Friday, October 17, 2014

An Interview with Carolyn Arends about her New Christmas Album

Hey, everyone!  Carolyn was so gracious to help me out with writing my piece for our church's Women's Newsletter, November/December edition. We had a meandering talk at Barnabas. Here is the edited and framed version:

I was enjoying a beautiful August day at Barnabas Family Ministries on Keats Island, a bucolic fragment of Eden that has surfaced off the coastline near Vancouver, British Columbia, when I got that familiar knot in the pit of my stomach: only 153 shopping left until Christmas.  More dire, though, was the fact that I hoped to write something festive and true about Christmas by October 15. How was I ever  to find anything new to say about my favorite holiday when I had less than eight weeks to do so? ‘Tis the season to try to get someone else to do your work for you.  Luckily for me, Carolyn Arends was also at Barnabas. Earlier this past summer, the Canadian singer/songwriter had been knee-deep in Yuletide joy as she completed work on her second full-length Christmas album. When I waylaid her for a little chat about her project – which she graciously supplied – I was able to glean fresh insights from her that would have otherwise eluded me. You see, of the thirteen songs on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories (October 2014, 2B Records), Carolyn wrote nine. You would have to walk many a mile (or kilometer) to find someone who has meditated more fully and fruitfully on the Incarnation and all its wonder than she. We found a place to sit, cracked open a box of After Eight Dinner Mints, and toasted the album with Diet Cokes. Carolyn brought the stories and perspective; I brought a questionable work ethic and a digital voice recorder; the following, interspersed with some lyrics and edited for clarity, is what came about:

O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still or dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .
Justine: When I listen to your songs, you seem to revisit a lot of themes, but with increasing depth, or complexity, or a slightly different viewpoint. I know that you have written a Christmas song for your church each year for many years. The narrative of Christmas in the Bible is basically two chapters in the Gospel According to Luke. How do you write a song from that every year? How do you face that?
Carolyn: I’ve been doing it for 20 years – which is a lot of Christmas songs – and I think that is what I like about the tradition. It’s an annual spiritual discipline of looking at the Story and saying, “What is the Story saying to me or to the people that are around me this year?” I hope in circling around and revisiting the same themes, it is going deeper. I think the last few years there has been more the vision that the story of the universe is happening in four giant acts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. And, I kind of see that little passage in Luke as a fulcrum or pivot point that everything  hinges on, and that radiates out with a million implications that run backwards and forwards; and actually, that’s a lot to write about.
This is the Story of stories/This is the mystery of old/This is the Glory of glories/All that exists comes down to this: Newborn Baby Boy
Justine:  That idea seems to fit in with the title song of the album, The Story of Stories.
Carolyn: Yes, it is very much about how that story fits into the Big Story. In fact, there is a quote in the song from Philip Yancey about God’s wanting His family back. [“In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back" (The Jesus I Never Knew)] Also, I am in a different place every year. Some years, I can’t wait for Christmas to come; and other years . . . I can. And so, I need to sing different exhortations to myself.
There is a vacancy right here inside of me/It’s been that way for quite a while/But there’s a blessedness in this great emptiness/If it makes room here for the Child
Justine: One thing that I found very interesting in your song list was the inclusion of an Advent song. What can you tell me about the song, Vacancy?
Carolyn: I grew up in a church tradition that did not follow the liturgical calendar, so it is only in recent years that I have begun to learn about the four Sundays of Advent. I love the idea of reminding ourselves that the world was waiting – and in some ways, we’re still waiting, and in some ways, He’s come – But, yeah, in the year that I wrote that, for whatever reason, whatever was going on in my life, I was not feeling very Christmasy, and I had this little bit of an empty feeling leading up to Christmas and I was working through that, praying through that, and I was reminded that emptiness is necessary to make room for the Truth that is coming. That is why that song talks about the blessedness in the emptiness and the longing that reminds us how all of Creation waited for Him to come, and now we are waiting for Him to come again.
Let it dawn on us like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us: This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day
Justine: I know that the song Dawn on Us came out of a series of silly puns you were torturing amusing your friends and followers with on Facebook and Twitter. I stayed up all night to see where the sun went. Then it dawned on me. Tell me about writing songs that surprise you.
Carolyn:  Yes, it really delights me that what ended up coming out of that silly joke was a serious take on the Christmas story; and, it reminds me of what Frederick Buechner said about hearing the gospel as a “wild, marvelous joke” – it really is great news, and it should involve laughter. Also the song Vacancy: I was in a fairly blue space when I wrote it, but because I ended up writing it for ukulele, now it makes me really happy to play it. You cannot be unhappy on ukulele, right? So now when I play it, I am so happy – and it’s supposed to be my melancholy song.
Friends that’s the reason we need this season/To help us remember, joy can still come/To a world often troubled and tragic . . ./So bring on the old Christmas Magic

Justine: Have you found inspiration in other unusual places? Quotes? Experiences? Readings?

