Northern Lights

Artist
Gretchen Peters
Released
2008
Genre
Singer-Songwriter

Listen to Northern Lights in its entirety.

  1. Song For A Winter’s Night -:-- / -:--
  2. Coventry Carol (Prelude) -:-- / -:--
  3. Coventry Carol -:-- / -:--
  4. I Wonder As I Wander -:-- / -:--
  5. December Child -:-- / -:--
  6. (Charlie’s) Angel -:-- / -:--
  7. Waitin’ On Mary -:-- / -:--
  8. In The Bleak Midwinter -:-- / -:--
  9. Careful How You Go -:-- / -:--
  10. Northern Lights -:-- / -:--
  11. Christmas Time Is Here -:-- / -:--
  12. Silent Night -:-- / -:--

Lyrics

5. DECEMBER CHILD

By Gretchen Peters

what babe is this – who cries no tears
who brought you forth – who laid you here?
a little child, a tiny thing
how can it be they call you king
a baby in a manger born
so early on a Christmas morn
the angels sang, the heavens smiled
and here you are, December child

December child, so full of grace
so humbly born, so highly praised
they bring you gifts, they follow stars
they say they know who you really are
but you are still your mothers son
they say you are the chosen one
the kings and queens, the rank and file
all know your name, December child

while the shepherds watch they’re keeping
we lie sleeping

December child, the world awaits
and soon enough you’ll meet your fate
your mother’s arms will soon grow cold
and yearn for her sweet babe to hold
and all the world, in all its need
will soon be pulling at your sleeve
so give her time, a little while
and go to sleep December child

© 2008 Sony/ATV Cross Keys Publishing / Gretchen Peters Music (ASCAP)

7. WAITIN’ ON MARY

By Gretchen Peters

Joseph walked to Bethlehem
Found no room there at the inn
And knowing not what was to be
He lay beside her patiently
Waitin’ on Mary

The shepherds watched, the stars grew bright
The angel said, “It’s gonna be alright
Just have some faith, just wait and see
A miracle will come to be
Waitin’ on Mary”

Bridge:And after all these centuries
The world still has its refugees
The losers in the human race
But with the most amazing grace
They’re waitin’ on Mary

Faraway on some dark hill
There are faithful waiting still
Who have no hope but still believe
Maybe tonight is Christmas eve
And they’re waitin’ on Mary

© 1993 Sony Cross Keys/Purple Crayon Music (ASCAP)

10. NORTHERN LIGHTS

By Gretchen Peters

deep in December, the year has grown old
the days have grown dark and the nights have turned cold
and the hurts that we harbor, the debts that we owe
are sleeping down under a blanket of snow

it covers the grasses, the bench in the park
the scars in the earth where man’s made his mark
and high in the sky there’s an unearthly glow
like a miracle sent to delight us below

and all our cares seem immaterial
beneath a light so ethereal
as if all our wrongs could be made right
oh darling, under the Northern Lights

we wound and we’re wounded by the tiniest acts
we run from our ghosts and we cover our tracks
and we try to make up for mistakes that we’ve made
with presents and parties and christmas parades

but I’m tired of the running, I’m taking my leave
and the fire’s burning low on this cold Christmas Eve
all that I have is this evening to spend
all that I want is to hold you again

to linger awhile in the mystery
to know the gift that’s been given me
just to lie beside you this Christmas night
oh darling, under the Northern Lights

© 2008 Sony/ATV Cross Keys Publishing / Gretchen Peters Music (ASCAP)

Notes

Gretchen:

1. Song For A Winter’s Night – I loved this old Gordon Lightfoot song and knew I wanted some songs that were about winter, not specifically Christmas. This one just seems to capture that melancholy feeling of a snowy winter night. It was one of the first songs we cut for the album and felt absolutely effortless. At that point I think we felt we were on to something.

2. Coventry Carol (prelude) – After we had recorded Coventry Carol, with its big, lush cathedral-like sound, it occurred to me that we could do a little prelude that was sonically the opposite. I was trying to get something that sounded like what you’d hear coming out of your radio late in December in the hinterlands of England just after Winston Churchill had given a wartime speech on the BBC. David Henry, who I am convinced can play anything, did all the horn parts.

