By Colleen Taylor
Singer-songwriter Ashley Davis is lighting her tree in a different way this year—with a new Christmas album. Entitled “The Christmas Sessions,” the record features guitarist John Doyle and an original jingle of that very name, “Light My Tree.” Davis has been busy these past few years. In 2014, she released her groundbreaking solo album “Night Travels,” and before that she made another winter album, “Songs of the Celtic Winter” (2012). But Davis isn’t one to do the same thing twice, and when she pitched “The Christmas Sessions” to her collaborator John Doyle, she made one thing clear: this wasn’t going to be another Celtic album. The prospect made Doyle, he admits, gulp at first, but then he dove right in. On “The Christmas Sessions” two Irish musicians give up reels and jigs for jazzy riffs, engaging their favorite holiday memories in music that’s full of beauty and merriment. The album returns to the season’s canonical “chestnut” songs without going backward. Old favorites sound new again with Davis and Doyle’s creative ornamentation.
Because of her atypical background, Davis has always brought fresh eyes to Irish music, as well as the courage to expand and experiment. The same can now be said of her holiday music. Although Davis and Doyle practiced extensively before hitting the studio, they didn’t plan the music out in great detail on paper. To use Davis’s words, they “allowed the songs to breathe.” With her previous album, “Night Travels,” Davis tweaked and arranged the instrumentation to minute detail so as to design a new musical “blueprint” for herself, as she calls it. “The Christmas Sessions,” on the other hand, was about letting the songs flow naturally through the simple partnership of acoustic guitar and voice. And they glided her toward something organic and unprocessed. It is exciting to hear Davis sing Christmas hymns and Doyle play a jazz bridge or two. In fitting voice and guitar to the form of these traditional Christmas songs, Davis and Doyle create new musical tradition together.
“Light My Tree,” Davis’s original song, is my favorite on the album. It will have you snapping your fingers and laughing along. Davis sees it as “the funniest song she’s ever written.” It engages with the ‘40s jazz-swing legacy of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” offering a tongue-in-cheek Christmas metaphor of its own. Davis hopes other artists will want to record “Light My Tree,” and I think any musician with a good sense of humor will be eager light this one up. Writing a catchy new Christmas tune is no easy task, but Davis meets expectations with the support of Doyle’s lively guitar strings. For me, the record’s runner up is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Davis’s gorgeous voice seems made for the sentiment and nostalgia of this old favorite, and Doyle’s intricate guitar chords add detail that make the track truly exquisite. The token traditional Irish track on the album, “The Wexford Carol,” is arranged like I’ve never heard it before. Innovative and simple at the same time, Davis and Doyle’s rendition is an accomplishment. Doyle’s guitar almost works as a vocal duet partner for Davis’s singing voice, exchanging call-and-response moments throughout a number of the tracks. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Let It Snow” are other stand-outs, the latter offering a peppy, folksy jazz version of the lyrics we all know. Although ostensibly venturing outside their musical comfort zone, both artists maintain their respective signatures as singer and guitarist throughout the entirety of the album.
I’ve been a fan of Davis for some years now and watching her transformation from a Celtic New Age singer to a more acoustic-folk artist has been an exciting process. The announcement of the transition may have initially caused some nervous expectations among fans, but the move has paid off. That Davis has released great albums in both the New Age and acoustic folk camps speaks for itself. The evidentiary proof of her versatility as a singer and composer can be heard in the sounds of the albums themselves, and this is particularly true of “The Christmas Sessions.” Holiday songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” forced Davis to exercise her vocals in a way she was not accustomed to. She explained, “Vocally the[se songs] were far more challenging that what I usually sing, and certainly moving my voice in a way that I used to as a teenager when I sang torch songs all of the time. So it was really fun to take the tricks I learned then, with the voice I have now and blend them all together for something completely new.”
Making new out of old is the consistent theme of this Christmas album, and it applies to Davis and Doyle’s own personal memories as well. Davis dedicates the album to her late grandmother and her mother, who embody the spirit of the holidays for her. The album brought Davis back: “I remember standing beside my grandmother at the stove on her last Christmas as she taught me how to make gravy from the turkey. I have a lot of memories like that from the women who raised me.” It would seem—although she didn’t know it then—the young Davis was destined for a Christmas album. “Away in a Manger” is the first song she remembers performing in public: “When I hear that song, I can see the church that night and all of us wiggling kids up at the front by the alter singing our hearts out.” Likewise, Doyle’s foray into a Christmas album recalled memories of Christmases in Ireland. Before he was the John Doyle, the guitarist used to busk on Grafton Street, and his token holiday song during the December season was “The Holly and the Ivy.” Now, Doyle and his family incorporate traditional Irish music into their holiday celebrations in Asheville, N. C. The music on the album is just as evocative as these memories would suggest. It brings forth memories for listener as well as singer-songwriter.
Perhaps the Scrooge in the crowd might be thinking, “not another Christmas album.” But this isn’t another Christmas album. It’s a special gift for this year’s season. Davis’s aspiration is that this album can stand the test of time, and I think it’s a feasible goal. It will certainly stand the test of time for my Christmas playlist. In preparations for making the album, Davis told me listened to John Fahey’s acoustic Christmas album, which she says she listened to obsessively as a child. Likewise, this is an album you’ll have on repeat. It’s tradition and the right now, the tree and the merriment, and most importantly, it’s the sound of light.
Ashley Davis and John Doyle will launch “The Christmas Sessions” at the University of Kansas on Wednesday and Thursday then perform for Georgia’s “An Atlanta Celtic Christmas” on Saturday and Sunday. Find out how to listen to “The Christmas Sessions” at daisyrings.com.
Colleen Taylor writes the Music Notes column in the Irish Echo each week.