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11 Rules for Writing an Original Christmas Song Today

According to the people behind hits for Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, *NSYNC, and more.

Landing on an original perennial holiday hit can be like hitting the jackpot in more ways than one: “For us producers and songwriters, they call a Christmas album a 401(k).” Illustration: Carolyn Figel
Landing on an original perennial holiday hit can be like hitting the jackpot in more ways than one: “For us producers and songwriters, they call a Christmas album a 401(k).” Illustration: Carolyn Figel

In the canon of Christmas music, the standards loom large: time-tested songs that listeners already love and know by heart. It’s almost audacious, then, for a musician to think they can add to that catalogue. Yet, every year, artists try — sometimes at the request of their labels, eyeing the publishing money in a potential perennial hit that’s played annually on holiday radio. So when Joss Stone’s label asked her to add an original track to her 2022 album, Merry Christmas, Love, her first thought was, naturally, “I don’t want to ruin someone’s Christmas.”

The English R&B singer dreamed of recording lush, nostalgic renditions of the classics with an orchestra to match her favorite holiday music by artists like Frank Sinatra — certainly not her own song, let alone more than one. “I don’t want someone to hear it on the radio and be like, Ugh, please just play me ‘Jingle Bells,’ for God’s sake,” she says. But she ultimately accepted the challenge and set out to make three original songs worthy of sitting alongside her favorite covers. “I went in there and I didn’t know what to write,” Stone admits. She ended up turning in two sweeping originals, “If You Believe” and “Bring on Christmas Day,” inspired by her own holiday traditions and memories. After spending years planning the album, Stone found the process of fitting her originals together with the covers rewarding: “It ended up being quite magical.”

Ahead of this year’s “Jingle Bells” season, Vulture spoke to Stone and seven other singers, songwriters, and producers who have created new Christmas tracks over the past 25 years about the particular art and hardships of original Christmas songwriting. Here are, according to them, the 11 rules for writing an original holiday single and not ruining Christmas in the process.

1. Start early.

Christmas is as much about family traditions as it is about fervent preparation and commerce. So, to give ample room for promotion ahead of the holiday, most Christmas songs get released in September and October. That means, in order to provide enough time for touch-ups and mastering, the songs are usually recorded in the spring and summer — and, if they’re original, written even before that. The Backstreet Boys had to delay their new album, A Very Backstreet Christmas, by a year when it became apparent they were running behind their deadline in 2021, also putting off plans for residency concerts by a year. But that’s a slightly more ideal case than what Veit Renn experienced. The veteran writer and producer remembers starting work on *NSYNC’s 1998 album, Home for Christmas, in August, giving him about three weeks to make it. The originals-heavy record, which features the massive hit “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” alongside others such as “Kiss Me at Midnight” and “All I Want Is You (This Christmas),” was released November 10. “It was a crunch,” he says. “I literally slept on the floor in the studio for a couple of weeks. There was no time to go home.”

2. Go Method.

Starting early means some artists make their albums in seasonally inappropriate conditions. But that doesn’t mean it can’t feel like Christmas in the recording studio. AJ McLean says the Backstreet Boys initially wanted to record their album somewhere snowy, but when they couldn’t find anywhere that worked, they brought the Christmas spirit to their California studio instead, outfitting it with a tree and stockings; they even had a white-elephant gift exchange. “We just tried to keep ourselves in the holiday spirit even though it was 95 degrees outside and sunny,” he says. The vibe in the studio was similar for Kelly Clarkson’s 2021 album, When Christmas Comes Around …, says her producer and music director Jason Halbert — thanks in part to Clarkson’s own love of Christmas. “We go all out,” he says, adding that they had The Kelly Clarkson Show’s team decorate the studio. “I remember it was Father’s Day and I was wearing my Christmas pajamas.”

3. Don’t count any genre out.

Jim Jones looked at peers such as Mariah Carey dominating the holiday market and wondered why he couldn’t do the same. “It was always a lane to fill,” says the rapper, who released A Dipset X-Mas, a rare hip-hop Christmas album, in 2006. “I figured I’d take my stab at making a rap record for the Christmas season.” It worked, and he continued to drop Christmas raps in the years after, even guesting on the stacked lineup of Kanye West’s “Christmas in Harlem” in 2010.

4. Don’t overthink the lyrics.

Many of the best Christmas songs start as any other song would: with something familiar. Leon Thomas III, a solo artist and producer, had a pretty literal inspiration when working on “Snow in California” for Ariana Grande in 2013. “I grew up in New York, and Christmas was always synonymous with snow,” he says. “Coming out to California, in the beginning, I just remember feeling like it was such a specific Christmas experience — not having that connection between the weather but still having the love of family create that element.” Ashley Monroe, one-third of the country supergroup Pistol Annies, says the trio approached their 2021 Christmas album, Hell of a Holiday, just like their usual songwriting. “We feel like our other songs in our other records are snapshots into everyday real life,” she says. “We just wanted to transfer them into everyday Christmas memories.”

