I do love a Christmas song. I really do. (Except when sung with lacklustre perfection by Zooey Deschanel and her indie-pop “I wanna band for Christmas, Mommy!” cohorts, in which case I am reduced to spitting turkey feathers at the internet and wishing it would stop.) The best Christmas songs can sweep you up in an orgy of hopeless communal ache for what never was and never will be again, will get you joining impromptu choirs and crying into your eggnog. And even the worst have sleigh bells. Pretty much everything benefits from sleigh bells.
Anyway, I got an email from Dan Willson last week, informing me that his band had a Christmas single out. His band is Withered Hand and if you weren’t paying attention when I raved about them halfway through the year, then prick up your ears right now, because by the time they release their next LP, whenever that turns out to be, they will be HUGE. I promise. Their 2009 debut, Good News, has been the very definition of a slow-burner; it’s still getting discovered and reviewed by interhacks the world over today, who, quite rightly, have been enthralled by just that precise combination of self-deprecation, vulnerability, foul-mouthery, bitterness, heart-grabbing melodies, reedy vocals that shake with an honesty that verges on masochism, and an adroitness with a strummed guitar that gets me where it matters. Dan, who was raised in a strict Jehovah’s Witness family, writes about the sordid realities and the luminous glories of a life strung through with guilt and godliness. His songs are studded with Biblical imagery but with a lightness of touch that avoids any vicarish awkwardness; his verses, with perfectly pitched alterno-god worship, also contain reverent references to Sonic Youth, Nirvana, REM, Pavement and Silver Jews.
Maybe it’s because I recognise the Christian guilt thing - moulded by shame yet still hoping for heaven - that the songs resonate so deeply with me. Maybe it’s the harmonies and the fiddles and the “la la la”s that play foil to the gritty bitterness of the lyrics and elevate them from easy folk ditties to something exceptional. He can certainly write: I’d place him with the greats who walk the line between caustic filth and raw heartbreak, up there with Mark Eitzel or Vic Chesnutt or, closer to home, Arab Strap’s pair of scabrous-savant lyrical genii, Malcolm Middleton and Aidan Moffat.*
So, yes, I was pleased to get news of a Withered Hand Christmas single. And pleaseder still to hear it, because it ticks the boxes I like such things to tick. Bells, cynicism, big swoopy tune; the will to romance thwarted by reality; ultimate redemption found, despite the coal-effect fire and plastic mistletoe, in the real snow falling from above, and in love.
Dan describes ‘Real Snow’ as “an anti-Christmas, pro-love song”, written “cos I hate feeling like I lie to my children once a year”. Ah, yes, the parental dilemma of how far along the line of Christmas bullshit do you take your precious children, how much of the silky lie to spin when the lie can make magic. I wanted to know more about his take on Christmas songs and the tribulations of being exiled from the rest of the modern world’s consumerist/pagan festivities, so I asked him some questions to set ‘Real Snow’ in context.
Does Father Christmas exist?
"In the minds of many children, yes."
Who would you nominate as Grinch of the year?
Mistletoe or wine?
"Wine please. If you both drink enough wine you won't need the mistletoe."
What are you hoping for in your stocking this year?
"As a rule, I'm far more interested in what's in other people's stockings."
What’s your favourite Christmas song?
"‘The Friendly Beasts’. I came to it through my children, and Sufjan Stevens does a wonderful version."
What's preferable in a Christmas song, communal jollity or pangs of nostalgic misery? Basically, do you want ‘Merry Xmas Everybody’ or ‘Fairytale Of New York’?
"I find nostalgic misery can often be a good soundtrack to communal jollity! ‘Fairytale of New York’ wins every time for me."
Me too, definitely. Did you start off intending the two Christmas singles you’ve released to be specifically Christmas songs or were they written as songs like any other?
"One on purpose and one by chance I guess. I wrote them both at the onset of winter. In fact, I did everything I could to un-Christmas ‘It's A Wonderful Lie’. So there are two quite different versions of that song. One I can play all year round. I don't think I can do that with ‘Real Snow’ though."
(Here’s a link to 2009’s song, which was recorded in Dan’s kitchen as a free gift for subscribers to his mailing list.)
