An Interview With Accomplished Vocalist and Actress, CHARLEENE CLOSSHEY On Her Newest Holiday Album and More!
Meet Charleene Closshey! She is an accomplished vocalist, musician and actress. She broke into the Mediabase Holiday Top 20 airplay last year with “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” The song’s main melody was actually written in 1956 by Johnny Marks, one of the most prolific Jewish Christmas song writers also responsible for “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, “Silver and Gold”, and Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run”!
“I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” was originally released in 1957 on the Elvis Presley Christmas album.
Check out the Official Music Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhzMe_ATQP8
Check out Charleene Closshey Online Here:
Learn more about Charleene Closshey in the following All Access interview:
Growing up, how important was music in your life? Can you recall the moment when you decided that you wanted to be a musician? Was it an easy or difficult choice to make?
I was born to create music.
Quite literally, in fact. During my mother’s pregnancy, the doctors instructed her to find a relaxing hobby, so she began piano lessons, playing every day. It’s no wonder when I first learned to crawl, I headed straight to our upright piano, pulling myself up its leg to the keys. My parents started me on piano when I just 2; I read music before I read words.
Today, music is how I see the world. How I feel the world. To me, everything is vibration – sights, sounds, feel, everything. I experience every day life as a series of vibrations. Making music is just a natural extension of how I live I suppose. And, I wouldn’t change that for the world!
There was never really a moment I chose to “be a musician”; it’s just who I am. Honestly, I’ve fought it a little over the years, thinking I should be this or that or another. But it was always during these times I felt off course or things just didn’t align as easily. When I’m making music or sharing music, things just align. It’s as though the Universe affirms this is what I “should” do! It’s a pretty easy choice: Make music, be happy, live with purpose, experience joy! Repeat. Daily. 🙂
Was there ever a time when you thought about doing something else? If you weren’t a musician today, what else could you see yourself doing? Would you be as fulfilled in life?
I think the beauty of Life is it offers us opportunities to find fulfillment in various ways. Especially as an artist, sometimes we have to step back from our craft in order to gain perspective which ultimately informs our art. Whether I’m practicing yoga, taking a nature walk, experimenting with a new recipe, or playing with my cat, I think Living is paramount to be a good artist. Living fully. Living completely. Living without reservation through what is good for someone else, because we must find what is good for ourselves. Taking care of #1 isn’t nearly as selfish as we can easily chalk it up to being. In fact, the only thing we really can control in this world is our life and how we live it. Balance and equanimity in our space lets us be more complete, and in doing so, offer more to the world and those we love. I think “fulfillment” is a journey we all take in various forms each day. Otherwise, there is no Living.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all? What has been the best part about it all?
I think social media has been really the main conundrum for me. I feel like we’re told there are certain nuggets audiences want or expect, and if you don’t provide, you are somehow falling short as a communicator. Which I think is only partially true. People crave authenticity. And connection…which is ironic because we so often search for connectivity in an imaginary cyber space devoid of actual physical contact. Even so, I think my greatest lesson career wise has been to allow people to connect with you in the best way they can and in the best way I can. Lauren Daigle shared an idea expressed to her: “Allow people the freedom to misunderstand you.” Yes! Because here lies an actual conversation. And, if you’re a private person, like I am, the anonymity of social media is a beautiful space to meet. You can share your heart truthfully without over engaging. Or, you can saturate the space completely! The choice is yours. Of course, haters gonna hate, but lovers gonna love. And truth is love.
So where did your love for holiday music first come from?
My earliest memory of Christmas music was my parent’s prized, cream-colored 8-track of Bing Crosby’s “That Christmas Feeling.” Each November, they’d pull it out, and its sounds would warm the air in our home. To this day, that album encapsulates my entire Feeling of Christmas! “I love that Christmas feeling, it does my heart so much good. Strangers I meet all seem like friends, and the world’s just a neighborhood. So, here’s to the Joy of Christmas, here’s to the ones I hold dear: May you have that Merry Christmas feeling, all through a Happy New Year!”
Definitely recording that track on the next Christmas album.
My love of Christmas has gone hand in hand with my love of music. When I was young, I was raised in the Christian faith, always singing in the children’s choir or playing violin in the orchestra or other musical happenings each Sunday. Over the years, I accumulated an uncanny ability to recite every verse to most of the sacred seasonal carols, even the obscure verses! They’d stick in my head like bread pudding sticks to a casserole pan. And I think they’d stick because their message of hope and peace and love and acceptance made my soul sing. There’s truth in the knowingness we can all see the world differently and still be exactly where we need to be. You can celebrate a different holiday or occasion than I or another friend, but the living is in the celebrating. The living is in the celebration’s joy. And Christmas just encapsulates that feeling to me.
Can you talk about what it was like making your new holiday album, “Christmas Time Is Here”?
We took a really unconventional approach to recording this album. My producer Brent Maher (a 6 time Grammy winner) said he’d never recorded an album like we did, but he loved the new process! Brent is fantastically gifted with an ear for really bringing out the best in every player and in every part. He’s responsible for finding those special nuances which make each song sparkle and shine! This album would not be what it is without his graceful guidance and depth of experience.