3. Coventry Carol – This has always been one of my favorite carols. It’s quintessentially English, of course – the title refers to Coventry, England, where it originated as part of a play depicting the Christmas story. The song centers on The Massacre of the Innocents by Herod – the killing of all young male children in Bethlehem. It was surprisingly easy to get “inside” the medieval lyrics because the tune is so mournful and sad. Barry came up with the beautiful, and very modern, interludes between verses.

4. I Wonder As I Wander – I changed, very slightly, the melody of this Appalachian folk carol to suite the more modal arrangement I had worked out on the guitar. As with so many of the traditional carols we recorded, I was more and more impressed with the lyrics as we went. The words to this song are lovely, very earthy and their Celtic roots show in places – “if Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,.. he surely could have it ‘cause he was the king”… I started with a series of guitars and mandolins – very folky and mountain-y – but when Barry added the B3, the Wurlitzer and the clavietta, it added a sort of bluesy tone which I loved.

5. December Child – I was really interested in writing the story of Christmas from the very human point of view of Mary – how she must have felt as a mother, knowing her baby would not be hers for very long. Every mother feels a pang at this part of the story, I think – we all want to protect our babies from the world and we all know that we can’t. Doug Lancio added beautiful guitars to this track.

6. (Charlie’s) Angels – I had this crazy idea that I wanted to try doing the traditional carol “Angels We Have Heard On High”, only in 6/8 time and with a jazz feel. I don’t know what got into my head but I was pretty sure about it. The only thing that didn’t feel right was the “gloria’s” – they just seemed superfluous. The feel was so close to the Vince Guaraldi song “Skating”, from our beloved “Charlie Brown Christmas”, that at some point we had the idea to put the lick from “Skating” in place of the “gloria’s”. It worked. We knew we had to record this whole thing live, so we called Dave Francis up and he came over and played upright bass in our hallway. It took us awhile to get it right – the transitions are tricky – but once we got it we loved it. It’s also the only track we put sleighbells on – and only at the very end, after much discussion! We called it (Charlie’s) Angels as a little tip of the hat to Charles Schulz and his alter-ego Charlie Brown.

7. Waitin’ On Mary – This is an old song of mine from 1993. I had an old, dated demo which I hated – full of synthesizers and devoid of space or vibe – but I still loved the song. I stripped it down to its basics and played a simple electric guitar part, which immediately took it to a new, better place. We just kept working on it – layering it, adding Doug Lancio’s guitar and David Henry’s cello. The lovely icing on the cake was having Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss come in and lend their angelic background vocals. We’ve been singing together for a couple of years now and I knew I wanted them on the album and this was the perfect song. I’ve always been struck by the link between the homeless of today and the Christmas story, which is really about two poor, destitute people trying to find their way in the world without much help. It’s an old story, but it’s still going on today.

8. In The Bleak Midwinter – Maybe my favorite cut on the record, and certainly one of my favorite lyrics. Based on a stunning poem by Christina Rossetti. We sort of considered this a bookend to “Coventry Carol”, and wanted to create a mysterious, cathedral-like sound. Barry’s idea was to use organ rather than piano. Barry and I knew we had to capture this live as well, because there is no real strict sense of time in it. Since we were in separate rooms and couldn’t see each other when we recorded it, we had to play off of each other’s very subtle cues – my breathing and his grace notes. Once we had the right take, we sent it to Doug Lancio, who I think is in his finest hour here. Some of what he plays sounds like “angels and archangels”, and some of it sounds like a Grateful Dead jam. All of it sounds wonderful to me – I was ecstatic when I heard what he’d done.

9. Careful How You Go – I asked my songwriter friends to send me songs that they might have that would be appropriate for this album, knowing that I wasn’t going to have time to write more than a few myself, and also because I was curious to see what I’d get. I know some great songwriters. Kim sent me this song about a snowy night in London, which she wrote with Will Kimbrough. It charmed me immediately. It’s got nothing to do with Christmas but everything to do with the magic in the air after a snowfall. Will was gracious enough to come over to the house and sing it with me, and put some bouzouki on it as well. I also played alto recorder on it, which gave the instrumental bridge a little English folk vibe.

