Vocalist Jerome Collins was raised on Motown favorites and even as a toddler fastened in the backseat of the family car, he knew he wanted to be a singer, but he didn’t realize it would come by way of choral, holiday music.
Over 10 years ago, his band, A cappella group Straight No Chaser released a set of holiday albums, Holiday Spirits and Christmas Cheers, that would send them rocketing to Gold status with major label representation. Though they quickly shifted their focus to other styles, with a wide spectrum of songs that they were eager to ‘twist’- everything from Oasis to Soft Cell to The Red Hot Chili Peppers to Barry Manilow- this year they knew it was time to get back to what they are known for and bring some joy into 2020 and focus on what Christmas is actually all about. And with originals like “What Christmas Means” from their new holiday record Social Christmasing, they could finally define that.
“I have a family that loves me and I have my faith and my health and I thought ‘that’s it, that’s what it’s all about,’” Collins told American Songwriter about the song. “So, I have Christmas every day. And sometimes we get caught up in material things, getting and giving gifts and we don’t take the time to realize what Christmas is really about. And it got great reactions form the guys and we all just got in a vibe and it was magical. It sounded like a new song but with an old vibe and that is kind of me, because I’m an old soul and family, friends and faith are what’s important and it definitely came across in the song.”
Social Christmasing available November 6, features holiday classics with the ‘Straight No Chaser twist’, including favorites like; “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “The First Noel,” “Frosty The Snowman and “Silver Bells” with original compositions “I’m You Snowman” and “What Christmas Means” plus three others. The group even opted to add a cover of The Counting Crows’ “A Long December,” which is not a holiday song, but after their spin, it was as festive as ever.
Taking hit songs and transforming them is what Straight No Chaser is known for and they have mastered the art of composition and arrangement even with nine members with nine different opinions. With the Christmas songs, you may hear subtleties of the original, but it will never be a straight cover. “Silver Bells,” one of the revamped classics, was arranged by Collins and featured fellow member Mike Luginbill, complete with a beach-like, Christmas-in-July flair.
“I was sitting by the beach and this island vibe hit me,” Collins said. “You can hear it at the beginning of the song with the chord progression. And I went home and recorded it quickly on my phone so I wouldn’t forget, and I slept and woke up singing it again. So, then I knew I was onto something and got up and recorded it with a verse-chorus and sent it out and Mike (Luginbill) wrote back right away. I arranged the song with his voice already in mind for it and it fit the idea and took it to a new level.”
The quaint black and white video for “Silver Bells” also premiering here today, includes a realistic portrayal of a 2020 Christmas with visuals depicting last minute Amazon shopping, the chaos of navigating holidays in isolation via Zoom and date nights at home and how just maybe that’s not the worst thing to come out of this year.
As a large group with immense talent, Straight No Chaser adapts interchangeably between arrangers, writers, and featured or group vocalists like they did on “Silver Bells”. Luginbill who has assumed nearly all these roles, also write three of the five originals, including the co-written, adult-like Christmas carol, “I’m Your Snowman.”
Luginbill conceived the idea for the quirky carol after a charming encounter last February, with his wife, after he spent a long night out with friends, feeling merry after a hard snowfall.
“It had snowed over the course of the night, so when I got home I had the bright idea of throwing snowballs (because it was “perfect packing snow”) at our bathroom window – trying to hit it and wake up my wife, Zoë,” Luginbill remembered. “Needless-to-say, my aim was off at that time, I might have hit the window once, but she didn’t wake up – which is probably a good thing! And then after I came inside, I was just sitting on the couch thinking about the line ‘you’re my snow angel, and I’m your snowman.’”
Luginbill wanted to include a female perspective in the song, since his wife was a crucial component to the song’s genesis. To elicit that, he called in good friend and artist, Stephanie Middleton to co-write with. “I already had the chorus somewhat written, and then when she came in the song came together pretty fast from there,” he said. “We’re really happy with how it turned out and hope people enjoy it.”
“I’m Your Snowman” along with the other four originals plus the 10 covers were all recorded in quarantine across the band’s different homes with different recording rigs, which made gaining any cohesion challenging. But Straight No Chaser was armed with one of the best producers attainable, Grammy winner Kevin Killen, who was able to flawlessly bring each track and vocal together for a completed and consistent sounding album.
“It was the most challenging album we ever had to do,” Collins said.
Earlier in the year the group was staying busy with a quarantine sessions series, releasing sewn together covers to purely insert joy into people’s lives during what was a devastating year for many. And in turn, prepped them for how to record the new album while separated.
“We started off by doing quarantine sessions, doing covers and old songs once a week and it was great and so it was like-why not see if we could record an album and we didn’t want to waste any time,” Collins said. “And we all had rigs and so we all recorded our own parts and sent it to whoever was arranging and then we put it together. We had no idea that we were inventing a new wheel. And dealing with nine different parts it’s challenging. But a after the first couple we started to get into rhythm and it’s now something we know we can do if we have to. But it’s still tough not being able to sing in front of people.”
This time last year, Straight No Chaser was basking in their opportunity to perform in Rockefeller Center during the annual tree lighting. It was a defining moment for the group, and something will be missing out on this year, but they have some plans in the works to quell the opportunities 2020 has ripped from them.
“We are still planning to get together in some aspect to perform,” Collins said. “We are hoping to still do the tree lighting in some form. It was the biggest moment we had to sing in front of people, so it’s tough not being there.”
After the release of Social Christmasing, Straight No Chaser has plans to continue the never-ending writing cycle for a new record. And Collins wants to try something different this time, rooting for what he calls a ‘yacht rock’ album, full of ‘80s inspired pop/rock music to the likes of Steely Dan and Hall and Oates, though he has nine other opinions to consider, so stay tuned to see if it passes the Straight No Chaser vote.
Get into the holiday spirit today with Straight No Chaser’s video for “Silver Bells” and you can purchase a copy of Social Christmasing here.