At this time last year, Jordan Smith was preparing for what was, at the time, the biggest performance of his life: the semifinals of season 9 of The Voice. The Kentucky native ended up winning the competition, and one year later, he already has a full-length album, two tours and multiple accolades to his name.
The latest edition to Smith’s accomplishments comes in a snowflake-dusted package with ‘Tis the Season, a Christmas compilation he curated with the help of holiday album guru David Foster, which he is now turning into a TV special (of the same title) for fans to enjoy leading up to Dec. 25.
To add to the holiday cheer, Smith has also been traveling the country in support of Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith‘s Christmas tour — just another way his life has flipped from normal to completely surreal in a year’s time. As the holidays get closer (as well as the year anniversary of his big Voice win on Dec. 15), Billboard sat down with Smith to discuss the album, TV special, his favorite Christmas traditions and all that he’s conquered in 2016.
Why did you want to make a Christmas album so early on in your career?
From the outside it’s definitely an interesting choice, but for me it’s always been something I’ve wanted to do. I love Christmas, I love Christmas music, so I’ve always dreamt about making a Christmas album. After working with David Foster on the first project I did back in March, it was honestly just kind of the obvious next choice. I hadn’t really expressed that it was something I’ve wanted to do and someone brought it up to me. I never imagined that I would do it as the second project and within the first year of even starting to make music at all, but when it came up it just seemed so perfect. When we sat down and started working on it, I kind of feel like I was built for Christmas music — there’s a lot of big, beautiful Christmas songs. As a person of faith it’s my time of year anyway, so it just kind of was perfect and made sense.
Was the recording process any different than Something Beautiful?
It definitely was interesting, we worked on it through May and June. I was on tour at the time we were working on the album, so I spread out the recording between New York, Atlanta and Nashville. So I was recording in all different locations, most of which were very hot like 80 and 90 degrees in the middle of the summer. It was definitely a fun process getting into the Christmas spirit. We almost didn’t stop listening to Christmas music after Christmas and then we started listening to it just a couple months after the holiday for the album itself again so I’ve been listening all year literally. [Laughs] But yeah, we had Christmas lights up in the studio, we were lighting candles, and just like trying to get ourselves into the mood to be inspired.
How did you come up with your own versions of these songs?
I think everyone feels that kind of pressure when you’re doing something like a Christmas record because everyone has done these songs before. So we tried to find songs that are a little different that people maybe haven’t done 1,000 times, or doing songs that people have done in all different ways. I have to say, we didn’t put a lot of pressure on ourselves to try and make it different. We weren’t trying to force anything or make anything sound different than other people’s. Of course we listened to others to try and see what we wanted to stay away from or what we did want to do with some songs. But it all just kind of happened really naturally and really organically, we followed our instincts on the songs. David sat at the piano, I stepped up to the microphone and we just sang through them and did what happened, and used that as our building blocks to make the album and it turned out really beautiful because it is just exactly what we feel.
Did you put together the track list?
I did a lot of it myself, David of course had some input, we sat down in the studio and wrote out a giant list of all the songs we could think of that we love and would love to record, and it was kind of sad because we had to cross off some songs that I really, really love and think like, maybe there will be a volume two one day that I could do this. But we had to narrow it down for sure to the favorites. He brought some songs that I hadn’t necessarily thought of. “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” took a little bit of convincing on my part, like, “David, we should do this, I really think it’s a good idea” and once we got to working on it he finally came around, but it was just a little bit of give and take to find exactly which ones would be the right fit and which ones we have to save for another project.
How did the TV special come about?
Once we worked on the album and it was kind of all finished and we listened through it, we realized — first of all, I love to perform and when I do perform it has a whole other element when I’m performing live than I would have as if you were listening to it on an album. And I did a couple of things where we were just playing through some stuff and I sang the music with my musical director. It was absolutely magical to see it happen right there. So we were approached about the idea of doing a special and we were like, “of course, 100 percent.” We only had just a couple of weeks to put it together, but we decided to bring in some fans and some of my friends and family and a lot of people I work with and some really, really killer musicians and just played the music in the studio. It was something really beautiful and after listening to the album I feel like, to sit down and watch it happen, to see me perform it, and see all the people really get into the music and enjoying it, you realize how special the arrangements and album itself really is and how a lot of different people get connected to it.
