Josh Shilling – The Christmas Song • The holidays are fast approaching and the continual stream of newly released Christmas music has been pouring out for the past month. A lot of this music, sad to say, is quite trite, leaving much to be desired. Maybe it’s just me, but Christmas music has been on a downward spiral since the 60’s, with a few exceptions spattered here and there. One of those exceptions was just released this past week by Mountain Heart front man Josh Shilling. His version of The Christmas Song is beautifully elegant, tasteful, and reminiscent of the classics. This is the kind of Christmas music one listens to while drinking hot apple cider, sitting in front of the fire place and gazing out your window at the houses lining the street, all alight with greens, reds, whites and blues. I got a chance to talk to Josh about his newest release and he shared a side we don’t often get to see in his Mountain Heart persona.
Can you tell me why you decided to release a Christmas song this year?
First of all, I grew up playing piano and I always loved Christmas music. I’ve been playing solo gigs in casinos and hotels for a decade now, and during the holiday season I’ve always performed my own versions of the Christmas classics. I have a weakness for Ray Charles, Sinatra, and all the other crooners like that, and I love the jazzy, big band arrangements that you hear on most Christmas classics. So I’ve definitely been influenced by them when it comes to my versions of these songs.
The entire idea to release a single started as a simple Christmas wish or e-Card for my family back home in Virginia. I had some friends on Facebook and family members pushing me to perform my favorite Christmas song, video it, and upload it to YouTube. They wanted to have something to get them in the holiday spirit, and I wanted my young nephew and mom to hear me sing a Christmas tune for them even though we live 8 hours apart. One evening after working on some overdubs in my studio, I setup my little HD camera on a step ladder of all things and recorded myself singing and playing The Christmas Song. I only played it once and didn’t think much of it. The next afternoon, I uploaded it to YouTube and shared it on Facebook. Within an hour, it started to blow up. Hundreds of people shared the video, and it ended up getting several thousand views in just a day or two. So I simply asked the question online, “If I take the Pro Tools audio from this video and have it mixed, mastered, and rushed to iTunes as a holiday special digital download, would you guys be interested?” I think I had several hundred comments saying, “absolutely!” So the next night, we went for it. We put together a team and within a day, there was Christmas artwork ready, the audio was extremely beefed up, and it was available online! Technology is pretty incredible these days.
Do you plan on doing an entire Christmas album? Maybe next year?
I don’t have any plans yet but I would love to! I know exactly which songs I would record and what my arrangements would be. Maybe we’ll wait to see what kind of reaction we have to this single, and if it’s good we’ll go for an entire record!
Why did you chose this song as your Christmas release? What does this song mean to you?
The Christmas Song is simply one of my favorites. The chords and the melody are just perfect for each other. Everything about it is so tasty. When I think of Christmas songs, I think of this one first. I guess most of all, I love the fact that there are so many incredible band arrangements of this tune. I’ve pulled chord changes from several of my favorite versions and incorporated them into my own style. This song also is so strong on it’s own without a huge studio production. A singer can definitely deliver this one at a piano with no band supporting them and that’s one thing I truly love to do.
“These songs are some of the greatest pieces of all time and they have to be performed with respect and taste I think.”
What artists would you consider an influence on your regarding Christmas music?
Harry Connick Jr., Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Donny Hathaway, and sooooo many more. Basically, anyone that get’s inside of the song vocally and delivers strong emotion. These songs are some of the greatest pieces of all time and they have to be performed with respect and taste I think. I’m not sure if I accomplished that with my single but I sure as heck tried!
How did you record the song? I see in the video that you’re in your home studio with just a mic and a piano, but can you give any interesting insight into what went into the recording process?
Well I think the magic of this entire thing is the simplicity of it all. I literally planned to put together a simple recording for the family. I’m singing into an inexpensive vocal mic through an Avalon 737 preamp. I’m triggering a Steinway piano in the program Ivory II. Other than that, it’s completely live and unedited. One thing that is cool about this video and the final audio is how I monitored myself. Most of the time in the studio, you have to wear headphones to hear yourself. In a studio, there are so many amps, Leslie cabinets, guitars, drums, and live mics that you have to isolate things in other rooms and use headphones to be able to hear them. Otherwise, if, for instance, you had a huge speaker setup to hear the piano, everything coming from that speaker would simply bleed over into your vocal mic, guitar mic or whatever else was setup. Usually you wouldn’t want that; you want the isolation from instrument to instrument. As seen in the video you mentioned, I didn’t wear headphones. I actually played the piano and listened back to it through my studio monitors and sang acoustically. In my opinion, singing without headphones, really allows an artist to sing and hear as they naturally do. Although monitoring yourself through speakers with a live microphone recording can cause issues, in this case all that came out of the speakers was the piano so it’s much like recording a piano/vocal track with live piano and vocal mics bleeding into each other. The only downfall to recording this way without a click track or headphones or isolation is that there’s no way to fix anything performance-wise after the fact. There’s no moving audio or tuning vocals or anything really. You simply have what you have when you record tracks this way. So I guess the interesting insight to me is, I played and sang through this once without headphones, and what’s on this single is exactly what happened live.
If you have any other insights or thoughts you would like to share, just throw it out there!
Well the camera was sitting on a ladder because nothing else in the room was tall enough. I had also been having a lot of trouble that day out of sustain pedals. While playing and singing live, when I would push the pedal down, each one of them would squeak or make some kind of spring noise and those noises kept making their way into my vocal mic. So, I eventually freaked out on the pedals (3 of them) and went out to my gear van and used the very first sustain pedal I ever owned as a kid! It’s like 20 years old now.
I think we got the response out of this performance that we did because of the emotion and the way the vocal is used in the mix. When you don’t have drums, guitars, and a huge band cranking on a track, you can make the vocal feel like it’s right beside you. You can bring it right to the front in the mix. I used to LOVE hearing old Michael McDonald or Ray Charles recordings when they were mic’d this way. When you put headphones on and listen to their songs and you can literally feel them breathe…when you can hear the whistle from their nose in between vocal lines or a little grunt after they sing hard or hold a long note. Anyway, I love that intimacy and I think people respond to that type of performance, and that’s exactly what we tried to capture with this single. Lastly, I think this should be proof that you don’t need to spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a successful project. It is and always has been about the performance itself.
Josh Shilling has also recently released his first solo album, Letting Go, which can be purchased digitally through iTunes or, if ordered directly from www.joshshilling.com, one will receive a personalized, autographed CD for no additional cost! Josh personally guarantees that each order will ship the next day, so this is a perfect gift idea for your music loving friends!