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Andrea Corr: Christmas Songs “Let You Know You Are Not Alone”
Interviews

Andrea Corr: Christmas Songs “Let You Know You Are Not Alone”

With her ‘Christmas Songs’ EP, Andrea Corr delicately expresses the feelings of loss and reflection that are a part of every holiday season.

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It’s been almost ten years since Andrea Corr, singer and instrumentalist with Irish folk-rock group The Corrs, released her last solo album. Issued in 2011, Lifelines saw her pay homage to the likes of The Doors, Kirsty MacColl and John Lennon – artists whose work has provided inspiration throughout her life. With her four-track Christmas Songs EP, released on 25 November 2020, she returned to some of her childhood memories for a collection of traditional Carols that she has been in love with “since before I know”.

Listen to Christmas Songs here

“They let you know you are not alone”

“Christmas is that time where you reflect,” Corr tells Dig! “After my mother died, my dad used to say – and I know this is pretty sad, but I think it’s true – ‘Christmas is a time of absences.’” With the world still coming to terms with the large-scale losses brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Corr felt that sentiment “has never resonated so much with me as it did this year. There’s so much loss to come to terms with. There are many people that will be around a Christmas table, having to accept the empty chair, looking to move on.”

Those searching for solace will find it in her Christmas Songs EP, whose focus on some of the sadder Christmas carols – Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, In The Bleak Midwinter and O Holy Night – is offset by the consoling warmth of Andrea Corr’s delivery, and the intimacy of the arrangements. “Like love songs, they romanticise this pain, in a way – they let you know that you are not alone in that. And there’s comfort there,” Corr says.

“Christmas songs have watched us grow”

Not that Christmas Songs was recorded in response to COVID-19; it’s just that the timing was right. The idea for the project, however, came from a performance that Corr gave at Our Lady’s Hospice in Harold’s Cross, Dublin, in December 2019. Asked to turn on the lights and sing a few Christmas songs in order to raise funds for the health care facilities, Corr found that the event had a “profound effect” on her. “This last stop for the living. Those gates I walk by every day,” she says. “And the concert itself was inspiring, because I sang with a male choir, which was beautiful.” Visitors gathered to light candles in memory of their loved ones, sharing a communal grief that social-distancing measures have made impossible in 2020. “It was such a lovely experience that I wanted to do something this year, because you can’t do any of these fundraisers now. And the lyrics of these Christmas songs resonated even more, and seemed even more important in these times.

“Christmas songs have been with us a long time, so they’ve watched us grow, in a way,” Corr continues. “And our ears have changed while we’ve listened to them.” Such carols as O Holy Night and In The Bleak Midwinter date back to the 1800s, but “knowing the lyrics for so many years makes you also not hear them”, she says. While researching In The Bleak Midwinter, Corr had a revelation: “I’d never really listened to the words. When they’re sung in those kind of choirboy trills, it’s hard to get them. Even though I really love it, in a way you enjoy the music, but you’re not really hearing the words as much. And then once I looked into them, I realised it was written by a woman. And the bit that gets to me the most – what is different to me, in regard to other Christmas carols – is that it recognises that the most beautiful moment is the mother looking at her child.” In The Bleak Midwinter focuses on Jesus’ birth, in Bethlehem, but, to Corr, the song also speaks to “what every mother feels when she looks at her baby and kisses its forehead. With all the fanfare – you’ve got the opera and the angels, and you’ve got all of this going on – in the meantime, there is a mother looking at her baby. And that is just so beautiful to me.”

“We’ve got to look forward to better”

A 20th-century carol, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, makes a fitting opening track for the Christmas Songs EP. Returning to the original lyrics sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me In St Louis, Corr felt that sentiments penned during World War II were just as relevant for a year ravaged by a different kind of tragedy. Frank Sinatra had the “Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow” line altered for his 50s recording of the song (the replacement, “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”, has since become the standard), but Corr found the original lyrics “really poignant”, and calls Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas “the most real and lonely” Christmas song, with lyrics that are “less cosy, accepting that this year is crap and we’ve got to look forward to better.”

