There's no question that Over the Rhine really knows their way around the sonics of this season. With their recent release of Blood Oranges in the Snow, husband-and-wife duo Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler now have three Christmas albums filled with uniquely soulful (and unquestionably soul-fulfilling) holiday hymns of heartache and hope. What you'll find on an Over the Rhine Christmas album are songs that fully embrace the typically untouched aspects of Christmas, helping to bring all the experiences of the season into full view. Plus, the gorgeous music is as comforting and inviting as a warm blanket on a snowy night as well.
Even the Snow Turns Blue is a charming compilation that perfectly captures the soothed spirit of Over the Rhine's three Christmas albums: 1996's The Darkest Night of the Year, 2006's Snow Angels, and this year's Blood Oranges in the Snow. From their breath-of-fresh-air originals like "Blood Oranges in the Snow," "Let it Fall," and "Darlin' (Christmas is Coming)" to their "this reminds me of something I've heard before" spot-on tribute song "Goodbye Charles" to their strikingly vibrant take on "Silent Night," Even the Snow Turns Blue allows you to hear exactly what's so special about Over the Rhine and their own slant on seasonal singsongs.
I spoke with Over the Rhine to discuss Blood Oranges in the Snow and their unique approach to Christmas music, as well as have them list off some of their own holiday favorites.
Blood Oranges in the Snow is the third Christmas album you guys have recorded in your career, none of which are of the traditional schmaltzy variety. How do you successfully continue to make your self-described “reality Christmas music” so original and so true to your own sound?
I think the short answer is we’re not trying to write good Christmas songs: we’re just trying to write good songs. We really don’t approach the Christmas records that much differently than the other records. And as songwriters, we’re genuinely curious to discover some of the Christmas tunes that haven’t yet been written. There are so many great ones out there already.
Where your previous two Christmas albums (The Darkest Night of the Year and Snow Angels) are heavily seasoned with blues and jazz flavors, Blood Oranges in the Snow seems to carry a bit more of a classic country vibe. Was that an intentional direction in the instrumentation and the vocal performances?
We recorded and toured our last record, Meet Me at the Edge of the World, with a group of musicians that we’ve really come to love: Jay Bellerose on drums, Jen Condos on bass, and Eric Heywood on pedal steel and guitars. We wanted to record our new Christmas songs with this core band for the most part, and felt that they would help set this record somewhat apart from the previous two releases you mentioned. We had so much fun on our tour last year that we wanted to bring some of that shared history and chemistry to Blood Oranges in the Snow. It’s always been important to us not to make the same record over and over.
Your cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” is hands-down one of the most gorgeous versions I’ve ever heard of the 1973 classic. How’d you come about covering it?
Oh, are there other cover versions out there? I guess we should have researched that! Karin and I heard the song on a late night drive coming home from a tour one December. As you mentioned earlier, Karin has joked that we’re developing a new genre of music called “Reality Christmas…” I think we’re just trying to acknowledge that none of us are immune to the heartbreak and family foibles and tiny victories and joys and sorrows that we encounter throughout the year, just because it’s Christmastime. So we’re trying to get at some of those deeper layers in the writing. “If We Make It Through December” is certainly one of the great “Reality Christmas” songs.
Those of us who grew up believing (and still want to believe) the Christmas story, that angels arrived on the scene and announced that peace was coming to earth, that the baby hidden in the barn like a forbidden song was going to break the cycle of violence we humans are addicted to and show us a higher, different way – I think we can’t help but feel the disparity between that dream and where we are today. I think maybe our Christmas songs live in the space between the hopeful dream and the reality of the still broken world we call home.
Your new Even the Snow Turns Blue compilation beautifully captures your saccharine-less take on Christmas music with songs like “All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue,” “Let It Fall,” and “My Father’s Body” to name a few. What pulls your songwriting towards these typically unexplored sides of Christmas?
Again, I think we’re just curious about the Christmas songs that haven’t yet been written. So like the rest of our songs, we’re looking for some fresh language, a little something you can feel on your skin, some element of risk or danger or vulnerability in the writing.
There’s a wonderful narrative storytelling quality in songs like “Blood Oranges in the Snow” and “First Snowfall.” Have you ever considered fleshing some of your songs out into short stories or novels, or do they exist more purely to you in musical form?
A number of people have said that some of these songs feel like short stories. We hadn’t really thought about it. No plans to adapt them anytime soon, but I think Karin and I are both pretty aware that we are writing stories with our lives, that we are our own protagonists and antagonists. Both of us would like to take a run at a memoir at some point. I think anyone that had a rich and conflicted childhood feels that tug.
When you’re not writing your own Christmas songs, what are some of your go-to musical favorites this time of year?
The best Christmas album ever recorded bar none is Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. So that is the gold standard. And we’re always in the hunt for a great reality Christmas song. Mary Gauthier, John Prine, Merle Haggard, and Tom Waits have all written them – to name a few. They’re out there.