Jill Tracy: Silver Smoke, Star of Night
San Francisco chanteuse and multi-dimensional artist Jill Tracy is no stranger to the mystical qualities of life, new and old. This Yuletide season she has not only conjured up a collection of moody and inspired Christmas carols, but has also teamed with the ever-talented Nocturne Alchemy to release a line of amazing scents perfectly matched to the season.
Tell us about your Christmas album, Silver Smoke, Star of Night... What was the genesis of this project, and how did it ultimately come to fruition?
Jill: I have deemed Silver Smoke, Star of Night my “accidental album” because it pretty much wished itself into being. I never ever intended to do a Christmas record. Perhaps that's what makes it so poignant and magical: It manifested itself.
Last Christmas Eve a dear friend was going through rehab, so we were trying to find a distraction from the parties and alcohol. A sign posted outside the historical Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco announced a midnight candlelit carol sing-along. We had always wanted to peek inside this magnificent structure anyway, so this would be a perfect opportunity. I had not heard many of these carols in years, and was so transported that I couldn’t get some of them out of my head. I began researching, posting on Twitter of my intrigue. An onslaught of tweets followed begging me to release an album of these songs. While chatting with Sam Rosenthal of Projekt Records, I mused “I’m thinking of an album of my interpretation of dark classical Christmas carols.” He said, “Are you kidding? That would be amazing. I’ll release that in a second!”
So the seed was planted. I found myself late at night out by the ocean, recording antique bells, chimes, old toy parts, mallets, metals— playing the piano with tears in my eyes as the moonlight glistened across the keys. I spent evenings through the summer holed up at the piano with bottles of wine, burning frankincense, playing Christmas carols. Truly bizarre and wonderful! This is the holiday album I always wished existed. But I guess it was up to me to make it so.
Some of these pieces date back all the way to the Middle Ages. How did you come across and ultimately choose these?
Jill: These are pieces that resonated emotionally, and inspired me musically to make them my own. As with all my work, I begin hearing full finished arrangements in my head, and “O Come O Come Emanuel” revealed itself to me... That song was really the impetus for the entire album. I heard this long slow build, mystical and hypnotic... then transforming into more of an odd jazz groove, but maintaining the sheer formal beauty of the work. I also heard this very different (from the classic version) vocal melody in my head... I was hooked! Some carols I felt best to keep languid, stark, even just solo piano. In fact I was so moved during the performance of these pieces, much of what you hear are complete full first takes. They were magical. I did not want to attempt to lose that visceral element.
“What Child Is This?” was the same way, pure emotion. The piano parts were improvised on the spot. What you hear on the CD was actually meant to be a warm-up. But then my engineer/producer John Anaya's jaw dropped, and we both agreed wholeheartedly, that was the keeper! I did not even play it a second time. “What Child Is This?” is one of the most raw, powerful and proud moments I've ever captured to tape.
What—of all the myriad possibilities—do you find most artistically inspiring about this darkest season of the year?
Jill: That's just it, the dark. With the light change, the chill, the barrenness of trees, dismal skies, there is a captivating sense of foreboding, of loneliness— of finality. And if you're a consummate night owl like I am, you see so very little daylight at all during the season that you can't help but feel under the beautiful sway of the darkness, the magic of night.
On a more specific note, what do you find most compelling about these carols?
Jill: They are fragile and haunting, but poignant and unforgiving. “Coventry Carol” is a lament dating from the 1500s. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod ordered all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. The lyrics represent a mother's grief for her doomed child. I realized these are not songs to be sung, but tales to be told.