“It’s crept into a tradition over the past six or so years.” Steve Marion, who records as Delicate Steve, says of the annual show he hosts at Stanhope, NJ’s Stanhope House every December. “We’ll play this big homecoming show right before Christmas. It’s central to where the original bandmates and I are all from.” This year Delicate Steve’s holiday tour will expand into a two-date event, with shows scheduled at Brooklyn, NY’s Market Hotel on December 11 and their traditional The Stanhope stop on December 11. And, for the first time, the performance will coincide with the release of Delicate Steve’s simply titled holiday LP, The Christmas Album, a reimagining of seasonal classics like “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silver Bells,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “White Christmas,” “The First Noel,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “Frosty the Snowman.” A few familiar faces helped Marion—who has collaborated with everyone from Paul Simon to The Growlers over the years—reinterpret these well-known favorites, including JRAD’s Joe Russo, Dave Dreiwitz and Marco Benevento, as well as St. Vincent,/Arcade Fire contributor Kelly Pratt and Dan Iead, who has worked with Norah Jones, Cass McCombs. “Usually, there’s nothing really Christmas-y about that show, other than that we’ve thrown in a couple covers from time to time,” Marion says of his upcoming dates. “But this year it will be a real Christmas show. I’d love to grow this and, in five years, we will be doing our extended ‘Frosty the Snowman’ at Radio City.”
What made you decide to make a Christmas record?
I finished my forthcoming Delicate Steve record this spring, and it’s gonna come out next year. Basically, I was talking to a friend after I made it, Michael Azzerad—the rock writer—and I was telling him, “I finished my record and I don’t know what else to do in the meantime because it’s gonna be a while.” And he was like, “Why don’t you make a Christmas album?”
I called Andy from ANTI- at some point the following week to talk about music stuff and I approached him with some other ideas and he said the same thing, “Why don’t you make a Christmas album?” I really loved the idea because I think it’s such a loaded, opinionated format for music and I wanted to be really sincere with how I approached it.
I feel like people are like, “Oh, you made a Christmas album.” But nobody can deny that all these songs have beautiful melodies and chord changes and are some of the great songs that man has created.
Did you spend some time researching some of the classic holiday albums?
The second step after confirming I was gonna do it was to call Joe Russo up. Then the third step was to call Dave [Dreiwitz]. Joe and I had been trying to do some stuff together for a long time, and once those guys were down it was like, “Alright, I’m gonna start thinking of some songs.” I started with the older Christmas songs that I had heard as a kid, in church and other places. We put a list together then went in cold to Joe’s studio for two days and let the process of us playing dictate what songs we were and weren’t gonna do.
The only other idea I had going in was, ideally, I wanted to do a 27-minute long “Frosty the Snowman.” I thought turning that song into an epic was fitting and cool. That was the only song I was playing around with in my room before the recording dates. I was playing it like The Beatles’ song “Rain.”
It happened so naturally, how we found all these arrangements for the songs.
You mentioned some of these were the songs you sang in church and were part of your youth. Were you observant growing up?
It was mostly church around the holidays. I grew up in a Catholic family. I went to Catholic school as a kid, so it was around, but my parents weren’t very strict about it.
I don’t remember any of the thoughts I had around the time, but I always thought the music was beautiful—hearing a church organ play “Little Town of Bethlehem.” It’s a beautiful song.
You’ve mentioned that some of your earliest recording equipment was a Christmas gift. Could you talk a little about that moment and how that spiraled into your current Delicate Steve approach?
I got a guitar for Christmas one year, as well. My grandmother got me a plastic toy guitar, and as a kid I played that thing all the time. Then I got my first electric guitar maybe a few years later, which was a Fender 1999 Mexican Strat, so I must’ve been like 13. And I played that guitar—I still play it. Then maybe a few years later they got me some recording equipment. That’s how I got into music, both through playing guitar as an instrument and recording, producing and arranging other bands. Both those passions developed around the same time.
You mentioned Dave and Joe, who are the core rhythm of this album, but a number of other notable names flesh out the record. How did you select the other plans who ended up being involved?
Joe, Dave and I cut the record live. I’d say we did three takes per song max. Then from there, I was really into the Dylan records that came out the past couple years—Triplicate and Shadows in the Night. As far as an aesthetic for some of the songs, that was the biggest inspiration for how to treat these songs and not put some weird, indie spin on it or whatever.
From there, I reached out to Kelly Pratt—a horn player in Beirut, Arcade Fire, St. Vincent, David Byrne, everybody—with an idea of creating an arrangement for the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that was meek and a little feeble; I thought the Dylan record had that characteristic to it. Next thing you know, he had done horns or flute on most of the record. From there, I sent the album to Marco [Benevento] and a similar thing; just had a couple ideas, then he surprised me with everything he put on it. Lastly, I sent it to Dan Iead, who plays pedal steel with Cass McCombs and a bunch of other people. He put some steel on it. Meanwhile, Joe was doing some percussion overdubs.
I always thought Dylan’s whole Sinatra phase really began when he did his own Christmas album a few years ago. From there, he went into the whole spiral of the American songbook.
Yeah, I don’t know how deep I’ll go with it, but I definitely like the idea of recording these covers of timeless, old music. It’s awoken something in me—just to be able to not try to do anything differently with the songs. Play them, then realize it’s in your own voice in a way. It’s really fun as somebody who just likes to play music, the idea of doing that. I could see myself covering other songs in the future.
The Christmas record was also a way to keep myself focused and engaged in something else so that I wouldn’t touch my other record. Just feel confident that it was done. It was almost like I used it as a tool.
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