'I Promised Her That I Would Get This Done': How A Kansas City Couple Made A Christmas Album In A Pandemic
It meant recording dozens of musicians one at a time — and airing out the studio for at least a day between each session — but Andrea and Marcus Lewis knew that this was the year the Christmas album had to happen.
Marcus Lewis likes Christmas. The jazz trombonist and bandleader is usually super busy playing holiday gigs this time of year, but on a scale of one to 10 — with a rating of one reserved for people who hate the holiday and a 10 meaning you start decorating in July — Lewis gives himself a seven.
His wife, he says, is a 20.
"She's very much about Christmas," he says.
Andrea, a classically trained vocalist, does not dispute this characterization. She says that one of her cherished holiday traditions, even in adulthood, is sleeping in matching pajamas with her sister under the same roof on Christmas eve.
That tradition won't happen this year. The couple is staying home and Marcus will have to don Christmas pajamas in Andrea's sister's absence. But something else will finally happen.
Every year, Andrea talks about making a Christmas album. But it's always gotten stuck on the back burner. "When you're working jobs and you're trying to pay bills and to stay on top of family matters and everything else, you know, things get away from you," she explains.
So when she approached Marcus one night this fall with a nugget of an original Christmas melody, that got his attention. He knew it wasn't just a stray thought. It was something she'd been wanting to do forever. And it was really catchy.
The only problem? It was late October. Getting a whole album's worth of songs arranged, recorded and mixed in time for Christmas seemed far-fetched.
"I honestly didn't think I would be able to do it because it's such a short amount of time and we're also dealing with COVID, so like, getting musicians together is not possible," Marcus recalls. "But I promised her I would get it done."
The couple met in college, as students in a music program. Marcus has ended up with a career spent gigging, arranging, and teaching trombone. Andrea's path has gone in another direction. She's become a fulltime HR professional.
"She really got into her work and was singing less," says Marcus.
Being at home all the time has changed that. Making music together at the piano has been the couple's go-to activity throughout the pandemic.
"Getting back to that point where we can bond with music and spend that time together has actually been amazing," Andrea says.
There is one original song on the album, Have A Very Merry Christmas, and the chorus, which Andrea kind of sang to Marcus that late October night, just came to her. "It was really weird how the rest just flowed in," she recalls.
The song is about noticing what really matters and celebrating the heck out of it. The instrumentals and lead vocals have a smooth, R&B-style sophistication, but there's a rambunctiousness to the song as well, with lots of clapping, big horn sounds and a choir shouting a boisterous "Merry Christmas!" at the end.
The idea, Andrea says, was to recreate the feeling of walking into a friend's house from the cold for a big party.
"People are super excited to see you and they're like 'Oh my gosh, it's so nice to see you, it's been so long!' — that type of feeling that kind of wraps you in a hug."
It works. And in a holiday season without parties or hugs, it fills a major festivity void. But how do you make a song that sounds like a party when everyone has to record alone?
Normally, when recording an album, musicians would pile into a studio and vibe off of each other, doing multiple takes of each song. Spontaneous adjustments would be made, with the sound the arranger had imagined happening out loud, in real time.
None of this was an option for Have A Very Merry Christmas. In fact, it had to work the opposite way. The music sent to every musician on the album had to be played exactly as written or the parts wouldn't fit together in the end.
Keeping everyone together, on their separate recordings, requires a strategy. That starts with a click track, which is essentially a metronome clicking on every beat, to set the tempo of a song. Then Marcus adds the information for all the instruments into a chart.
"Everyone is playing to a version that I played all the instruments on, essentially. As they're recording, I just move their instrument out."
You also record in a particular order: drums first, to lay a shared foundation, then bass and piano, then horns and vocals.
"There's tons of musicians on this album," Marcus tells me. "My big band is playing on three of the tracks. There's a string quartet on three of the tracks. And then a few other various people. And so we're talking probably thirty musicians."
That's a lot. But so many of their musician friends — particularly horn players — are missing out on gigs right now, and part of what they wanted was to give everyone a project that would be silly and fun, at a time when so much of life is the opposite.
When you record a socially distanced album, every musician you add to the lineup means another session in the recording studio. So 30 people meant 30 schedules to juggle.
"I put out a big calendar with the times that I was available, and just had people sign up for a time," Marcus says. "A few of the people recorded at home if they had a nice setup for that, and then literally everyone else, we were recording one person per day, one person at a time."
Andrea did not witness any of the other musicians recording their parts on the Christmas album she's dreamed of creating for so long. It was one person in the studio, one in the recording booth, and that's it.
So in real life, she sang alone.
But on multiple tracks — Christmas classics, with a bit of a twist — it sounds like she's singing not just with a band, but with backup singers. One of them is harmonizing with her. That's her sister — the one she won't get to wear matching pajamas with this year.
In the animated video of Have A Very Merry Christmas (enjoy watching it below), cartoon versions of all the musicians play their parts. In the end, they appear square by square on screen, as though on a Zoom call.
That will be the only reminder, years from now, that although the album captures a spirit of togetherness, it was made in a strange year when togetherness — if you wanted it — had to be painstakingly manufactured, with a touch of magic.