One morning last week I recorded a quick holiday song at my friend Michael Krapovicky’s home studio:
Enjoy “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on this Christmas Robley playlist:
Chris Robley – arrangement, guitars, vocals, casios
Mike Coykendall – engineering, drums
If you take Old Frenchtown Road west off Route 2 and head back into the woods a few miles, you’ll come to a small Baptist church where I spent every Sunday morning until I was 17; a wooden-pews-and-sturdy-hymns kinda place founded in 1798; heavy velvet curtains hiding the steps going down into the baptismal font behind the pulpit.
Every year on Christmas Eve there was a candlelight service which commenced with the same reading from the Gospel of Luke that you hear Linus recite in A Charlie Brown Christmas. King James, of course. Followed by a sermon recounting the Nativity.
Then we’d light our candles in a chain, starting with the pastor at the front of the church. The darkened sanctuary began to glow, signifying Christ’s light spreading out across the world. Warm orange on the walls. The wet glimmer of yellow and white in every eye. Shadows moving on the ceiling like a tide, back and forth, back and forth, as we swayed — singing. It was the kind of sound that had weight and mass, the way it could hold you: all three verses of “Silent Night” sung a cappella, and miraculously — in key!
I haven’t been a churchgoer in almost 15 years, but one thing that’s never changed for me is the emotional power of “Silent Night.” It was my grandmother’s favorite carol and I’m sure a bit of sentimentality and nostalgia work their way into my heart whenever I hear it — but really it’s just a great song written by a couple Austrians (via Salzburg), and it’s still going strong after almost 200 years.
“Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” — words written by Father Joseph Mohr:
… and music composed by Franz Xaver Gruber:
Our congregation would sing it in English, of course. And also in unison, without any organ or piano accompaniment. Sometimes I would amuse myself by imagining all the wrong chords behind that familiar melody. Is there such a thing as imaginarily subversive?
Many years later, a couple of those “wrong” chords worked their way into my version of “Silent Night.” It was recorded at Blue Room Studios, which is essentially my friend Mike Coykendall’s amazing, vibey, highly analog attic studio. Hey, that should be the title of a blog: Mike Coykendall’s Highly Analog Attic!
Anyway, this version of Silent Night was tracked over a few hours, and is based around an alternate guitar tuning so strange (to me) that it takes 15 minutes to re-figure it out every winter. For guitarists keeping score at home, it’s E-G-E-G-C-E.
For the session, I played acoustic guitar and then doubled the same part on Mike’s Nashville-strung acoustic. Nice n’ bright n’ chimey. Then I layered the hell out of my vocals. Yes, I swear all those vocals are me putting on my best choir-boy voice. Then we added a little casio keyboard line or two and Mike laid down some super minimal drum parts.
I think we took a break at that point and walked down to Zack’s Shack, a hot dog joint on Hawthorne in southeast Portland, close to where Mike lives. (Try the dog with double-slaw on top!) Then back to Mike’s to mix the tune real quick with his great plate reverbs and tape echoes blanketing the song. Print!
A few weeks ago, Tim sent me this message on Facebook:
I’m cooking dinner as I traditionally do, and listening to xmas tunes. I can only hope that one day your version of “Silent Night” gives yer kid the willies as much as it does mine. Happy holidays, you freak 🙂
Then the other day, my girlfriend’s sister Andrea was listening and said, “Hey, you should make a whole album of these creepy Christmas songs.”
(One song down. Nine to go. Got any requests?)
As for that creep-factor, it was never my intention to make “Silent Night” sound menacing so much as uncomfortable and weary. Two newlyweds stopping in the middle of a long trip (for a census, no less!) in a crowded town to deliver their baby in a barn? Hay is scratchy. Barns are drafty. And mangers are just nasty! I’ll bet Mary and Joseph weren’t sleeping in heavenly peace that night. My daughter was born in September, and while she’s amazing, a miracle, even — I wouldn’t say there’s been much heavenly peace ’round the house.
…. Banshee Babies!
Anyway, that’s the story behind this song. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions for future Song Stories. What songs do you wanna know about? What sorta details are you interested in? Lemme know.
Here’s wishing you a happy Christmas! And as ((°J°)) said: WAR IS OVER, if you want it.
P.S. In the random-YouTube-find department, here’s a dress rehearsal video of the Desert Jewels’ dancing to my arrangement of “Silent Night.”