Our Christmas Song And The Six Month Debrief...



This whole "Year of the Groove" is certainly giving us a run for our money and this last month is no exception.  Can we just debrief for a moment? 

Our September release "The Legend of the Fall" ended up being used to help promote awareness about the labeling initiative for genetically modified foods.  This happened after we were contacted by the Oregon Right to Know organization before the November election.  I hadn't planned on any of that happening but was extremely happy to use our song for an issue that was so important for me, so I put a lot of time into creating WGC branded social media content for both Oregon Right to Know and Right to Know Colorado.  That took me right up to when I was also working on the video for Supermodel Astronaut.

So yeah...  let's talk about Supermodel Astronaut and the Supermodel Astronaut Challenge. That whole social media campaign has been somewhat epic for us.  Getting our video onto Huffington Post was a huge feat and we are so grateful for how many different media outlets chose to spread the word about the Supermodel Astronaut Challenge.  We are still getting movement from places as far away as Australia, Italy, and the UK. So the movement is continuing.  [I do have several ideas for taking the Supermodel Astronaut brand and branching into other forms of media, but there's only so much of me to go around and for now I just need to get through the Year of the Groove. Back to the debrief...]

Then, we were so busy with Supermodel Astronaut through the month of October, it was all we could do to get the Flow EP out the door and into the digital pipeline in November, but we did. And we hardly even had time to let people know about it because we had to start planning for our December release.  The thing is, we are doing all of these releases on the SIDE as we continue our regular daily life.  I teach music composition at Belmont University School of Music and Kurt is the creative director for iV Audio Branding.  Plus I am home schooling my child.  So… we are quite often working all evening and weekend to keep things happening on time.  

As I started looking forward to the December release date, I reminded Kurt what the next project on the list was.  It was going to be a maxi-single of a song called "Make Me Free" with 5 different versions of the song.  It's been in the works for a couple years, but like many creative endeavors, little changes keep needing to happen and sometimes little changes become major revisions which can sometimes become throwing out an entire version and starting over.  Kurt had told me in October that he didn't think that all the versions would be ready by December, but I thought that was rather soon to be making that decision with two months left to work on it.  Plus I was so buried in Supermodel Astronaut at the time, I couldn't manage Kurt's work schedule for the release 2 months ahead.  I just needed to keep him on track for the release coming one month ahead.

Once we finally got Flow out the door in November, I revisited the topic of the December release, and due to Kurt's work load for other clients, he still felt he would be unable to do all he needed to do for the multiple versions of Make Me Free to have it done by December.  So we tossed around our options.  I mentioned the idea of doing a Christmas song since it was December.  Conceptually, I loved the idea of doing a Christmas song for that month in our Year of the Groove.  It only makes sense, right!?

I had tried to write a Christmas song previously, but in my few halfhearted 5 minute brain storm sessions, I didn't really come up with anything brilliant.  I think the pressure of wanting it to be amazing kept me from being able to tap into my creative flow.  This previous experience made me inclined to do a cover of a famous Christmas tune instead, since we were under such a tight deadline.  I emailed one of our music licensing connections to ask him which Christmas songs get requested most frequently for licensing opportunities.  He responded by saying that most requests are for original songs and that most of the time people don't want anything sacred or too Christmas specific.  They prefer "holiday" and general terms like that.

Regarding songs with souls...

So here was my dilemma.  We would be starting from scratch on the track regardless of whether we did a cover tune or an original, so either we had to choose a famous song and figure out how to reinvent it, or I had to write something.  And if I did write something, it must fit within the parameters of what our licensing contact described or there would be NO WAY Kurt would spend any time working on it.  He has way too much on his plate to spend precious time producing a song that has very little potential for licensing.

And such is the yin and yang of Kurt and me in our creative endeavors.  Although I've done it plenty of times and am totally capable of it, I don't love writing songs that are simply contrived based on other people's parameters.  I mean, it's one thing when it's for a client, and I'm helping them meet their needs.  That's fine, I'm writing for someone else.  That's what I do to pay the bills.  But when it's for US, and when it's for CHRISTMAS… I'd really prefer to have the song actually mean something personal.  Something that doesn't feel empty or lack a soul. 