10. Northern Lights – I felt this was the title song as soon as I wrote it. I’ve always been fascinated with the Northern Lights, though as many places as I’ve been where they’re common I’ve still never seen them. But I think of them as one of the beautiful gifts nature gives us, seemingly for no other reason than to delight us. The end of the year is a reflective time, and fraught with stress and sadness for some people (maybe more than would admit it), and I was trying to get at this notion. I spent a very difficult Christmas the first year after my marriage broke up, but in some ways it was a beautiful experience, because I really had to examine what I wanted the holiday to mean. It was clearly not going to be a Hallmark/Norman Rockwell Christmas, so I had to really think about what was important to me. And it turned out that peace, and quiet, and reflection made for a lovely and meaningful, if at times melancholy Christmas Eve. Getting off the treadmill can be a huge relief. That’s what I was getting at in the last verse: “we try to make up for mistakes that we’ve made/with presents and parties and Christmas parades”.

11. Christmas Time Is Here – We worked out this song in a hotel room in Newcastle in the northeast of England. Newcastle has always been a pretty fertile place for us, creatively – I wrote “Jezebel” there from my last album. We both adored Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Christmas”, and wanted to pay homage somehow. My guitar chords are quite a bit more naïve than Guaraldi’s jazz chords, but they fit the arrangement, I think. We recorded this whole thing live with Barry in the living room, me in the office and Dave Francis in the hallway.

12. Silent Night – My grandmother, whose maiden name was Mohr, was fond of telling me that her ancestor, Joseph Mohr, wrote Silent Night. Mohr was an Austrian priest who presided over a small mountain church. The story goes that the organ broke on Christmas Eve, so this song, which he wrote with Franz Gruber, was first performed on the guitar. I had this idea that we could set the melody, which is very simple, to something resembling the Bach cello suite in G, which I love. It evolved and changed along the way, but the basic idea – recording it with just a voice and a solo cello, sticks pretty closely to the way Joseph Mohr performed it that Christmas Eve in 1818. Barry came up with the instrumental passage in the middle. David Henry played it, beautifully.

Barry:

Here’s my take on how the “Northern Lights” project came to be. The whole idea was to record a Christmas CD without stepping on the tired old standards. We spent a lot of time talking about what to put on it- but just as importantly, what to leave out. Gretchen started working on some new songs to fit in, and she came up with three gems. There were lots of serendipitous moments throughout the process, and when we were all done we decided that it was like catching fireflies; when we got those spontaneously inspired ideas and put them to work. Here’s the story, not in the order of the tracks on the album, but more closely in chronological order of when they were recorded or “born”.

Christmas Time Is Here – A hotel room in Newcastle, UK in January ‘08. An idea, a guitar, an accordion, and a groove. Thus was this album started; after talking about the possibility of recording a “Winter/Holiday/Solstice” album throughout the previous Holiday season. We had just caught our first “firefly”.

Song For A Winter’s Night – One of my favorite Gordon Lightfoot songs of all. I’ve been a fan of his (and this song) since his early records from the 60’s. I had given Gretchen an oriental set of table top wind chimes for Christmas, and told her we’d use it on the Christmas album we’d been talking about recording. As soon we got the track on this song I thought it would be nice to add the wind chimes. Gretchen thought they sounded like icicles. To me they capture this feeling of opening your front door on a wintry night and hearing wind chimes on the porch gently moving in the icy wind. Another “firefly”…

Northern Lights – Another brilliant GP original, I knew it was a great song the very first time I heard it. This was one of the first tracks we got, and we knew from the start it didn’t need much, but it cried out for David Henry’s cello.

Coventry Carol – One of Gretchen’s favorite old English Carols, we played around with this one for qute a while. I had learned the chords to it from a book of English Carols. It took a little work to transpose the parts to her key, but I knew I wanted to use the same “Classical” sounding arrangement when we recorded it. We wanted to do something different for the intro and the sections in betwen verses, so one night when I was sitting at the piano the idea came to me out of nowhere. It was one of those “aha” moments. We both immediately knew it was going to work. We were catching fireflies again.

I Wonder As I Wander – I’ve always loved this Appalachian carol. We had a couple of false starts on it as we started to work on it, and it seemed to be going nowhere. One night Gretchen found a cool modal way of playing it, and It immediately took on a new life with a more contemporary rootsy feel. I knew it needed a Wurlitzer electric piano, but I thought it still needed something more. While Gretchen was out on the road opening some shows for Eliza Gilkyson, I found a great upright bass sound on a synth I had. It seemed to work great on this one, so I kept adding it to other songs, like “Northern Lights” and “Song For A Winter’s Night”. Gretchen was skeptical until she came home and agreed that the faux bass was working on some of these tracks. But I can’t overstate the contribution of Dave Francis’ upright bass work to “Charlie’s Angels”, “Christmastime Is Here”, and “Waiting On Mary”. We then sent the track over to Doug Lancio, who put his magic touch on it.

