Thursday, June 30, 2022

A Covid Christmas: New lo-fi album features atypical holiday songs created by regional bands

Justin Lacy and Sarah Royal of Library Baby contributed the song “Can’t Sleep” to the holiday LP, “The Clamplamp Parade.” (Port City Daily/Photo by Ross Page)

WILMINGTON—In a year where connecting with others was a hurdle unlike any other in our lifetime, local musician Justin Lacy turned to holiday music once fall arrived for an early spirited uplift. He had missed playing throughout 2020 because of the pandemic, which also managed to short-stop inspiration he found from his colleagues.

“Sharing show bills was always a chance to meet new musicians, to be inspired by their songwriting,” Lacy said.

His latest endeavor, “The Clamplamp Parade: A Holiday Compilation (Do Not Gather, 2020)” — available on Bandcamp for $11 and all major streaming services by Dec. 8 — is a mixtape he hopes will offer reflection and emulate one live act leading into another, even if sinalongs around the yule log are frowned upon in person.

“This mixtape gave me something to be holly jolly about,” Lacy said.

Lacy reached out to some of his favorite North Carolina indie bands in October, and asked them to create a new holiday track or provide him one that had never been released. Circle Verse contributed “Luminaries,” with lead songwriter Nick Lazorko Brower also helping with the compilation’s artwork. Brower posted an image to social media of his grandfather’s woodcut print, “Xmas Eve on the Ave.” Once Lacy saw it, he thought the visual really encapsulated the goal of the album.

“It felt nostalgic, but depicts a mostly empty city sidewalk and street, which felt reminiscent of quarantine,” Lacy said.

“The Clamplamp Parade” consists of 11 tracks by bands and solo acts, including Seeking Madras, Kevin Earl, Annie Jo Buchanan, Emma Nelson, Billy Heathen, Tumbleweed, Color Temperature, Moon Racer, Circle Verse and Library Baby.

Lacy knew he would include one of his solo songs, “Newport Christmas,” but also reached out to his Library Baby bandmate Sarah Royal and Ross Page from Color Temperature to participate. Both hopped onboard. At the very least, Lacy expected he may have a short EP to release in time for December. Yet, when he began floating the idea to other musician friends, the response was all yes.

“I wanted to connect with others during what can be one of the loneliest times of the year for people, especially this year,” Royal said.  

Library Baby recorded “Can’t Sleep” at the last minute, right before the compilation was sent to distribution. Royal and Lacy — who, until recently, were known as “Slow Dance” — approached the tune with intent to showcase opposite perspectives society seems to take on during this time of year.

“There seems to be two feelings most people have towards the holidays: anticipation or anxiety,” Royal said. “For some, it’s the happiest time of the year; for other people, who grew up in less than cheerful families or just went through a break up before the holidays, it can be overwhelming and stressful.”

For Lacy, he interprets the narrator of the song as discussing opposite viewpoints — for instance, weighing whether Santa is real or if this time of year points more to consumerism than magic. 

“But in 2020, the song also evokes so many more polarizing topics, from politics and racial inequality, down to the very pandemic itself,” Royal explained.

Lacy attempted to tap into nontraditional, lo-fi sounds on “The Clamplamp Parade.” He wanted to avoid the constant cheery show tunes of fantasy and folklore the season often mandates. With everyone recording from home, he also aimed for intimacy resounding through the LP. Though it wouldn’t replace a concert setting, the personal vibe ultimately could become a deeper listening experience.

“Two of the songs were recorded on actual tape machines, and using digital effects,” Lacy said. “The whole compilation has a little bit of a tape-hiss warmth to it.”

Though curating it wasn’t necessarily pinned down to a science, Lacy said he arranged songs by creating a story arc. 

“I listened to everyone’s lyrics and how each song would flow into the next,” he explained. “The album begins with warm nostalgia for Christmases past, and then delves into darker, more desperate territory.”

The end result he felt ended up cohesive, much more than he had anticipated. Focusing on indie-rock or indie-bedroom pop acts helped, too.

“I really just selfishly wanted a Moon Racer Christmas song to listen to this year, and now I do,” Lacy added.

Autumn Ehinger is Moon Racer. Her participation seemed most fitting, seeing as she takes her performance name from the Rankin-Bass claymation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” wherein King Moonracer reigns supreme on the Island of Misfit Toys. Ehinger had a music video shown alongside one of Lacy’s stop-motion videos at Cucalorus in November. Yet, she hadn’t worked on any new music through the pandemic.

