Christmas will most certainly look and feel different this year. As stressed and anxious as we’ve all been, singer-songwriter Maggie Rose dishes up a bit of levity to break the tension. “Happier New Year (Christmas is Canceled),” written with her backing band Them Vibes, pours the holiday cheer on thick with a healthy dose of humor (think Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”).
“This is one of the first times we’ve written a song together with all seven of us. It’s a testament to the fact we all like each other,” Rose tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “We were trying to find the dark comedy in our situation. We had talked about all the terrible things we were lamenting about this year.”
The song, produced by Bobby Holland (Kesha, ZZ Ward), was written during a week-long writer’s retreat on Smith Lake in Birmingham, Alabama, culminating in a live concert series. A few months ago now feels like a lifetime, but the memory of a serene countryside, sweltering August air, and handfuls of wildly successful songwriting sessions sticks out in her mind. “We needed to laugh about something we’re all collectively feeling. In no way do we misunderstand the gravity of what our country has gone through this year,” says Rose.
And she hopes the new tinseled tune brings a bit of light in such terrible darkness. “Things are pretty grim up in the North Pole / The elves are sauced the reindeer are getting thin / Santa’s little helpers have all been furloughed,” she sings, excavating real world matters into her snowy fantasy land.
“My band is very much like a family to me. We’re used to the togetherness of living on the road and supporting each other during live shows. We wanted to get out of our heads,” she observes of the excursion. Shoddy cell service gave them plenty of time to simply exist together. Of course, they kept plenty busy swimming in the lake, writing songs at night, and getting drunk on tequila. “We needed that summer experience. The seclusion of the location and the fact we were all together, cooking meals together every night… it was just as much about the camaraderie as it was the songwriting.”
Normally, Rose would have been touring all year and gearing up to head back home for the holidays. Per tradition, she would be plotting a Christmas show with her band. “It’s always something we look forward to. Christmas is one of the occasions that was my time to shine as a little girl. That’s when I got my courage up to sing my song at the recital for the whole church and student body. My grandparents loved it.”
Her older sister did propose an alternative: for her to “perform at her Christmas party, which is not quite the same, and it’s just for my family,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s giving me a reason to sit down at the piano to learn some holiday standards. We’re really going to have to figure out what the beauty of this time of year is all about.”
Growing up, Christmas was always a focal point in the household. She’d spend Christmas Eve with her maternal grandparents and Christmas Day with her paternal ones, opening gifts, laughing, loving, and simply basking in the moment. “I was always really lucky,” she remarks.
“I always had pretty memorable Christmas mornings. We always spread the wealth around and shared our new toys, within reason,” she recalls. “Clothes are a different story. All of us having similar interests made for a fun house and probably streamlined shopping for my parents.”
Some of the most cherished presents included a My Size Barbie, an American Girl doll, and a guitar when she was 12 years old. “I think I was smart about what I asked for. I wasn’t unrealistic. My niece today has several pages from her Amazon Wish List. I think I was more precise about what I wanted.”
“Happier New Year (Christmas is Canceled)” comes as a double release with her rendition of “The Christmas Song,” written by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé and first recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio in 1946. Rose adheres to the wistfulness of the melody, simply allowing it to inform her subtle and moving interpretation. “Christmas music is so beautiful. There’s a classic sound you can revert to because it never goes out of style. You don’t have to chase production as much,” she says. “You can certainly make it your own, but it’s about singing and delivering a feeling that people want that time of year. I think I have to make a Christmas album at some point.”
With as much downtime as she’s had this year, Rose eyes a bigger and much louder 2021. She has a new podcast called Salute the Songbird ⏤ on which she’ll interview legendary and talented women, including Mickey Guyton, Ruby Amanfu, Heart’s Nancy Wilson, and Martina McBride ⏤ launching in January for weekly episodes. “It had to happen in the year 2020,” she muses. Routinely on the road, and in a normal world, she’d be “meeting new musicians who then become friends and part our network. The ability to make those relationships was taken.”
“The show is a way to stay connected and become a better musician. I’m studying the music and careers of all these women,” she continues. “What a great time to be able to dedicate research to these artists who deserve all our praise and attention.”
Rose also finished up her brand new record, the follow-up to 2018’s Change the Whole Thing. The yet-untitled release was produced by Ben Tanner of Alabama Shakes at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. The iconic venue has seen the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bobbie Gentry, Etta James, and Jerry Reed, among many others, walk its halls and record some of pop’s most groundbreaking records.
“The place harkens back to the analog days, and aesthetically, it looks the same as it did when Aretha was recording there. I got out of the Nashville bubble for a second and approached this new album a little more conceptually,” she explains. “It wasn’t done in the same live format as [my last album], but I borrowed so much from that process with how we did the vocals. We were able to arrange these great background parts and put brass and strings on some songs. There’s a celebratory element to this music, but also messages about hearing each other out, communicating, and love. And it feels very representative of where I am in my life and something people will want to hear.”
“People are going to hear the evolution. It’s not going to be jarring or a big departure. It definitely is a studio produced album, and there’s someth psychedelic elements to it. It’s an elevation of what we’ve done.”
Bookending the year, Rose recently performed her song “20/20,” as part of her Quarantine 45, on Kelly Clarkson’s daytime talk show. “Just another day gone by / I’m a bird in a cage,” she sings, sculpting her pain around simple piano keys. The performance, filmed at Tweed Recording in Athens, Georgia, captures the anxiety and sorrow we’ve all surely felt lately. “Forbidden to fly / And the world change overnight into a place I don’t recognize.”
“Kelly is just as kind as she is talented,” says Rose, who opened on Clarkson’s 2019 Meaning of Life Tour. “She was so welcoming, and we got to sing ‘Miss Independent’ at the end of the show every night with her. That’s always one of my favorite karaoke jams, so the fact we got to open the shows and expose our music to her fans was great. Then, she was just a fun tourmate and very gracious to me and the whole bad. She’s always advocated for me as a musician. She’s thrown out tweets and posts throughout my career, especially with ‘Change the Whole Thing.’ She was really the reason I got asked to be on the show.”
Rose pauses a moment when thinking about the hardest lessons she’s learned this year. “Gratitude is an exercise to be practiced everyday. The pace at which we were running before all this happened was a little absurd. Maybe it was distracting me from certain focuses that I could put more effort toward. It’s making me so excited about being on the road again and not taking for granted any opportunity we have. It’s been an opportunity to examine how I can better myself as a human and a musician on my own.”