When it comes to setting the tone for the most wonderful time of the year, the soundtrack is key. (I mean, what are you gonna do? Decorate the tree in silence?) A good holiday album evokes equal parts joy and wistfulness, it makes room for all the big feelings of another year’s end and it also isn’t afraid of sentimentality. In the heyday of the album era, a Christmas record was almost a rite of passage to superstardom and a sign of a deeply entrenched fanbase—ask anyone from Mariah Carey to Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.
But this year, Halifax has two new holiday albums (and accompanying live performances) coming from opposite ends of the sonic spectrum. What Lennie Gallant’s Christmas Day on Planet Earth offers in stripped-down style, Reeny Smith’s Where You At, Santa? dials up in dreamy R&B production. Between the two, every seasonal note you could hope for is hit.
Lennie Gallant is looking into the middle distance, as if making eye contact with memories of Christmases past. Sitting in a north end Halifax cafe, the Order of Canada-honoured singer-songwriter is explaining why he’s always loved this time of year, and why his annual, seasonal showcase (held this year on Dec 11 at Saint Andrew’s Church) and recent holiday album—the pandemic-released Christmas Day on Planet Earth—were inevitable manifestations of how highly he holds the holidays.
“I was very fortunate to have parents who always treated it like a magical time of year,” Gallant says, holding a black coffee and smiling. “They were pretty community-minded people in that they and their friends were constantly putting on productions in various small halls and raising money for various causes…And as soon as I knew two chords on the guitar I was enlisted to perform.”
The idea for his take on the family tradition came from his own artistic practice: Gallant—who splits his time between Halifax and PEI—is one of eastern Canada’s most famed singer-songwriters, with a salt-sprayed storytelling-based style. “I like that quote that Joni Mitchell had, where she said ‘All my songs are true—they’re not necessarily factually true, but they’re emotionally true,’” says Gallant. On the album, this manifests as re-imagining the nativity story from the perspective of the innkeeper, or channelling a sadcore Santa on “I’m Gonna Have a Merry Christmas Even If It Kills Me.” (“I really had a Christmas like that one time,” Gallant says with a laugh.)
The overall effect is festive folk, spare enough in style you’d almost forget it’s Christmas music—but with lyrics that make you remember your own halcyon holidays.
“I think the main attraction for me to Christmas music is it just sounds really happy—and you can listen to it and automatically be in a good mood. It is usually super positive or it can make you nostalgic,” North Preston R&B luminary Reeny Smith says, speaking with The Coast by phone days after the release of her holiday EP Where You At, Santa?. “I'm a person who always tries to be uplifting, motivational, positive, with my messages. That just reflects me as a person and I think that it's probably definitely a big reason why I can resonate so well with that type of music.”
Smith—who confesses to watching Hallmark Christmas movies in July (“I’m one of those people”)—comes from a festive family like Gallant’s. Her mother is one of her main musical inspirations, listed in the same breath as Toni Braxton and Brandy, while her brother is a noted percussionist.
Every December, Smith brings an ensemble of family and friends onstage with her for a holiday review. This year’s edition takes place at Monte’s Showbar in Dartmouth on Dec 15. “We're known to be a musical family, I tell people all the time. So in the outset, we kind of were just like: ‘Alright, let's just put it all on stage and really bring the family experience to people—and what better time than at Christmas,’” she says. The 2022 edition of the annual show will also act as the live debut for the new EP. “We play a bunch of [songs] that we would have sang as kids growing up, with our parents at church, and put them all in the show, and kind of just bring that little bit of cultural experience to people who come to the show,” Smith adds. “We just kept it going because people are always like, ‘Oh, if you do it again, we'll come back.’”
When asked what her own entry into the Christmas music cannon brings, Smith says: “Just different types of stories, perspectives. Musically, it's a little non-traditional in terms of what people think Christmas music sounds like. It's kind of just my own spin on these songs. And you know, I guess if I could say the one thing that was missing, I don't want to say it but I’ll say it anyway: I guess it's just, like, Reeny’s take on it.”
The album (which Smith estimates she “90% produced,” having her join the rank of the 5% of women producers in Canadian music currently) is a heady offering anchored by the singer’s signature creamy vocals. Across its six tracks, both Destiny’s Child’s 8 Days of Christmas and Mary J Blige’s A Mary Christmas are evoked. “In terms of melody and stuff like that, it’s super, super R&B—but I tried to make choices that you can definitely make people feel like it's Christmas as well: On the project there's a few times you'll hear sleigh bells a lot. That's my little Christmas sprinkle on the top,” says Smith.
The EP’s title track—an updated answer to Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby” for the TikTok generation—is her favourite on the album: “It gives a different perspective on having an adult relationship with Santa Claus and what that would look like if you were quote-unquote naughty…talking about how Santa just pretty much skips over her home because the adult was not behaving properly—and goes on to say what shenanigans might have happened.”