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“Another Christmas (Until I Am There With You)” Out Now

The cover to "Another Christmas (Until I Am There With You)", which features a Christmas tree, with a moody art filter.

Short version: I co-wrote a Christmas song with the musician Matthew Ryan and through New Year’s Day we are offering it free, as a gift to you (yes! You!). You can download it now from Matthew’s Bandcamp site, and you can listen to it here through the lyric video I’ve embedded at the bottom of this entry. Merry Christmas, and happy holidays.

(If you’re just interested in the song, you can stop reading here and either go to Bandcamp or scroll down to the song video. Indeed, I might recommend that you listen to the song first, without additional context; it’s beautiful and stands on its own. But if you’re interested in how I, of all people, came to co-write not only a song, but a Christmas song, then the next section is for you. It’s full of process and overthinking!)

The not-at-all short version: This song is, shall we say, a surprise to Matthew Ryan and me as much as it is to any of the rest of you. It didn’t exist before Friday night; Matthew and I have never thought about collaborating before this; and it came about in no small part because I got sick, and because of that, got stuck.

Let’s take that last part first. I spent much of November and the first half of December in a brain fog. I strongly suspect it was due to COVID; my daughter Athena had it and I had symptoms very similar to her, and although my own COVID test came back negative, it’s also a test with a high error rate, and I think I got one of those errors. Whatever it was, while I was fortunate to have relatively mild physical symptoms, my brain wasn’t doing a very good job of thinking for a while there. I described this to Matthew as “feeling like I was up for 36 hours, for three straight weeks.”

This wasn’t great for my job, which is writing novels, including the one I’m currently writing. I could write words — and did — but while they might make sense on an individual sentence level, everything above that was, well, wobbly. I currently have tens of thousands of words that don’t really go anywhere. Don’t worry, I’ll fix them before any of you see them. But in the short run, what it meant was that I was struggling to do a thing that normally I don’t struggle to do at all. I don’t want to say I was freaking out about it, but it’s totally fair to say I was frustrated by it.

When I get frustrated by something, one of the things I’ll try to do is come at it laterally, which is to say, approach the problem in a way that my brain isn’t used to (and therefore, isn’t expecting). I was having problems writing words, but I was writing words for a novel, a form that my brain knew about (I’ve written fifteen so far) and had expectations for, and therefore could get balky about if everything wasn’t going like it was supposed to.

So: Why not write words for something I had no real process for at all? Maybe the words would come easier that way.

This entailed two things. First, I decided to write longhand, on a yellow pad. I never do this (this will not be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen my handwriting), and the fact is that changing your physical medium of writing will change how your brain handles it. I have been writing on computers since I started writing at all; those pathways are well established. Hand writing words? Much less so. Second, I changed the conceptual medium of my writing: I chose lyric songwriting. Which I don’t do much of at all, and which my brain doesn’t have a plan for.

I should be clear at this point that in doing both of these things, the result I was focused on was jumpstarting my brain out of its rut and seeing if my brain fog had lifted enough that I was able to do something purely creative. I had no other considerations in mind. This was good; it meant I didn’t have to think about any second-order issues. No one was wanting or indeed even expecting songwriting from me, so I could do whatever I wanted.

What I wanted to do was write a Christmas song. Because it’s the holidays, and I was listening to holiday music, and because it’s a form I’m familiar with after a half century of concentrated annual exposure. Also, I’m a Christmas guy, and have become more so over the years. I like this part of the year and the general sense of it. A Christmas song seemed the right thing to try.

I had no interest in writing a snappy, funny, wink-and-nod Christmas song, possibly about robots or aliens. Not just because that’s what people would expect from me (although they would, and with good reason), but because, bluntly, 2020 doesn’t have me feeling snappy, and funny, and winky-and-noddy. Among many other things, it’s made me miss friends and people I care about, and it’s made me long for a time when we can be together again and feel joy in each other’s presence. What I want for Christmas in 2020 is the people I love, with me, after so long. I am fortunate to have Krissy and Athena here. But for everyone else, this year is for missing them. And for hoping for another Christmas, and another year with better days.

That’s what I wrote about, last Thursday night, scribbling words onto a legal pad with my genuinely awful handwriting. When I was done writing them out, I had two thoughts:

1. Writing the lyrics was actually useful — I got myself into a creative flow where the words were coming out and my brain was simultaneously problem-solving issues. For the first time in about a month my brain felt like my brain, and not just a wad of wet cotton that somehow allowed me to be fitfully bipedal. This was kinda huge for me after a few weeks of its complete and utter uselessness, thank you very much.

2. These lyrics were not bad at all. Which, again, was not the point — I would have been happy with them being terrible, as long as they made my brain feel like it did in the previous paragraph. The process was the goal here, not the outcome. But as it turned out, they were all right. They had an internal structure and rhythm, and I could almost hear a melody. It felt kinda like an actual song to me, and not just a generic song, but a little bit like a song from an artist I already knew of and whose work I admired.

Now, a few words about Matthew Ryan here. I’ve been aware of his music for years now, first through the good graces of our mutual friend John Anderson, who had been a fan of Matthew since his debut album Mayday, and then later of my own accord. Matthew’s music has been widely described as alt-country, blue-collar rock or Americana, but I feel that’s both limiting (not in the least because the range of his work extends into electronica and even ambient) and not specific enough to what I think makes Matthew’s songs fly.

Specifically, this is how Matthew’s music makes me feel: In his work, Matthew offers his great cracked and wounded heart, and in listening to him, both of you get a chance to heal. Which I realize after typing it is a lot to put on Matthew, on a song-by-song basis. Sorry, Matthew. But that’s where I am with him, and why I come back to his work, album after album, and song after song.

The lyrics I wrote feel of a piece with what I come to Matthew Ryan’s work for. The two of us have been friendly online for years, and we’ve both cheered each other’s various successes. So I sent him a message, which was, more or less, hey I did some words, can I show them to you? And he said, more or less, yes, I like your words generally, show them to me. And then on Friday night, he said, more or less, hey, I worked on your words some and here’s what they sound like now, what do you think, and enclosed a demo.

Which I listened to, and got teary over. And then I played the demo for Krissy, and she got teary too, at which point I said, oh by the way, I co-wrote that with Matthew, because, uhhhhhhh, I hadn’t told her about it before that moment. Because, remember, I originally hadn’t planned for anything other than to use the songwriting to get out of my own head. This — an actual song — qualified as a real bonus.

And it’s a really good song, too. I will take a little credit for that, thanks, but the lion’s share of the credit here properly goes to Matthew. As a craftsperson, what was fascinating to me from a process point of view was how Matthew took a bunch of words that I wrote, trimmed, recast and added to them, and as a result made them a better version of what they had been. And then put them to music! I am not, shall we say, a generally collaborative person, artistically speaking, but this experience does make me understand how collaboration can work at its best. One of the great joys of getting older is the realization that working with people who are differently competent than you is a pretty great thing. Matthew is, of course, more than competent.

By Monday morning we had a completed version of the song, and then the question was: What now?

The answer to “what now” is: Here, have a song. This song was a surprise to the both of us, our sudden and previously unthought-of collaboration was a late-breaking bit of joy we got to give to each other, and 2020 has been a real motherfucker of a year. We could all use something unexpected and hopeful here at the end of it. Also, it’s the holiday season, Christmas is coming for those who celebrate it, as well as a new year. In all of these cases a gift is not out of order.

Here’s ours, to you, with love. We hope you like it.

— JS

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