Members of the Ohio City Singers Talk About the Tracks on Their New Album

About 10 years ago, local singer-songwriter Chris Allen, his sister Molly and Doug McKean worked up four Christmas tunes and then threw a big Christmas party to which they invited their musician friends. They played the four original tunes they had penned as well as a few choice covers, recorded them and delivered them on a CD to their families as a Christmas gift. That signaled the birth of the Ohio City Singers, a group of local musicians that plays several Christmas-themed concerts each year.

This year, the group recaptures that house party vibe on its new CD, Ring Out the Wild Bells. The songs veer from Springsteen-like anthems (“Ohio City Singer Christmas Bash”) to Zydeco-tinged rave-ups ("Coal Miser") and reggae-themed reels ("Kingston via Cleveland"). We recently caught up with singer-guitarist Christopher Allen, singer-guitarist Austin “Candy Cane” Charanghat and singer-multi-instrumentalist Doug McKean to talk about the new album over a few beers at Rocky River Brewing Company.

The group hosts an album listening party at 6 p.m. on Monday at Stone Mad. It then appears at Winterfest on Public Square from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Nov. 26 and plays a CD release party at 1 p.m. on Dec. 3 at Music Box Supper Club. It then performs again at 9 p.m. on Dec. 16 and 17 at Vosh in Lakewood.

A Dec. 9 show at GAR Hall in Peninsula is sold out.

“Ohio City Singers Christmas Bash”

Allen: It’s the oldest song on the record. In 2014, we were going to do a live record and me and Doug wrote a few songs for that. The recording was a bit of a disaster so this is a little hangover tune. All of the records have a party jam and that’s the ultimate party jam.
Charanghat: There’s always a bunch of party jams on every record in some form or another.
McKean: It’s in the tradition of the party theme songs we would do for every record. That goes back to the beginning of the band. We have to have a song that says something about the band and has jokes in it and makes fun of our friends. We don’t want to overthink it. It’s always good if there’s a weird reference to something going on in someone’s life.
Charanghat: Why is there a line about my dog speaking Spanish?
McKean: You had played a gig in South America that year.

“Dreams of Christmas Day”

We wrote it for this record specifically. We consistently want to come up with something that sounds like a pop Christmas song. Sometimes, we fail miserably and do things like “The Ohio City Singers Christmas Bash” instead. This is a successful attempt at that.
Allen: We had it earmarked for [singer] Kelly [Wright]. She’s one of the best singers in the group, so if we do something pop-oriented, she gets the call.

“The Christmas Rose”

I was reading a bunch of Christmas stories to see if I could write something. There was this anonymous poem from the 15th century in Germany from Germany. I told Chris about it because I thought it was this incredible story and so we worked it into a song.
Allen: After you write 50 Christmas songs as a band, you have to start digging.

“The Grinch”

We recorded it once before at the Happy Dog and that was in our third year, but we never released that recording to anyone other than family and friends. We printed like 80 of them. Austin sings the hell out of it, so it’s a live staple. We have been hesitant to put covers on the record because the point is to be original. It’s too ingrained in the set list.
Charanghat: It took me 18 years to learn the lyrics and I still mess them up once in a while.
McKean: I don’t think we’ve ever done a show without doing it. It’s that much of a staple. People come to see us do “The Grinch.”
Allen: We get offers to play corporate Christmas parties and people ask us if we do covers. It doesn’t go over so well when we say, “Yeah, we do ‘The Grinch.’”

“Coal Miser”

McKean: It got reworked a couple of times. It was written for the live album in 2014. I listened to Boozoo Chavis for like a week straight before I wrote it. It started as a Boozoo Chavis knock off. I wanted to write “Eggnog,” Part 2 but as a zydeco song. It wasn’t totally working so we just reworked the music, and it now has that jazzy thing. As we got closer to the recording, we needed stuff for the people coming over to sing. I was watching Monty Python’s “The Lumberjack Song” a couple of days before and I felt that was what we needed to do. It evolved from where it was as this two-chord zydeco thing.
Allen: We nailed the arrangement five seconds before we recorded it.
McKean: It was called “Bad Kid Christmas.” It really didn’t have a title. When we went through what to call everything on the record, we had to get Christmas out as many song titles. We decided to call it “Coal Miser,” and it would be about this kid who gets coal for Christmas every year. Once we had that title, we just wanted to make it kind of wacky and that’s where the intro comes from.

