Hope for the holidays
Rosie Thomas offers comfort and more on her first Christmas album.
By Naila Francis
If you’re going to record a Christmas album, don’t do it in June. Rosie Thomas giggles when she shares this bit of advice, acknowledging her own challenges in setting the mood for “A Very Rosie Christmas,” a collection of holiday favorites released Nov. 4 on her own Sing-A-Long Records in conjunction with Nettwerk, a Canadian label.
“I almost feel like we already had Christmas,” she says, speaking from her Seattle home prior to embarking on album tour that stops Sunday at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia. “We had to literally decorate the studio with lights and Christmas trees and things we found to get ourselves in the spirit because it’s so hard to record when you’re, like, ‘OK, guys, you want to go to the beach later?’
“Even the choir we had come in, we had eggnog and cookies for them and told people to come in their Christmas gear. It was really funny to see people wearing sweaters and scarves when it was 80 degrees outside.”
Yet for the 31-year-old Thomas, who possesses an engaging ebullience and artless appeal, the recreation of such a festive atmosphere hardly seems like a stretch. Thomas, after all, is an avowed Christmas enthusiast. The holiday is her favorite time of year with most of her memories tied to her family’s tradition of singing together on Christmas Eve and the big Christmas parties her parents would throw for friends and family. She in fact celebrates the season’s many joys on the jaunty “Why Can’t It Be Christmastime All Year,” one of two originals on “A Very Rosie Christmas.”
Yet ironically, despite her eagerness to make a Christmas record (the idea was actually hatched last Christmas, but it took some months before she could assemble the players, including brother Brian Thomas, fellow songwriter Damien Jurado and longtime producer Josh Myers), Thomas acknowledges that carols do carry a certain “hokey” connotation.
“I’ve always been the one that puts the station (playing Christmas music) on when it gets close to Thanksgiving. Maybe it’s from growing up in the Midwest with the snow,” says the Detroit native. “But there are those people who are, like, ‘I’m going to kill myself if I hear another (Christmas song)’ because most of them are cheesy.”
Even she struggled with that tendency when recording songs like “Winter Wonderland,” one of 10 culled from an exhaustive list for the recording, which also includes a heartfelt Christmas wish from Thomas and a nostalgic radio sketch in the tradition of “A Prairie Home Companion,” featuring her alter ego, Sheila Saputo.
“I’m singing this and thinking, ‘ “Sleigh bells ring, are you listening” — come on.’ But when I was a kid, that was the stuff we listened to,” she says. “My dad had all the Bing Crosby records, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, all those classics.”
But Thomas, for the most part, manages to avoid cloying sentiment and the aureate vocalizing and instrumentation that plagues so many carols. Like the earnest singer-songwriter she is, she instead uses her sweet, wistful vocals to create moments of tender vulnerability and hushed intimacy, even a song like “Winter Wonderland” scaled back to a graceful, understated delivery accentuated by delicate harmonies and a simple piano arrangement.
And rather than serve up a steady stream of holiday cheer, she acknowledges, too, that Christmas isn’t a happy time for everyone, injecting a sense of desperate longing into the campy Chipmunks classic “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” and capturing the bittersweet emotion and sadness many feel amid so much rejoicing with a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” and the self-penned ballad “Alone At Christmastime.”
“I found it very necessary to write one about literally being alone because sometimes Christmas can haunt people,” says Thomas. “Christmas is a time of reflection that can bring up hard things — broken relationships, divorce and just loneliness, so I wanted to touch on that, too, so no one would feel left out.”
Such poignancy has always underpinned Thomas’ songs, even with the easy joyfulness and warmth that she conveys. For the one-time would-be actress (she moved to Seattle to study theater at Cornish College of the Arts but then left school to pursue a solo recording career), exploring that full spectrum of emotions is important.
That’s partly why Sheila Saputo exists. The clumsy, socially awkward, sometimes irreverent character with a gentle heart may have been created in jest years ago but quickly presented an opportunity for Thomas to break out of her comfort zone.
“In the beginning, I was so shy on stage, I didn’t know how to let people see that other side of me, which is kind of a big goofball and a jokester and something of a truck driver, too,” says Thomas. “With the music portion, it’s not funny. It would be hard for me to write silly songs. It’s just not in my nature. … When music found me and presented what it needed to say — ‘This stuff will be on the heavier side with hope in it’ — I just kind of followed that.
“When I think of (Sheila), it’s literally like thinking about another person. She really is a separate person to me, but there are bits of her awkwardness that are me — how I don’t say things properly, or get the definition of words wrong and don’t use words in the right way. And she gets away with it. Sheila is kind of meant to bomb. It’s a challenge for me, but I like not playing it so safe. And I need that silliness so bad. We all do.”
Though she actually tried her hand at stand-up comedy before making her first record (she has four solo albums to her credit, including last year’s “These Friends of Mine,” recorded with Sufjan Stevens and Philadelphia’s own Denison Witmer), Thomas has always had a natural affinity for music, having learned guitar and piano as a child when she would perform at various functions with her parents and siblings. Yet once she committed to a career in music, she knew her choice was about more than being a singer-songwriter.
“Music is really important to carry you through your seasons in life,” she says. “I thought, ‘Why not give people all of me? Why not be an entertainer for these people, and be vulnerable and make them laugh and let them know we’re all in the same place?’
“To strike at people’s hearts — that’s way more important than being a goofball. I want to be that person that reaches people there first and then be, like, ‘I’ve got a good joke for you.’ I don’t think I’d feel as whole as a person if I didn’t engage in both realms.”
– The Intelligencer, Bucks County Courier Times and Burlington County Times