Braintree Sixth Form's "Songs For Christmas"
Anyone reading this was probably there throughout the events I’m about to describe. In fact, they probably contributed pretty massively to helping the whole thing play out, for better or for worse. For those few who haven’t heard Songs For Christmas, or just want to relive that crazy period, here’s a download from my website.
In early December 2010, I decided it would be a great idea to record and release a Christmas album starring various musically-inclined members of the sixth form’s student body. The money raised would go to Amnesty International. The idea was inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ Songs For Christmas box set. The first person I consulted about this was Rhyannon, who was pretty enthusiastic about the whole thing. At this point, I was certain of only two tracks: my already-started (what can I say, I was eager) version of Away In A Manger and a whole-sixth-form rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas. My first job was to send an email to the sixth form’s co-directors, asking for an assembly in which to record the CD. They obliged, but not without voicing their concern that the CD wouldn’t be finished in time. I would soon come to share that concern. More on that later.
I put out a Facebook plea asking for any musicians at the sixth form to contact me. Here’s the message I sent them all:
Christmas Project - 3 Dec 2010
I’d like to work on recording a “Christmas album” featuring a lot of different people and release it, hopefully, by the 17th of this month. The release would be in support of Amnesty International.
The only rule governing what you can do is that it has to be Christmas-related. You can work on anything from a traditional Christmas carol to Merry Xmas Everybody to your own composition. You can also do as many songs as you want with anyone you want. Bands, solos and duets are all welcome.
Please ask me if you don’t know how you’ll record your bit - I’m not quite equipped to record full bands, but I use a BOSS BR-900CD to record myself quite a lot and I’ll gladly help you record.
If you have any questions, contact me. Don’t be put off by the ‘Christmas’ theme- there’s a ton of stuff you could do! Again, contact me if you need ideas.
The first thing I noticed was that everyone replied Despite having volunteered, five people didn’t ever respond to that initial message. I wasn’t bummed out, though; by December 5, I had been offered six songs. All but one of them would make it onto the album. Recording began very soon afterwards.
The first track to be recorded was, as I’ve said, Away In A Manger. This featured me alone and so I didn’t really have any problems recording it. My mum’s never liked this; she claims it feels too fast because of the fingerpicked guitar loop. My favourite bit is the background guitar on the second verse.
Room 222 was a tiny, barely naturally lit room above the backstage area of the theatre. When it was hot, it was hot. When it was cold, it was cold. I’m pretty sure Silent Night was the first song recorded inside the sixth form, with Lauren on vocals and Rhyannon providing backing guitar. It was cold that day. Rhyannon recorded her guitar first, and that was pretty hassle-free, at least compared to the vocals. Lauren’s vocal part was perfect on every take, but I remember very clearly that Rhyannon and I couldn’t hold back laughter a couple of times, and we were forced to redo Lauren’s part a few times. Even on the final one, you can hear that she’s smiling whilst she sings. Sorry, Lauren! My English teacher was in the room during the vocal take, and I remember that she loved it.
At this point, I was producing about a song a day, and the sessions were pretty laid back. That was set to change as time went on. I think the next thing that happened was the assembly in which We Wish You A Merry Christmas was recorded. I’d brought my ukulele in on the morning of the assembly (I don’t know why; it was never used on the recording) and I spent the hour before it playing Queen of the Savages and quaking with fear. Rhyannon had made an excellent powerpoint presentation, which she delivered, and then we recorded the song. I remember being annoyed at the sixth form ignoring the “good tidings we bring” part on the second and third verses, but I was mostly just happy that it came out all right. You can hear Max Daniels’ voice very prominently in the foreground.
On that day, we later started recording what was the hopeful focal point of the album: Fairytale of New York. I’m sure Rhyannon won’t be offended when I say that this was probably a bad idea. Recording started out fine. Casey played a snare drum whilst I strummed out the chords on a guitar. Then there was me and Rhyannon. You could have made a bottle episode of a sitcom based on our experience in that room over the next two days.
Fairytale of New York is a beautiful song, and an unusual candidate for a Christmas song given its use of light profanity and its general focus on a love-gone-wrong. I’d say that we realised things weren’t going OK when we started recording the vocal harmonies. “The BOYS of the- no, stop, that’s not it. The BOYS- sorry, sorry, one more time. The BOYS…” became a mantra of that session. I spent a good few minutes chanting “BOYS, BOYS, BOYS” with Rhyannon in an effort to train her muscle memory to instinctively reach for that note. (To be fair to her, the girl’s part on that song is much harder than the man’s!)