Some songs don't have a soul.  I've written songs that don't have a soul.  "Freak the Beat" doesn't have a soul.  I love the track, don't get me wrong, but it was contrived for a specific pitch. I'm pleased with how we crafted a very hooky and fun pop song in just one day, and I'm happy with how I managed to write a lyric that isn't really about anything except the beat with a fun song title and hook.  That is a definite craft in itself.  BUT… it doesn't have a soul.

Many of the songs we are releasing for the Year of the Groove are songs that whispered themselves into my heart and wouldn't leave me alone until I turned and gave them my full attention and helped craft them into a final draft.  "The Legend of the Fall", "Come to Me", "We Are Human" [not yet released] and "Make Me Free" are all in that category.  Those songs have a soul.  They mean something.  I didn't write them to license them.  I wrote them because I HAD to.  They were inside of me and needed to come to exist outside of my head.

It was likely that given our time constraints, and given the predetermined parameters for writing something that was licenseable, I would not have the luxury of writing a Christmas song with a soul.  However, on Sunday night November 9th, as my son played a loud car racing game on the iPad right next to me, I quietly opened a new text document on my computer and decided to just flow out a lyric and see what happened. 

Concept --> Flow --> Edit

My starting concept was that I would write a lyric that would be speaking to my personal savior, Jesus Christ, and yet would be non-specific enough that most would assume it was to some loved one who is far away.  That way I had a shot at writing a song with a soul. And once again, I'd be writing about what I've written about so many times. I want Jesus to come back.

The verse and prechorus lyric and melody came out pretty quickly.  And I had a chorus melody in my head, but wasn't clear on what the title and chorus lyrics would be.  After getting two verses and a prechorus done, I quietly went into the bathroom and sang what I had into a voice note on my phone.  Then I came back out and informed Kurt that we now had a new original Christmas song to work on.  I then went into the studio and sat at the wurly and played the chords I had heard in my head and wrote out a quick chart.

Before I could lock in on the chorus lyric, I decided to go back and look up some emails to see what the commonly requested themes were for Christmas music in licensing opportunities.  The topic of coming home was mentioned several times.  I finally landed on "When the Holiday Brings You Home" for my title, but creatively, I struggled with the integrity of the meaning of the lyric.  I decided that for me, the chorus would be metaphorical.  So while for most people who listen, this song comes across as longing to be with someone who is dear to you during the Christmas season, to me, it's about longing for the return of Christ.  And the holiday is in reference to the day that will happen.

I took my first draft to my graduate lyric writing class where I was also having my students write a Christmas song, and for the first time all semester, I played them one of my own songs and allowed them to give input.  They gave me some great feedback, and that next week, I kept fine tuning and editing my lyric to where it felt like it needed to be.  Some of the edits were large theme edits like changing the second verse to be about "when you are here".  And some were small edits, taking into account the psychology of the word choices.  I also wrote a new lyric for the second prechorus so that it didn't repeat.

©2014 Rock of Life Music Words and Music by Ellen Tift
I watch the stars,
and I think of you.
There's no one else on earth I'd rather see.
I feel the rush
Of this holiday
Without you it's all meaningless to me

You're the joyfulness and wonder
You're the moon that I am under
I will wait for you, my treasure
Until we are together,
You're my promise, you're my reason
You're the spirit of this season
I will wait for you, my treasure
Until we are together

When the holiday brings you home
When the holiday brings you home
The most wonderful gift I know
Is when the holiday brings you home

When you are here
There's no other place
Like the warmth and comfort of your gaze
And in the glow
Of your loveliness
Everything around can fall away

In the stillness, you're the meaning
It's for you my heart is beating
I will wait for you, my treasure
Until we are together
Every moment I am breathless
I keep looking to the heavens
I would wait for your forever
Until we are together

When the holiday brings you home
When the holiday brings you home
The most wonderful gift I know
Is when the holiday brings you home

In terms of the psychology of the lyric, if you look at the "flavor" words, here's what you've got: stars, rush, holiday, joyfulness, treasure, together, promise, reason, spirit, season, wonderful, warmth, comfort, glow, loveliness, meaning, heart, breathless, heavens, forever, home.  

