Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Preview: Andrew Hamm's Forthcoming Christmas Album!

I’ve been talking about recording a Christmas album for at least four years, and thinking about it for much longer. I have had a love-hate relationship with Christmas music, and Christmas in general, ever since I had my spiritual awakening in 1999. The rampant commercialism inherent in the American celebration of the holiday makes the “blessed are the poor” in me cringe, and often overshadows my own celebration of the Nativity. Christmas is transformed more every year into Wintermas, Mallmas, Giftmas, and Santamas. I don’t even like giving gifts any more, and I certainly don’t like receiving them.

Christmas music, even from Christian artists, often falls victim to the Americanization of the holiday. I’ll never forget the experience of buying Clay Crosse’s Christmas album, putting it in the CD player, and being greeted with the most appallingly smarmy big-band version of “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” Otherwise very heartfelt musicians of faith such as Crosse, Michael W. Smith, and Russ Taff have been sucked in, generating Christmas albums rife with overproduced big-band nonsense. Why does Christmas music all have to sound like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra? Apparently it’s not just Santamas, it’s Nineteenfortiesmas.

One guy has gotten it right, and gotten it so very right: Bruce Cockburn, whose album Christmas is an oasis for me every year. It’s the perfect Christmas album; every song is about Christ instead of snowflakes and sleigh bells, and the arrangements are timeless examples of North American folk music styles. He breathes new love into old favorites like “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” and “Silent Night,” as well as teaching me new favorites like “Early On One Christmas Morn,” “Down In Yon Forest,” and “Mary Had a Baby.” And he sings in like four different languages on it, which is awesome.

So I decided that, when I recorded a Christmas album, it was going to be something as heartfelt and honest as Cockburn’s. At least I would try. Now I’m actually about the business of doing it (hampered somewhat by a mild chest cold this week), and I thought I’d share some of the process with you all.

I always like to start recording an album with guidelines, a mission statement of some kind, whether it be thematic or something to do with production. In this case, I began with a few rules:

1) As many acoustic and “real” instruments as possible. Electric pianos appear on two songs, with some 808 drum machine sounds on the same two. The acoustic piano is a digital one because recording an acoustic piano is just too time-consuming for this particular project. And there’s some synthesized Hammond organ here and there, but the B3 is such a classic sound that it’s an honorary acoustic instrument. Most of the album is piano, acoustic guitars, bass, drums, percussion, and accordion. Yes, accordion.

2) Only spiritual music. No Santa, no bells, no snow. If you’re looking for “Jingle Bells,” Sinatra does a hilarious version.

3) Not the same old Christmas music. Some of the songs are unusual, and the usual ones are new arrangements and orchestrations. I’m hoping to give you something you haven't heard with this.

4) This album will remind the listener that Christmas is only part of Christ’s story. It began with a covenant and continues to the cross. The other real problem with American Christmas is how much time and effort we spend worshiping a Baby, forgetting what that Baby grew up to do.

So let me finish this post with a little tease of the initial song list. the asterisks mark songs I wrote.

1. In the Bleak Midwinter
2. Promise Medley: O Come O Come Emmanuel / God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen
3. Under the Star*
4. Little Drummer Boy
5. I Saw Three Ships
6. Once in Royal David’s City
7. English Medley: Rejoice and Be Merry / Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus / Sussex Carol
8. What Child Is This?
9. The Angels’ Song*
10. I Came Upon the Midnight Clear
11. The Twelfth Night of Christmas
12. Silent Night

So what's the deal with "The Twelfth Night of Christmas?" You'll just have to wait and see, but think Bob and Doug McKenzie. Oh, and the first rough mix is up on my music MySpace page: www.myspace.com/andrewhammusic.

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2 Comments:

  • At 11/13/2006 1:33 AM , Anonymous Mira said...

    Sounds like a good list of songs :) For years, my family went to "Christmas Revels" (revels.org) every year with another family. They highlight Christmas celebrations in different parts of the world (and different time periods) every year. They've done Medieval, Victorian, Appalachian, Georgian (eastern Europe), and a bunch of others that I'm not remembering right now. A lot of their music is really great and there are some more unusual Christmas songs in their repetoire. I think this year will be the 18th year I'll have gone (James and I already have our tickets). I think they have performances in DC too.

     
  • At 11/13/2006 3:54 PM , Blogger LKotula said...

    Hi Andrew. It sounds lovely. Do you do all the instruments yourself? I don't know if you know this, but among my copious job titles is Church Music Director. We should chat...

     

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