Christmas Day may have come and gone, but the spirit of the Holidays is still very much alive. And what better way to keep it alive than with great holiday music? Los Angeles-based artist Natalie Nicole Gilbert released her new holiday season-inspired album, Warm Winter, earlier this month. The album consists of 9 covers and 1 original song, all beautifully crafted to play repeatedly throughout this time of year. Ms. Gilbert sat down with us to share her insights on her creative process for the album, particularly during a pandemic, and how she approaches her music making in general.
Hi Natalie, welcome to VENTS! How have you been?
You know, it’s such a funny question that I think people (thankfully) answer more full heartedly now than they did pre-Covid when “fine, and you?” was the typical response. I’ve been well and grateful. Despite all the setbacks we’ve all been tossed this year I completed a degree in International Relations (via University of London, remotely here in LA for the last few months). On the one hand it’s the oddest season in my life to be so landlocked as I traveled more last year than I probably ever had in my life – probably not spending more than a few consecutive weeks at home without digging out the passport again, so not being able to safely travel this year has been a shock to the system. But my gut response to out-of-your-control shifts like that has always been to throw myself into my work as much as possible, and I’ve been really pleased to see where that’s taken me this year.
Can you talk to us about your new album, Warm Winter? Did any event(s), in particular, inspire you to create this album?
I felt like this year we all needed the holidays and the pick me up of winter cocoa and holiday songs with haste. We released snippets and demos of the Warm Winter songs on social media and got such a warm and eager welcome I just kept adding songs to the tracklist. I’m so pleased with the final tracklist and the way it segues from one song to the next. In a way, it was a mixtape for everyone who made the trudging journey through this long year with all its trials and sacrifices. I wanted to give fans and playlisters a gift of both nostalgia and new music introductions.
How was the producing and recording process?
Lightning fast in so many ways, but also really joyous and to be savored. Robert (my co-producer) can tell you there were many moments I thought one song or another wouldn’t be done in time to be included since we just turned our attention to this project in September, or where I second guessed if mine was the right voice to record it, but in the end every track feels like it was cohesive and meant to be there from the beginning.
Thankfully everyone I was working with already had a home studio or easily accessible and safe studio setup, so for us the various lockdowns didn’t greatly change our dynamics. If it changed anything at all, it gave each of us a chance to be even more intentional than usual with our segments and stems, knowing we could be solitarily nitpicky about them without that greatly slowing down our counterparts. Anytime I was waiting for the strings on one song or a piano recut on another I could just circle through the other songs we already had in process to add harmonies, so there was hardly ever a real lull despite time differences and merging audio from different musicians in separate studios.
Any plans to release a video for any of the tracks on the album?
Yes, we’ve released some beautiful and heartwarming winterized visualizer videos for Wrapped Up in a Dream Called You and What Child of Kings, both created by Miranda Sajdak.
What was it like to work with Andrew Joslyn, Dana Bisignano and Jonathan Still, and how did those relationships develop?
Dana and I met at a songwriting workshop years ago where we were put in a room for about 30 minutes to work on our first song together, getting little more than a hello first and knowing next to nothing about each other. We quickly realized we had very similar music sensibilities. Through the years we’ve written and recorded songs ranging from rock to musicals to folk or singer/songwriter. Like me, he’s an avid listener to a wide variety of genres and doesn’t mind all of them influencing his writing and arrangements.
I met Jonathan after I picked up a CD filled with ballet piano renditions of pop and rock songs while I was studying in London. Trying to reach the Jonathan Still listed in the credits to see if we could collaborate, I discovered there are two Jonathan Stills very gifted at piano, and as it happens they often get each other’s emails and enquiries. We laughed at the mistake and then essentially said “hey, as long as we’re chatting about collaborations, should we do one ourselves?” We’ve only been on each other’s radars for the last year or so, but in that time we’ve already recorded three songs.
Andrew was recommended to me by a fellow Grammy voter (Dave Gross) who added organ tracks to my rendition of Dylan’s Not Dark Yet. I initially reached out in March while we were restoring some of my mother’s piano recordings posthumously, anticipating a number of them could benefit from the addition of strings. Once I discovered his skill, I think even he was surprised by how many songs I tossed his way to add his skillful flourish of strings to the final mix. We’re also drumming up some fresh originals to release next year.
How much did the above three influence your Warm Winter album?
Each definitely brought a rich flavor to the collection of songs. Andrew’s strings feature on seven of the 10 tracks, so he’s threaded well throughout the entire project. On six of those he was often jumping in after we’d tracked the piano and at least a rough vocal comp, but on Pie Jesu, I welcomed him to take the instrumentation lead. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original version seemed to be all synth but begged to be made acoustic on real strings, and I knew Joslyn’s textured arrangements well enough that it was clear he could carry that song instrumentally on strings alone.
