The Living Sisters‘ Harmony Is Real elegantly delivers holiday classics earthy (“Jingle Bells”) and ethereal (“Silver Bells”). Better still are the Los Angeles quartet’s superb original Christmas classics in the making (“Kadoka, South Dakota” and the title track).
Band members Eleni Mandell and Alex Lilly spoke with CMT Edge about interpreting and writing seasonal songs, their songwriting strengths and the foursome’s newest collection. Fellow singer-songwriters Inara George and Becky Stark round out the lineup.
CMT Edge: Describe how quickly the album came together.
Mandell: We basically had about a month to write our holiday songs, get in the studio and learn the songs. It was intense, but I think it’s really fun to have an assignment. It motivates me a lot.
Lilly: Yeah, all of a sudden it started happening and happening quickly. God, we made the decision in a couple days, and we all started writing, which I’d never done before. It was pretty cool.
Describe the greatest challenge in writing a holiday song.
Mandell: I’m Jewish, so I loved the challenge of writing a Hanukkah song because there aren’t a lot of great Hanukkah songs out there. I’m not really immersed in Christmas culture, but I do like Christmas music, especially doo-wop Christmas music, which isn’t really in the “hits” category. I just wanted to write something fun and maybe different like “Neon Chinese Christmas Eve.” I think we all wrote stuff that we wanted to hear.
Lilly: I think we each had our own take on expressing a different corner of the holiday. I feel like there’s a sad tinge to Christmas, and I think that Inara wanted to express that in her songs. Becky wanted to express the spirit of Christmas and the holidays. I grew up loving Frank Sinatra and also George Michael‘s Christmas song (“Last Christmas”) and I always wanted UB40 to have a Christmas song. That was the inspiration behind “Skip the Sugar (Good Girl).”
Tell the story behind writing “Kadoka, South Dakota.”
Mandell: I was on tour in the winter with my twin kids who were 3 at the time. We were looking for food in the Dakotas, and we were going on and on in darkness and there were no lights from the city coming up. Finally, we saw the light for Jiggers Diner off the highway in South Dakota, and I thought, “Well, this isn’t gonna be good, but let’s make the most of it.”
We ended up having a really lovely meal and a lovely conversation with the waitress. It was one of those moments in time where you’re someplace surrounded by strangers, but we had a really lovely moment. I kept thinking about it and saying, “‘Kadoka, South Dakota’ has such a great ring to it.”
Describe each other’s greatest strengths as songwriters.
Mandell: Ooh. (laughs) Well, I think Alex’s greatest strength is that she’s very smart. Nothing she writes is obvious. She’s really musical but in a special way. I’m always impressed that you write things that I couldn’t even dream up. I think Inara’s greatest strength would be that she’s able to be very heartfelt and sincere but never corny — and very melodic.
Lilly: Oh man, I’d say that Eleni’s writing is effortless. It’s organic and interesting and in an immediately singable way. Whenever she writes a song, it’s like we all know what to do right away because it feels really natural and fun. Also, like Inara, Eleni captures emotions while remaining her dry, sassy self. It’s a really cool combination. I would say that Becky writes melodies that can stand on their own. She has a beautiful voice. She writes really cerebral and gorgeous music. I feel like everyone contributes something that makes a really strong whole.
Describe what makes a great holiday song.
Mandell: I love that feeling of optimistic joy, that warm and cozy feeling.
Lilly: When you asked that, I immediately thought of that song “Christmastime Is Here” by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. Kids are singing it on the recording, and it’s out of tune and really cute. It’s such a strong, pretty message and melody that it rings true even when it’s sung by a cluster of kids. It embodies Christmas and captures the spirit great.
Speaking of classics, explain what drew you to “Silver Bells.”
Mandell: We learned that a couple of years ago for a tree-lighting ceremony in town. I think we chose it because it’s about Christmas but not religious.
Lilly: There’s the scenes of Christmas rather than the tradition.
Mandell: OK. What I said was totally wrong because it says, “It’s Christmastime in the city.”
Lilly: Yeah, but it’s Christmastime. The ornamentation of Christmas is expressed — the shoppers, the snow, the senses. I feel like the lyrics are bringing me into the Christmas scene, the holiday mood. Maybe that’s why.
Were you inspired or intimidated to take on such well-known traditional material?
Mandell: I thought it was really inspiring, especially “Jingle Bells.” I love singing “Jingle Bells” with a little swing and a little sass.
Lilly: I think because people know it so well, it’s less intimidating. People already love the songs and they’ve heard them so many different ways. It’s not like we’re in competition with one version of “Jingle Bells.” I think the more the merrier.