Although it’s been more than 20 years since Bloodshot Records started out, this year marks the first time the famed Chicago indie label has taken the yuletide plunge with their inaugural holiday compilation 13 Days of Xmas. We thought there’d be no better way to help celebrate their left-of-center Christmas spirit(s) than by pulling together a rowdy handful of the artists – Ruby Boots, Kelly Hogan, Jon Langford, Adam Turla (Murder By Death), Rick Sherry (Devil in a Woodpile), Brian Roberts (Ha Ha Tonka), and Zach Schmidt – and asking them a few questions about their song and their holiday inspirations for 13 Days of Xmas.
13 Days of Xmas can be order on CD or seasonally appropriate vinyl (translucent red or translucent green) here: https://www.bloodshotrecords.com/album/13-days-xmas
NoiseTrade: Tell us about your specific song on 13 Days of Xmas and what inspired the writing and/or recording of it. Did you achieve the vibe you were initially going for?
Ruby Boots: I was driving in the van back to the Adelaide airport in South Australia with some close friends that were on the same festival as I was the day prior. We got to talking about the Christmas song for the compilation and I expressed how creatively blocked I was when it came to coming up with something to contribute toward it because I have essentially been a bit of a grinch for many years; mainly through just opting to spend Christmas alone and for the most part sleeping right through it. Henry Wagons chimed in and said “You should write a song about just that or we should write it together even!” and so came “I Slept Through Christmas.” We wrote it remotely, went back and forth a bit, and totally achieved what we were going for.
Adam Turla (Murder By Death): “O Holy Night” is probably my favorite Christmas song. I usually don’t go for the songs that are as religious. I tend to like the more goofy celebratory stuff. But “O Holy Night” conveys such a spooky awe about the birth of Jesus. It feels like the narrator is saying it’s a cause to both celebrate and to be slightly afraid of as well. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time.
Kelly Hogan: “Blue Snowfall” is a cover of an old country song by George Morgan. My Chicago buddy John Soss, together with Andy Cirzan, is famous for his collection of holiday music and he suggested I cover this song about 14 years ago with my jazz band, The Wooden Leg. I’ve been doing this one for quite awhile and it was fun to finally record it all these years later. I definitely like the way my version turned out. I especially like the way it really showcases the wizardry of Joel Paterson’s guitar playing and Scott Ligon’s freaky-beautiful piano playing. Scott’s piano intro was kind of an accident, but when we mixed the song I wanted to focus on the weirdness of it. It reminds me of the sparse piano intro to “Solitude” on the Duke Ellington/John Coltrane MCA Impulse record. I also like this song because it’s really just a winter song and doesn’t specifically mention a holiday. It could be about Festivus, if that’s your bag. I also like “Blue Snowfall” because to me it’s very visual. I can see the snow falling outside a penthouse window. There are sheer drapes and silver foil decorations. It’s the mid-60s. Someone is riding a vintage bummer and most definitely smoking a whole pack of Pall Malls.
Rick Sherry (Devil in a Woodpile): I wrote our contribution “The Pagans Had It Right” inspired by the spirit of the holiday, while jabbing at it’s present state – pun intended! Music-wise, I think it encapsulates the Devil In A Woodpile sound exceptionally, all in two and a half minutes!
Jon Langford: Country mile records in Cardiff Wales invited me to write a Christmas song last Christmas. I like Christmas but there’s something kind of boring and mundane about the mechanics of it all that I don’t think many Christmas songs express. “Christmas Carol, Christmas Ray” is a bunch of random recollections of things that happened to me at Christmas and it mentions the names of important family members from Xmas past.
Brian Roberts (Ha Ha Tonka): I love Xmas songs that sound happy but are actually a little sad. The holidays can definitely be both. We wanted a song that you could feel happy and festive listening to, but that also carried some weight lyrically. It’s easy to feel a bit down over the holidays, especially when you’re away from family and friends… or when you’re with them.
Zach Schmidt: When I was asked to do a song for 13 Days of Xmas, it was about 1am at this place called Chipp Inn in Chicago. Mike from Bloodshot asked me to be involved, I said “yes” and then completely forgot he asked me. It was a few weeks later when I got a message from him saying he needed it by July 1st. So I went diving into Christmas songs to see which one I wanted to cover. I quickly realized after years of retail work around the holidays that I didn’t care for any of them. I told my girlfriend I was going to write my own Christmas song about how I think most people actually view Christmas. I wanted the song to be a sad bastard country Christmas tune and I think it came out exactly that way.
