Twelve Songs of Christmas
Rodney Crowell and Flow Tribe

Rodney Crowell and Flow Tribe

December 19, 2018

Twas the week before Christmas, and host Alex Rawls talked to the legendary singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell about Christmas Everywhere, the holiday album he released recently. The conversation deals with Crowell's relationship to Christmas music, but it's clear in the conversation that the same ideas and aesthetics that have shaped his songwriting for decades shaped his Christmas music as well. He worked to make Christmas music that is true to his art and that surprises in the same way that his songs can. With the title song certainly, he succeeded. 

In the second half of this week's show, Alex talks to singer K.C. O'Rorke of the New Orleans funk/rock band Flow Tribe. This is the 10th year for the band's annual Christmas week show, and O'Rorke talks about the art and commerce of it along with the band's first Christmas song, "Hammered for Christmas." 

During the conversation, Alex fumbles for the artist and title of a song he picked up from the program director of New Orleans' Magic 101.9, which goes all-Christmas at some point every holiday season. The song is "Papa Noel" by Brenda Lee. The song is also included in the episode, but here it is as well since it's not clearly identified in the show. 

Chris Butler of The Waitresses

Chris Butler of The Waitresses

December 26, 2018

This week, I talk to Chris Butler of the 1980s’ band The Waitresses about their Christmas single, “Christmas Wrapping.” The band got enough interest and acclaim that they were asked to record the theme song for CBS’ 1982 high school sitcom Square Pegs, but the band never quite caught on in the way a lot of people thought they would. In 1981, The Waitresses were touring on the strength of their signature song, “I Know What Boys Like” when the one-off track they cut for Ze Records’ A Christmas Album, “Christmas Wrapping,” started to get attention. In 1983, it charted in England, and today it is better remembered than “I Know What Boys Like” and “Square Pegs,” and the song represents the new wave era when radio stations go to the all-Christmas format.

In our conversation, Butler talks about writing for Patty—Patty Donahue, The Waitresses’ singer, who died of cancer in 1996. Her distinctive sing/speak gave the band its identity because it made the band’s songs sound like natural extensions of her. He also spoke of his affection for XTC’s “Countdown to Christmas Party Time.” Unfortunately, the song is not for sale digitally and I don’t have it in my collection, so I couldn’t include it in the show. You can hear it here.

Earlier this fall, I interviewed saxophone player Mars Williams about his Albert Ayler Christmas project. Williams played saxophone with The Waitresses, and at the time we talked about his memories of “Christmas Wrapping,” including his decision to include it on Mars Williams Presents: An Ayler Xmas, Vol. 2. I have included a relevant excerpt from the Williams interview for this conversation on “Christmas Wrapping.”

Los Straitjackets, and The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight”

Los Straitjackets, and The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight”

January 3, 2019

Los Straitjackets' Christmas albums--2002’s ‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets and 2009’s Yuletide Beat--are inventive in a way that you don't expect from surf rock and might not expect from Christmas music. They're respectful of their tradition, so much so that their version of "Sleigh Bells" owes a lot to The Ventures' version from 1965. But they're not hamstrung by their respect for their genre and open with "La Bamba" en route to "Feliz Navidad." 

In the recent Christmas season, the band released Los Straitjackets' Complete Christmas Songbook, which also includes loose tracks including a live version of Vince Guaraldi's "Linus & Lucy" recorded in 2015 when the band spent the Christmas season on tour backing Nick Lowe.

Guitarist Eddie Angel talks to host Alex Rawls about Nick Lowe, Christmas shows, mash-up arrangements, and his relationship to Christmas music. The show also includes Christmas music by The Ventures and Nick Lowe.

The episode also features the return of Nashville songwriter Jim McCormick to talk about The Band's "Christmas Must Be Tonight." The song from 1977's Islands is sincere in a way that most Christmas rock and pop isn't, and it prompts Jim and Alex to talk about The Band, Bob Dylan and his Christmas album, Christmas in the Heart, and one of the many roles Christmas music plays in the culture. 

