The alleged War on Christmas is not strictly a modern concept. The Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas in the 17th century. Under state atheism, the USSR prohibited festive observances, as well. Nazi Germany also dismantled opposing views, as a show of dominance and cultural cleansing. However, in the past 20 years, the notions of a “war” on the typically-Christian holiday have been skewed, often by politically-charged conservative agendas, rather than any legitimate concerns. New York singer-songwriter Kyle Motsinger, who issued his lo-fi, theatrical-pop album earlier this year, has had enough. “Like many of us, I’ve been outraged and scared by the events of the past year,” he tells B-Sides & Badlands.
“A while back I saw another horrifying speech by the president. He said, ‘We’re going to bring back ‘Merry Christmas!’ He complained about political correctness,” Motsinger explains of his new song, aptly titled “War on Christmas,” premiering exclusively today. “It got me thinking about how conservatives always talk about there being a war on Christmas. That sparked something, and I began writing the song. The idea that ‘Happy Holidays’ is somehow an attack on Christmas and Christianity is completely ridiculous to me.”
“Don’t worry about other religions / They won’t take yours away,” Motsinger drives behind a wall of brassy horns and delicate percussion. Later, he sings, reflecting on racial tensions sweeping the country, “Based upon the recent racial chatter, shouldn’t you think all holidays matter / This is not about political correctness / It’s about the rights that everyone possesses.”
Motsinger not only crafts a relevant holiday standard but one immersed in clever wordplay, tipping his proverbial hat to long-standing musical traditions. “Hark, hear the sound of angry voices / This should have been a silent night / When will we learn to love our neighbors / When will we choose to see the light,” he warbles, the production rising and falling around him, crisply and deliberately. “The wordplay of known carols was my way into the writing of the song. I wanted the song to almost sound familiar in a way,” he says. “It needed to sound like a carol while carrying an important message of acceptance.”
How did the production come together?
I wanted to work with Ryan Howe again. My debut album was mixed by someone else but was very clearly not where it needed to be. Ryan came in and completely remixed the album, and I was so happy with the result. I asked him to record and mix this song, and I’m so glad I did. He even added acoustic guitar when we felt like it could use it! My album’s bass player, John Murchison, came in and played upright bass on the track. There’s really nothing like that sound, and he has had a great year playing bass onstage in the Broadway musical, ‘Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812.’
Vincent Presite also returned from the album to add drums to the song. I asked my friend Mark Hartman to arrange a brass quartet for the song, and he gave me a beautiful arrangement played by four wonder instrumentalists. We recorded the brass at John Kilgore Sound in Manhattan. Mark also added in church bells to give it a Christmas sound and helped oversee my vocals. Jack Miele mastered the song in New Orleans. I was excited to work with him again after he worked on my album.
Have you dealt with people in your life who believe/d there is/has been a war on Christmas? How do/did you try to shed light on the real issues?
I had one experience that really sticks with me. I was working at the cafe at Barnes & Noble in Illinois about seven years ago, and I said “Happy Holidays” to a customer. She very sternly said “Merry Christmas” back to me. She was furious with me, and I was so confused. I try to have a respectful dialogue with people. It’s easy to get angry. The end of both choruses in the song show that anger and frustration. I do think it’s important to listen and be kind. Kill them with kindness!
At its core, the song is about the “War on Christmas” debate and how religion plays into hypocrisy and double standards, but you also reference racial tensions and rights “everyone possesses.” Being from central Illinois but now residing in New York City, how have you seen these issues intertwine with each other, clash, erupt and feed into fear mongering?
Well, Central Illinois is strange mix of liberal and conservative people. The smaller towns tend to be on the conservative side due to ignorance. Growing up, there was little diversity in my area in terms of race and religion. I see the effect Fox News and the conservative media has on small towns. They scare people into fearing those that are different from them. People from rural communities often try to avoid topics that they feel don’t affect them.
It would seem the Trump presidency buys into this terrifying war of ideals, instead of making a peaceful compromise. How can music play a crucial role in mending wounds and establishing a middle ground?
I come from the theatre, and in my training, we learned that songs in a musical happen when mere words will no longer suffice. What if we can have conversations through song that we find hard to have otherwise? I think artists have a job to do right now. We need to respond to what’s going on. Maybe we can inspire and heal with our music.
How have you seen music move people to change?
I’ve seen the power of music bringing people together. Stepping into a piano bar in NYC, you can see different people raising their voices in song. I’ve seen what artists like Tori Amos or P!nk do for their fans. They inspire and heal with the stories they tell. I hope to do the same.
You released an album back in the early summer. Are you working on any other new music, a new album, perhaps?
I’m always getting ideas for songs! Nothing complete has formed lately but I’ll think of a random line or song title that might turn into something. I’m also playing around with the idea of finally writing a musical I’ve wanted to write. We’ll see what takes shape first.