What are some of the stories behind the songs you tell on the TV special?
I think, for a lot of people, music that you hear around Christmas time always brings back certain memories of things you’ve experienced. There’s a few things — music does it, smells do it — so I think for me, for example, the song “O Holy Night.” That’s the first song I remember singing with my mom and dad all the time when it came to Christmas time. We would harmonize to that song, we’d sing it in the car, we’d sing it during the church Christmas play — that’s the first song I remember really falling in love with and singing with my parents. So I knew I had to absolutely put it on the project. “You’re a Mean One Mr. Grinch” that song, it’s funny because my mom and I love the Jim Carrey version of How The Grinch Stole Christmas — it’s our favorite movie of all time. When it gets to August, just as the summer’s over, I think we start watching that movie and literally quote it word for word. So it just reminds me of her and that movie and how much fun it is — things like that. Everybody has some kind of connection to all of these songs and think about different aspects of the holiday when we listen to each of them and I wanted to put all that together to weave the story on the album.
So how special was it for you to perform “O Holy Night” on The Voice since that was such a meaningful song for you?
It was pretty special. First of all, going back to The Voice is like a family reunion because you get really close with all these people in a really short time and then it’s over, so when you go back it’s always like a reunion. It’s funny, we did holiday songs when I was on The Voice and I remember as soon as I mentioned that we were going to be singing Christmas songs I was like, “Okay I’m gonna do ‘O Holy Night'” and I went to the music department and they were like, “Another contestant is already doing that,” and I was like, “NOOOO!” It was my one dream since the beginning of the show that hopefully we’d be able to do Christmas songs and I’d be able to do that song because I feel like I was made to sing that song. [The other contestant] did a great job, but I was like “No I can’t believe it.” And it never crossed my mind that I’d get to go back and do it, but it was so crazy to be back on the stage and I’d wanted to do it so badly. I’ve had a lot of those full-circle moments lately.
What was it like stepping back onto The Voice set?
It’s pretty crazy, you get all the same butterflies that you get when you’re there during the competition. I feel so at home on that stage now because I was there every week for a while, so it feels comfortable but you still have this edgy feeling knowing first of all how many people are watching — but somewhere in the back of your mind you feel like every performance you do is being voted on and it’s like the last performance of your life. [Laughs] So it brings back a lot of butterflies. And also standing in front of two new people — I sang in front of Gwen [Stefani], Pharrell, Adam [Levine] and Blake [Shelton], and here are Miley [Cyrus] and Alicia [Keys] for the Christmas one. So it was like four superstars staring at you, and they’re really close the entire time you’re performing. It’s a little nerve-wracking.
How has the tour with Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith been?
They are so nice it’s almost scary. We’ve had the best time, it’s been a lot of fun. And I think I’ve made a lot of new fans. I’m meeting people that are like “I didn’t know who you were before, we’ve never watched The Voice, but thank you so much we really enjoyed it.” And that’s really cool for me to get to share what I do with people outside of The Voice and it’s kind of hopeful too, because a lot of people have issues in moving on from a singing show. So I think it’s kind of hopeful that people are discovering it and enjoying it. Plus, those two, they were like the soundtrack of half of my life so every night I’m like “What is this life I’m living?!”
Looking back at the past year, can you give a SparkNotes-type version of how your life has changed?
It’s easier to say how it hasn’t changed, because literally everything is different. I cant go in the supermarket at home now without being stopped. Not that we don’t love meeting people, but you have to add so much extra time in the day! But overnight my life had completely changed. It was kind of just a learning process of trying to deal with all the attention, all of the business, prioritizing things. But then I need to make sure I work hard, so it’s definitely been a balancing act. And I’ve been learning ever since with what works and what doesn’t. It’s strange to back and watch myself — it’s weird that it’s only been a year — but it’s weird to watch myself now because when I see the videos I watch them but then it almost feels like I’m living two lives but it’s been fun and really rewarding so far. It’s crazy to see how much I’ve grown musically as an artist and as a person, how much I’ve changed.
Even though 2016 was crazy, I really think, if this is possible that 2017 is going to be a bigger year. I’ve really been looking back on all the things I’ve been blessed with and how positivity things have changed and everything that’s gone well and gone right.
What are some of the most surreal moments?
