The bright colors of holiday parties, the quiet celebrations of the spirit, the understandings that come from a lonely holiday, the unexpected connections, the oft told stories, the new challenges -- winter holidays hold all these aspects and more. It was thinking about all that which got songwriter Gretchen Peters started on the path which led to her latest album, Northern Lights.
Â“I thought, I would really like to make an album that you could put on when youÂ’re sick of the canned music, sick of the crowds, something that maybe gets a little deeper at the mystery and beauty of that time of year, without wearing out all the old clichÃ©s. It was a nebulous sort of idea, but then we were on tour in the UK in January, and I started messing around on the guitar, playing the chords for Vince GuaraldiÂ’s Christmas Time Is Here without really realizing thatÂ’s what I was doing -- and as it turned out I was playing the wrong chords, too,Â” Peters said. Wrong chords or not, her partner Barry Walsh heard something in the notes, got out his accordion, and they came up with an arrangement they really liked. That became the first song on a project that encompasses thoughtful and fresh arrangements of traditional carols, contemporary views of the holiday season, and several Peters originals.
Peters knows what sheÂ’s about when it comes to writing songs. Etta James, Bonnie Raitt, Bryan Adams, George Strait, Faith Hill, Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, and Jimmy LaFave are among the range of artists whoÂ’ve recorded her work. SheÂ’s written a film score and collaborated with Orchestra Nashville on a song cycle. She also has several well regarded solo albums in release in the US and Europe. After that spontaneous take on Guaraldi, Â“I thought, IÂ’ll see what I can write, and it was really interesting. I found it was fun to have to write about a particular subject, to find ways to write differently about it,Â” she said. In writing the title track, Northern Lights, Peters found herself reflecting on the time several years back when she was going through the end of a long marriage. Â“Being alone at the holiday can be daunting, especially if youÂ’ve never done it before. I had friends around me, but there were times I knew I would alone. I remember what I was craving most then was peace. And it turned out to be one of my favorite Christmases, actually. I thought what if you could write a Christmas song, but write about that kind of stuff, stuff people donÂ’t seem to want to talk about much?Â” That makes the song sound a bit grim, but it isnÂ’t at all, rather itÂ’s about hope and connection and the mystery of all that in the winter season.
Those ideas are threads that run through all the songs on the recording. Another Peters original is December Child. Â“I tried to write that from the point of view not of Mary the saint, but Mary the mother,Â” said Peters, who is a mother herself.
Gordon LightfootÂ’s Song for a WintersÂ’ Night opens the album and stands in conversation with the ideas in Northern Lights. Another cover song is Kim Richey and Will KimbroughÂ’s Careful How You Go, a story of a walk through the town on a winterÂ’s night that in many ways ties together the themes of connection and solitude in the other songs. Â“My friends are some of the best songwriters in the world, so I e mailed them and said what do you have? and Kim sent this over and said I wrote this when I was in London one year at Christmas, but itÂ’s not a Christmas song. It wa exactly what I was looking for, Â“ Peters said, Â”it has that feeling of a winter night.Â”
There are several traditional carols on the album, done mostly in a reflective and spare way that fits both with the ideas of the songs and the style of the rest of the recording. It allows PetersÂ’ expressive soprano to shine forth with its gentle side, too. Â“ItÂ’s the music that gives you the magic,Â” Peters said of the recording process. I Wonder As I Wander is a Scotland by way of Appalachia song which Peters took back to its mountain roots, enhanced by some blues colors from Walsh. In the Bleak Midwinter stands beside PetersÂ’ WaitinÂ’ on Mary as exploration of connections and reaching for hope at the winter season, both songs both timely and timeless. Peters invited a few extra friends along for these: Doug Lancio plays electric guitar, while Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg add backing vocals.
Then thereÂ’s (CharlieÂ’s) Angels. Â“ItÂ’s a traditional song in a very untraditional arrangement. ItÂ’s not a song I would have ever sung ahd we not taken it completely apart and put it back together as a jazz kind of thing,Â” Peters says. ItÂ’s entirely in the spirit of the song -- you have the feeling the angels named in the song are having as good a time with this take on what they do as they would with the traditional version. Â“The glorias -- I just didnÂ’t want to do the gloriasÂ” in the the carol Angels We Have Heard on High, which is where they started with the song. Â“Then I just had this flash of why donÂ’t we play that lick from Skating, from Charlie Brown, in place of the glorias? It fills the same sort of emotional purpose, you know...Â” Peters says, and it works as a light touch of laughter to the set as well.
Not a lot of bells and whistles, no glitz and no dancing Santas here, but a lot of loving, quiet reflection that perhaps gives an added dimension to what it means to make a holiday album. Peters closes with Silent Night. Â“I wanted to do that one because my grandmother was every Christmas telling us that we were descended from Josef Mohr, who wrote Silent Night. So I felt like for my grandma, I had to put that one on there,Â” she said. ItÂ’s a graceful, understated, and familiar close to a thoughtful musical journey, one that will resonate still after the decorations are packed away.
Part of the proceeds from Northern Lights will be given to Room at the Inn, a Nashville based group which assists the homeless.
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Kerry Dexter, Music Correspondent Kerry's credits include VH1, CMT, the folk music magazine Dirty Linen, Strings, The Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, and The MusicHound Guides. She also writes about the arts and creative practice at Music Road and contributes to Fred Bals' Series of Tubes.