live in an age where everyone buys any one song any more - you buy music that you know you like, and you pretty much ignore everything else, right? This is probably a good thing in lots of ways, but it doesn't bring everyone together around a glass of eggnog. Charity singles and X-Factor have screwed the Christmas song for the time being, but I have faith that a future Christmas smash can happen. Until then, we've got the classics - and this album.'
Wolf – 'Alma'
Kim Moore: 'It's a reflective song looking back and trying to look forward and trying to be 'Christmassy' in the way I know this time of year to be. You have to forget you're writing a Christmas song, especially when you feel like you hate this time of year. It's a song about letting go, a call for hope for my friend's new daughter Alma entering this scary, unsettled world. I tried to write something that didn't just tell one story or convey one feeling. Christmas is a complicated time for most people; it's mostly a 'shopping holiday' and I don't believe in a god, so for me it's a time of reflection as everything seems to stop for a while and you end up spending time with - or facing - family, yourself, the past and the fast-approaching future. I don't like Christmas songs, but I like sleigh bells and I like holidays.'
'We didn't do a Christmas song, instead our drummer Niall told a story of fantastical heartbreak and love that will surely go down in the annals of history. Or at least be on this compilation. How do you write a Christmas song? You don't. You let the ghosts of Christmas past fill your soul as they imbue a percussionist and part-time nudist with the ability to shape Christmas future. Christmas songs are dead in the water, it's all about drummers doing spoken word. This is the future. Slade won't save you now.'