In a recent email interview, Detweiler discussed the band's novel approach to writing and recording holiday music that's not the trite stuff you'll hear at the shopping mall.
Talk about the reaction you received when you played Christmas tunes publicly for the first time. I think it was on NPR.
Yes, there was a large regional NPR station here in Cincinnati that invited us to come on the air and do 30 to 40 minutes of Christmas music back in the early days of our career. We worked up some renditions of carols from our childhood, Karin read a Thomas Hardy poem called “The Oxen,” and we even slipped in a couple of our original songs that had a vibe that seemed to fit. For instance, we had a very early song called “Like a Radio” that contained the chorus, “In the thick of the night, take me out of the cold, let me sing inside, like a radio.” Anyway, we were surprised to learn that a decent number of people had called the station asking if there were recordings available. But maybe we were even more surprised at how the music conjured up such a potent mix of feelings in us: nostalgia (which someone described as missing something that never quite existed), loss of innocence, a longing for something that we couldn’t put into words. And we also realized that a lot of the really old carols are actually pretty great tunes.
Your first holiday album, The Darkest Night of the Year, featured some traditional tunes, including “The First Noel” and “Silent Night.” You’ve called it an “odd little recording.” Talk about the album and what you mean by calling it that.
Well, it’s an odd recording because I haven’t heard anything quite like it before or since. First of all, it’s dark in tone, the polar opposite of the bright, upbeat, jingly stuff you hear at the mall. I think it feels a little bit like a lost radio transmission from way up north of the border somewhere. We did include three original tunes on the album: one about a blind girl named Mary who liked to climb oak trees and dance in them, one called “Thank You My Angel” which is probably the darkest song lyrically you will ever encounter on a Christmas album, and one called "Amelia’s Last," which has hints of Amelia Earhart’s mysterious disappearance, but to this day I have no clue what the song actually means. It’s more about a mood, a fleeting dream, a page that fell from a lost prayer book. But I craved the feeling of darkness that we all feel this time of year as the winter solstice approaches and wanted to get as much of that in the music as I could.
What was it like, then, to write original Christmas tunes for 2006’s Snow Angels?
Irving Berlin said that if you want to make a living as a songwriter, you have to write songs for every occasion. Sometimes, it feels like all the good Christmas songs have already been written. But I think some of us wonder about the ones that haven’t yet been written. So yeah, over the course of the decade that followed the release of The Darkest Night of the Year, we wrote a new song cycle of original Christmas tunes. I think we managed to let in a bit more light but again, there is a breadth of emotion on Snow Angels that is much wider than a typical holiday album. If you come to one of our Christmas shows, if we’re doing our job right, you’re going to laugh and cry.
With 2014’s Blood Oranges in the Snow, you continued to present somber Christmas songs. You’ve called the genre “reality Christmas” music. Talk about that concept a bit.
Reality Christmas just refers to the fact that if you’re dealing with the loss of a job or a chronic illness or if you’ve buried a loved one, that stuff doesn’t disappear during the holiday season. So our songs just leave a little room for real life, that’s all. Karin came up with “reality Christmas” as a playful (but accurate) description of many of our Christmas songs, but the concept is not really all that new. For example, the old carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written during the Civil War and the writer actually bemoans the fact in one of the verses that “there is no peace on earth…” And yet, he refuses to completely abandon hope that we might get there one day. We covered a great “reality Christmas” song by Merle Haggard on Blood Oranges in the Snow called “If We Make It Through December” about a character who is out of work and struggling to make ends meet and just wants to get through December and move on — preferably to somewhere warm.
What new Christmas songs do you have in the works?
Lots of bits and pieces in the works and a few things taking shape, but it’ll be a few years yet before we attempt another Christmas record. Although, Karin loves many of the great American songbook tunes like, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song,” so if she decides to do a record of standards, that would certainly be a possibility.
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]