The Making of The Christmas Album: Human Nature’s Holiday Debut is All About Tradition With A Twist
Posted by Andrew C on Thursday, December 5th, 2013
They say that smell is the sense most closely tied to memory. But come Christmastime, it’s the sounds of the season—even more than the aroma of those freshly baked gingerbread cookies—that really stir the soul. Christmas records, for millions of people around the world, represent a sort of unofficial soundtrack for childhood nostalgia. And whether you grew up listening to Bing Crosby croon “White Christmas” or the Jackson 5’s exuberant take on “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” the memories they evoke are just as lively and warm every time you hear them.
With this in mind, the decision to record a Christmas album of their own was not one that the guys in Human Nature took lightly.
“It might sound funny to say about a Christmas album, but this record was actually really important to us,” Phil Burton explains. “We’ve been together for 24 years now, and one of the first things we did when we started out was sing Christmas songs together—performing on street corners in Sydney. So Christmas songs mean a lot to us, and we wanted to make sure this record was a genuinely great record– not just something we threw together because it happened to be the season for it.”
“Almost every year, we’ve been asked to do Christmas songs,” adds Andrew Tierney. “Something about the harmonies in our songs and the style of a lot of popular holiday music—they just seemed to go together. So it’s something we’ve always gravitated towards. We even did a tour last year in Australia where we put a bunch of Christmas songs in the show. And I think it was working on those arrangements where we got the idea that it was time to try a full Christmas record. It just felt like we finally had the full momentum to do it.”
On the surface, it might sound like a pretty straightforward project—simply record some songs that you’ve been singing your whole life and that much of the world already loves. With the aid of experience, though, the Human Nature gents realized that merely trying to “recreate” a set of Christmas classics wouldn’t really be doing them justice—nor would it result in the sort of compelling Christmas album that stands the test of time.
All it takes is a quick glance through the “Seasonal Music” section of your local record store to see that, for every legendary Christmas record like Bing’s Merry Christmas or 1973’s A Motown Christmas, there are hundreds of other well-meaning holiday albums by accomplished artists that just never quite capture the world’s imagination. As it turns out, not just any Christmas music finds its way into that coveted “warm and fuzzy” section of the public consciousness. Just like those gingerbread cookies, it’s a personal touch—and a few secret ingredients—that seem to make all the difference.
For Human Nature, it came down to applying some of the lessons they learned from years of covering a similarly beloved genre of pop standards—Motown. Part of paying homage to a classic, they had realized, was having the willingness to make it your own—to tip your hat to the past without imitating it.
“What we wanted to steer away from—with this whole album really—was the sort of traditional crooner Christmas style that you hear a lot,” says baritone Toby Allen. “We wanted to do a record with more soul and that Motown influence that we’ve been running with for the last few years. …Now, with that in mind, the process of choosing the songs can be difficult sometimes– because there are some songs that just can’t really be done differently. But we were committed to not sticking to the traditional versions.”
“I think one of the big things for us when we’re doing covers of any kind is to put our own stamp on them,” Burton adds. “We don’t just want to do carbon copies of what’s been done by somebody else. We wanted to make a unique, soulful Christmas record, and we’re really proud of how it turned out.”
It’s not difficult to see what Burton means when he talks about Human Nature “putting their own stamp” on the songs they chose for The Christmas Album. Rather than singing “White Christmas” the way Bing did, for example, they decided that imitating perfection was a fool’s errand, and gave the song a completely different, 1950s doo-wop feel. Similarly, when the guys elected to take on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the familiar melancholy tone was replaced with a bouncy, a-cappella arrangement.
“We did a lot of searching through and listening to different versions of Christmas songs from a lot of different artists,” Michael Tierney says. “And no one had ever taken [“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”] in that direction before as far as we could find. So we thought it’d be a great, unique way to approach it.”
In the end, maybe that’s the secret to making a Christmas album in the one-click, over-saturated musical universe of 2013. By re-imagining an old classic and leaving your unique imprint on it, you’re also allowing listeners to hear the song with new ears—and maybe even to remember what they first loved about it. It’s the same way you might prefer your eggnog with a little less sugar these days and a little more whisky. Nostalgia always leaves room for a welcome addition.