Published on December 12th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Mel Washington Takes a Brief Break to ‘Celebrate’
Just a few years ago, when singer/songwriter Mel Washington was playing and touring in a straightforward alternative rock band called All Get Out, he never expected to be crooning and harmonizing on a full-on Christmas album of his own. At least not anytime soon.
“It’s true, I never ever thought I’d be making a Christmas album,” Washington says of his brand-new, seven-song collection Celebration. “I always assumed it would hokey and cheesy, no matter what. But I gave it a try and did it my way, and it turned out pretty well. I had a lot of liberty in making this.”
It’s a bold move to release an album of traditional Christmas carols and holiday songs. But it’s just one of several big accomplishments Washington has made this year.
“It was just one of those things where I didn’t feel any pressure from anybody to make this or make it a certain way,” Washington says. “There was no label forcing me to do anything. I knew for sure that there was no way on earth that I was going to chart with this record or anything. Cee-Lo Green, Justin Bieber, and all these other celebrities have released Christmas albums this year, and there’s no way to compete with anything like that.”
The Charleston-based songsmith amicably broke away from All Get Out last year to pursue his own songwriting and studio collaborations. He quickly hooked up with a variety of local and regional artists, and 2013 became the busiest year of his career in rock thus far.
“Five years ago I was in a band and on a label, and we played lots of shows. Now, I’m not in a band and I’m not on a label, but I’m free to create way more content. It’s a different kind of experience now. Technology can allow you to make great content more easily now than ever.”
While tracking and mixing new originals for his solo debut album Houses (released last February on the indie Regenerate Music Co. label), Washington traveled between the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, and New York to engineer and help arrange music with several pop, rock, and hip-hop acts.
“Charleston’s still home, but I don’t get to see home as much I see the inside of cars and airplanes these days,” he says. “I look forward to coming home this week and for the holidays.”
“I spent a lot of time in Atlanta at the top of the year, and I spent a lot of time in Chattanooga, Tennessee, working as the producer on a recording by a songwriter named Yosef,” he adds. “This fall, I was all over the place on top of recording Celebration. Between writing songs, playing and recording music, and making videos, I’ve done more this year than I’ve done in previous years.”
Washington enlisted the in-demand Charleston studio producer Ryan “Wolfgang” Zimmerman (currently drumming with Brave Baby), acoustic/electric guitarist Alec Stanley (of Death on Two Wheels), pianist Collin Holder, vocalist Sarra Sedghi, and a few guests to help make Celebration.
“I’d worked with Ryan in 2007 and 2008 with my old band,” Washington says. It was really cool to reconvene and put our heads together. It reminded us both why we like working together so much. We always come up with fresh ideas. Some of the guitar parts this time around got torn up and put back together in a cool way. I love working with engineers in that way. I never want it to be the Mel show.”
Celebration begins and ends with Washington’s more solemn, solo moments — the opener “O Holy Night,” with its soft swing beat and sparse piano, and the elegant, piano-based “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” — but in-between, there’s plenty of upbeat, optimistic moments.
Washington’s deep voice sounds grand on the new tracks. The songs display his full range of wit and warmth as a singer and guitarist. The mood and tone are often amusing and occasionally sad and tender.
The Latin- jazzy “White Christmas” is peppered with brushed snare beats, muted trumpet, clean guitar, and electric piano. Singer Sarra Sedghi trades verses with Washington before a full choir chimes in during in the last chorus’ Ray Coniff-ish conclusion.
There’s a nice balance between Seghi’s high tones and Washington’s low rumbling style.
“I met her years ago when she attended one of All Get Out’s shows in Macon, Ga.,” remembers Washington. “Sarra actually invited us to play her Sweet 16 party after that. We all became friends and stayed close over the years. Recently, when we started discussing working on a holiday album together, we made plans for us to collaborate and record for a few days in Macon. The sessions worked well.”
“A Chorus of Hallelujahs” starts out with a breathy verse and a lone acoustic guitar, whispery before gaining momentum and switching gears into a massive outro. The track is a dramatic highlight — a counterpart to the lighthearted rendition of “Santa Baby, played with a steady beat as a groovy/funky duet with a great organ solo.
“While ‘Santa Baby’ was the most fun track to record, ‘A Chorus Of Hallelujahs’ is my favorite track on the final album,” Washington says. “It starts to make sense around the time the second chorus comes around, when the precurser to the big ‘Hallelujah’ chores pops in. Hat’s off to Wolfgang and the guys for helping me make this one work.”
“Let it Snow” is fairly straightforward with a jazzy guitar riff, a swing rhythm, and some extra synth and horn. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” can’t help but be as syrupy as the original version, jazzed up with a reverby jazz guitar solo.
“Side projects like Celebration have become less about being better than anyone else and more about being better than myself, better than I was on my last release.” Washington says. “I try to make the best records that I can at the moment.”
With Celebration out and about, Washington already has several new projects in the works, including a concert album and a tribute to Tom Petty and Johnny Cash (nicknamed “PettyCash”). Stay tuned and try to keep up.
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