Carolyn: You know, I’ve been a part of Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre’s Christmas Presence for several years. Well, there is one story that gets read almost every year – a nostalgia piece – by a local journalist who writes about his mother’s going over-the-top for Christmas; it’s very warm and sentimental. He talks about how his mom would go to the bargain basement of The Bay and find broken crystal ornaments and buy them for nothing and repair them, because she understood that things did not have to be perfect to be beautiful. At the end of the story, the writer reveals that he has cerebral palsy. Anyway, probably my current favorite song on the album is one called Christmas Magic that came out of that piece. We have a reaction to all the commercialism at Christmas and all the hype – and we do need to be careful about that stuff – but there is actually something beautiful about tradition, about having one time a year when we make the effort –imperfect as we all are – and try to come together and make something beautiful together.

May your Christmas season be merry and bright, and may your heart resound with comfort and joy as you live again the Story of stories, that pivot point of the universe when Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus turned into O Holy Night.
If you would like more information about Carolyn Arends and Christmas: The Story of Stories, please visit her website (www.carolynarends.com). Merry Christmas!      

Christmas: The Story of Stories *Justine's Review*

Album: Christmas: The Story of Stories
Artist: Carolyn Arends
Label: 2B Records (Oct. 2014)

O little town of Bethlehem, I think it is a lie/That you were still and dreamless on that first Christmas night . . .

With those words, Carolyn Arends takes on the first of several Christmas song classics whose iconic imagery needs to be challenged in "It Was a Holy Night," the opening song on her new album, Christmas: The Story of Stories. The quiet, empty streets so long imagined give way in the mind's eye to a real place teeming with soldiers and politicians; a place far from reverent and peaceful, but rather overcrowded, cruel, and hungry. She sets the stage vividly so that she can remind us that "And then the Baby came . . . and when the Baby came . . ." Well, there probably was some crying going on away in that manger, and those herald angels we harken unto may well have gasped and trembled to see God make His home as a babe in "such poor and broken place." They truly must have wondered how we could deserve a gift like Him. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."

Silent night? Probably not. Holy night? Most definitely!

That's just Carolyn being Carolyn. When you spend your creative life wrestling with the Holy Spirit, and your theological joints have been knocked out of place more times than you can count, you're not afraid to take on even the most sacrosanct of holiday hymns. I get what the writers of these classic songs were trying to do: create an atmosphere of holiness by bathing this crazy, radical juncture of history -- the Incarnation -- in serene, majestic splendor. I cannot help but think, though, that Carolyn's vision is much closer to the truth. God came then and comes now in the midst of the mess and the chaos and the dirt and the rebellion, and He makes it holy despite all of that, despite all of us. "Ah, but just the same, the Baby came . . ."

Christmas: The Story of Stories is, in some ways, not a very Christmasy album. That is, it eschews all the gimmicks that you usually find on even the most artistic of Christmas albums released by the most talented songwriters and sincere musicians. "Well, it sounds like a Carolyn Arends album," one of my friends told me, a quizzical look upon her face. Um, yeah. She wrote nine of the thirteen songs. The sound is quintessentially Carolyn, too: folk-pop with a laid-back vibe; heavy on the myriad strings, light on back beat; lyrically-driven, deep-rooted, authentic; with unexpected touches of funk and fun. The most Christmasy arrangements are probably on "Everything Changes at Christmas," which manages somehow to evoke church bells ringing in the middle of snowfall, and two of the classics, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" which are very traditional. So, this may not be the album you put on for background music at your office Christmas party. As such, it is not an album merely to be listened to; it is an album that needs to be heard.

And what will those who have ears to hear find? Nothing less than a bold -- audacious really -- attempt to get at the core of exactly what the mystery means of a God who puts on humanity in its most vulnerable state and comes to dwell with us and eventually die for us, all because He cannot stand to let us go. Carolyn respects her listeners by assuming that we are as interested in grappling with this glorious riddle as she is; that assumption has led to a really fine collection of songs that transcends seasonal affiliation. It is the Story of stories.

"Vacancy" is one of my favorites. It is that rarest of things: a new Advent song. When I spoke with Carolyn about it this past summer, she commented on the paradox that she was immensely happy playing a song with the melancholy themes of longing and emptiness. She attributed that to the bouncy presence of the ukulele -- that interminably Pollyanna-ish instrument. Indeed. I think, too, that while the song might have been written in a "blue space," the lyrics are ultimately so hope-filled (as every Advent song should be), that it is perhaps a happier lyric than she had intended. Sometimes when you're quite hungry, but you know that soon you are going to eat something very good, you really appreciate the hunger, even if it hurts a little. Just the knowing that the fulfillment is on its way makes the hunger at once both more intense and less awful. That's Advent for you.

