Singer-songwriter David Myles talks about making a Christmas album that doesn’t suck in advance of tonight’s performance at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.
The dreaded “Christmas album” is a deserving magnet for cynicism at this time of year, particularly during a moment in the history of recorded music when Christmas releases appear to be one of the last surviving breeds of albums that people actually buy.
Even the Grinch-iest of Grinch hearts couldn’t help but swell a size or three, however, whilst watching David Myles delight a truly catch-all, age-inclusive crowd of noon-hour Moncton shoppers into depositing donations of cash and dry and canned goods aplenty into the bins erected around the Champlain Place food court on the third and final date of his “Singing for Supper” charity tour of New Brunswick shopping centres two Fridays ago.
With that performance, this year’s Singing for Supper jaunt handily bested last year’s take of $7,800 and 850 pounds of food donations by raising an impressive $11,660.19 for New Brunswick food banks, according to a Dec. 6 Tweet by one @mylesdavid.
So when the impossibly amiable, Fredericton-raised singer-songwriter explained over a quick nibble afterwards en route back to his adopted home base of Halifax that his new holiday album, It’s Christmas!, was essentially conceived as a logical outgrowth of, and pseudo-advertisement for, the seasonal fundraising campaign he’s taken to Fredericton, Saint John and Moncton for the past five years, he earned a free pass to keep on singin’ as many carols as he wants, in perpetuity.
Even if It’s Christmas! – a diligently original mélange of folk, jazz and bluegrass-inflected interpretations of standards such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Let It Snow” and “White Christmas,” lesser-heard keepers like Buck Owens’s “Blue Christmas Lights” and Meaghan Smith’s “It Snowed” and three charming Myles originals – had turned out to be just another lame, by-the-numbers holiday cash-in. Which, fortunately, it isn’t.
The Star grilled Myles on his commitment to the Christmas spirit and such matters as the friendship with Halifax rapper Classified that yielded 2013’s smash, Juno-winning single “Inner Ninja” in advance of his performance tonight (Wednesday) at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre.
The Christmas album is a brave and possibly foolhardy endeavour. What was your motivation to throw your hat in a crowded ring?
Part of me, to be honest, was a bit afraid of the idea because I didn’t want it to be a novelty thing. I really didn’t want it to be a novelty thing. I didn’t want it to be cheesy. But at the same time, most of the entertainers – the people I kind of model my career after – are people who all have Christmas records: Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Willie Nelson. They’re all guys who have these long careers and, like, 60 records and they all did Christmas albums. It’s part of what you do as an entertainer. I kinda see myself as a singer-songwriter, but I also partially see myself as an entertainer. I don’t shy away from that idea, in the same way that I don’t shy away from doing a Christmas record. I think that’s cool. It’s kind of what I’m trying to build. I play in a lot of smaller towns. I play a lot in rural Canada. I like playing to older crowds and younger crowds and having that kind of show, so the Christmas record, it made sense – particularly where we were with the Singing for Supper tour, with the charitable tour. That had kind of motivated the idea because we had this anchor, we had this thing we were building each year. Each year I was learning a couple more songs, and then all of a sudden it was, like: “I’m kinda getting into this.” I started to love the songs.
I’m sure you’re aware that a lot of Christmas records suck, so what made you sure that you could make one that didn’t?
People diss Christmas records a lot of the time because that’s the case: a lot of them are terrible. But what I get a kick out of is that every artist gets a shot at making a Christmas record. If you make a couple, it starts to get a little suspect. But if you take one crack at it, it’s kind of awesome. Every painter ever is asked to paint a tree at least once, and every tree should look different. If your tree doesn’t look different from someone else’s, it’s not worth doing. I’m not going to go in there and try to make a Nat King Cole record or a Bing Crosby record because it’s not going to work, so this actually was a cool exercise because you really have to think about what your Christmas record is going to sound like. “What does David Myles sound like when he sings Christmas songs?” What are the things you want to bring out in terms of what you value and the sound of who you are? You kind of have to think about it even more than when you’re writing your own songs . . . And that was the other thing. I made sure I waited until I had original songs that I felt were worth recording. I don’t know if it’s something about the limitations of the subject matter, but I like them, too. In some ways, they’re three of my best songs. I don’t know why, but I’m into it.
What prompted you to start the whole Singing for Supper thing in the first place? I’m guessing I already know the answer, being a fellow expat-New Brunswicker well acquainted with the province’s dire financial straits.
Part of it was that. I grew up in Fredericton and Fredericton, in the scale of things, is very comfortable. It’s like perfectly middle-class town – it’s not exceptionally wealthy, but it’s not exceptionally poor. But when I was 15 I delivered turkeys with my brother, and I remember that then is when I saw the reality of New Brunswick. We started going around delivering these turkeys and even just outside the border of the city, I was like, “Whoa, this is crazy.” All through rural New Brunswick, even in the cities, too, the reality of New Brunswick – almost the only reality in rural New Brunswick – is it’s quite poor. So that was the first thing. The other thing is we’re from here and I wanted my career to be more than just playing shows and selling CDs. So once we started to build it, I thought it would be cool if we could do this. This is something we can do. “We play shows, anyway. Let’s just pack the van up, bring the PA and play shows to whoever wants to come.” It’s an easy way to raise money. People come together around music, and if you play music that attracts enough different types of people, you can get a lot of people, even in a shopping mall at noon.
Do you have a favourite Christmas song?
I keep on changing my mind. There are moments when I’m singing “White Christmas” when I’m, like, “This is such a simple and kick-ass song.” But “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire” (a.k.a. “The Christmas Song”) is probably the one that convinced me I should make a Christmas record. I’m not a jazz guy, so it might have taken a jazz guy less time, but it took me two months to learn that song. It’s got so many chords and key changes. That’s part of the reason I like them. I like the challenge of having to learn that stuff. A lot of them are complicated. They’ve got lots of chords and key changes and they’re not easy to sing, and the thing is, you can’t fake it, man, because everybody knows them. You can’t mess with them . . . although I did take out the “Eskimo” line in “The Christmas Song.” I figured it was time.
Do you have any other irons in the fire to follow up the Christmas record? The whole Classified/“Inner Ninja” thing must have been a boon.
It opened a lot of doors professionally, but even before that happened, it opened a whole bunch of doors artistically. I had a feeling something was going to work, we both did, because we were both really complementary. I had a totally different set of skills – basically the song-structure part, the song stuff is my world – and his is the energy and the beats and everything. And we get along . . . It opened a lot of doors. Luke (Boyd) and I have become really, really close friends. That’s been the most incredible part of it. We kind of came from these different worlds and realized we had tons in common – he’s a great guy, he’s from a big family and I’m from a big family, we’re both Maritimers, we’re both from small towns, we have similar views on a lot of things and we love making music, we love the studio. But we come from totally different places.
So there’s more David Myles/Classified collaboration in the offing?
Class and I have been working together on a lot of new stuff. We have an EP of stuff that we’ve been working on together, we’ve got some songs for his new record. We’re just always working together and we don’t know what we’re going to do with it . . . Every time we’re both off the road we get together and make stuff. So we have a collection of really fun stuff, completely different from the Christmas record. I’m a little bit terrified of it right now because it’s full-on pop. It’s upbeat dance jams, basically. It’s really fun. So I’ll figure that out at some time.