As a struggling musician, singer-songwriter Chris Allen has never had the kind of cash that would enable him to spend lavishly at Christmastime. So one year, his dad suggested he write and record a few yuletide tunes and hand out CDs as gifts. Allen took him up on it. He held a house party with his favorite musicians and recorded a couple of original songs and several covers. He had a full disc's worth of tunes and asked his photographer/graphic-designer sister Molly to do the cover art. The final product caught even his dad by surprise.
"The first year I did it, he thought it was a compilation I had put together on my computer," Allen recalls over a few happy-hour drinks at the Happy Dog. "He looked at it and said, 'You guys made this?' He was just blown away."
That was five years ago, and it became tradition that two days before Christmas, Allen and crew would record a Christmas album to distribute to friends and family. This year, he took a more serious approach. Allen and singer-songwriter Doug McKean wrote about 30 songs on piano instead of guitar to capture the right feel.
"We just put a piano and a couple of guitars in a room and started talking about how we spent Christmas with our families and stuff," says McKean. "Once we got the feel for the first couple of songs, it started taking on an identity, and writing subsequent things became easier."
After finishing the writing process, they gathered a group of 12 musicians, christened the band the Ohio City Singers and recorded for two days at Sachsenheim Hall with Don Dixon (R.E.M., Smithereens) handling production duties. For the final touch, they did some backing vocal tracks at the Happy Dog, where a throng of 30 or so people sang as if they were carolers on a binge. Well, maybe not that rowdy. After all, Allen and McKean intend for the resulting album, Love and Hope, to be as family-friendly as possible.
"We had a rule that the songs had to be positive," says Allen. "Also, they had to work in a setting with a lot of people. On songs like 'Adoration' and 'The Sound of Christmas,' we take a stab at writing a traditional Christmas song. 'Singing Like Children' also takes a traditional approach. The rest of it is party music. That's why I think it will translate well to the stage."
The disc commences with the rambunctious "Real Good Christmas Time" before launching into sing-alongs like "Egg Nogg" and the raucous, album-closing "The Holiday Hop" that finds Allen singing, "it's a party that's never gonna stop" while a chorus of backing singers intones, "Hey ho! Hey ho!" In between, tender ballads such as "Suspension of Disbelief" and "Adoration" take a more sentimental approach.
"We want to make it an annual thing," Allen says of the CD, which is available at theohiocitysingers.com and various locations around town (Borders, Banyan Tree, Visible Voice Books, the Treehouse, the Southside, Flannery's Pub, the Happy Dog and Stone Mad). "We had enough stuff for another album. We're hoping it becomes a tradition in Cleveland. We've written a lot of the songs based on Christmas in Cleveland. I'm one of those people not afraid to admit that I love this time of year. I really owe it to my dad for getting me to write a Christmas song every year."
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