I could talk about that song for much longer than I have done. In essence, although the end result was passable (given my time again, I feel like I could have produced it so much better), but it’s probably all best explained by the fact that I “finished” it on the night the album was “finished”. It haunted me. As a result, I became kind of stressed. I had four songs and about a week till the album was due for release (and once it was released, by this schedule, I’d only have a couple of days to desperately sell copies). My stress was exacerbated by incidents such as the cracking of my laptop screen on December 13 (how do I remember the date? I created this playlist to demonstrate how I felt on that day). It took a long time to fix it, but that’s another story for another day.
Fortunately, I did have a couple of things go right in this period. The Artizans finished their tracks Uncle Santa and Who Knows, which were produced by Wes Hicks. His setup is ten times the quality (and price) of my own, and so these two songs might even be considered the album’s saving grace. Wes also played the keyboard part for Fairytale of New York at very short notice when Matt Rose fell ill - with hindsight, it would have been wise to record the entire song under his supervision.
I recorded I Won’t Be Home For Christmas with Rhyannon, Adam Thorogood and Casey Khan-Cudmore. This one was problematic. The guitar parts went fine - I think they were even recorded simultaneously, if memory serves me correctly. Then came the time to record drums. I wish we’d recorded vocals instead - I don’t know why we didn’t. The BOSS BR-900CD and the AT2020 mic weren’t meant for drums. There was an unavoidable distortion effect on the drums. It was getting too late to somehow record the song differently. We made do with the drum take we got; Casey played wonderfully, it’s just a shame I couldn’t produce it better. Adam later got swine flu and was unable to record a vocal part. The song was released instrumentally.
The same afternoon, I recorded The First Noel with Matt Rose. This calmed me down a lot. It was a beautiful arrangement, and it was so effortlessly recorded. He kept making mistakes and apologising before retaking it, but I really didn’t mind; it was lovely to listen to, and it was nice to finally have a piece where I could have no input whatsoever, not even on production. Mr Blogg saw me waiting for my ride home, holding my microphone, its stand, my guitar and the BOSS. I think I was looking a little worse for wear. When I got home, I listened to The First Noel and smiled. It was going to be alright.
On December 11 (a few days before Noel), I recorded my personal proudest achievement - the vocal quartet version of We Three Kings. We’d planned to record this with Tom Williams (bass), myself (baritone), James Pickering (tenor lead) and Ryan-Adam Butcher (tenor). We were pushed for time and so I recorded all four parts. Tom transcribed the sheet music into guitar tablature, and I’d play each part on the guitar, memorise it, and sing it to a metronome. It was very time-consuming, and my vocal range clearly doesn’t span right from bass to tenor, but I did the best I could. It was a short and sweet piece, and most importantly, I’d managed to complete an entire track in one day, which was becoming quite a feat.
And so the album was finished. On the night of December 13, I was pretty busy. I re-recorded the strummed guitar parts on Fairytale, had my mum play a new tambourine part and finally mastered that song, still unhappy with it. I mastered the other songs without making any changes. With the album finally ready for pressing, I had my mum deliver a USB stick and a pile of blank CD-Rs to Davey for him to assist in the burning process. My mum (I’m now realising she actually helped out quite a lot) designed an album cover and reverse, and we printed it in black-and-white during break the next day. If you own a black-and-white copy of the album, that means you bought one of the very first ones. Rhyannon and I used roto-trimmers in the art classrooms, amazed that the album had finally come to fruition.
The next day we sold a fair few copies. I remember that Davey was also doing some kind of charity event, selling raffle tickets for a polio charity. It became something of a competition; with CDs selling for £3 and raffle tickets selling for £2, we generally managed to get £5 out of anyone willing to pay for one or the other.
All in all, I think we raised about £220 for Amnesty. That’s about 73 copies sold. We could have raised double by simply doing a charity gig, but I think I took home much more from recording Songs For Christmas. Almost as soon as Christmas was over, I put the album to one side and tried to never listen to it again. Today I finally brought myself to listen to it. I’m glad I did, since it inspired this essay.
The important part of all this, for me, is that the album got finished. I wanted to defy the co-directors who didn’t think it was possible. I had regrets; some of those have been quashed thanks to a second listen, and some have been exaggerated by it. I’m just glad I saw this through to fruition, and I’m so enormously grateful for the help of my friends in doing that. If you, like me, are scared to listen, don’t be. You’ll be surprised.