Christmas has come two months early for Lea Michele this year, who has unveiled her holiday album, Christmas in The City, today (Oct. 25). The 33-year-old Broadway and television star’s Christmas adventure is all about “coming home for the holidays,” she tells Billboard on the phone right after landing in New York, the city that inspired it all.
The singer grew up in New York — she got her big break playing Young Cosette in Les Miserables on Broadway when she was just eight, before taking on roles in Fiddler on the Roof, Spring Awakening, and Nero. In 2009, she started playing Rachel Berry in the smash series Glee. She still loves to go home during the colder season and take a stroll through Central Park with family, drink hot cocoa, and visit Rockefeller Center; it’s these holiday memories in Michele’s home city from when she was a kid, combined with her love for music and Broadway, that eventually shaped the new album.
It also felt like the right time in her life for a Christmas album. She recently married Zandy Reich (president of the clothing brand AYR), has been embarking on new endeavors like executive producing her own projects and starring in the upcoming ABC movie Same Time, Next Christmas, out in December. And, as Michele herself puts it, she’s ready to “show the more mature side of my voice now that I’m in my early 30s. … Bringing all of that happiness into the record definitely made a difference.”
Michele’s first album since 2017’s Places features 10 covers of the singer’s favorite Christmas songs as well as one original song, the whimsical “Christmas in New York.” Glee music producers Adam Anders and Peer Åström also returned for the making of the record, as well as Michele’s longtime friends and collaborators Jonathan Groff and Darren Criss. They remain “two of my best friends,” she says.
The singer is set to take the album to the stage for a couple of limited New York shows starting on December 19 at New York Society for Ethical Culture’s Concert Hall. Billboard caught up with Michele to talk about Christmas in The City, tour and other upcoming projects.
Why did you decide to make a Christmas album?
As a singer, I love Christmas music and it has always been my dream to make a Christmas album. When I was on Glee we did a ton of Christmas songs, and they were always the most fun to sing. I figured this is my third record and it just felt like the right time to come out with the next one and have it be a Christmas album. I love the holidays so much and I especially love Christmas in New York, since it is where I’m from. With all of those things combined, it felt like it was the perfect time in my life and in my career to come out with this album.
It seems like a great time in your life right now. Do you feel like that happiness had an effect on the energy you brought to the studio?
Totally. There’s nothing happier than a Christmas record. For me especially, it just reminds me of so many amazing memories and feelings from growing up. That in conjunction with where I’m at personally right now, being a newlywed, I definitely felt like it was the right time. Bringing all of that happiness into the record definitely made a difference. You can hear it.
How did you choose which songs to cover?
These are my favorite Christmas songs in the world. I was also able to narrow it down because like I mentioned, I did a lot of Christmas songs on Glee — we had three Christmas episodes and three Christmas albums — so I had to make sure I didn’t reuse any of those songs. That helped me eliminate a bunch and then I wanted to pick my favorite ones of all time.
The album closer “O Holy Night” was on Glee though, right?
Yes! That’s the one song that I redid for this album. I worked with an amazing musical producer, Adam Anders, on this album, who was also the genius music mastermind behind every single song on Glee. I knew that I wanted to work on this album with him because he’s like family to me and, like I was saying, a Christmas album just resonates happiness. I wanted that feeling of familiarity and family in the recording studio. I also really wanted to bring back a lot of that very crisp and bright sound that we did on the show.
So Adam and I partnered together to make this album, and the first thing he said was, “We’ve gotta do ‘O Holy Night’ again.” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” That song is the hardest song in the whole world to sing and when I recorded it I was right in the height of Glee and vocally I was in a great place. I was like, “There’s no way that I can A) recreate that, and B) there’s no way I can make it even better.” So we made it a personal challenge where, if we were going to pick one song from Glee, how are we going to make it better? And I really have to say that I am so proud of this song because I think it shows that I have grown a lot as a performer. My voice has grown… I never thought I’d say this but I think I’m even more proud of this version than the original.
What specific things did you to do make it better?
Your voice is an instrument; it’s a muscle. In many ways, it’s like you’re an athlete. So if I played a game 10 years ago or however long ago when I recorded this song, you feel younger and like maybe you were at your prime. But you have to remember that your voice is a tool. Now, years later and singing it again, I feel stronger and in better shape than I ever have been before, so I wanted to make it more challenging vocally to show how much I have grown.
You mentioned working with Adam. You also teamed up with Peer Astrom, Darren Criss and Jonathan Groff again. What was it like to reunite with them, as well as working with Cynthia Erivo for the first time?
Cynthia I know from New York, she’s an incredible Broadway actress and she has the most insane voice I’ve ever heard. I was just so grateful to have her work with me. I chose these three guest stars because they are all personal friends of mine but they are all also Broadway stars. That was important for me as well because I wanted to have a little fusion of the Broadway sound on this record. Also, Darren and Jonathan are two of my best friends. Darren and I were on our LM/DC Tour together last year and sang together many times before. Of course, with our history from Glee and our personal life, I really wanted him to be on this record with me.
With Jonathan, he’s my best friend in the whole world and he was my man of honor at my wedding. We lived in New York and used to sing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” together at charity events around the holidays, so when I decided to make this record I said to Jonathan, “We need to bring back ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas.’” Ten years later, our lives have changed, we’ve grown so much, it’s been such a blessing… To have this kind of song on the album now between the two of us is really so special in many ways.
What was it like writing the original tune, “Christmas in New York”?
The whole theme of this record for me is really about coming home for the holidays. For me, that place is New York — it’s where I was born and raised and worked on Broadway my entire life before moving to L.A. I really wanted to honor my city, and the best way I could really do that was to write a love song about it. Adam, Peer and myself sat down, as well as Adam’s incredible wife Nikki and, as I said, these guys are my family. As a songwriter, I’ve only written a couple of songs so far but I felt really comfortable with them to explore this new part of my craft. I kind of just talk out loud when I write. I was like, “I want to talk about what Central Park is like when you’re in a blanket and when the snow is falling.”
You’ve been acting and making music for such a long time while also writing two books, Brunette Ambition and You First: Journal Your Way to Your Best Life. Can we expect more writing soon? Or another Broadway return?
I have [Same Time, Next Christmas] coming out in December which I’m really excited about. Obviously, this album is such a dream come true for me. Broadway is definitely my home and I would be happy to go back there at any time. Being part of Spring Awakening, it was such an iconic, incredible show that I found myself to be very picky in choosing which show it would be to bring me back to Broadway. When you’re doing eight shows a week you have to really love what you’re doing in order to do that every single night. So I want to be very thoughtful in my decision and make sure I take on something that I’m very passionate about.
Professionally, outside of that, I think as women it’s challenging to find roles that I think are strong enough, so I decided I wanted to make my own opportunity and started to executive produce and create projects of my own which I’ll be able to announce pretty soon. It has been really great to take on that role and feel in control of finding parts of myself to play that I think are challenging and worthy and interesting.
You have a couple of live shows coming up in support of this album in December. What can fans expect to see?
With my concerts, my goal is to make people feel like they are hanging out with me at home and that I’m performing. I tell personal stories, we laugh, we reminisce, and we sing great songs along the way and everyone always ends up singing along. I love to tell the stories of my life and my history with the songs that I’m singing while I’m performing. I want people to get to know me and I want them to feel like we’re all together, hanging out and celebrating the holidays in a place that feels comfortable and familiar. That’s always my goal when I do live shows.