December Child – Another great new Gretchen song. We had a lot of fun playing around with possibilities for this song, but it never came completely together until Doug Lancio got his hands on it.

In The Bleak Midwinter – I had this idea from the start to record this with just an organ playing the changes under Gretchen’s vocal. Once we got that, I got out these Turkish finger cymbals my brother Charlie had given me about 20 years ago when he lived in Istanbul. We recorded them in stereo- completely against the prevailing engineering wisdom- but when you don’t know what you’re doing you can’t really break someone else’s rules, can you? They added this great accent to the high end of the track, and we sent the track over to Doug Lancio, basically giving him a blank slate to work with. He came through like the pro he is. When he starts soloing on the long fade, it’s like he’s channeling Jerry Garcia. More fireflies…

(Charlie’s) Angels – The problem child of the album. Gretchen had the idea to record “Angels We Have Heard On High” in 6/8 time, and somehow work “Skating”, the great Vince Guaraldi instrumental song from the original “Charlie Brown Christmas” special from the 60’s; which was already in 6/8 time. After playing around with it for months, after much hand wringing, after much cajoling, and after Dave Francis came over one night with his upright bass, we had something recorded that we could work with. Since the arrangement was all about blending “Angels We Have Heard On High” with the song from the Charlie Brown Christmas, I wondered WWSD (what would Snoopy do). I had an idea to add a jazzy 4/4 instrumental break in the middle, complete with finger snaps. It was Schroeder playing his jazzy piano with Snoopy skating around on the ice. Sometimes the best tracks are the ones that you have to work hardest to capture. This one was well worth the wait.

Waitin’ On Mary – This is an older song of Gretchen’s.. The demo sounded dated so we stripped it completely down to the bone and started over. I think it’s now found it’s proper place in the world, thanks to Doug Lancio’s guitar contributions. I never could have dreamed that the single contribution I would make to this track- or any track for that matter- would be the drum track, which was just a brush in one hand and my fingers of my other hand, tapping on an upturned liquor box. “Fireflies” on their second glass of wine…

Careful How You Go – Gretchen was sold on this one from the first time she heard it. I’ll let her tell you about it. But I will say this one had fireflies all over it, and for me it was the dark horse of the project. Every recording I’ve ever done seems to have a song on it that I’m not enamored with at the start, but that gradually wins me over in the end. This was that song. Subversive “firefly”…

Silent Night – This was the last track to be recorded. Gretchen had the idea all along that she wanted to get a track with just her vocal with David’s cello, using the first Bach Cello Suite (in Bach’s key of “G” as it turns out) for a model. I thought it still needed something besides just the three verses, so I came up with the chords and the pattern for the solo section in the middle eight one night. More “fireflies”. We recorded a “mock up” demo on a synth to bring in to David Henry, who took the idea and made it his own. Gretchen’s vocal on this, as well as all of the others, is just glorious.

Reviews

USA TODAY

Northern Lights
Gretchen Peters
(Scarlet Letter)

by Brian Mansfield

The writer of Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” sets her sights on a different holiday. Peters’ versions of “Coventry Carol” and “I Wonder as I Wander” are stark and lovely, as are her three original songs – “December Child,” “Waitin’ on Mary” and the title track.

CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

Gretchen Peters
Northern Lights
(Scarlet Letter)

by Bobby Reed

The hit songwriter (Martina McBride’s “Independence Day”) delivers an exquisite holiday collection with two musical nods to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, including a fine cover of “Christmas Time Is Here.” The original composition “December Child” is a superb candidate for becoming a Christian music standard. Best merger: “(Charlie’s) Angels” brilliantly and jazzily melds the hymn “Angels We Have Heard on High” with Guaraldi’s “Skating” from the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.

L.A. TIMES

Gretchen Peters
Northern Lights
(Scarlet Letter)

3 STARS – Nashville songwriter par excellence Peters hones in on the melancholy side of the holidays with intimacy and insight in her savvy mix of standards (“Silent Night,” Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson’s “Christmas Time Is Here”), less-traveled seasonal songs ( Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night,” the traditional “I Wonder As I Wander”) and fitting new songs of her own (“December Child,” “Waitin’ on Mary,” the title tune). For those who won’t trade musical acumen for holiday spirit.