To the musical question — Do we really need another Christmas album? – Matt Wilbur has a ready answer.
“If the Christmas season stresses you out, you don’t need another Christmas album. But if you love Christmas, you can never have enough. There’s always one more Christmas decoration, one more Christmas album to have,” he said.
Count Wilbur firmly in the latter category. And as co-owner of The Vanguard Room, a Lakeland recording studio that caters to regional artists, he had the idea to do a Christmas album that would feature the city’s burgeoning music scene. The result is “A Lakeland Christmas, Vol. 1,” a 10-track album by artists based in the greater Lakeland area.
The album is due to be released digitally on the Spotify and Amazon platforms on Nov. 22, and a limited run of 400 vinyl copies (on white vinyl, no less) will be available on Nov. 29 at Jesse Carl Vinyl record store, with pre-sales already being accepted. The album is something of a labor of love, and the studio is asking local fans to support it partly through a Kickstarter campaign.
The lineup of artists includes some of Lakeland’s most well-known musicians: Aaron Marsh of the indie band Copeland and also Wilbur’s partner at The Vanguard Room; singer-songwriter Michael McArthur; Eric Collins, formerly with Denison Marrs and now performing as MrENC; and singer Van Plating, who has just released her first album.
“We wanted to lock in on the style of each artist. This album is a good entry point for a lot of these artists. The hardest part was narrowing it down to 10,” Wilbur said.
All the songs are covers of (mostly) familiar Christmas standards, including “Let It Snow,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Evan Eliason, a producer at Vanguard Studio, said his favorite track is McArthur’s take on Joni Mitchell’s intensely melancholy “River.” The song’s ambience was enhanced by a violin duo arranged by Joshua Dampier, who plays with the Imperial Symphony Orchestra.
“When you hear (McArthur) sing, it’s like he must have written the song,” Wilbur commented.
Studio manager Casey Newton pointed to “The Little Drummer Boy,” performed by a newcomer to the local music scene, Emily Jones.
“We gave her a guitar and a mic, and she did it in three takes. It has an ethereal, haunting sound, very sparse and bare but gorgeous,” Newton said.
There are a few unusual choices. Marsh, befitting his interest in indie sounds, recorded a version of “The Ice Storm,” originally by the Christian alternative band Annie, one of his early influences. Longtime Lakeland artist Dan Sharrett does a rendition of John Denver’s “Christmas for Cowboys.”
In a bonus for local fans, the album will be recreated in a live performance at Union Hall on Dec. 13 and 14. Each artist will perform his or her song from the album plus one other original.
“It’s going to be listening-room style, ticketed with limited seating,” Wilbur said.
Wilbur and Marsh agree that the album goes beyond providing fans with one more version of Christmas classics.
“The important thing was to do something community-driven,” Marsh said. “For us, it’s about involving a lot of different artists in the community.”
Wilbur said although the album was a lot of work and took several months to record, there may be future editions of “A Lakeland Christmas,” even if not every year.
“Lakeland could use a first (Christmas album),” he said. “This is a way to showcase our musicians.”