“The Ghosts”

Allen: I had a simple rock version but when we got together and played, we decided that it sucked. We wanted to make it more like a song by [the local Pogues tribute act] Boys From the County Hell song and we rewrote it in ten minutes, and it worked.
McKean: The songwriting tradition in this band is that when we’re trying to write some kind of rock song sand get cute with it and it doesn’t work. When we start bashing something out, we do better.
Allen: We recorded it live, and it’s a pretty raw track.

“Waiting on a Red Light”

Last year, [singer] Matt Sobol sent me and Austin pieces and parts of a tune. He wanted it to be a bluesy thing and have Austin sing. We sent it back to him and then he sent it back to us. We made him sing it. From a male singer standpoint, he’s our best singer.
Charanghat: He’s a great singer-songwriter guy.
Allen: His voice adds a whole different element to the band. He’s also the funniest guy in the band.
Charanghat: He’s funny without even trying.
Allen: We can tell the song will be a blast to play live.
McKean: That was fun doing it for the record because I played a bunch of keys on it. Tom [Prebish] nailed what that synthesizer line was on the song’s bridge. He said, it was a “Dream Police” line. That’s what it is.

“Kingston via Cleveland”

I’ve been heavy into regge and started digging into the last two or three years. I’ve been making tapes and sending them to Chris. I started playing a reggae bit, and I could see a spark from Chris. It turned into whatever it is.
Allen: We wrote it last year and I wanted to throw it out, but Austin kept at it. Doug played bass and Tom played guitar and it came to life. Kelly [Wright] came up with a three part vocal harmony and it was bad ass. I did nothing and watched. It was great.
Charanghat: I showed up at the session and one of Dixon’s cables went bad. I went to Guitar Center and bought a wah-wah pedal and decided to play wah-wah on the tune.
McKean: It’s tasteless.
Charanghat: Totally tasteless. And that’s the beauty of it.

“War on Christmas”

Chris had brought up the armistice on the Western Front of 1914 up to me a long time ago. We tried to write something based on it, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I read something called “War on Christmas,” and I thought it was an intriguing title. The title inspired me to get it written. By the end of the day, I had a tune together and stuff scribbled down about it. Chris had most of the same stuff scribbled done from before. I couldn’t put it together to make verses out of the stuff. All the images where there and I played it to Chris on the piano and we straightened it out.
Allen: Five minutes into it, he said that [singer-songwriter] Don Dixon should sing it.

“Heat Miser”

It’s on the second house record. The second year we did the Christmas parties at my house were in 2004. Austin was supposed to sing it but his son and wife were sick. I rehearsed the band to get him ready to go, so he could do it. I had to sing it myself so we kept my version. That’s me doing my impersonation of Austin.

“Baby Don’t You Know It’s Christmas”

It’s a zydeo pop number. We didn’t have a record out last year and wanted to do a single. On the way out the door, I came up with half of a song and texted it to Dixon. He had mocked up a version of the song and we tracked it last year to keep it going. That one was done last year.

“All Roads Lead Home at Christmas”

I brought the title in and an idea for it.
Allen: We worked on it. I played it to Doug, and we had a bunch of beer one night and Doug came up with the music.
McKean: I played piano to what Chris was singing. I started playing something that sounds like “Snow Days” a little bit, but we slowed it down and then we had it. I was really drunk and listened to the tape and I was surprised that I played it pretty well. When we recorded it, we tried to capture how drunk I was before.
Allen: With these records, we always have some sentimental tunes.
Charanghat: You have to. It’s Christmas.

About The Author

Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected]
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