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Chely Wright Talks Melancholy of Christmas, New Holiday EP

The holidays “shine a light on all of those broken relationships that we mourn,” says the songwriter, who launches a holiday tour this month

The title cut of Chely Wright’s new holiday EP Santa Will Find You is a sweet-as-candy tune originally inspired by Wright’s relationship with U.S. service members throughout the world. These days, however, the song assures her twin 5-year-old sons with wife Lauren that even though they may be spending Christmas away from home with family, St. Nick won’t have any trouble knowing where to leave their presents.

But Santa Will Find You also includes a heavy touch of melancholy. The cover photo of the EP, featuring a 3-year-old Wright, her two siblings and two of her cousins, is titled “Captured on Christmas Morning of 1973” and evokes the bittersweet vibe that often surrounds the holidays — one of the children in the photo, Wright’s cousin David, died of complications from diabetes in 1981 and would have turned 50 this year. Wright, who embarks on a six-city holiday tour Wednesday, December 12th, spoke with Rolling Stone Country about why classic Christmas albums, especially those by Phil Spector, make her sad.

Why was it important to record all original material for this project?
Christmas songs are tricky. There are thousands of recordings of these public domain and Christmas holiday classics. I’ve always believed that if you can’t do something in a way that really sets it apart or gives it rebirth, then maybe you shouldn’t do it. Although I did a couple of Christmas tours in my career with orchestras, I never felt like I really owned any of those arrangements. That always kept me from making a Christmas record with standards and classics. After I’d written a couple of Christmas songs that other people had recorded, I felt I had the wind at my back going into the project. It’s half the stress. [Laughs]

You make an allusion to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life with “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life),” a song that both Mindy Smith and the Indigo Girls have recorded. What inspired it?
It was right before Christmas 2005, and I had just gone through a break-up. I’ve always had a really active relationship with my fan club, and my best friend Chuck Walter and I were on the phone, and he said, “You should write a little song for your fans and we’ll send it out on Christmas Eve.” I was at the piano tinkering around and it wasn’t working, so I spun around and grabbed my electric guitar. I tried to get it to sound as Chet Atkins-y as possible. I carved out this finger-picking melody and did a work tape, sent it out to the fans, and that was it. Mindy Smith recorded it, and the Indigo Girls recorded it, and a couple other indie acts have recorded it. I ended up singing at the White House Christmas tree lighting a couple of years ago, when the Obamas were in the White House. It was fun to have my own Christmas song.

You and Mindy Smith also wrote “Santa Will Find You” together.
When I first got the idea for “Santa Will Find You,” I was thinking about all of the troops that were deployed at the time. It was 2006, the Iraq War was new. I have a brother in the military and I know how hard it is when someone’s deployed. I just thought, wouldn’t it be neat if we could write a song that would say what loved ones would want to say to their love ones who are deployed. I told Mindy about that, and we started talking about our own Christmas memories, and where we spent Christmas Eve – where did we fall asleep, and where did we wake up? It was a deep concern for me about whether or not Santa would know where to bring my presents. Last year, we spent Christmas Eve in Pennsylvania and the boys, it was all they talked about: “How will he know?” I played them Mindy’s version, and their eyes lit up. Since I’ve recorded it, I’ve played my recording to them exactly two times, and I heard them singing it together in the shower the other night! They take great comfort in knowing that Santa will find them.

You’ve had a longstanding relationship with the military through USO tours. What have those experiences meant to you?
It’s such a wonderful, warm feeling to go. The troops appreciate it in ways they can’t even say. It’s been really the honor of my life to get to entertain the troops the way that I was able to — I haven’t gotten to do a lot since I came out. Frankly, I haven’t been invited to go. I don’t know if that’s just a coincidence. But I sure miss it. I miss getting to take a little holiday cheer across the pond and tell those guys and gals how much we appreciate them. This world over here right now is pretty nuts, the American politics. One of the things that does kind of center me and keep me from panicking in some ways is that I know how bad around the globe it can get for humans. We’re in a pickle right now, but it’s worse around the globe, and the only thing that concerns me so gravely is that America leads, and when America slips, the globe slips.

Richard Marx is your co-writer and duet partner on “Christmas Isn’t Christmas Time,” which is melancholy and heavy. You recorded it twice for the EP, once in a Phil Spector vein.
We knew we wanted to write something that would be fitting to send out to somebody if their family member or a former lover passed. As we were writing it, Richard said, “We should make this kind of Phil Spector-y.” And everything just seemed to coalesce at that moment. That Spector sound is very holiday-ish, but it’s also very melancholy. When I hear a Spector record, even when it’s not a Christmas song, it just takes me to Christmas.

There’s a touch of sadness in his songs, too. Why do you think that is?
Doesn’t it kind of make you sad in a great way, though? The holidays — I can say this having been a closeted person for so long — were one of the more stressful times of the year for my partner and me. Because there was always this negotiation of, “OK, then you’ll go there on Christmas Eve with your family, and then we’ll find one another two days after Christmas.” When you have this huge secret life, you don’t get to prioritize that relationship over others. The holidays were really, really hard and stressful. It sometimes holds a mirror up that you don’t have people in your life that you want, or it shines a light on all of those broken relationships that we mourn during the holidays.

Chely Wright’s holiday tour dates:

December 12 — Decatur, GA @ Eddie’s Attic
December 13 — Dahlonega, GA @ the Crimson Moon
December 20 — Washington, D.C. @ City Winery
December 21 — New York @ City Winery Loft
December 22 — Boston @ City Winery
December 23 — Sellersville, PA @ Sellersville Theater

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