“And I was excited at the prospect of having a fun assignment that would make me lean into my limitations and push me to accomplish something again,” Ehinger admitted. 

Covid-19 left her busy adapting to new circumstances as an elementary school teacher, which in itself was taxing, she said. Thus it also left her feeling less-inspired creatively than normal. More so, her physical space, a small shared home with a roommate, didn’t allow for as much recording time — and she couldn’t necessarily pop into a studio during the pandemic. 

“When Justin messaged me about his idea and the theme of the compilation, I thought writing and recording one song would be a challenging but manageable task,” she said. “My small window of time and limited resources helped me to not overthink it, to just do it. And that felt really good.”

She turned out “Maybe This Is the Year I Move” in one afternoon. Ehringer was able to record it on a Saturday morning with a room mic on a Tascam four-track. She did a few live takes of vocals and keys before adding tambourine, snare and “a little twinkly keyboard lead.” 

The song is melancholic, about wanting to be around friends and needing to overcome the loneliness of the holiday. Ehringer looked toward Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” and Wham!’s “Last Christmas” as favorite staples of the micro genre. 

“For me, the guise of a holiday song let me not worry too much about sounding melodramatic in my lyrics,” she said, “and I could just say what I wanted. The arrangement is sparse, and I hope it sounds lonely, but in a comforting way — like a hug for other lonely people.”

She calls “The Clamplamp Parade” a testament to the creative strength of North Carolina musicians. Rock outfit Billy Heathen is among the ilk. 

Billy Heathen’s contribution, “Christmas Song,” is the “most Covid Christmas” song to come out of the compilation, according to producer Justin Lacy. (Port City Daily/Photo by Kyle Sullivan)

Lacy reached out to him simply stating he would be curious what a Billy Heathen Christmas song would sound like.

“I found myself equally curious,” Heathen responded. So Heathen recorded “Is This Still” — a sad song he says lands perfectly in the midst of a sad year.

“I was a little worried he might rock too hard for the mix,” Lacy admitted, “but Billy Heathen came through with the most Covid Christmas song of the batch. His lyrics really blew me away.”

“The scene inside the room,” Heathen sings, “Mother sets the stage / Father picks the tune / The children will call soon / What a thing / Everybody on a screen / Smiling / Is this still Christmas?”

“Covid sucks,” Heathen wrote in an email. “At the beginning of lockdown, I had almost a manic drive to record, but it’s been a real struggle to find a creative balance with the performance half of my art form atrophying. I never realized how much I would miss performing. The stage is special to me, and I long for it dearly.”  

Heathen points to Emma Nelson’s “Christmas Song” as an incredible feature on the compilation, as well as Color Temperature’s “Christmas Wish.” 

Made up of solo artist Ross Page, Color Temperature already had half of the song written from Christmas 2019. He said Lacy’s challenge was reason enough to finish it, with added saxophone from friend Cydaddy — “which was a Color Temp first, featuring someone else on a song,” Page added.

Page honed in on the common theme of solitude during the holidays, something he echoed from other musicians as more relevant than ever in 2020. 

Page also plays drums for bands Tumbleweed and Seeking Madras. He produced “Divine” for Tubleweed and played on Seeking Madras’ “This Time of Mine (Brookside Carol),” both on the compilation.

“Some of the other songs deal with holiday sadness, too,” Page explained. “We didn’t exactly all write your typical ‘wonderful Christmastime’ songs. There’s more emotion past ‘holly and jolly’ on a lot of them.”

The mixtape essentially became a way for many to creatively unblock themselves from the past year. Ehringer was happy “The Clamplamp Parade” arrived when it did. She said it permitted her to try out ideas and arrangements normally she would have been too self-conscious to pursue. More so, it provided her a network — even if socially distanced — she missed being a part of.  

“And during these times particularly,” she added, “it feels really special to be part of a community.”

Circle Verse’s lead songwriter Nick Lazorko’s grandfather did the woodcut print, “Xmas Eve on the Ave,” which ended up being the the album’s artwork. (Port City Daily/Courtesy Justin Lacy)

Have music news? Email Shea Carver at shea@localdailymedia.com

Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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