With an even deeper personal resonance, O Holy Night finds Corr committing to tape a performance of a song she once withdrew from at the last minute. “It’s one of the most beautiful Christmas carols,” Corr says. “In the end, when it says about oppression, ‘And in His name all oppression shall cease,’ and then, ‘He knows our need, to our weakness no stranger’ – the comfort that is supposed to bring; I really feel it does.

“I used to sing that with my dad,” Corr continues. “He played the organ in the church by us, and I used to sing it with him in the house, for relatives – we were like the Von Trapp family at Christmas,” she says. Around the age of seven or eight, Andrea’s father asked her to sing the song with him at the church that Christmas but, “overwhelmed with nerves and the idea of it” on Christmas morning, her family “let me off the hook”.

“I like to think he’s aware of it now,” Andrea says of Gerry Corr, who died in 2015. “I hope he’s hearing.”

“It’s about beginning again after loss”

Loss also inspired Begin Again, an original song that Corr wrote a few years ago, but which now finds a place among the three traditional tunes on Christmas Songs. “That poor song. It’s in a tough room, isn’t it?” Andrea laughs, adding, “But I think it does fit… It’s about accepting the mystery of life and death with some faith, and surrendering to that – beginning again after loss.”

Though infused with the Celtic folk-rock that Andrea made her name with as part of The Corrs, Begin Again also draws upon one of the oldest Christmas carols of all, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, via one of her own favourite songs, Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue. “She plays Good King Wenceslas on the piano and then sings her own song right on top of that,” Corr recalls, noting that she worked “the other way around” for Begin Again. While rushing to collect her children, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen came into her head, providing a fitting backdrop for Corr’s own lyrics: “For ones that we’ve lost, that we’re missing, bid adieu/… Lay now in rest, and I’ll do my best to start again,” she sings in the first verse. “I had to sing it into my phone quickly and then run and get the kids,” Corr says. “I just started to sing, and I went with it.”

“We were so united in the same problem”

Begin Again may have initially been captured on her phone, but with it came time to record Christmas Songs, Corr had other limitations to overcome: because of social distancing measures, she was only allowed in the studio with one other person; engineer Alan Kelly manned the recording desk while producer Anna Rice oversaw the sessions via Zoom. “It was so challenging,” Corr says. Deciding that she wanted to record with a male choir only added to the complications.

“We struggled to get a choir that was legally allowed to sing together in lockdown,” Corr explains. “Once we went to do it, the doors started closing; more and more countries went into lockdown. Ireland: lockdown. The UK: lockdown.” Canada was a near-miss, but the team eventually found choirs in Perth – “these boys with beautiful voices at Aquinas College, and then the Giovanni Consort” – who were allowed to perform. Getting up at six in the morning, Andrea watched on Zoom as the choirs sung their parts for the recording. “It was really magical,” she says. “It seemed it was exactly as it should have been, because we were so united in the same problem, all over the world… And everybody appreciated being able to sing when it had been stopped, so they sang their hearts out. And they sang my heart out.”

“We’re singing to people who aren’t there”

From performing O Holy Night for relatives as a child, to remembering her mother and sister dancing around the kitchen to Jona Lewie’s 1980 festive hit, Stop The Cavalry, Christmas songs have long resonated with Corr, who singles The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York out as “the most brilliant” Christmas song. “To be honest, I don’t think people should do that song,” she adds. “It’s done. And it’s stunningly beautiful and perfect.

“Christmas means sharing and love,” Corr says. “I do believe it’s a time where those that have really should – and often do – reach out to those that haven’t… And I feel it is a time for reflecting and giving thanks.” Encouraging these moments of reflection, the best Christmas songs are ones “where it resonates and it’s real”, she notes. “It’s when the lyrics speak to you, and so does the music. In some way, it’s transcendent – you want to be in some sort of commune with another world, and with those that have passed. Because we’re singing to people who aren’t there a lot of the time.

From fairy tales to festive blues, check out our 20 best Christmas songs

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