Christmas Album Song Stories

Consider this my VH1 Storytellers episode for my new Christmas album The Hopes & Fears of All the Years, which you can purchase as a download here: 

The Hopes & Fears of All the Years (it's a cheap affordable price, I promise).

For the past couple of weeks I've sharing daily stories on my Facebook page about a few of the songs. I've compiled them all together here, in case you wanted to listen to them in one big gulp while you listen to the song. On top of that, if you haven't gotten your fill of Christmas music and my thoughts on the album, you can listen to my podcast episode with commentary on the album.

Here now are the stories:

Away In A Manger
This week I'm highlighting a few songs off of my new Christmas album (which you can download for only a $1): "Away in a Manger" is the first song I ever recorded for Elisa Marchand. It was my Christmas present to her in 2003, a kind of audio greeting card. I wanted to record something simple and straightforward. Thanks to Jeremiah Gibbs for letting me borrow his 12-string guitar. I recorded it over the course of a few nights in the youth pastor office of Faith Church. chrismarchand.bandcamp.com/track/away-in-a-manger

Lo How A Rose
Here's another song story from my Christmas album: one of the biggest surprise gifts I ever received was a hammered dulcimer from my mom Barbara Marchand, more than a decade ago. When I opened it I couldn't really believe what I was looking at. Hammered dulcimers were sacred instruments to me, they were "Rich Mullins' instrument," and I didn't really believe "common" people like myself should be allowed to touch them. But there it was right in front of me—a hammered dulcimer and it was mine. Since then I've tried to be a good steward of it, learning how to play it and putting it on a few of my songs without trying to sound TOO much like I'm imitating Rich Mullins. I decided to record it for an instrumental track on my Christmas album. Here is "Lo How a Rose," and I'm really pleased with how it turned out.

Of The Father's Love Begotten 
Another Christmas song story: While in seminary I was first introduced to and then became obsessed with the carol/hymn "Of the Father's Love Begotten." I was fascinated music with how it was a plainchant melody that was actually catchy—it got stuck in your head. Lyrically I was amazed that as a church we could sing something written in the 4th/5th century. In my mind there were 2 versions I wanted to record: a droning plainchant version and a folk version undergirded by changing chords. Once our church plant started I quickly figured out a way to introduce it and after a while Blair Jeffers came to sing background vocals with me. In practice Blair began staggering the vocal line behind me, almost like a round (or canon). I was surprised by the effect of it, thinking it worked wonderfully and that I eventually had to record it. It took some time, but we eventually did. This is the "folk" version of the carol, for which I borrowed Petr Michlik's classical guitar. I am also pleased with how the synthesizer part turned out. Get some good ear buds and listen closely!

Wishing You A Merry Christmas
I have an admission to make: for me, recording a Christmas album is just as much about exploring the melodies of our beloved Christmas carols as it is contemplating the meaning of their lyrics. Another way of saying that is: I love the music of Christmas carols just as much as the lyrics and taking away one of those things destroys the experience of the other. They are inextricably linked. For this reason half of my album is instrumental. My hope was to bend, expand, vary, adapt, getting inside, and live with a few of the most well-known and taken for granted melodies of our culture. Take for instance, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," a carol I don't actually like all that much. It's so repetitious and punchy that it easily wears out it's welcome. Nonetheless, my intention was to create a brief piece of music that felt like it was constantly shifting and that was offering numerous takes on a melody that is firmly embedded in our consciousness. The whole thing was recorded on my Gretsch semi-hollow electric guitar, containing 2-5 guitar parts at any given time.

O Come O Come
Sometimes there are influences that go into a song that you cannot fully realize until several years later and until you've learned some things about your self. It was the Christmas (or Advent) of 2005 and I was beginning to think about what song to record for my wife that year. I cannot remember how the idea popped into my head but I had fallen in love with the melody of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel", I had been listening to the music of Andrew Bird (thanks to Brenda Gentry) who uses a prominent amount of whistling, and I had been wanting to play a kind of "minimalist" music which I had become enamored with in college. All I can say is I heard something in my heart and mind and felt the need to record it. And thus you get the ominous instrumental carol you can listen to below. Just this year I learned about a band called Tangerine Dream who happened to compose lots of soundtracks to 80's films and TV shows. They became known for their synthesizer based brooding pieces and without me knowing it were an influence in "O Come O Come". One final note: listen closely at the beginning and end for a luminous ringing. That was my cell phone going off while recording. I put a lot of effects on it and decided to give it a part in the song.

The Great Creator of the Worlds
The recording I am most proud of on this album is "The Great Creator of the Worlds". I am proud of all the various parts I recorded and how the dynamics of the song built to an ending crescendo. To me, this song is a high achievement in my recorded musical output. The song is not exactly a Christmas carol and is barely known at all as a hymn, as a text or a tune. The great hymn writer and translator F. Bland Tucker translated and adapted some sections of the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus and attached it to the 16th century tune TALLIS' ORDINAL by the British composer Thomas Tallis. Like "Of the Father's Love Begotten" it is a meditation on the coming of Christ, an attempt to understand God's purposes and intentions in sending his son to earth. As I've said before, find some good earbuds and try to hear all the parts. Then go back and contemplate the words.

O Little Town of Bethlehem
I recorded "O Little Town of Bethlehem" as an intentional Pedro the Lion (David Bazan) ripoff. Or an intentional homage, if you want to spin it more positively. I literally take the kind of chord structures from Pedro's "Of Up and Coming Monarchs" and morph them into the Christmas carol. I try to sing like him as well, though you can also hear hints of Bing Crosby in my vocal delivery. Sufjan's influence makes an appearance from time to time in the music as well. I figure if one mediocre musician fuses together aspects of three geniuses you might get a decent song out of it.

Finally, for an extended story, you can read this article on the ancient organ I recorded for the track "Zion Hear the Watchmen Singing!": Giving an Organ a Proper Funeral.

Thanks for reading and again, you can purchase the album on Bandcamp here:
The Hopes & Fears of All the Years 

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