Do Christmas songs have to have bells on?
"No. When we recorded ‘Real Snow’, Darren (Hayman from Hefner, who recorded the track) and I differed on this. But in the end I came down on the side of it being a full-on Christmas song and we stuck sleigh bells all over it. I'm happy with that decision now but it means it is gathering dust the rest of the year!"
What are your childhood memories of Christmas?
"Those memories are always coloured with being one of the kids who knew real fast that Santa was not real and had to keep quiet about it. We didn't celebrate Christmas in our house, in fact it was a religious observation NOT to celebrate, our brand of evangelism forbade it. Also sitting out of Christmas celebrations and assemblies was a bit heavy. I had to sit and do homework in the canteen and the whole school would have to file in right past me.
"I also remember the Christmas just after my parents’ split. I got more presents than I'd ever seen before and I didn't want any of them."
What does Christmas look like to someone on the outside of it?
"It looks like parts of the whole thing are really bogus. At the same time I could see people were happy to have a reason to take some time to be together. I still feel that way about it, like it's a good thing."
What's been the best thing and the worst thing about participating in Christmas as an adult with your own family?
"The perfect foil to all of this Christmas stuff is that I never celebrated it as a kid, so I simultaneously discovered it via my own children and wife (yippee!) and also feel real bad about the big lie I compromised and participate in now yearly. The worst thing is dodging awkward questions about Santa now I am shamefully colluding in this myself. And the best thing is it sometimes snows. To be honest, I find it hard to relate to the feelings my wife describes about the magic of Christmas but I'm happy to take her word for it and hope my kids are experiencing it. Snow, on the other hand, blows my mind!"
Who's been thrilling you with their music in 2011?
"John Vanderslice - listen to his beautiful album White Wilderness."
Who thrilled you most musically in 1981? 1991? 2001?
"1981? Adam and the Ants.
"1991? Nirvana or Sonic Youth.
"2001? I think I went off music for a few years around 2001."
What are you hoping 2012 will bring (either musically, personally, or globally, or all three)?
"Peace and clarity."
How's your relationship with 'folk music' these days?
"Purists bore me. Same as it's always been."
How's the real snow up there in Edinburgh?
"It's just about melted. We made a snowman though, as soon as it fell. He's looking a bit weary."
When's the next Withered Hand record out?
"Good question. A vinyl EP comes out on Fence in February. I have a few more recordings in the locker. But the difficult second album? Ask me next Christmas."
I will. And I will be hoping for one more Christmas Withered Hand weepie to toast the passing of another year.
‘Real Snow’ is released by Fence Records on mini-CD inside a Xmas Card. To own a copy of this song you must subscribe to Fence Records Chart Ruse EP Series BEFORE 16 DECEMBER 2011. More details here.
*If you don’t believe me, here’s Withered Hand’s ‘Religious Songs’:
I don't really know what I should doI'm singing religious songs
Like, should I be passing this bread along to you?
And I don't really know what the wine was for
‘cos if it was Jesus' blood, wouldn't there be more?
I'm knocking on Kevin's front door
And getting the words wrong
My hair's getting too long for this congregation
I'm getting the words wrong
My hair's getting too long
And they're saying
"How does he really expect to be happy
When he listens to death metal bands?"
If there's manna from heaven then you're disinclined to share
You stole my heart and I stole your underwear
You said religion is bullshit, it's all about metaphor.
Well if I need a fence to sit on
Then I'll sit on yours, sit on yours
Dreaming of Babylon's whores… I knew you so long I ran out of cool things to sayWell, I beat myself off when I sleep on your futon
I still bump into friends that we both had yesterday
When they ask me how I am, I lie and say I'm doing fine
They still manage to tell me I'm an easy lay holiday
Well that's okay, remember you thought I was gay?
I walk in the rain with my secondhand suit on
Beat myself off when I sleep on your futon
I walk in the rain, and I'm thinking
If I happen to die tonight in my sleep
I'll have cum and not blood on my hands
I’m inclined to say “Take that, Zooey!” but that would be unseasonally graceless.
(Originally posted on Collapse Board)