For Mindy Smith, it’s just not Christmas without sticky buns. When she was growing up in Long Island, New York, her mother would make them for their holiday breakfast, and the tradition continues today. “I try to get some kind of cinnamon roll on Christmas,” she says, “even if it’s just the kind you get in the little tube. It makes it feel like Christmas for me.”
No doubt Smith picked up a few sticky buns to get herself in the mood to write and record Snowed In, a new EP of holiday tunes. She co-produced the record with longtime collaborator Steve Buckingham and is releasing it on her own Giant Leap Records.
In five songs — three classics and two originals — Smith moves from the excitement of Christmas Eve (“Tomorrow Is Christmas Day”) to the dreamy optimism of New Year’s (“Auld Lang Syne”). “I have to credit Steve with the track listing,” she admits. “He so good at sequencing. We had a connection there that helped to kindle the sentimental vibes.”
Taking a break from creating lyric videos on her laptop (“it keeps crashing!”), Smith spoke to CMT Edge about celebrating old traditions, making new ones and writing Christmas music during a heat wave.
CMT Edge: Why did you want to record a Christmas EP?
Smith: I work with a publisher called Razor & Tie, and they need Christmas music every now and then. I thought, why don’t I try to write a couple of holiday songs, just to see how it goes. In the middle of August we finally got two of them pulled together, and we thought, let’s just record a couple of public domain songs and let everybody hear it. It was a neat opportunity, getting to take it to the next step.
Did you have to do anything special to get yourself in the holiday spirit?
The songs were written and recorded in August. In Nashville! August in Nashville is definitely not Christmastime. When I was writing, we had two or three days of 75-degree weather. But it wasn’t too bad. I cranked the AC and created a wintry environment. But I didn’t put up any ornaments or wreaths or anything. I get that some people would do that, but for me it was just about having some time to myself.
Do you have any old family traditions you look forward to around this time of year?
Ever since I acquired 11 nieces and nephews, we do Christmas for the kids at Thanksgiving and then everybody goes home and resumes their own traditions. I do try to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, too. Growing up in New York, it was a big thing every year when I was a kid. Now I just put it on in the background.
Writing Christmas songs seems like a difficult assignment. Was it difficult to come up with something that was original yet not overly sentimental?
On my first several attempts, I didn’t feel like I was bringing anything new to the genre of holiday music, if you want to call it that. I wanted to get a perspective that wasn’t overdone, and I wanted to have a contrast between the new songs. One needed to be sentimental and the other needed to be a bit more fun.
“Tomorrow Is Christmas Day” is more from a kid’s perspective. It’s about the anticipation — waiting to get up and exchange presents and see what you got. And then after it’s done, you have to wait another year. I tried to stick to writing about what I knew instead of projecting what I think other people want to hear. For me, there has to be some truth in it.
What are you favorite songs to sing this time of year?
I tend to go back to the ones I listened to growing up, like Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. Amy Grant’s Christmas records are amazing. And I love John Denver and the Muppets. That’s one of my favorites. Those artists always make me feel like this is a special time of year, so going to them as resources helped me a lot when I was writing these two new songs.
Why did you choose these three older tunes?
I’ve loved “What Child Is This?” since I was very young. My mom would sing it, and I always enjoyed hearing it. And “Silent Night” is such a beautiful standard. I think a lot of people lose touch with these songs when they record them.
They lose sight of the actual feeling of the song. So I wanted to be very respectful and tried to connect with those feelings in the songs. What do I get from this song? What does it do for my spirit and my heart?
That’s especially true on “Auld Lang Syne,” which is a very beautiful Scottish traditional song. We’ve all grown accustomed to hearing it on It’s a Wonderful Life, but a lot of people don’t realize it’s a very traditional song. It’s my favorite of the three on the album.
There’s a nice mix of secular and religious songs on the EP. Was that intentional?
I think so. I know what Christmas is to me, but I also know that not everybody shares that idea of Christmas. So I think it’s important to present a collection of songs that can move different people for different reasons. It’s about making sure you’re not alienating someone who is on a different journey.
On all my albums I’ve tried to speak from the heart and not make any bones about where I’m coming from, but I want to leave it open so people can take from it what they need. It’s a tricky balance.
What does 2014 look like for you?
I’m always writing toward the next project, and we have a couple of ideas that are coming together. But we’re trying not to force our hand. As a team, we’re just taking it day by day. This EP has so consumed our current work environment because you only have a short window of time to release a holiday record. After that we’re free and clear.