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Adult Contemporary

Erin O'Donnell

Inpop Records Christmas lights are perhaps one of the most magical things on earth. With one simple strand of green plastic and tiny, candle-like bulbs, the mundane is transformed to beautiful, the comic to almost sacred, and, when strung round a tree, these minute adornments become heralds of the most wonderful season of the year. Twinkling lights signal the time to pull out our favorite recipes, send warm wishes to friends near and far, and tune the TV to the classic Christmas specials that seem to get better each viewing.

If you doubt the power of Christmas lights, consider the unforgettable scene from 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, where Schultz’s beloved characters pull the last miserable tree from the lot, wrap it in a warm strand of lights, and stand back for a simultaneous and inspired “Oooh, Aaaah!”

That program is a favorite for award-winning vocalist Erin O’Donnell, who spent one Christmas with her family trying to move from one house to the other, and ended up stuck in a rental townhouse with nothing but boxes and suitcases on Christmas morning. “That year, we had the puniest, Charlie Brown Christmas tree, and no decorations, since they were all in storage, so we made everything out of popsicle sticks, paper and popcorn,” Erin recalls. “It turned out to be my favorite Christmas ever, because we had so much fun doing everything together. I remember in particular watching Snoopy ice-skating on the lake to ‘Christmas Time Is Here,’ with our TV and us all just sitting on the carpet.”

The laughter, togetherness, and music of that special memory inspired Erin’s latest project and first Christmas album, Christmas Time Is Here. “Christmas is my favorite time of year,” Erin admits readily, “and growing up, it always included all the classics – Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, a lot of jazz and swing sounds."

Music was always in the background for Erin at Christmastime as she baked the family’s secret-recipe Snickerdoodles, or ate homemade peanut butter balls as they decorated the tree and watched “It’s a Wonderful Life.” She and her husband, Brad, continue those same traditions today, but make a special effort to make sure their daughter, Quinn, knows who all the celebrating and gift-giving is really for.

“We sing happy birthday to Jesus, and have a birthday cake for Him,” Erin shares. “On the night before Christmas, we always read the story of Jesus’ birth, and try to help her understand that He is the focus of the celebration.” Although 4-year-old Quinn is still most interested in paper-wrapped toys, she is slowly learning to appreciate the wonder and mystery that lie at the heart of the season, just as her mother did when she was a little girl.

“I always went to the midnight service on Christmas Eve,” Erin recalls, “and I felt a special kind of reverence there, thinking that this could have been the moment. Right then, as midnight gave way to the first minutes of Christmas morning – that could have been the amazing, history-changing moment that Jesus first came down to earth for us.”

Erin celebrates that miracle on Christmas Time Is Here with ten of her favorite Christmas songs, from reverent carols to cheerful choruses, all intended to commemorate the joy of the season. Also included are two new songs, personal favorites for Erin, which recall especially tender holiday memories. “What I love about doing a Christmas record is that these are classic songs that people already know and love, so you can be more adventurous in how you arrange the music,” Erin says. For this formally trained singer with a background studying jazz, recording a Christmas album was a welcome opportunity for musical creativity and exploration.

“I studied jazz in college and thought it might be a great idea to see what we could do using that style as a backdrop for these classic songs,” she explains. Helping her make that dream a reality was producer Ed Cash (Bebo Norman, Chris Tomlin, Bethany Dillon), who collaborated with Erin to assemble a talented team of players who could capture the warm, laid back feel she was looking for.

“We looked for a keyboard player who could play just the right amount of notes – not too many or too little, and drummer who could give the album a live feel,” says Erin, who found them in pianist Ben Shive and drummer Jim Brock. Cash also brought on upright bassist Byron House, known for his work with Nickel Creek and other country/folk artists. “I wanted this record to feel like we were all just friends sitting around in the living room, playing our favorite Christmas songs and celebrating the season together,” Erin shares, “and I feel like we really accomplished that.”

The musicianship shines on unique arrangements of such classics as “Angels We Have Heard on High,” which pairs a Latin-influenced salsa beat with the song’s joy-filled lyrics, and an Appalachian-influenced version of “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” while “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” boasts a funky base line from which the whole song builds with verve. Erin reveals her jazz roots with classic styling on the swing-inspired medley of “Frosty the Snowman / Winter Wonderland” and romantic, moody cuts of “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

The album finds its pop climax in “Waiting for Love to Be Born,” a song written by New Yorker Rob Mathes, that shows great promise for becoming a classic in its own right. Known for penning popular new Christmas music that he performs at heavily attended concerts each year in his home city of New York, Mathes albums have become a favorite new Christmas tradition for the O’Donnells. “This song in particular captures perfectly how I felt when I came home from college every year at Christmas,” Erin reminisces. “My family would already be asleep, but I would be so happy to be home that I could never go straight to sleep. So I would literally go downstairs and sit in the family room, drink hot chocolate, and think about what Christmas means to me.”

Family also influenced Erin’s rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” “This song has always felt a little bit sad to me,” Erin reveals. “There is this sense of longing in it, and I was never sure why until I had a chance to talk with Brad’s grandfather just before we recorded the song. He fought in several major battles during World War II, and he remembered that they played this song for the troops at Christmas time while he was stationed overseas. They would all cry listening to the song, thinking about how they wouldn’t get to be home for the holidays, and how some of them would never get to go home again.” With the faint sound of bongos accompanying a soft, slow piano, the song carries a melancholy echo of the troops’ wishful longing.

“Christmas Kiss” is a more upbeat personal moment on the album for Erin. Written by Brad while the pair were in college together, the song is the first Brad ever wrote for the woman who would become his wife. “I’ve always thought this song was the sweetest thing, and I really wanted it on the album, just to have for myself,” Erin admits.

This Christmas, Brad and Erin will have another collaboration to celebrate, as they look forward to the birth of their second child. The couple found out they were expecting just before recording the haunting carol “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and the song beautifully reflects their anticipation with its gentle vocal accompanied solely by classical guitar. “I’ve always thought the words to this song are so reverent, and almost like a lullaby,” Erin shares. “Every time I hear or sing it, I picture a mother – perhaps in Christ’s time – singing these words over her kids as she’s putting them to bed, talking to them about the Savior who is going to come.”

Christmas Time Is Here is a musical celebration of the Savior who has come to share in our humanity, and the hope and joy that light the season of His miraculous birth. In perfect holiday style, the project revels in classic Christmas standards, mixed in with a few new memories, and invites all of us to grab our cup of hot chocolate, wrap the tree in lights, and sit back to relax, reminisce, and revere.


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