All of those words together imprint an emotion on the listener.  So in places where in my first draft flow I'd previously had more neutral words, I upgraded them to make it all work together for a lovely and sentimental tone.  So… over all, I was happy with how the lyric itself turned out.

As for the melody and chords, the prechorus is a very repetitive melody, so I put that over a series of chords with ascending bass notes.  While the verse uses the common chord progression of  2m, 5, 1, 6m, the prechorus begins on the 1 and then the bass note moves up the scale continually throughout with a series of root position and inverted chords.  Then when we get to the chorus, I can go back to the 2m 5 1 and it's not too boring because we had a break from that during the prechorus.  I intentionally wrote the melody and chords so that this song could seem like a classic Christmas song, knowing that we would have to reharmonize it for our chillout version.  As a songwriter, I wanted to be sure this song also lived in its original state, so the plan from the beginning was that we would do a piano vocal version to be as I wrote it, and then the chillout version that would have some different chords.

Next challenge: pulling Kurt away from his other work to get him to program this track.  

I used to have all the time in the world and my own music gear to produce my own tracks when Kurt was too busy to be involved.  Several tracks on our Chillodesiac Lounge record were pretty far along before Kurt even started being involved, so sometimes I get a little frustrated now when circumstance keeps me from being able to creatively make things happen.  Being at the mercy of someone else who is extremely busy can feel somewhat stressful especially when there's a new deadline each month.  I started to seriously doubt that Kurt was actually going to put down his other work and do this track in time for our deadline, and since this is a Christmas song, it was essential to get it out as early as possible before Christmas was over and no one cared anymore.  I finally suggested we get someone else to produce the track just this once and Kurt consented.

I thought I had things all set with a friend of ours, but he ended up having to back out due to his other work, and another friend from the UK we asked had just dismantled his entire studio and wouldn't have it reassembled until Spring… so after those things fell through, Kurt finally made the commitment that he would make this happen and started producing a track.  When he played the beginnings of it for me, it was rather different from what I expected.  He had found a new arpeggiation feature in Logic 10 and made that the backbone of the synth sound he was using for the main element of the track.  When he played it for me the first time, he made it clear that he really loved it and he wanted me to just live with it.  So I did…

A few days later, I started wondering if what we had was maybe a tad bit on the cheesy side.  I mean, if there's any time you might be able to get away with being cheesy, it's at Christmas, but just because you can get away with it doesn't mean you should...  

It can be a bit tricky telling someone you have doubts about what they've creatively done.  I decided I needed to voice my concerns to Kurt on Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving.  He wasn't super pleased because he'd spent quite a bit of time on it and asked why I hadn't said something sooner, but when I reminded him that he'd asked me to just live with it for a while, to his credit, he refrained from choking me and we decided we would just spend our Thanksgiving weekend getting the song done.  I spent some time on the track trying to mute all of the elements that were bothering me and find new sounds to replace them, but Kurt decided he just wanted to start over, so I let him back into the driver's seat.

Wednesday he had a much better version of the track going, and so we worked on it Thanksgiving day.  Then on Friday we rented a nice Manly microphone and recorded my vocal.  We spent the rest of the weekend fine tuning the track and mixing so that we could have it mastered on Monday.  I was told I would have it by 2PM on Monday so that I could get it uploaded into the digital distribution pipeline, but due to "circumstances beyond my control" I didn't have it in hand until late afternoon on Tuesday.  Fortunately, I could put it up immediately on Band Camp, and things moved pretty quickly on the digital distribution side and by the end of the week, it was available on iTunes and Amazon.

From the time I wrote the song until it was available to the public was about three weeks.  I had no idea when we released Flow in November that by the next release date we would have a brand new song.  I can't believe we had it in us. WHEW!

So that's six months down on our Year of the Groove.  Here's to the next six…  Giddyup.