I had found from last year during my time on The Voice, when I was like, “You know what, there’s so many crazy things happening right now, I’m gonna make a list of all these things that I want to happen, like as goals or dreams, and then who knows maybe they’ll happen.” So I had written on there “Make a Christmas album,” which I got to check off, but I had written sing at the Grand Ole Opry which I did this year. Going on my first tour and seeing people show up just for me was a pretty crazy feeling. I keep having these pinch myself moments.
What about the most memorable moments?
For me a lot of the memorable moments are the people I get to meet. Of course, I love performing, like Radio Disney Music Awards was huge to perform there. People’s Choice Awards was amazing. I got to go to the Emmys which was the coolest because I’m a TV person. I met Paula Abdul, I met Dolly Parton, Kermit the Frog — we’ve met a countless number of people. Even beyond celebrities, getting to meet all these different people and hear their stories and hear about how much they love the music and how I’ve been able to affect them in some way is really, really incredible.
Is there a takeaway from this past year?
For me I think it’s just looking back and looking at everything that’s happened, there were a lot of times where I didn’t know how I was going to get through something. Sometimes things were so difficult or so busy or so crazy and I stressed so much over it and then by the time it was over I wish I had gone back and enjoyed it more. So looking back and reflecting, I have no idea where I’m going to be a year from now or what the next chapter is going to look like. I don’t know what things are going to look like after this project is finished, but I know I don’t have to stress over it. I know it’s going to work itself out and as long as we work hard and do things for the right reasons we’re gonna end up in the right place.
What are your hopes for 2017?
I definitely am just looking forward to new music and what that brings. Hopefully meeting and working with new people and kind of moving on up and expanding my reach and my influence because it’s been really nice to hear from people and to be an active person of part of our society. That’s a really cool aspect of this journey. Being able to work through that and work on my own music that I know people want to hear.
JORDAN’S HOLIDAY FAVORITES
Song to hear on Christmas radio: “The Christmas Song.” Something about it when you hear that song you’re like, “it is Christmas.” [sings] “Chestnuts roasting..” that’s all you need to hear and it’s Christmas.
Story behind a song from ‘Tis the Season: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is actually probably my least favorite song on the album. It’s a beautiful song and I think it turned out beautifully, but when you sandwich it between the Grinch and “O Holy Night,” for me I’m just kind of like “oh yeah it’s beautiful but, you know, whatever.” But everyone keeps telling me that they love this song. Like, my dad texted me today and was like “I can’t get over ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear'” and I’ve had people tag me in Instagram photos while they’re listening to the album and it’s always on that song. And I thought that was the least cool song but everybody loves it.
Christmas tradition: My cousin and I get a wishbone from the turkey from dinner and instead of breaking it we save it until the next year until the next holiday. And then we get the new one and we break the old one. So there’s like a whole year of wishes built up. I feel like last time we did it it kind of fell apart. But I make her keep up with it.
Holiday memory: When I made my first and technically last snowman, I’ve only made one my whole life. We got snowed in at my house, we couldn’t go anywhere. We made a snowman but we didn’t have any of the snowman things you’re supposed to use for a snowman. So his eyes were cherries, his nose was a bottle cap, and his mouth — we took our finger and drew a smile in the snow and then his mouth was a shoestring. And he was our ghetto, jank snowman, but he was awesome.
Ornament: My aunt every single year makes ornaments for her nieces and nephews every single year. So I have, now, 23 ornaments from 1993 until now. And they’re all made of different things every year. And we (he and Kristen) started collecting ornaments — I think we have five now? That’s what we’re big on is an annual, get a new ornament kind of thing.
Gift given: Our first Christmas together [he and his wife, Kristen, whom he married in June], I got her a Tiffany bracelet. Her favorite movie is Breakfast At Tiffany’s and I was like, “Have you ever gotten anything from there?” and she’s like, “No I never have,” so our first Christmas I got her a bracelet from Tiffany’s and she freaked. It was awesome.
Gift received: When I was a little kid, my grandfather got me a pocket watch but it was out of like a mail order thing. Everyone was like “oh that’s so sweet and awesome,” but it was kind of not awesome. It had a wolf on it and it was the most random thing ever, but I don’t know, I just remember loving that pocket watch, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Just the fact that he saw that and wanted me to have it was pretty cool.
To see when ‘Tis the Season will be airing on a channel near you, check your local listings.