Given that Brad Rempel’s hometown of La Crete, Alberta, is closer to the North Pole than any other country artist’s, High Valley is perhaps better qualified than any other act in the format to cut Christmas songs.
Although, truth be told, Rempel is hard-pressed to get overly sentimental about the holiday. He’s not a Scrooge about it, but he’s often underwhelmed by the music.
“It’s always kind of a joke among my friends that, ‘Well, you live up there near Santa Claus. You should love Christmas stuff,’ ” he says. “There’s nowhere on Earth that feels more like Christmas than northern Canada. You can literally skate on frozen ponds and ride snowmobiles, you know, watch the snow falling down. I mean, everything about it is kind of your stereotypical Hallmark Christmas movie kind of vibes.”
Rempel’s resistance to holiday tracks may have played a role in making High Valley’s new seasonal release, “Back Home Christmas,” an engaging, and pandemically appropriate, piece for 2022. When he showed up at Full Circle Studio — the workplace of songwriter-producer Seth Mosley (for King & Country, Michael W. Smith) — on May 23, the assignment was to craft new yuletide material with Jon Nite (“Pick Me Up,” “You Didn’t”) and Zach Kale (“I Hope,” “The Good Ones”). And Rempel admitted up front that they would have to clear a rather high bar.
“I was like, ‘Hey, full disclosure, guys: I’m not a huge fan of Christmas music,’ ” recalls Rempel with a laugh. “Jon and Zach were like, ‘OK,’ and then they pretend-like packed up their guitars and walked out of the room. And I was like, ‘But I love a great Christmas song. I just want to make sure this feels like a legitimate High Valley song and not just your token “Here Comes Santa Claus” type of deal.’ ”
As it turns out, Rempel was feeling disconnected from his roots as he considered Christmas. La Crete isn’t easy to reach (flying from Nashville to Edmonton takes seven to 11 hours, and then it’s a four-plus-hour drive north from there), and under COVID-19 circumstances, he hadn’t been home since 2019. He felt a need to return for this year’s holidays, and Mosley suggested they get in the spirit by writing something in 6/8 time.
“For me, 6/8 just always feels like Christmas,” Mosley explains. “It automatically just puts you in a more nostalgic head frame.”
Indeed, the holiday songs written in waltz-time signatures 6/8 and 3/4 — “Silver Bells,” “The First Noel,” “We Three Kings” and “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” just to name a few — have a classic feel about them. Mosley developed a chord progression for that format, called up plug-in sounds of sleigh bells and church bells, and turned the lights down to mimic the feel of a Tennessee Christmas. And they found a musical style with an old-world vibe.
“I remember playing some Celtic-y stuff, kind of an Irish singalong — almost like a reverent drinking song or like a hymn,” says Nite. “That helped change the direction of the sound.”
Rempel’s desire to get back to Canada for the holiday resonated throughout the room as they began to craft a story.
“I wanted to feel that feeling of going back home when you’re just out of high school and you go to college, and you go back that first or second time,” Nite says. “There’s something magical about when you’re 18 or 20 years old, you’re coming back for the first time after leaving town. It’s so amazing to come back home and be like, ‘OK, this is a safe place that made me who I am. These people love me no matter what.’ ”
Even though the song was about returning somewhere, it took some work to nail down a hook that would serve as the song’s destination. “At one point, we were like, ‘I’ll be back on Christmas,’ ” remembers Kale. “ ‘Back Home Christmas’ seems to land that hook a lot better and makes you feel something — just the word ‘home.’ We started writing toward that.”
The first lines of the chorus — “I miss those O holy silent nights/Popcorn-on-pine-tree traditions” — knitted the titles of two classic carols together, setting up an occasional theme: phrases from “Joy to the World,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” and “Away in a Manger” all find their way into the lyric, though they’re dropped in as casual conversation rather than obvious puns.
They avoided Santa Claus entirely, and the only mention of gifts wasn’t about what might be under the tree; it was a simple recognition that the one gift Mama wanted was for her son to be home. Appropriately, the bridge ramped up to a highly rhythmic fever, celebrating a sacred Christmas Eve church ceremony while capturing the sense of arrival.
“If you’re on that journey, on the way back home, the last mile and a half or two miles, it’s the excitement of seeing the people that you love,” Kale says. “I think that energy, we unknowingly put into the bridge.”
Mosley layered instruments onto the demo that day, and a fair amount of those sounds remained on “Back Home Christmas” all the way through to its release. “He is some kind of savant,” says Rempel. “It’s insane.”
Meanwhile, High Valley guitarist Raymond Klassen whipped up a scenic sonic side trip with an effective Dobro solo. Additionally, a group of around seven musicians gathered in Santa hats to sing an anthemic, Coldplay-like signature theme, stacked over a unison mandolin and electric guitar, creating an easy singalong for listeners who share the “Back Home” spirit.
Mosley brought the whole thing to a close with a church bell effect that brightened the ending but also leaves the listener with a complex cluster of notes. “Any time there’s a tubular bell, it’s always really hard to make them be perfectly in tune because a tubular bell has like five harmonic notes to it,” he explains. “I actually use it a lot in production, but you have to use them in the right spot. It’s one of those things where you can’t really tune it. Otherwise, it sounds fake.”
“Back Home Christmas” sounds quite authentic; it’s a fairly universal topic, and Rempel’s desire to get back to Canada is real, allowing the song to pass even his holiday-music skepticism. He released it to terrestrial radio through his Cage Free label and Sony Music Canada on Nov. 11 via PlayMPE. And yes, after three years away, Rempel and his family will be back in La Crete for Christmas.
“I was able to book flights for my family just a few weeks ago, and I was able to call my mom and let her know that,” Rempel says. “That’s definitely, definitely special.”