by Jessica Gentile
Tales of lonely housewives, destitute post-grads and desperate one-night stands might not seem like the most typical holiday song fodder. Yet, they are also the most emblematic of the Christmas itself, in all their cold, melancholy bleakness. Just ask Owen Ashworth the singer-songwriter behind Advance Base and formerly of Casiotone For The Painfully Alone. He's never actively set out to write a Christmas song, and yet over the course of a decade and multiple albums, he somehow managed to record nearly a dozen of them, and counting. And there's not a cheery one in the bunch.
Christmas isn't so much a holiday as it is an emotional anchor for all of these stories. As a songwriting device it's an amazingly effective shortcut to tap into big, often uncomfortable feelings. Because Ashworth's characters have some of the worst holidays imaginable often torn from their families ( as in CFTPA's "Traveling Salesman's Young Wife Home Alone On Christmas in Montpelier, VT") or in unknown, un-wintery locales (like Advance Base's "Christmas in Oakland"), the loneliness and longing is palpable.
"I guess it's easy to wind up writing about Christmas once you're already on the subjects of loneliness, despair, and regret," Ashworth says. "Christmas comes so loaded with expectations that some degree of disappointment just seems inevitable. There's so much heavy family stuff and dense emotion wrapped up in the holiday. Christmas just sucks for a lot of people, and those are the kinds of people I tend to write about....I never really set out to write a Christmas song. That's just where they tend to end up. I'll be halfway through a song and realize that there's snow on the ground and just think 'fuck it, it's another Christmas song.'"
The most remarkable feature of these inadvertent Christmas songs, beyond their frequency, is their context. They are peppered throughout the CFTPA and Advance Base discography. None of them have originally been released on a holiday-specific album, yet they all fit seamlessly with their non-Christmas tracks, given the overall melancholy vibes and mellow synths that Ashworth's music traffics in. Last year he finally decided to compile them all on a Christmas Mixtape, available via Bandcamp.
In recent years, he's released a new series of songs based on geographic locations. In addition to the aforementioned "Christmas in Oakland," there's also been Christmas in Dearborn and Milwaukee too. Each city works as the backdrop to a melancholic holiday vignette tailored each setting. "Most of my songs, Christmas or otherwise, tend to start with a specific place, usually a U.S. city. I'll think about that city for a while and then imagine somebody who lives there and then I'll imagine their sad problems and the next thing I know, it's Christmas again," says Ashworth.
But it all started with "Cold White Christmas," the first of many unpremeditated holiday songs to come. Over droning, lo-fi chimes Ashworth tells the story of a girl fresh out of college and fresh out of prospects, living alone in Minnesota and toiling away at a fast food restaurant. You can hear the desperation in Ashworth's dreamy baritone as he sings "When you're on your own you've got no one to please / in a Minnesota city just as bare & as mean as the winter trees but you'll be damned if you're the one making collect calls on a cold white Christmas in St Paul."
Though the song had a much different origin. According to Ashworth, "it was inspired by a dude I met in a bar in St Paul one night on tour. He was maybe ten years older than me. He'd had a few and he just started telling me this very sad story about the job he hated and the apartment he hated and the woman he loved. She was too young for him but he just couldn't get over her. The story stuck with me and some months later I started writing a song about this guy and his life in St Paul. At some point, it turned into a song about the young woman, and then the dude kind of faded out of the story, then it turned into a Christmas song."
Christmas has also served as not only as a lyrical influence, but an aesthetic one as well. There are echoes of the Vince Guaraldi Trio's Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack in the instrumentation, equal parts playful and melancholy. Not to mention the influence of classic church elements. As Ashworth recalls attending Episcopal services as a child he notes, "I always had a real fondness for the Christmas music services," Ashworth says. The spooky organ music, the children's choirs, the bells. I loved all of that stuff, and I'm sure it went a long way towards forming my musical sensibilities."
So what can other artists learn from Ashworth's approach to making holiday music? He offers this advice. "When a pop band decides to record a Christmas song, they will often tack on a bunch of Christmas sound effects to their usual instrumentation to make everything sound like a fun Christmas party. I'm talking about dopey stuff like glockenspiels, sleigh bells, chimes, organs, harp rolls, crackling fires, clinking glasses, egg nog slurps, "ho-ho-ho"s, stomping reindeer hooves, etc. It's a very maximalist approach. I prefer a bit of restraint in my Christmas novelty singles. Give me a nice piano ballad or bell choir. A little solemnity goes a long way with me."