We are about to experience a Christmas like no other. Even if we’re allowed to see each other briefly during the party season, this year’s festivities will be… complicated.
We don’t want to be forcibly jollied through to the end of the year, says musical polymath Chilly Gonzales. We need a bit of musical therapy. “I think when you’re in a sad mood you tend to want to commiserate. You want to feel like you’re not alone in your sadness,” he explains.
“You’re not gonna throw on the Black Eyed Peas when you’re in a bad mood, because you’re not looking for the antidote. We want our music to reflect our inner space. We want someone to say: ‘Yes, of course, you’re right to feel sad.’ At the same time, you want to have hope that the sadness won’t last forever.”
Known for his classical skill and pop sensibility; his collaborations with Daft Punk, Jarvis Cocker and Feist; as well as his penchant for grand stunts (including a record-breaking 27-hour solo piano show) the Grammy-winning Gonzo has created a Christmas album to act as a salve on your soul.
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“You need to find that sweet spot where you acknowledge somebody’s feelings, but sort of guide them toward the way out of that. That’s what any good therapist would do,” he says.
To celebrate the release of A Very Chilly Christmas, Gonzo has made an exclusive Guide to a Bittersweet Christmas especially for The Big Issue. He has reimagined four Christmas classics, performing the “magic trick” of flipping them into a minor key to better suit the complex emotions of 2020.
Read what he had to say about the songs and watch his video guides…
Chilly Gonzales does Jingle Bells
When they really work, Christmas songs live in our collective unconscious. In a way, great folk music from centuries ago lives in our mind as a Platonic form. So that means you can really take a lot of liberties.
With a song like Silent Night, or Jingle Bells, I can twist and turn them, put them in a minor key and people still go, ‘Oh, that’s Jingle Bells.’ And that makes a song very ripe for a Chilly Gonzales treatment.
Jingle Bells seems right, not only because it’s so well known, but because it’s quite insipid. You can only really appreciate it if you’re sitting and watching it through the eyes of a child. Nobody gets in the bath and listens to Jingle Bells, you know. But maybe you could do that with my version.
I sort of bring it to this other level by turning it into a minor key. It suddenly takes on all these associations. And yet, all the while you recognise Jingle Bells. I love that little magic trick that you can do.
Chilly Gonzales does Last Christmas
Last Christmas is the opposite [to Jingle Bells]. It has such a stamp of George Michael. That’s really an auteur’s creation because he’s playing every instrument, he wrote every note himself. You hear the voice, you hear the chintzy drum machine, you hear the synthesisers. You picture the video in your mind with the funny Christmas sweaters and turtlenecks.
Playing it on the piano divorced it of all of that. I tried to play it with no variation in tempo, very little dynamic variation. I played it as if it was a song written 500 years ago. So that people can hear it and get rid of those associations. They’re not thinking about Christmas sweaters any more. They’re just appreciating the beauty and construction of that song.
Chilly Gonzales does All I Want For Christmas is You
I did struggle a little bit with this one because, as I say, my approach to Christmas music has so much to do with being at the piano and having people sing along with me. You start to play All I Want For Christmas is You on the piano at a Christmas party, and people are happy to hear it but then they try to sing it and they can’t. Because it’s too complicated.
In its traditional form, Christmas music has to have this ‘accessibility to everybody’ thing. It is fundamentally music without ego. And here we have very much a diva whose brand is ‘I can sing better than anyone’.
That’s what Mariah Carey’s entire existence is predicated upon. It is a little bit of an anomaly in Christmas songs in how complex and virtuosic it is. Normally that shouldn’t work. So perhaps Mariah is the exception that proves the rule.
Chilly Gonzales does We Three Kings
I am generally attracted to minor key Christmas songs. There’s only a handful of them.
The two examples I can think of are We Three Kings and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Interestingly, they are both Christmas songs that focus very specifically on the Three Wise Men. They’re not churchy Christmas songs.
They’re not funny Christmas songs. They are desert ballads. Whenever you talk about a rule or a fact, you always have to present the counterfact, if you want to be objective.
I thought, well, let’s see what happens when we go from minor to major and see if that also works. I feel like with We Three Kings, if you play it in a major key–if you do it right – it can still have an interesting emotional effect. You still get the magic trick, because all of a sudden, the Three Kings seem much friendlier.
A Very Chilly Christmas by Chilly Gonzales is out now on Gentle Threat. A Very Chilly Christmas Special, a 75-minute program filmed in an empty Parisian theatre featuring Jarvis Cocker, Feist and other guests is available 16 December 16 in Europe and December 23 in the rest of the world. Tickets available here.