I didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. Being Jewish, Christmas wasn’t a big thing in my home [read: non-existent]. That said, we all know it’s pretty hard to ignore the Christmas season; just like everyone else, I am constantly bombarded with Christmas cheer outside of the home. I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?
I’ve always loved the idea of recording my own take on this music. There are a lot of great Christmas songs out there, but I don’t love all the aesthetic choices. Where are all the violins and clarinets!? I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines!
I had my first opportunity to dip my toe into the icy Christmas music waters in 2012 when I recorded Fairytale of New York with Norwegian artists Katzenjammer and Trondheimsolistene. On that project, I got to work with a huge string ensemble and a terrific arrangement. On my recording of O Holy Night, I wanted to use a similarly lush and over-the-top arrangement, but take it in my own darker direction. That said, I can’t take much credit. I owe a lot to my collaborators.
I got the idea to record O Holy Night from my friend and artistic collaborator Donald MacLennan. It was Donald who showed me his own jazz manouche inflected minor-swing version of the song. This is a trick Donald is very good at. You should check out his minor-key version of Dolly Parton’s classic, I Will Always Love You. It’s a master class. You can find it on Spotify.
This whole thing got rolling in 2016. That year, I played three Halifax concerts in early December. I hadn’t planned on doing any Christmas music, but it was the season… so during rehearsals, I started working with my band to figure out our own dark version of the song that Donald had re-harmonized. Upright bass player Anna Ruddick, drummer Jamie Kronick, vocalist Taryn Kawaja, violinist Donald MacLennan, and I worked out an arrangement together and performed it live. That would have been the end of it, but that concert had been recorded by sound engineer Rod Sneddon and as I listened to the archival recording, O Holy Night was the standout performance from the shows as far as I was concerned.
As soon as I started thinking about trying to do a full fledged recording of the piece, I began dreaming of string quartets and pipe organs. I used the Arcade Fire song My Body is a Cage as a reference point. I love the way that recording slowly builds from minimalism to cacophony, and the rich sound of the pipe organ. I wanted to try to recreate that gradual build, and the sublime surrender to an enormous scale of sound. I reached out to my friend and bass clarinet player Jeff Reilly to help me produce the track, and to help figure out commissioning arrangements and working with classical musicians, whose language I don’t speak so well.
Through Jeff, I met the organist and arranger Peter Togni. I gave Peter the live recording of myself singing the song backed up by Anna, Jamie, Taryn, and Donald. Using that as a reference point, Peter and I talked through the song, my vision, and the shape I wanted it to take. With that input, Peter wrote a fabulous chart for string quartet, pipe organ, and bass clarinet. After a few modest revisions, we were ready to record.
We had two days of recording in Summer of 2019. On day one, we recorded the drums and upright bass (played by Jamie Kronick and Ronald J Hynes) with Daniel Ledwell at Echo Lake Studio. On day two, we loaded a full complement of recording equipment into Halifax’s Fort Massey United Church. The session was engineered by Rod Sneddon with assistant engineer Andrew Sneddon. After our mobile studio was set up, the Blue Engine String Quartet (Jennifer Jones: 1st violin, Celeste Jankowski: 2nd violin, Alexandra Bates: viola, Hilary Brown: cello) showed up to work their magic with Peter Togni’s score. Jeff Reiley conducted the ensemble while I stood by grinning like an idiot and occasionally offering my thoughts.
Once the string quartet had worked their magic, we had Peter Togni sit down at the church’s pipe organ and perform his accompaniment to the string arrangement. After that, it was time for Donald MacLennan and Jeff Reilly to work their magic on violin and bass clarinet. They each had a few written lines to play, composed by Peter Togni, but we also made sure they had lots of room to experiment and improvise. I wanted to combine the precision and thoughtfulness of through-composed music with the freedom and joy of improvisation.
Once all the instruments had been captured, I took to the microphone across from singer Taryn Kawaja and we sang the tune together. By singing together at the same time, we added a bit of pressure, which I like. It makes the editing and mixing process a bit harder, and it opens up a feeling that each take really matters. I wanted to capture a sort of raw live energy, and that feeling can depart if you know that you can fix anything in post-production. In recording this way, I knew that we could not do any little tweaks or vocal tuning after the fact. We had to get it right in real time.
A month or so after the recording part was done, I spent a joyful afternoon with Jeff Reilly and Rod Sneddon listening through what we had captured, picking the best takes and making our modest edits. Rod did a full mix over a few days while I hung out in his studio, listening and offering feedback. Once we were both satisfied, the track went over to Phil Bova for mastering while Jamie Kronick and Marc Adornato prepared the artwork.
All told, I worked with sixteen other artists to make this whole project come together. From Donald’s initial concept, to the initial arrangement with my live band, to Peter’s string and organ arrangement, the producing, recording, mixing, mastering, and artwork, it took a tiny village to bring this into the world. I want to dispel the myth of the lone genius. It took a lot of people with a lot of talent to pull this off. I am just the lead singer, and the guy who was stubborn enough to bring all the people together and spend an outlandish amount of money trying to achieve this vision. I am glad it exists. Consider it my Christmas present to you.
Ben Caplan (he/him)
November 19, 2020
released November 19, 2020
Donald MacLennan: re-harmonization, violin
Peter Togni: arranging, pipe organ
Jeff Reilly: co-producer, bass clarinet
Ben Caplan: co-producer, vocals
Taryn Kawaja: vocals
Jamie Kronick: drums
Ronald J Hynes: upright bass
Jennifer Jones: violin
Celeste Jankowski: violin
Alexandra Bates: viola
Hilary Brown: cello
Roderick Sneddon: recording engineer, mixing engineer
Andrew Sneddon: assistant engineer
Daniel Ledwell: recording engineer (drum and bass)
Philip Shaw Bova: mastering
A charismatic charmer and a smasher of pianos. A madman and an earnest poet. A strummer of delicate chords and a lover of
bent and broken melodies. His rough and textured tones cut through crowded halls; an enormous voice, roaring louder than raucous crowds. Once he has your attention, Caplan can croon smoother than a glass of single malt whisky, pouring beauty into a harsh world....more