The 179 Days of Christmas

The 179 Days of Christmas

January 10, 2019

During the recent Christmas season, Toronto animator Joren Cull and his cousin, musician AJ Ing, released “The 179 Days of Christmas,” a nearly nine-hour-long Christmas song that takes “The 12 Days of Christmas” far, far, far beyond its logical conclusion. Understandably, the song got attention. The AV Club called it “the worst Christmas song,” but it’s not. It’s among the more challenging due to its length and deliberately sing-song presentation, but as I insist in The 12 Songs Manifesto, the worst Christmas song is the forgettable Christmas song, and this isn’t that.

I talked to Joren and AJ about the song, including its origins and how they did it. One commenter on Reddit speculated that they recorded the last day, then cut and pasted the file endlessly to create the song. According to Cull, they didn’t. He talked about the song's absurd length, why it's that long, and how it plays into their sense of humor. He sees the song as less of an FU to Christmas music and as something more playful, in a similar spirit as an Andy Kaufman bit.

As a part of my conversation with Cull, we detoured understandably into the world of novelty Christmas songs (In the Manifesto, I argue that all Christmas songs are novelty songs), where he turns me on to the Pac-Man Christmas album and I turn him on to “KITT Saves Christmas,” a Knight Rider Christmas song with a better electro-funk groove than I remembered.

Four notes and three apologies:

1) How polite are Cull and Ing? I called their song “The 178 Days of Christmas” while talking to them and they never corrected me. I deserved at least a casual correction—179—but no. Sorry guys.

2) I had tech issues and had to record my interview with Joren on my phone. As a result, the audio is rattier than usual. Again, sorry. Thankfully, I had the glitch solved by the time I talked to AJ.

3) This week’s show is a day late for the second time. This time, I realized when it came time to edit the episode that wrangling a nine-hour mp3 on a MacBook Air that is already feeling stressed and stuffed is akin to piloting a tanker, and it didn’t move with anywhere near the speed I needed it to in order to be up on our usual Wednesday drop date. Note to self: Think about the file size when wrangling nine-hour songs in the future.

4) “The 12 Songs of Christmas” will move to every other week starting with the next episode. Twelfth Night has passed, so the 12 days of Christmas are really behind us. I’ve always envisioned this podcast as a year-around conversation and since I never thought of it as a soundtrack or appendix to the holiday season, I don’t see a reason to stop. I know that there are others out there like me who like Christmas music and aren’t done with it when the decorations are stowed in the attic or shed. There are also others out there who want to hear interesting conversations about how and why music is made, and how it fits into a number of contexts, no matter the song’s subject matter.

Still, booking and recording and editing and uploading a podcast while wrangling the accompanying website and social media while also working on MySpiltMilk.com and teaching a class and having a family life has proven to be enough of a task that something has to give. Rather than half-ass all of them, I’d rather find a schedule that allows me to do all of the projects to my standards, which are becoming more demanding as my editing and recording chops improve.

 

Darling West

Darling West

January 23, 2019

Alex Rawls spoke with the Norwegian Americana band Darling West before Christmas about two Christmas music videos that the band posted on YouTube--a version of "Blue Christmas" and the Norwegian folk Christmas song, "Kling No Klokka." Mari and Tor Egil Kreken talked about the place that American Christmas songs occupy in the Norwegian celebration of Christmas, as well as the popularity of canonical Christmas songs sung in Norwegian. Mari talked about the love of Jussi Bjørling's version of "O Helga Natt"--"O Holy Night" in Norwegian. 

One caveat: This conversation was recorded via a computer call while the Krekens were at home in Norway and starting to work on a new album (While I Was Asleep, due out February 15), so the sound is less than optimal.

One cause for celebration: This episode marks the debut of our new theme music, made exclusively for "12 Songs of Christmas" by New Orleans' producer AF THE NAYSAYER. I've really liked his work for a while now and am glad to have his music be part of the show. You can hear more of his work on his Soundcloud page.

