Jay Cox was destined to write Christmas songs. “I was born on Christmas,” says the leader of Seattle band The Sea Navy. “My initials are J.C. I came home in a stocking. If I’m not writing Christmas songs, then what else am I writing about?”
Obviously it’s not a requirement to be born on December 25 to pen songs about Santa Claus, reindeer, and the original J.C. Department-store PAs saturate us with Christmas songs, most performed by pop heavyweights: classics from Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, and the Beach Boys, plus compilations from Death Row Records, Jimmy Iovine, and Motown. Then there are more recent entries from Sufjan Stevens, Bob Dylan, She & Him . . . the list goes on.
The cynical view is that Christmas singles and albums are the gifts that keep giving to record companies and oldies acts, but there’s more to it than that. Many local artists here in secular Seattle write new Christmas songs each season, with seemingly little regard for iTunes sales.
David Bazan is Seattle’s most consistent Christmas pop singer. Formerly with his indie-rock band Pedro the Lion and more recently as a solo artist, he has made a habit of recording cover versions of traditional carols—even while expressing doubts about his Christian faith in his own songs. But many artists in town are adding originals to the Christmas canon. These songs crop up each December, presenting visions of hearth and home and peace on Earth in more modern soundscapes.
So why do local bands feel the need to contribute to the jingle-bell jukebox?
“Christmas is going to come with music, that’s going to happen,” says Kyle Zantos, who’s produced and arranged past Christmas songs with psych-folk songwriter Damien Jurado. This year, his third Christmas project—an online-only EP with folk singer Bryan John Appleby—features an original song (“Santa’s Slay”) and covers of three songs from Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Says Zantos, “I don’t really need to hear another version of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’ I’ve heard 97 versions, and I am sure there are 8,000 more that I haven’t heard and I don’t need to. It would be nice to . . . have more songs that are new and fresh and aren’t the same old thing covered again and again and again.”
A survey of area artists who’ve dabbled in yuletide music places religion low on their list of songwriting rationales. Instead, many regard their songs as an opportunity to reflect on the year gone by, or to collaborate. Most cite the interminable Thanksgiving–to–New Year’s marathon, the holiday/familial crush during the shortest days of the year. Writing a peppermint holiday tune, however personal, can be a way to ward off cold and depression.
“I think that one of the reasons for these songs is to bring a little happiness,” says cowboy songwriter Brent Amaker. “The thing about Christmas is that it could be the most commercially exploited religious holiday in history. Even an atheist can get into the Christmas spirit.”
Amaker made good on that sentiment last year with the charming and bizarre “A Very Brent Amaker Christmas,” a song that sprang from his good-natured challenge to Jewish producer Jeff Saltzman, who had never recorded a Christmas song. Together they created a tune that buzzes with analog synthesizers, robotic voices, and familiar good tidings.
“Most Christmas songs are just chock-full of clichés,” says Amaker, who was raised in a big Catholic family and cites David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s “Little Drummer Boy” as his favorite Christmas song. “I think it’s fun to write a song where it’s not inappropriate to slather the clichés as much as you want. And it’s nice to have a song you can come back to every year. Almost everything that you write becomes dated in some way. But a Christmas song—every year you get another shot at it, and it lives forever.”
Every year around this time Benjamin Verdoes receives praise from fans old and new for his Christmas song “Inuit,” written a few years ago while on tour with Mt. St. Helens Vietnam Band. It was autumn, but he could feel the season coming. Though raised in a Christian household, Verdoes wasn’t inclined to write about the birth of Jesus. Instead he penned a sweet ballad pleading for his lover to ditch her family and spend Christmas alone with him.
“I think that there is a melding of secular culture with religious culture in my life,” says Verdoes. “Hearing Paul McCartney singing about Christmas on the radio and then going to church . . . it wasn’t very neatly sorted out for me. And when I was an adult with my own thoughts, I didn’t feel like I needed to sort it out.”
Despite his Irish Catholic upbringing—and his Christlike initials—Cox says his contributions to the Christmas playlist are derived from an appreciation of pop that combines Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” and John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.
Thinking back to his first Christmas song, 2002’s “The Truth About Christmas,” he remembers using his burgeoning talents to make sense of his fateful birthdate. “I wanted to tell the story of being born on Christmas and what it was like to get a huge stack of presents for my birthday, and then a huge stack of presents for Christmas, and how that was sort of an amazing thing. But as you get older, you realize that that isn’t how the rest of your life is going to play out,” Cox says now, a decade later. “The story is that you have to give to get.”