NT: Have you recorded any Christmas songs before or is this your first time doing so? How was the experience and were you given any specific direction to follow?
Jon Langford: I have never attempted to write a Christmas song before. I know I was given no direction, which probably explains the lack of Yuletide joy present in the song.
Kelly Hogan: I recorded a few Christmas songs when I still lived down south. I got talked in to doing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for an Atlanta compilation. For an Athens, GA holiday compilation, me and my friend Bill Taft did a weird fucked-up seat of the pants version of this cool medieval “Alleluia” in Latin that I knew from high school chorus. I think I kinda yelled “AMEN” at the end like I was in a Budweiser commercial or something. Singing in Latin gets me all excited.
Rick Sherry (Devil in a Woodpile): We recorded some Xmas-inspired songs on the second Wee Hairy Beasties recording under Jon Langford’s guidance. Joel Paterson, our uber-guitar guy, is releasing an all-instrumental holiday recording this season, too.
Brian Roberts (Ha Ha Tonka): This is the first time we’ve attempted a Xmas song. It is a bit of a challenge, as it’s hard to leave out the cheese when dealing with the holidays. Hopefully we struck a good balance.
Zach Schmidt: This is my first Christmas song and more than likely my last as well. I thought it was a great challenge as a songwriter. It forced me to step away from my usual routine and write for a particular purpose.
Ruby Boots: This is the first time I’ve recorded a Christmas song and it was surprisingly cathartic. We had the option of recreating a song or writing an original. Writing a song about my personal experience of Christmas felt like the right thing to do. I don’t think I would have written the song if I hadn’t been asked to be a part of the compilation and it was awesome to work with my pal Henry Wagons for the first time too. It was a win-win in the end!
NT: Did you draw inspiration from any other Christmas songs or albums, either in trying to capture the same spirit or trying to stay completely away from the schmaltzy stuff?
Zach Schmidt: When I was trying to write this song I tried to listen to a few sad folk Christmas songs. My main inspiration was the Robert Earl Keen song “Merry Christmas From The Family.”
Rick Sherry (Devil in a Woodpile): I don’t write much music. So I was definitely looking for an honest new lyrical twist, but still with a fun, feel good musical vibe.
Brian Roberts (Ha Ha Tonka): We repeatedly asked ourselves, “What would Clark Griswold do?” The answer was always “more eggnog.”
Ruby Boots: Well, I am a huge fan of ‘60s pop and turned to Phil Spector to help me across the line for direction in sound for this one. Henry was totally on board and brought the production vibe to the table.
Jon Langford: Well, I was trying to do a non-religious Christmas song, which is ridiculous in itself. However, I did get the message that sleigh bells are totally essential in this genre.
Adam Turla (Murder By Death): This one we just gave it the old MBD treatment, that’s an aforementioned “spooky plus beautiful.” My favorite Christmas record from the last couple of years has been the Squirrel Nut Zippers one though. My brother-in-law also made an incredible mix that we play over and over leading up to the holidays.
Kelly Hogan: For “Blue Snowfall” I was definitely thinking about Julie London. Hubba, hubba!
NT: Any other thoughts/comments/memories about your song not covered in the questions above?
Rick Sherry (Devil in a Woodpile): In the spirit of paganism, we hope the world unites with a purchase of this fine seasonal piece!
Jon Langford: “Christmas Carol, Christmas Ray” is all based on real life experiences. Like the time I tried to get out of going to church on Christmas morning by shoving a finger up my nose, which caused a nosebleed. There was also the time my older brother David, who was an electronic genius, wired up the Christmas stockings so that when my parents snuck in to put presents in them all the lights went on in the room. It destroyed the myth of Santa forever.
Adam Turla (Murder By Death): Just “Happy Holidays” everybody!
Ruby Boots: Sometimes it’s really nice to force yourself to write a song about something that you wouldn’t normally write about that’s a sticking point in your life. It’s even nicer to have friends around that help you collaborate on them so you can express the sentiment and make some room to try and see things from a different view. It’s a songwriting reward at its finest!
Zach Schmidt: “Merry Christmas” and if you drink the way I talk in the song, good luck.