Christmas goes retro: Christabel and the Jons tap into vintage sounds for holiday album
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Picture this, if you will — Christa DeCicco, front woman of Christabel and the Jons, standing in front of a microphone, ringlets of damp curls upon her shoulders, clad in a wet bathing suit and singing Christmas songs while the summer sun bakes the landscape on the other side of sliding door glass.
No Christmas tree, no ornaments, no snow ... not even on an ill-tuned television channel. The wind blows hot, and instead of snuggling up beside a warm fire with mugs of hot chocolate, DeCicco and her bandmates — drummer Jon Whitlock, bassist Vince Ilagan and multi-instrumentalist Seth Hopper — would crack open cold beers and go cruising across the nearby lake on a pontoon boat.
The juxtaposition doesn’t exactly bode well for getting into the holiday spirit, one might assume. Such an assumption, however, would be wrong, DeCicco told The Daily Times this week.
“It was so easy to do it in the middle of the summer, because you weren’t sick of the songs,” she said. “It was a novelty, and there were funny qualities to recording the songs in summer. It made it fun and nonchalant, and I think it added to the performance a lot as far as my vocals go.
“I feel like you can hear me smiling and having fun — because I was. I was in my wet bathing suit, at the lake. I literally wore my bathing suit to do the vocals., and when we needed a break, we would go out on the pontoon boat. It worked so well that’s exactly how we’re going to do the next album.”
Of course, Christabel and the Jons are one of the most unique bands to emerge as one of the most prominent in the East Tennessee music scene, so perhaps it’s really no surprise after all how the self-styled “sultry Southern swing” outfit managed to pull off a playful, fun and beautiful-sounding holiday CD — “The Christmas Album” — even though it was recorded at the height of summer. And now that it’s done, the record will be showcased in a much more apropos setting — Saturday night during a Christmas show at The Square Room in downtown Knoxville, when winter’s chill and the impending arrival of Dec. 25 make the songs sound even more sublime.
“We wanted to make a Herb Alpert-meets-Julie-London-meets-Lawrence-Welk Christmas album,” DeCicco said. “We just wanted these ’50s and ’60s kind of sparkly arrangements, with cascading string sections and layered horns and Wurlitzer organs. That was our dream.”
That dream has been realized and then some — considering The Square Room is a stone’s throw from Preservation Pub, the venue that DeCicco began her music career in 2004, when she first tried her hand at open-mic nights there. After gigging for roughly a year as a solo artist, refining her breathy, jazz-influenced vocals that ooze sensuality and playfulness, she threw her lot in with a couple of Jons — Whitlock on drums and former bassist Jon Warren (hence the “Jons,” a name that’s stuck through the current incarnation).
In late 2006, the band released its debut album, “Love and Circumstances,” following that up with “Custom Made for You” in 2008. That was the year the band signed with the booking agent Charisma Artist Agency, a decision that’s paid off in spades as far as exposure for the group goes.
“It’s a small, mostly-run-by-females company, and when we hired them to do our booking, it really opened up whole new areas that we hadn’t had opened to us before,” she said. “We just got our first offer to do the West Coast in April with a little run of four shows in Oregon. We’re so busy that we have to schedule time off for ourselves six months in advance.”
One of the highlights of the past year was a group of shows in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A nature lover at heart, DeCicco, sacrificed by taking only one pair of her vintage shoes to make room for her snorkeling gear in her carry-on bag. Once in the islands, the band was fawned over by the locals, she added.
“There’s a kind of lack of jazz and folk music on the island — it’s mostly reggae and Jimmy Buffett cover bands, so people are a bit starved,” she said. “That’s a good audience to have, no matter where you are. Nearly a hundred people came out to see us.”
This year’s touring was scheduled around recording the Christmas album, she added. In the past, the band has recorded its annual holiday shows in hopes of releasing a live record, but their exacting standards have kept them sidelined. After last year’s Christmas show, the foursome made the decision to cut a Christmas album in the studio and set aside a few weeks in June and July to record at a lake house owned by Hopper’s grandparents.
“We recorded half of the album tracks live by ourselves, and we took that and brought it to Famous London (Recording Studios in Knoxville),” she said. “They totally understood our idea and our vision. We made a very detailed grid of the instruments, the guests artists, the intros and outros — everything we wanted on there, and then we layered everything. It added so much depth and sparkle to the album.
“I just love it. I love that we were able to take the time to add all of the things we dreamed about — pedal steel and Rhodes organ and this trombone/French horn/trumpet section. It makes the whole thing sound kind of vintage, but with a different take on it.”
DeCicco credits Hopper’s production work with keeping the band’s eyes on the end result, and his growth as an invaluable member of the Jons with the intricate, intimate nature of the music itself. If Whitlock is her right arm, then Hopper has over the years become her left one.
“I constantly feel like me and Seth and melding deeper and deeper along symbiotic, melodic lines, especially on songs we’ve played over and over,” she said. “He’s refined his call-and-response technique to my vocals, and that makes playing these songs every night possible — he perfects these lines that are so beautiful you can listen to them every night.
“And of course, I’ve always relied on Jon — he’s the only constant thing in our rhythm section, because we always have a different bass player. Vince has played with us for years, but he’s in a lot of different groups, and he’s just so super-talented and fabulous that he gets booked up, so we can’t have him full-time.”
The response to “The Christmas Album” has been humbling, DeCicco said — not only is it the No. 2 seller at Disc Exchange on Chapman Highway in Knoxville, it’s also sold to online buyers in such countries as Japan, Belgium and Afghanistan.
“I’m really touched when we sell one to places like that,” she said. “It’s amazing. It really gives me a sense of awe and wonderment, which is nice during the holidays.”
Speaking of — with the CD as her gift to fans, what does the lady herself want from Santa this year?
“A bass player!” she said with a laugh. “A permanent, full-time bass player. We’re always looking for another one, and I hope Santa leaves one under my tree.”