Fogelberg's Holiday Album Recorded In Spring

Special to The Denver Post

By Eric L. Reiner

December 1999

Dec. 5 - It's that wonderful time of the year when Christmas music fills the air. From the carols that pour out of shopping mall sound systems to the songs on the tongues of children eager for Santa to arrive, there's no escaping the sounds of the season.

During the rest of the year, most of us don't hear or hum one note of Christmas music. Most of us, that is, except the musicians who make Christmas albums.

Case in point: Colorado folk singer Dan Fogelberg, who just released the seasonal CD The First Christmas Morning. Fogelberg began recording his Christmas CD in March 1998.

How does an artist get in the holiday spirit when 'tis not the season?

"Well, it was fine through May,'' Fogelberg said by phone from his ranch in the mountains of southern Colorado, "but then when June got here, I said, 'This is absurd,' because I was, like, mowin' the lawn and then going inside to this (home) studio decorated with Christmas stuff. It was very strange.'' Too strange, in fact: Fogelberg put the project on hold for the summer.

"When it started snowing again, I went back and finished (recording),'' he says.

Musically, The First Christmas Morning CD is rooted in the sounds of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Tambourines, mandolins, recorder and hammer dulcimer give the disc a centuries old vibe. So does Fogelberg's classical guitar, which he tinkered with to make sound like a lute.

He brought in elements of classical music, too.

"Like on (the song) 'Snowfall,' the string parts are right out of The Nutcracker, he says. "They're literally Tchaikovsky parts - the voicings, and the use of instrumentation, and the size of the string section and such. It was really fun to incorporate that into the arrangement."

Also fun: writing Christmas music, which Fogelberg has been doing since the late 1980s.

"Over the years, each Christmas I would sit down and just kind of play around with writing Christmas music."

Seven Fogelberg originals - four instrumentals, three songs with vocals - wound up on the album.

The standout among Fogelberg's original vocal tracks is the wonderful "At Christmas Time." It's straight-ahead Christmas with male and female choral singers (members of the Santa Fe Desert Chorale) evoking images of Dickensian carolers.

"That piece was quick to write" Fogelberg says. "The fun part was to actually think in terms of chorale when (I was) writing. I usually think in terms of a lead vocal and then harmonizing around it, but in this instance I was composing in terms of 'the males will say this, and the females will say this, and then they will meet here at the end, and so this line has to encapsulate what both the males and the females have said.' "

"At Christmas Time" also embodies a merry minstrel flavor, courtesy of the aforementioned medieval instruments.

When it comes to recording previously written Christmas carols - Fogelberg put seven of those on his album - how does an artist go about choosing from the thousands of seasonal songs that have been penned over the centuries?

"I didn't want to record ... songs (that) have been done to death," Fogelberg says. To find lesser known numbers, Fogelberg sifted through his personal collection of Christmas albums, perused old books and surfed the 'Net.

One obscure tune he unearthed was "This Endris Night" (the arcane title translates as "The Other Night," Fogelberg's colorful liner notes tell us), a delicately lovely carol written half a millennium ago. He recorded the old song, figuring it would complement his medieval sounding originals.

Folks looking for familiar Christmas carols will find only a few on Fogelberg's CD.

One is a tastefully sweeping version of "We Three Kings" that features Fogelberg on piano.

"With "What Child Is This?" I wanted to find some way to make it unique, because it's been recorded so many bloody times," Fogelberg says. "I remember staying up really late one night and trying everything I could possibly think of for the solo. Then somehow I found this weird bell sound on the synthesizer. Next thing I know, I was playing a variation of "Carol of the Bells" against the melody of "Greensleeves," and I went, 'Boom!' I don't think anyone's ever done that before."

After all is said and done, making a Christmas album is like making any album. Song selection, instrument choice, musical arrangement and guest musicians must be handled just right for the project at hand. Getting in the Christmas spirit to make the music is the least of it.

Which is a good thing, because holiday albums are rarely made during the winter, according to Fogelberg.

"There I was in L.A. in May, mastering this Christmas record with my friend who is an engineer, and I said, 'This has got to be really weird for you.' And he said, 'It's getting to the point where all I do during the summer is Christmas records.' "

"Christmas in L.A. for a whole summer has got to be even weirder than me doing it up here in the mountains," Fogelberg says. "At least I can look at the mountains and imagine there's snow."

Fogelberg performed some of the album's songs at a recent taping of the "E-Town" radio show, which will air at 8 p.m. Dec. 12 on KBCO-FM, noon Dec. 16 on KGNUFM and 2 p.m. Dec. 19 on Greeley's KUNC-FM.