Dana and I have known each other so long I text him song ideas, both originals and covers, and measure his interest and availability. He’ll always let me know if he thinks he can bring something fresh to a song, sometimes very excited to transform it as he was when I suggested we remake Friday I’m in Love as a ballad (a song we’ll be releasing in 2021). I like to throw him curve balls like that and I know he’s always well equipped to rise to the occasion of such a reinvention or expansion.
Jonathan always seems to me to bring an ethereal quality to his tracks. They feel so epic that they seem they must be acoustic and organic, though they’re primarily electronic. He’s also a great master of songs that travel through sparse quiet moments then launch to belting and high action scores.
When people meeting me for the first time ask me to neatly label my genre of music I often say I’m a soundtrack artist. While that encompasses many genres, I think it better describes the vibe of my catalogue more than pop or jazz or soul would do on their own. Norah Jones, Jon McLachlan and John Legend could be similarly described in my mind without trying to neatly tie them down to jazz, singer/songwriter and soul, labels that don’t do their back catalogue real justice.
What is the overarching theme on this record, other than being winter and Christmas-related?
There’s a lot of reflection and loss, which you don’t often find on winter or holiday albums. It’s usually just brief and bright nostalgia and excitement for the new year. This whole collection, while magical, is much more grounded and acknowledging the realities of a hard year – which seems so much more fitting given the 2020 all of us have endured. That’s not to say it’s all melancholy – there’s still a lot of joy, hope and flight too. Those highs are just easier to appreciate fully when juxtaposed against the lows.
Having also released albums of original songs, you chose to release this album of mostly covers. Which do you find more fulfilling in creating – originals or covers?
I think many artists treat covers differently and miss a great opportunity. A cover doesn’t mean the script is predesigned or set in stone. The reason fans have been finding these covers so surprising and spellbinding is that we took them somewhere different, somewhere unexpected. We treat them as tenderly as if we’d written them ourselves, rearranging the piano, adding a repeating tag when the song’s author stopped after a last chorus, or changing the voice of the instruments from electric to acoustic or the voice of the singer from male to female.
When those changes are wrought by these wonderful collaborating musicians who are all composers and artists in their own right, the songs almost become the parallel universe twin of the original. They show us what the original might have been if it was written in a different year under different environmental and societal influences. I was co-writing with a songwriter (via Zoom) based in the UK recently and had to explain what a tag was; it didn’t occur to me that a tenured songwriter wouldn’t know as it’s used in American pop so often. Then I wondered, since Harry Styles is British, if the idea of a tag hadn’t occurred to him with Falling, so I added it in my album version (while still creating a shortened cut like the original for Harry purists and playlist curators who prefer a song under 3 minutes and 30 seconds). Repeating that patch of lyrics from the second verse for the ending, mentioning running out of things to say, felt so natural to me it seemed it should always have been that way. I don’t say that arrogantly at all, just as a curiosity that sometimes we – those who weren’t the original authors – can see or hear something in a song that the original songwriter may have been too close to the material to witness or entertain.
For me the real joy is taking those explorations and returning to my own original work with those fresh eyes. What am I not seeing or hearing or allowing in my own work? Now that I’ve become acquainted with these new collaborators (Jonathan and Andrew), what original material can I toss their way? I emailed Andrew recently with lyrics and melody to a song I started writing after a friend lost her son to cancer this year, having also personally seen a few dear ones lost to illnesses that make them ebb away slowly, saying goodbye over many weeks or months. After his work with me on Pie Jesu and Falling especially, I’m confident he’s the right collaborator to toss that work in progress to and that he’ll give it the tone it needs.
How have you been able to balance recording music in so many different genres throughout your career?
Like anything I think it comes down to seasons. In winter you dig out your sweaters, in spring you peel back the layers. The more music you listen to – whether it’s discovering a new artist or a band or album long forgotten, the more that discovery and curiosity informs your own work. We see it in the lives of painters – their blue period or their formative early years versus their latter years when they break away from the rules they were taught. All creatives preach that you must learn the rules before you break them, though I think that can also be cyclical. New rules spring up all the time, so you learn the new rules then you break them in new ways. If you evolve at all, it’s tough to stay inside the boundaries of a tightly defined genre. Even titans like Bruce Springsteen and Dolly Parton have changed their sound so much through the years. You don’t maintain a decades long career without that journey, I think.
What else is happening next in Natalie Nicole Gilbert’s world?
I’m now working on an album of songs about self-care and recovery – some covers, some originals. The song about a friend losing her son may make it on there if we finish the final mix in time. So many people have lost someone this year and have to redefine who they are without those loved ones in their lives, and it’s on all of us as artists to create the soundtrack for processing those losses and finding new hope.