 

Scott McCaughey of The Minus 5

Scott McCaughey of The Minus 5

February 6, 2019

In 2017, The Minus 5 released Dear December, but it didn't play any CD-release shows or holiday shows that year because the lone constant in the group, Scott McCaughey, had a stroke a week before its release. 

Recently, host Alex Rawls talked to McCaughey about his stroke and how it affected his music and his relationship to the album. He recalls the music of his youth that inspired him including a track by The Voices of Walter Schumann that he quoted on Dear December, and talks about the role that The Monkees' 2018 Christmas album,  Christmas Party, played in the making of Dear December

Lowland Hum

Lowland Hum

February 21, 2019

The husband and wife team of Lauren and Daniel Goans perform as the folk duo Lowland Hum. In their social media, they employ the hashtag #supportquietmusic, and when you hear Lowland Hum, you can hear that "quiet" pertains as much to aesthetic and philosophical concerns as it does volume.

This spring, they'll release a new album, Glyphonic, and we talk some about that, but we focus our conversation on their 2017 album, Songs for Christmas Time. Many of the same musical ideas that shaped that album affect their non-holiday music, so we talk about how they play out. We also discuss their faith and the unexpected ways that it influences the song and arrangement choices of Songs for Christmas Time

Over the course of this week's show, we hear music from Songs for Christmas Time and Glyphonic, as well as music from John Fahey and Johnny Cash.  

Johnny Mathis

Johnny Mathis

March 13, 2019

Johnny Mathis has one of the most distinctive voices in popular music, and in 2014, I got a chance to interview him about Christmas music. He talks about another day in music when musicians were expected to record Christmas music, and the role that music played in his career. He also talks about working with arrangers Percy Faith and Don Costa.

I conducted this interview by phone, so the sound quality is less than optimal. Still, you can clearly hear it, and Mathis is someone who has a very different perspective on Christmas music than many of the indie artists that I have talked to about Christmas music.  

Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers

Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers

March 29, 2019

The Squirrel Nut Zippers had to make their 1998 holiday album Christmas Caravan, says band member Jimbo Mathus. It was part of the deal when Disney bought the hot band's label, Mammoth Records, so even though no one in the band felt any particular fondness for Christmas music, they wrote and recorded an album anyway in the summer heat in New Orleans at the now-defunct Kingsway Studios. 

Mathus tells host Alex Rawls about how the band recorded what has come to be a holiday classic despite the odds against its success. It only includes one cover of a holiday favorite--"Sleigh Ride"--and a song written by the drummer's parents. He also tells the story of how some songs have had to change over time, and how the rejuvenated Squirrel Nut Zippers released new Christmas music last season. 

The conversation was part of a larger one that also discussed Mathus' new album, Incinerator, due out April 5. You'll be able to find that story at MySpiltMilk.com shortly after its release. 

Pink Martini

Pink Martini

April 17, 2019

I wanted to interview Thomas Lauderdale for 12 Songs since I interviewed him in 2016 to preview a summertime show in New Orleans and we detoured into 20 minutes of unusable conversation on Christmas music. The pianist and bandleader for contemporary lounge band Pink Martini loves Christmas music, and when I interviewed him for the show last fall, he turned me on to a beautifully weightless version of "O Come All Ye Faithful" by Julie Andrews.

Unfortunately, that interview was lost to the inevitable technical difficulties that accompany working new gear into your recording set-up. Pink Martini tours the world and stays so busy that it has taken until now to get a second chance at an interview on Christmas for the podcast. This is not the same conversation we had the first time. We talked at length about "White Christmas," which appears in two different version on Pink Martini's Joy to the World just as we did the first time, but we also talked about the role of Starbucks in the album's origin. We talked about the Christmas song he wished that he hadn't recorded, and his inability to get a handle on Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You."

Before the conversation turned to Christmas music, we talked about Pink Martini's early days as "the house band for progressive causes" and its debut album, Sympathetique. I've edited most of that from this podcast to keep it focused on Christmas music, but you can read that part of the interview at MySpiltMilk.com.