A home at the end of the frozen river.

Ten years ago Sufjan Stevens set this thing in motion called The Great Sufjan Stevens Xmas Song Xchange. The idea: people would submit original Christmas songs. Sufjan would select the song he felt was the best and most original of the bunch. The winner would get the rights to an exclusive Christmas song of Sufjan’s, and he in turn would get the rights to theirs.

I’ve talked before about what I think of most music-related contests. In this case there didn’t seem to be any way for anyone to cheat or turn it into a popularity contest. I didn’t expect or even really want to win, but I thought it might be pretty neat to get one of my songs to Sufjan’s ears even if I would probably never know how he reacted to it. And I liked the idea of challenging myself to write a Christmas song that wasn’t profane and offensive for once. It would be unbroken songwriting ground for me.

So I decided to go for it.

I didn’t have a real piano then. I sat down at the Clavinova and wrote a song that was sung in the voice of a homeless man who tries to get his wife and kids through the Christmas season with some amount of hope intact, struggling to find beauty in the face of adversity. I spent the better part of a day chipping away at it, committed to crafting the lyrics and music into something serious and meaningful.

By the time I sat down to record the song I’d lost all interest in it. It sounded like just the sort of sappy thing that would win this kind of contest, but it didn’t feel authentic.

This was also right about the time it started to sink in that the sound of a digital piano wasn’t cutting it for me in the studio anymore. So that didn’t help. I got down piano and guide vocals, and that was the end of it.

A few weeks later I sat back down at the Clavinova and started writing a new set of lyrics to some very different music that had a lot more energy in it. “The temptress of the ice will swallow us whole and cough us up as we wish to be,” the opening line went. That felt more like me. I plucked a few of the more interesting lines from the first song and tried to incorporate them, but I couldn’t get it to a place where it felt finished.

The day of the deadline for submissions, I threw out all the music to the second song, grafted together a few different ideas I’d been kicking around on the mandolin without knowing what to do with them, took what I liked from the words I’d written, improvised the rest, and recorded and mixed the whole thing in about half an hour. I wanted to add more acoustic guitar, some stomping and clapping, more vocal tracks, maybe some bass, and maybe some Wurlitzer or something, but there wasn’t time for all that.

It wasn’t a perfect performance or mix, and the acoustic guitar dropped out a little early at the end. Even so, I was pretty happy with the way it turned out. Felt like I found a way to write a Christmas song that sidestepped the obvious imagery and well-worn phrases. Aside from a silly little riff on “Frère Jacques” and one line at the very end, there weren’t any overt references to Christmas at all. And the closing verse tempered that with a healthy dose of cynicism.

A Home at the End of the Frozen River

When the winning song was announced, it wasn’t mine. I was expecting that. What surprised me was the song that did win. It was one of the worst things I’d ever heard in my life. The lyrics alone were so awful they defied belief.

If you don’t want to read the whole thing, check out this bit:

For I’ve got a secret that no one else can know
that keeps my temperament even during times of snow.
I’ve got the perfect present, one not wrapped up in a bow.
It lifts my spirits high when I’m feeling low.
Others long for the holidays, yes indeed they do.
But every day is Christmas when I’m with you.

We were told our songs were being judged based on their originality. Here was one trite, clichéd, unoriginal turn of phrase and predictable forced rhyme after another. As for the music, it was a few simple chords that never strayed far from the key of C.

There was no complexity or invention to any part of it. As Gertrude Stein once wrote, there was no there there.

Sufjan had this to say about his decision:

“I fell most in love with one particular song because of its happy simplicity: Alec Duffy’s ‘Every Day Is Christmas.’ It feels, at once, like a classic show tune, the perfect parlour song, a lackadaisical bar ballad, and a church hymn. It is unencumbered with the pejoratives and prophetic exclamations of Christmas, the most complicated of holidays. Oh sure, I continue to indulge in the Christmas blues, the heavy winter dread, the melancholy expectations of the season. And I still marvel at the sacrilege, the subversive satire, and the silly nonsense of Christmas as commodity, patterned with the cartoon characters of Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and Rudolf. For me, the entertainment of these bipolar fantasies will never quite fade away; they are fundamental to the mysteries of Christmas. But when it came down to it, I just wanted the simple relief of ordinary, everyday love, the love between two people, the kind of love that doesn’t obligate itself to the trumpet fanfares and jingle bells of a holiday spectacle. Alec Duffy’s unfettered song ‘Every Day Is Christmas’ summarizes this simple phenomenon with the most effortless of words and melodies, somehow making perfect sense out of a senseless holiday.”