"Everything Changes at Christmas" was released in a different arrangement as a single a few years ago.  I was a bit disappointed when I heard the new version on the album, because I had so long loved the old. This new version has grown on me, though, as I think it matches the flavor of the album as a whole better in its latest rendition. I really like the way that it builds at the end with the sound of bells ringing out "Ode to Joy" and "Joy to the World" -- was that the glockenspiel??? -- and now my only wish is that they had run with that theme for a wee bit longer; it is over far too soon.

"Christmas Magic" could have used  a line about After Eight dinner mints, but I'm not going to go around telling Carolyn how to write her nostalgic Christmas song. I joke. It is lovely, especially the line about not being ashamed to hang dollar-store tinsel, because "there is great worth in reflecting the light."

"God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is my favorite traditional Christmas song. What a treat and a surprise to find it on this album! This arrangement has a funky klezmer sort of sound that is a lot of fun. Comforting and joyful, indeed.

The song that most surprised me was "The Sound." I was not quite ready for the rush of emotion that overcame me when I heard, "Hush now, listen, that's the sound of the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming, the Kingdom coming to your town." Goose bumps and tears. I thought that the seamless transition into "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" was well-done and apropos. That could have been pulled off as an instrumental interlude, but it is always nice to hear Carolyn sing, too.

My daughter loves "You Gotta Get Up," a Rich Mullins song which is basically a kid's take on Christmas morning -- all mixed up with reindeer and presents and peace on earth and "that Baby born in Bethlehem" -- with the recurring plea to Mom and Dad to "get up!" already. It has a nice, bright, cheerful sound and is altogether charming. What I find funny is that not once in the eleven Christmases we've now had with Sadie has she ever awoken before us on December 25. Ha!

I get a particular kick out of "Long Way to Go," because I like the lyrical device of Carolyn's using mild expressions of amazement that I usually associate with the American South to pack a punch into the chorus: Goodness gracious, have mercy! Goodness gracious, man alive! Goodness gracious, glory be! I feel in the need of a mint julep after hearing that song, bless her heart.

"Story of Stories" is the anchor here, the title song. Of course, I love the reference to Philip Yancey's summation of human history from The Jesus I Never Knew: "In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back." He could have just started over/Left us alone in the dark/But our God is not like that/He wants His family back/He's had a plan from the start . . . "What Kind of King?" complements "Story of Stories" in such a way that it makes sense that it follows right afterward. OK, so we know that our God wants His family back, and so He sends us -- well, what kind of king exactly? Only Himself incarnate to dwell among us in the lowliest state. What kind of plan ever goes this far?/What kind of mercy puts itself at ours?/What kind of Maker walks the earth He made/From the cradle to the cross and leaves an empty grave?/What kind of love? . . .

"Dawn on Us" was another surprise; it is a gloriously happy, radiant song featuring my favorite unsung hero of the Christmas story: Joseph. Let it dawn on us/Like the morning sun/Let it chase our night away/Let it dawn on us:/This is God with us/In the light of Christmas day. And in the light of every day. This is then followed by "O Come All Ye Faithful" which is simply done, beautifully rendered, and ends with Carolyn, a cappella, singing "Christ the Lord" into the stillness.

OK, that was another of my way-too-long reviews.  Please forgive me.  It's been five long years since I have had the immense pleasure of listening to and then writing about a new Carolyn Arends album. That's what blogs are for; I will self-edit and put a more succinct version on Amazon. I almost wish I did not love it so much -- that I could find some flaw at which to pick in a picayune way simply to bolster my reviewer creds -- but, nope; to my ears, there is not a false note.

Ah, here is one slightly disappointing thing: On the past few albums that Carolyn has done as an independent artist, she has included something funny in the midst of the typical legal warnings on CDs about unauthorized reproduction. She had five years to plan something amusing to put on the disc for this release, and I was giddy to think about what sort of secret, sly thing she would work into the fine print; and, she did not put anything. Nothing. I am sorely crestfallen.

If that's the worst I can say, though, then verily I am blessed.  You will be, too, if you make Christmas: The Story of Stories a part of your music library not only for this and every Christmas, but for random year-round listening when you just need a reminder about how glorious and seismic and extravagant this holy tide of Christmas truly is.

OK, MK and MarkD, you're it!

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Story of Stories!

OK those of you who were Kickstarters on Carolyn's new album: Today is the day!  I am sure you have all been able to download your digital copy and listen to the whole shebang at least three times (as I have most certainly done). So, what do you think?

I, for one, am blown away. It's almost unreal how good this album is.  And I hate saying that, because I think it makes me seem to be just a sycophantic fan-girl, and I would like to think that I am really better than that. But, I have not heard a false note on this thing.  It is enchanting from start to finish -- and WHAT A FINISH!  Pitch perfect all the way.  How many more clich├ęs can I pull out of my hat that have to do with music, huh?

I plan to write a full review soon -- hey, someone has got to win that lamp; why not your humble blog host?  I do want to hear what others are thinking -- anything from a full-on rockin' review to dashed-off first impressions.

Christmas came on October 1 this year.  I knew it seemed like it was getting earlier and earlier every year . . .