Ohio City Singers To Bring Holiday Cheer to Rock Hall on December 18

German label will reissue the Cleveland band's debut album

click to enlarge Ohio City Singers. - Amber Patrick
Amber Patrick
Ohio City Singers.
In 2003, local singer-songwriter Chris Allen, his sister Molly Allen and local singer-songwriter Doug McKean worked up four original 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 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.

The band would expand to include some of the best musicians in the region. It plays holiday shows each year and continues to record and release new material too.

Recently, the group's members, Chris Allen and Austin Walkin Cane Charanghat, met up at the Westside coffeehouse, Ready Set Coffee, to discuss the band's distribution deal with a German label as well as the Ohio City Singers' upcoming concert that takes place at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Rock Hall.

You played the Rock Hall for the first time last year. What was that show like?
It was a pretty great show. The band was on fire that night.
Allen: It was. Something with that band being in that room was kind of awesome. It’s a beautiful space.
Charanghat: The band had been playing together for an entire month. We hit that groove.
Allen: At the end of the season, when we really get cooking, it’s really fun. Everyone is on fire and knows all the parts and all the tunes and the set flows really well.
Charanghat: And then, it’s over.

Things weren’t quite back to normal at that point.
They weren’t. We were set to play the year before that, and it got cancelled. Even that show last year was touch and go up until the day of the show. It was when things were surging. We were lucky to get that one in.
Charanghat: We were really happy to be around each other.
Allen: We felt lucky to be out playing again.

Talk about the deal that the band recently inked with Hoboville Records.
I have lunch once or twice a month with [locally based music executive] David Spero. Some people he knows asked him if he knew a blues guy. He gave them my name, and I sent them some stuff, and they liked it. They wanted stuff from my whole career. That was rough! But it was cool to see the growth. I met them when I was playing in Sweden. I then met them in Cologne. Holger Koch owns the record label, and Thomas Ziegler is the right hand man. I met them at a restaurant bar. Thomas says something like, “Your music is blues-based, but you do a lot of different styles.” I told them that I even had a Christmas band. They both lit up a little bit. They asked if I did “Silver Bells” and covers. I told them we were the greatest original rock ’n’ roll Christmas band in the world. I told them that we write our own songs because we are tired of everyone else’s. They wanted to hear some of our stuff. They listened to our albums with everybody in the office, and they loved it.
Allen: Thomas said he loved it because it was like regular music and wasn’t so Christmas-centric. The theme is Christmas, but the feel is whatever makes a good song. I thought that was interesting. We don’t think about this stuff so much because we’ve just been doing it.

Talk about the “Love & Hope” single. What inspired it?
: I think that’s the first song that me and Austin wrote together. Austin came to my house in Tremont. He started playing that riff and we wrote it. It was one of those quick songs. Forty minutes later, the song was done. We went to make the record and had [producer/singer-songwriter] Don [Dixon] singing it.
Charanghat: He tears it up. One year, we did a Christmas party. The people at the party didn’t give a shit about what we did, so Don was entertaining us. He got up on a stool and was singing it. He went apeshit. It was one of the coolest live performances I’ve ever seen, and it was in our own band! He’s an entertainer. He’s so good.

The Love & Hope album was recorded in 2008. What stands out about those sessions with Don Dixon (the Smithereens, Marshall Crenshaw)?
I There were a lot of singers and players in the band, and it was good to have someone like Don who helped us meld those voices together and construct those harmonies and make sure that all of this stuff made some sense. We had 15 songs on the album, but many more to choose from. We had done four or five house parties at that point, so there were four or five records to choose from.
Allen: Don’s line was “if you have 40 original Christmas songs, you should probably do something with them.”
Charanghat: He knows how to record a live band. You have to make it sound like a record, which is his terminology. It sounded live and had energy, but we had to make it sound like something you would want to hear again. He kept the house party elements but also tightened up some things.

The album has never been widely distributed, has it?
No. We’re just a Cleveland band.
Allen: [Hoboville Records] is doing a CD and the digital. They’re talking about doing one of our albums every year.

Have you been working on new tunes?
So many.
Allen: I think next year we’ll have time for recording new songs. But if something is being re-released, like it is this year, we need to concentrate on that.
Charanghat: We could tour Europe maybe.
Allen: It would be great to go to some small town in Germany and have people go crazy over our music and get the same reception there that we get here.
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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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