I read that and thought the dude must have some kind of magic ears capable of turning the sound of a rake scraping across sidewalk into choirs of angels singing. The song sounded like none of those things he said it did. It accomplished nothing he claimed it did. Listening to it again today for the first time in ten years, my feelings haven’t changed. Not every song aspires to be some great, incisive piece of art. Not every song needs to be that. But bad is bad. And I can’t fathom how anyone could listen to that song and hear anything but bad.

As for Sufjan’s song, most of us will die without ever having a chance to hear it.

It came out that the contest-winner was the director of a theater company. He said his plan was to take Sufjan’s song and build a play around it. Fair enough. There was one problem: by forcing people to buy tickets to see a play if they wanted to hear this elusive Sufjan Stevens song, the guy was defeating the explicitly stated purpose of the song exchange. It was supposed to be about sharing music without money being involved, and here he was going to use the spoils of his victory to line his pockets and raise his own profile. Talk about missing the point.

At first I assumed Sufjan just didn’t have very good taste. A few dozen of what must have been hundreds or thousands of submitted songs were put up on a media player on the Asthmatic Kitty website for a while, and every single one of them put the winning song to shame. Then I read something that mentioned Alec and Sufjan worked in the same building at some point, and everything got a whole lot clearer. There was evidence to suggest the two of them knew each other a little bit before the supposed contest was even created, at least in passing. It didn’t take a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the rest.

Hey man. You heard about my Christmas song contest, right? What do you say you whip something up? It doesn’t even have to be any good. I’ll juggle some words to justify why it takes home the prize when there are many more deserving candidates, and in return you’ll work my song into one of your productions and introduce my music to a whole new audience. You make money and get more attention, I expand my reach, a bunch of people get to feel like they had an honest shot at something that was rigged from the start — everybody benefits.

Maybe that wasn’t what happened. But it would have explained a lot.

The play was never produced. I’m not sure why. Instead, the winning songwriter and the music director of his theater company decided to host listening sessions where a handful of people would be allowed to come over to one of their homes and listen to the song while having tea and cookies. Which was great if you were in Brooklyn and they deemed you worthy of a visit, and not so great if you lived anywhere else.

A blog post was written to explain the reasoning behind all of this. It was supposed to be about bringing some of the mystery back to new music in the internet age, bending the act of listening back into a more meaningful experience. And part of me can appreciate that. The loss of mystery is another thing I’ve rambled about before. It’s one of the main reasons I go to great lengths to keep money far away from the music I make and keep it a very low-key thing, only sharing it with a small group of people I know have some genuine interest in it. I like knowing when you get a new album from me you have no idea what you’re going to hear, because there’s no way to stream it beforehand. It’s a physical thing you have to sit down and spend some time with.

Having said that, imagine for a second you found your way to this blog and sent me an email asking how you could get your hands on an album or six, and instead of responding with, “All I need is a mailing address and I’ll send you free CDs wherever you are,” I told you the only way you were ever going to hear any of my music was if you came to my house. If you didn’t live nearby or couldn’t get out this way, you were out of luck. And if you did manage to make it here for a little listening party, all you would have to take with you when you left would be your memory of the music you heard, because I wouldn’t even consider sharing any of my songs with you in any way other than a one-time “fire it into the air and watch it disappear” in-person experience.

I don’t imagine you’d leave that exchange with a lot of good feelings about me. You would probably think I was a pretty arrogant person with an inflated sense of my own importance, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned you off enough that you wouldn’t want to hear any of my music anymore in any format.

I mean, if you own the music, what you do with it is your choice. That’s the bottom line. But the endgame here has never made any sense to me. There has to be a better way of keeping that sense of wonder alive than making people jump through flaming hoops to hear one song. I don’t go out of my way to call attention to my music, but if someone in Alaska sends me an email asking for some stuff, I’m going to send them whatever albums they’re interested in even if it costs me a hundred bucks to do it. I don’t care if you live on Mars. I’ll still send you music. Discriminating against the majority of the human race because they don’t live close enough to make things more convenient for you smells pretty self-defeating to me, not to mention elitist and kind of messed up.

