The holidays are a magical time for some, and a source of sadness for others. For the latter who don't want to hear another cheerful Christmas song, Communist Daughter is here to fill that sad hole in your heart with Sing Sad Christmas.
Created by frontman Johnny Solomon after Communist Daughter's forthcoming album was completed, the EP packs many emotions into four covers — ranging from the Pogues to Joni Mitchell to a track based on the murder of the Lawson Family. To allow the dreary holiday sentiments to show through, Solomon kept the track list short and rearranged the songs simply, allowing for his and bandmate/wife Molly Moore's vocals to shine through.
Sunday at the Southern Theater, Johnny and Molly will share their sad Christmas tunes along with Communist Daughter songs, which are just as heartbreaking.
City Pages: What is it about the holiday season that is so sad for you, or for some people in general? How do you get through it?
Johnny Solomon: I don't think it's as sad for me as it once was, but it still holds that general melancholy that I can see and feel. I think a lot of it has to do with growing up and coming to terms with life. When you are a kid there is so much hope and magic in the holidays, and then as you get older and you have to go through holidays alone — you have to come to terms with what got you there.
Everything about family and connection and hope is amplified in the media and the stores, so if you are alone or if you have had some stumbles you have this season that makes you reflect on it. Every absence in your life is front and center.
CP: Why did you pick songs that are so sad?
JS: To get more specific, I just gravitate to that. I think in general, suffering is the one thing that everyone can understand. No matter how put together your life is, everyone has had to suffer or struggle with something, whatever you think about someone's life from the outside, on the inside everyone has a little more to them.
I think that can come out in Christmas — when everyone is supposed to be together and be happy is when someone can feel like they are the most alone and downtrodden. Whether its just feeling homesick or feeling like your life hasn't turned out the way you always pictured. It's the time of the year we reflect on everything we are thankful for, but conversely it makes you think about how you think it could have been different ...
CP: What prompted you to do a holiday album?
JS: It was just a lark, we finished our new album in September, and everything with that now happens out of my hands, I had some time off of touring and I was so used to writing and recording for our album that I didn't know what to do with myself.
Every year people ask us to do a Christmas song, and I hate when bands do smarmy happy Christmas stuff totally out of character with their music, so I figured I'd record a few songs that count for Christmas tunes but that wouldn't be outside of what we normally do.
It's only a four-song EP download code that we're gonna attach to a limited edition poster, so I didn't really think it was any sort of proper release, but I think some people have picked up on it and that's fun to see. It's a pretty limited release, but KEXP in Seattle and KCRW in L.A. are among some of the big stations that have grabbed it, I think KUTX in Austin, Texas, might throw it in their holiday mix as well.
I know the Current and Go 96.3 here in town mentioned spinning a track or two. We'll also have it available via iTunes, Spotify, and other online outlets as well on December 18. I just sent it out to a few people I've met through touring, so it's funny to me to see it seep out there in the world.
CP: How did you pick what songs you wanted to cover?
JS: I've always had a list of my favorite sad Christmas songs; I still have a bunch more, I'll probably record a few every year to add to this collection. I was working on a bunch of them but time constraints made me narrow it down to just the four. I think my favorite song that even mainstream radio will start playing at this time of year is "Fairytale of New York" by the Pogues. [Listen to the premiere of that track above.]
I always connected with that song, obviously I have my own struggles with addiction, and put that with chasing that dream of being a musician and watching your life fall apart. It's pretty close to home cause for a while there I started to drag down the people that loved me. [My wife and bandmate] Molly had to deal with me like that; it made me think about how life could be if I never got sober.
The band had some studio time with our producer, Kevin Bowe [The Replacements, Paul Westerberg], and since we were already finished with the album, I asked Kevin if we could do that song. Kevin and I bond with more than music 'cause he's sober too, so he was totally into it. The band probably ran through the song only three times; we've played together so much that it takes them two seconds to pick up on something. That's what started the rest of it.
Once we had that song I had to keep recording sad Christmas tunes. I wasn't really aiming to reinvent any of these, obviously you can't do the Pogues tunes better then the Pogues, so it was just for fun, but they came off a bit interesting. I did a song from the band the Boy Least Likely To; they're a British band with a few hits people would know.
They have this song "Blue Spruce Needles" that's all jaunty and bouncy; it sounds really cheery. They put it out on a Christmas EP a few years ago, but when I sang it I realized how sad the lyrics really are — so just some guitars and Molly and I singing turned out nice.
The guys from The Boy Least Likely To picked it up and said some nice stuff about our version, I think he said something on Twitter somewhere last week. Gotta love the internet. I put up a Christmas cover on a lark here in St. Paul and the songwriter across the ocean listens to it and lets me know what he thinks. From there I had to do the Joni Mitchell classic, you can't do anything to that song but sing it and let people love Joni Mitchell.
CP: "The Lawson Family Murders" is pretty dark. How did you stumble across this song? What is the story behind it?
JS: When we're on tour I listen to podcasts all the time. I kind of have to, with being 6-8 hours in a van everyday, I get motion sickness, so I can't read while we're moving, and I like to drive. So I listen to podcasts, there was this great show on public radio called the Story from Chapel Hill North Carolina. It was just about people's stories, from the fantastic to the interesting everyday things. They had Dessa on one time, I'll always be jealous of that ...
I wrote a few songs after being inspired by some of those stories, but it ended a couple years ago. Some of the people from that show started a podcast called Criminal where they take a similar approach but its revolving around anything to do with crime. They told this story about a grisly murder in North Carolina that became a pop-culture spectacle in the '20s. This father killed his whole family on Christmas. Pretty gruesome, and so dark with the backdrop of Christmas.
People would visit the house afterwards, it was like a tourist attraction. Somebody wrote one of those traditional murder ballads about it. Later the Stanley brothers did a version. Its that traditional mountain music kind of song. I just wanted to sing it acapella with Molly so people could get how dark the whole thing was. It's still about Christmas, it's about the darkest thing I've ever heard about Christmas ...
CP: What can we expect to see at the album release show?
JS: The Southern Theater is amazing, so gorgeous and dramatic. It's one of the best places I've played for hearing Molly and my vocals and just experiencing our songs that way. We're gonna play about an hour and a half of music, half of the songs will be Communist Daughter songs, half will be Christmas songs, but all of it will be stark and sad and simple. Just acoustic guitar and harmonies.
It's kind of the opposite of a full-band show, I just wanted people to be able to sit back and experience some of these dark songs in a big dark theater. Holiday concerts can be pretty smarmy and saccharine, this one is just simple and heavy, maybe after the show you'll feel better for what you have. Nothing like touching that dark part of yourself to see how bright things really are.
Communist Daughter's Sing Sad Christmas album-release show
Where: Southern Theater.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday, December 13.
Tickets: $12; more info here.