Brent and I would begin crafting each track with either a piano (played by my dear, dear friend and Steinway artist Derek Wieland of Trans Siberian Orchestra) or guitar (played by Australian sensation Joe Robinson who’s a protege of Tommy Emmanuel), working the general arrangement and recording a solid foundational track and working vocal. Next, we’d bring in the rest of the band or any specific solo instruments needed for the piece. Then, our award winning orchestrator Lyubomir Denev, Jr. from Sofia, Bulgaria would create the orchestral scores based on my arrangements and producer notes. Sessions for the orchestra and choirs would then follow, recorded out of the Four For Music Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria. Brent and I would Skype in to monitor the sessions, providing notes via text to the Bulgarian studio producers, just like we would if we were there in person (sans text). The final files were delivered to Nashville, where Brent and our incredibly talented engineer Charles Yingling would mix the tracks. Glenn “Golden Ear” Meadows (…I mean, come on…anyone with a nickname in quotes is pretty dang talented!) then wrapped each track in their final Christmas bows with sensational mastering skills.
All in all, I was really blessed to be surrounded by such a stellar group of musicians and creatives. I think it was Benny Goodman who once proclaimed he hoped to always be the least talented musician on stage to bring about the best music for his listeners. That’s my goal too, and I think I succeed. 🙂
I know it’s hard to pick favorites, but can you pick out a few memorable songs on this album and talk about their inspiration and how they got to be on this album?
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. The lyrics by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were penned on Christmas Day 1863 as Longfellow struggled with unrest and turmoil as his son fought in the Civil War; you hear his pain as he questions the point of hope, finally resolving that “wrong shall fail and right prevail”. It’s a message we all relate to in our own ways, especially today. And Johnny Mark’s melody haunts me; it has since childhood when I first heard Bing Crosby sing his version on that beloved 8-track. The rest of the arrangement came to me very easily and very quickly; I think the entire song and all her counter melodies were sketched completely in about 45 minutes. I just LOVE this track!
My favorite up-tempo song is “Christmas in Killarney”, heralding my Irish roots and love of anything with a penny whistle. Plus, I got to play fiddle on the track, so that brought a lot of joy! And, all those “Killarney folks” you hear in the background are my actual family! We did a special session featuring in my mom Jennifer, dad Charles (who is VERY Irish!), fiancé Jeremy, my soon-to-be sister-in-law Morgen, and Brent: I stood at a makeshift podium conducting “the folks” on their entrances and various raucous outbursts. It was an unforgettable hour overflowing with laughter and memories I’ll cherish forever.
The “Ave Maria” is exceedingly special as well. An original composition that came to me when I was writing a film score in 2016, I actually didn’t realize the song I had written was an “Ave Maria” until summer of 2018. It’s melody and the lyrics worked seamlessly, much to my amazement. And while it’s not a prayer I had ever said before, it’s quickly becoming a silent rejoicing I feel each day.
What can you tease about your 2020 multi-format album, “Only Love Remains”? What was it like working with the Bulgarian orchestra and choir on it?
I’m very excited to share “Only Love Remains” with the world next year! The process was similar to the Christmas album, but stretched over a longer period of time. We actually began recording this album in 2016, took a brief hiatus as I was starring in the movie “No Postage Necessary”, then returned to record more during Spring 2018, then finished early 2019. In comparison, “Christmas Time is Here” was recorded over about 6 weeks total in Fall 2018.
The album is filled with songs written by some insanely talented writers, including Tia Sillers (“I Hope You Dance”) and her late husband Mark Selby (“There’s Your Trouble”, “Blue and Black”). I did pen a few of the tunes, but many are just brilliantly constructed stories that I felt compelled to tell in song. The actor in me really enjoys taking a “script” and seeing what I can bring to its story, both vocally and musically. And this album allowed me to do just that. It’s track are diverse, with covers including “Skye Boat Song” from TV’s Outlander series and “Red Right Hand” brought back to prominence by Netflix’s’ Peaky Blinders, to new tunes “Only Love Remains” by Mark and Tia and “Mountains and Valleys” which I wrote.
How do you think you have grown as a musician since you first started making music? What if anything has stayed the same about your music-making process?
It seems my most profound life lessons continue to be around Allowing. Allowing more of the good stuff, releasing all the junk that doesn’t serve me anymore. Whether it’s about music, life, others, or myself, everything keeps coming back to allowing a flow greater than me to orchestrate perfectly timed moments.
What musicians would you absolutely still love to work with in the future?
Without any hesitation, A.R. Rahman is at the top of my list. His ability to fuse sounds (not to mention tonality) creating worlds that move and exist and thrive simultaneously is nothing short of thrilling! I’ve studied classical Indian music (both Carnatic and Hindustani) over the years, marveling at each system’s harmonic approach to, well, building worlds. And Rahman really captures a unique perspective of Eastern and Western sounds.
Random side note, I played harmonium (a Western reed keyboard brought to India in the 1800s, now a huge part of music in northern Indian) on the Christmas album tracks “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Littlest Angel”. There are plenty of appearances of Eastern and Tibetan bells scattered throughout the album too; I think it’s these unexpected contrasts which give the album a different kind of resonant depth. I was happy Brent was always gung-ho to explore with me, saying if it was good enough for the Beatles, it was good enough for him!
Where would you love to hear a song of yours played?
I would love to hear – or sing – my “Ave Maria” at The Vatican for Pope Francis.
At the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from your music?
Music inspires each of us differently. Sometimes the same song can inspire hope in one person and invoke tears in another. My hope – my secret prayer – is this album “Christmas Time is Here” meets each listener openly and honestly wherever they may be. Whether the season brings painful memories and longing for days gone by or loved ones past, or if the holidays uplift one’s spirit in unending happiness and laughter, I hope this music meets each listener in their own special place where they can feel I’m right there beside them, holding space for them, and reminding them how very, very loved they are.