For about a decade, comedian Harry Shearer and his wife, singer Judith Owen, have staged yearly Christmas pageants for charity that they’ve dubbed Christmas Without Tears. This year, the actor — best known for his many roles on The Simpsons and for getting stuck in a pod in This Is Spinal Tap — and the singer-songwriter are accompanying their annual performances with an EP, also titled Christmas Without Tears, which is set to come out on November 20th. One of its highlights sends up R&B singers who rely too heavily on melisma, which is when vocalists scale several musical notes in a single syllable.
“Too Many Notes,” premiered here, is Shearer’s smooth, star-studded and utterly over-the-top parody of singers like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, whose vocal lines make more ups and downs than roller coasters. The actor recorded the overly saccharine tune with Glee actress Jane Lynch, soul singer Alice Russell, jazz vocalists Ian Shaw and Davell Crawford, and saxophonist Dave Koz. Throughout, they push their vocal ranges to the max. “O-o-o-one note’s like nothing,” one of the men sings, as one of the women returns, “Two’s way too few.” Later, two singers proclaim, “The melody is just a jumping-off point.” It just gets crazier from there.
“We’re fans of melisma in proper doses and for the proper purpose,” Shearer says. “I just felt that it was getting out of hand and being used as a show-offy, grandstanding holiday extravaganza that was wildly uncontrolled. It just became part of the Christmas brand. You can’t do a Christmas record now without basically sounding like you were in hour three of a two-hour vocal exercise.”
So did Shearer or the other singers find themselves using a hand to conduct themselves the way the artists they’re parodying sometimes do? “No appendages were damaged during the recording of this song,” the comedian says.
“It proves that hand movements are just performance aspects,” his wife offers. “Conducting yourself is just a piece of theater.”
“But you’ve given me an idea,” Shearer rejoins. “I’m going to have one of them do that in the video for the song, except with a baton.”
The actor also happily reports that none of the singers’ voices crashed while attempting the tune’s vocal feats. The hardest part of making the tune was picking which takes to use, since each of the singers did their own version and they were mixed together later. “There was so much really funny stuff,” he says. “But everyone was on the money with these ridiculously funny performances.”
If listeners didn’t pay attention to the words or the singers’ acrobatic vocal leaps, it would be easy to assume that the number — which sits alongside Fred Willard’s hilarious take on “The True Story of Christmas” and singer Amy Engelhardt’s Immaculate Conception panic song “How Did This Thing Get in Me?” — was serious. “I learned from the days of Spinal Tap that you want the thing to sound like what you are making fun of,” Shearer offers. “That way, non-careful listeners can be fooled into thinking, ‘Oh, another one of those!'”
This year, Shearer and Owen are staging Christmas Without Tears in four cities, including Brooklyn; Evanston, Illinois; Los Angeles; and New Orleans. “We describe it as an antidote to Christmas, because we find it very hard to get through Christmas in one piece,” Owen says. “I think most people do. It depresses the hell out of me, I’d always get so sad and homesick. So we took it back to what it should be about, which is friends around a piano, musicians playing, singing, having a great time.” The event also benefits charity. All of the 2015 proceeds go to the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Information about the performances is available on Owen’s website.