(As for how to describe the scent of self-defeat, well…that’s a discussion for another time.)

About the nicest thing I can say here is I lost a lot of respect for everyone involved. Then again, maybe a lot of it really does come down to Sufjan having crummy taste. He recorded a cover of Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost” a few years back. It’s an insult to the universe. He took a beautiful little open-hearted love song and turned it into shallow-sounding pop pablum with every trace of humanity removed.

I guess just because you’re capable of writing some great songs, it doesn’t mean the intelligence required to do that extends to your interpretation or assessment of anyone else’s work.

Anyway. Back to my Christmas song up there. It was only ever made available on the MISFITS (1999-2007) compilation, and there are probably only a few dozen people in the world who own that reckless, sprawling thing. It also landed on a CLLCT Christmas compilation way back when, but that site has been gone for years now and I’m not sure how many people still have the MP3 hanging out on their hard drives. I thought it was about time to dust the song off again.

Even in its less-layered-than-I-wanted-it-to-be form, it’s a very clear precursor to the CHICKEN ANGEL WOMAN sound. The triple-tracked lead vocals, the emphasis on acoustic instruments and organic sounds, a mix that’s more interested in energy than polish — it’s all there already. I even lifted an overlapping vocal bit from “Mismatched Socks”, a song that would later end up on that album (it’s the part that goes, “White, white, white, white snow melts into your braided hair”).

“Mismatched Socks” got its revenge when it came time to record that song. Every time I tried to sing the overlapping vocal harmonies it came out sounding like a mess. I had to reconstruct the vocal melody on the fly and take it to a different, harmony-free place.

I was prepared to give A Home at the End of the Frozen River a fresh mix, but aside from the vocals getting a little quiet in some parts and the glockenspiel being maybe a little too upfront, I don’t hear a whole lot wrong with it. This is one of those rare times I got away with a pretty loud mastering job that didn’t introduce any ugly clipping, and it might be the best I’ve ever heard those Neumann KM184s capture my mandolin. I’m starting to think I should try playing that thing with a pick more often.

If I probably won’t be moved to write another Christmas-themed song at any point in the next fifty years, at least I went out with something I can still share without shame. And that’s half the battle, isn’t it?

Merry Creased Mousse to you and yours. May all your mistletoe find four other toes to complete the rare and precious mistlefoot.

3 comments

  1. I still love this Christmas song. The middle section with the snow melting into her hair etc is sublime, and “Bring us lots of presents” can’t fail to raise a smile.

    I rate it better than any of Sufjan’s own Christmas songs. Such a hot-and-cold musician, once I ranked him as my favourite, but I haven’t really enjoyed anything he has put out since All Delighted People.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours Johnny!

    1. The same to you, Lucas! And thanks for the very kind words. With a little luck, I just might have something new to send your way before the New Year gets too set in its ways.

      I do still love some of Sufjan’s work…”Seven Swans” in particular has some gorgeous songs on it. The first track on that album almost moves me to tears every time, and it isn’t even because of the lyrics. There’s just something about the whole life of that song, and when the backing vocals come in it’s almost too beautiful to take. I can’t explain why. But “The Age of Adz” left me cold (not because of the change in direction or instrumentation, but because it didn’t feel like there was much soul there), and I thought crediting almost none of what was pretty clearly a large supporting cast of musicians in the liner notes was a pretty lame move.

      Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by that, though. I’ve found even some local musicians seem to have a difficult time giving due credit to people in their liner notes, whether they’re online or part of the packaging for a physical album. It’s almost a shock when everyone who contributed is acknowledged in a clear, visible way. I’ve never understood that at all.

      1. Seven Swans still makes it to my desert island list. I’ve tried the hardest to get to like Age of Adz, but still only enjoy a couple of songs.

        Carrie and Lowell was a big letdown too. He released No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross and I got excited, thinking this album might top Seven Swans. But the rest of the album sounds like he’s bored with himself.

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