Interview: Colbie Caillat on how to write a modern-day Christmas song
Many a Christmas record has been dreamed up while staring out the window at a winter wonderland, but Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Colbie Caillat got the idea for her new holiday set, Christmas In The Sand (out 23 October), as the title more than implies, in the unlikeliest of settings.
"When I was in Hawaii last year for Thanksgiving, my family and friends were all on the beach, and we were saying how fun it was to spend the holiday there," she says. "We'd be saying things like, ‘Can’t we spend Christmas here? We can all open presents on the beach and be in our bathing suits’ – the kinds of things everybody else does in Hawaii."
It didn't take long for Caillat to realize that she had a novel concept for a fresh spin on the Christmas album. "I knew I wanted to make something that wasn’t just relatable to people who have the snow," she says. "I wanted it to be for people in tropical places like California, where I’m from, or Hawaii or Australia – anywhere that people spend Christmas on the beach and in the sun."
Back home in California, Caillat talked about her idea with writing partners Jason Reeves and Kara DioGuardi, and in one day the team wrote the title track and Every Day Is Christmas. "It was really fun to get into that mindset with them," says Caillat. "Jason and Kara have been to Hawaii with me, so we were all able to picture ourselves in that kind of setting for the holidays."
On Christmas In The Sand, four Caillat originals sit alongside classics such as The Christmas Song and Baby It's Cold Outside. The singer-songwriter says she wanted to avoid making the songs, as she puts it, "cheesy or poppy. Over the years, I’ve heard pop artists do some Christmas songs, and I haven’t fully cared for them. They weren’t the traditional Christmas music that I was raised on and love. Thinking of that, I wanted to make my songs mimic the classic Christmas songs."
A bulk of Caillat's demos were recorded with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and an iPad. "I sometimes use an iPhone - anything that's handy," she says. But when the time came to hit the studio, she turned to her father, Ken, producer of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Tusk, among other hits. While Caillat says that her father is "an amazing producer," she does admit that the line between artist and producer vs daughter and father is sometimes a fine one.
“A side of me does come out sometimes," she says. "I’ll be like, ‘Dad! Come on, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m in the music business.’ [Laughs] And then I’ll remember, ‘Oh, wait… He’s in the music business, too. In fact, he’s been in it way longer."
Caillat recorded Christmas In The Sand (which features guest vocals by Brad Paisley and Gavin DeGraw) between April and August of this year, and she says that maintaining the record's sunny spirit wasn't difficult. "I did a lot of the singing in my bathing suit," she says with a laugh. "On a lot of the days when I was doing vocals, I started out singing in my bathing suit, then I’d take a swim with my mom. After that, she’d make us lunch in 90 or 100-degree weather, and then I’d go back and sing again."
On the following pages, Colbie Caillat walks us through the four originals and a selection of the holiday classics on Christmas In The Sand.
Christmas In The Sand
"I had so much fun writing this with Jason Reeves and Kara DioGuardi. It’s very tongue-in-cheek and funny. It’s talking about ‘Oh, I had too much to drink because Rudolph’s nose is turning green,’ or ‘Santa says I look naughty, but he’s sure that I’m nice.’ It’s kind of like I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Clause – it’s just on the verge of being a little ‘out there.'
“We thought it’d be good to have a funny song – you know, Santa rolls up on a surfboard and hands you a present, and when he’s done handing out gifts, he wants to hit some waves. It’s very playful and silly.
“The video was fun to shoot. I’m dancing around on the beach with elves, and Santa Clause is surfing. It totally fits the song.”
The Christmas Song
“The Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole version is where I got my inspiration. It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs. I remember being at my grandparents’ house in Lake Tahoe in the snow and hearing it.
“I listened to different versions of the song, but when I went back to the Nat and Natalie version, I knew I wanted to do it with Justin Young. I love his voice because it’s so warm, so crisp, and it makes me feel like I’m sitting by the fire drinking hot cocoa with my family all around. That’s exactly what I wanted the song to do for people.”
“I wrote the song with my friend Stacy Blue probably about five years ago. It’s about how not everyone gets to be with the ones they love during the holidays and how hard that can be. So it’s a song that any musician on tour or an actor on the set or anybody on deployment can relate to. If you’re traveling for work, being away from your family and loved ones can really take a toll on you.
“I recorded it a few years ago, but I re-recorded it for this album because I thought my voice sounded too young on the first one. I wanted people to have the updated version of me. I loved singing it with the sleigh bells – they made it sound very Christmassy.”
Merry Christmas Baby
“My favorite version is the one Bruce Springsteen did. I was raised on it, and that bluesy, country-rock feel just makes me so happy. When I was saying that I wanted to have a few people on the album, my manager said, ‘Well, this is like a country song, and we manage Brad Paisley, too. Do you want me to ask him to ask if he’ll do it?’ I was like, ‘Uhhhh, yes – please!’ [Laughs]
“Brad said yes, kindly enough. I actually never met him. They sent the song to him, and he sang it wherever he was. It came out great. I love his voice, and his guitar licks are amazing. He’s so good.”
Every Day Is Christmas
“I wrote it with Kara and Jason – we did it the same day we wrote Christmas In The Sand. It’s about not wanting January to come because that means the holidays are over. Your family goes home, and you have to get back to real life.
“We were talking about how, when you’re in love with someone, you wake up and every morning feels like Christmas morning. It’s like opening a present every day – you have that person there all the time. You don’t have to worry about January coming when you’re in love with that person.
“Jason sings on it, too. His voice is beautiful.”
Baby It's Cold Outside
“That was one of the first songs I wanted to do. After seeing Elf and watching Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell sing it, I sang it every year, and I knew it was something I wanted to record.
“I wrote with Gavin DeGraw at the beginning of the year. I’d known him before, but getting to hang with him and write with him and hear his voice in person was different. I said, ‘Dude, you would be the perfect person to do this duet with me. It’s quirky, you’re funny, the banter could be really hilarious, and your voice has a classic, soulful feel.'
“We went on tour together, and that confirmed it for me. This song was one of the last things I recorded for the record. We did the vocal in August in Santa Barbara, the second to last week before the tour ended. I love how it turned out. It makes me laugh every time I hear it.”
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
“I loved the Pointer Sisters’ version. My mom would buy the Very Special Christmas albums, and they were on one of them. David Foster’s Christmas Album – we listened to that one a lot, too.
“Nobody’s done this song like the Pointer Sisters. I thought it would be fun to record a very uptempo version. I imagined decorating the Christmas tree and bouncing around the house, just being unable to stop dancing. It’s a fun song.”
“I wrote it with Toby Gad. I was talking to him how, ever since I started touring, I’d come home a week before Christmas, and I had to decorate the house and do all the shopping before everybody came over. I thought of all the days I was spending at the mall getting the presents, when really, you should be making the presents. Or you should be spending more time together, cooking together, all those things. It would make me sad when people had to go home because I realized that we didn’t spend enough time together.
“It’s kind of our resolution that this year we’ll only get one gift for each other, or we’ll make something for each other, or we’ll give nothing at all – we’ll just spend all that time together. That’s way more important. I told Toby I wanted to write about that.”
“My vocal is from the demo. The day I wrote it with Toby, he asked me to sing it over and over again. When my dad took it over to produce, I was doing the vocals, but I must have had ‘demo-itis.’ I just couldn’t beat what I did on the demo – so we kept it.”