5. It doesn’t have to be positive.

For Jones, making Christmas hip-hop music isn’t just about the sound — he sees it as another opportunity to rap about the same subjects covered in the rest of his music, including poverty and violence. “These were Christmas records that reflect what’s going on inside the hood, inside the places that we grew up in,” he says. “Christmases aren’t easy coming up in those places. Parents do a lot of things just to put gifts under that tree for those kids.” Clarkson took a similar outlook working on When Christmas Comes Around … amid her divorce from her husband, Brandon Blackstock, writing about the split through songs such as “Merry Christmas (to the One I Used to Know).” “At first, it sounded heavy, but it was actually pretty cathartic to work through that process,” remembers Halbert, the producer. And not all the songs had to sound sad. Halbert wanted the “tongue-in-cheek” single “Christmas Isn’t Canceled (Just You)” to sound more upbeat and playful with Christmasy horns and girl-group backing vocals. “The production around it was purposely taking what potentially could be a heavy subject, around a very public divorce that she was going through, and still making it light and accessible and relatable to everybody,” he explains.

6. Choose your curses wisely.

It’s rare to hear a curse word in a joyful, otherwise PG-rated Christmas track, but it happens. For the Pistol Annies, the callback to their debut album, Hell on Heels, was too good not to go for it (the name Hell of a Holiday has been in Monroe’s phone for years). Besides, as Monroe says, “hell’s not really a bad word anymore” — it’s the other ones that labels are worried about. “We had even worse ones than hell,” she says. “We were told we needed to calm it down.”

7. It doesn’t have to start as a Christmas song.

Some of the best Christmas songs began apart from the holiday. “Christmas in Harlem” was one of the many beats Hit-Boy sent West when he was trying to get on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. “I just didn’t picture a Christmas song on that beat,” says the hip-hop producer, who went on to work with Drake and Beyoncé. “I looked at that beat as some, like, Biz Markie, fun, witty type of song.” It wasn’t until about the month before “Christmas in Harlem” came out that Hit-Boy found out West had flipped it into a Christmas song. But it made sense to him. “It’s a real warm record,” he adds. Likewise, “Glow,” Clarkson’s duet with Chris Stapleton, had originally been intended for a non-Christmas project before a bit of rewriting turned it into a holiday song. And Monroe says the Pistol Annies were working on regular songs alongside Christmas ones during their Hell of a Holiday sessions. “That always happens when we’re together: We just can’t help but start writing,” she says.

8. The bigger the melody, the better.

Sure, there are Christmas ballads. But many of the season’s enduring songs, from “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” to Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” go big. That’s why Halbert thinks Clarkson’s “Underneath the Tree,” a song he’s played many times in her band, has become one of the most beloved recent Christmas songs. “It’s just infectious, and it’s up, and it’s that sort of melody,” he says. Being easy to listen to and easier to remember can help a song fit into store and Christmas-radio playlists. It’s also good for spots in holiday commercials, a realm where “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” has succeeded for decades by being “recognizable but not too dominant,” as Renn puts it.

9. Feel free to throw it back.

Often, Halbert notes, there’s pressure for a Christmas cover to be a new take on an old song. But with originals, an artist should feel the freedom to play with the retro sounds of their favorite Christmas tracks. “You’re going for more of a classic, timeless sound, so you actually steer away from trends at that point,” he says. The originals on When Christmas Comes Around … were inspired by ’50s and ’60s Christmas music with “wall of sound” production, three-part harmonies reminiscent of girl groups, and orchestral backing. Stone, meanwhile, drew inspiration from her favorites, including Sinatra and Dean Martin. “I feel like Christmas can be really cheesy, and I absolutely love that part of it,” she says. “Nothing about it is particularly cool, so I think, musically, that goes hand in hand.”

10. Go for the live strings.

A live orchestra is a recording splurge — one that “probably doesn’t make economic sense in today’s music climate but sure makes a huge difference on a record,” says Halbert, who booked a 40-piece orchestra for some tracks on When Christmas Comes Around … After spending a decade dreaming of what her Christmas album would sound like, Stone knew she needed live strings, something she drew a hard line on while talking to labels. “I have no interest in having fake strings on any of my records, certainly not the Christmas record,” she says. “It’s the type of thing that, if you do it, you may only do it once; it will never come again.” In other words, it’s an investment. And once you witness it, as McLean did during the recording of the Backstreet Boys’ album, you’ll see the strings were worth it. “That was the most emotionally moving moment, musically, in the studio for me since the beginning of our career,” he says.

11. Be ready to hear it for years to come.

When Renn hears “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays” today, he has two thoughts. First, he picks out all the mistakes in the rushed song. “I hate the drums; I hate the piano,” he says. “Even the beat itself.” Those mistakes “haunt” him. Second, he remembers the success the song brought him, including being optioned for ad spots and played all over Christmas radio. “For us producers and songwriters, they call a Christmas album a 401(k),” he jokes. To others, hearing their contributions to the Christmas canon is more sentimental. Years after he worked on the Christmas songs for Grande, Thomas was shopping with his dad when they heard one come on the speaker. “It was a funny moment of me being like, ‘You know, I actually did this one,’” he says. “Those moments are really, really, really amazing because I think it just gives an example to the people that I love that my passion was actually turning into something that would be enjoyed for years to come.”

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