Letters To Cleo
Photo by Chris Sikich
Letters To Cleo "Cleo-ize" The Holidays On The Limited-Edition 'OK Christmas' EP
"Every year we joke about doing a Christmas record," laughs Letters To Cleo lead singer Kay Hanley, "but this year we decided to get serious and finally do it." Since reuniting in 2016, the beloved Boston alt-rockers have been playing a year-end run of shows where they like to have a surprise or two up their sleeves. "For the last couple of years, it’s been a bit of a tradition for us to tour in November," says Hanley. "When you only go on tour once a year, you can’t go out empty-handed. So, Ok Christmas is this year’s annual holiday gift to our fans."
Comprised of three holiday covers and a newly penned original, the Ok Christmas EP finds the band mining the often-overlooked corners of the Christmas canon for some left-of-center chestnuts through which to celebrate their seasonal spirit. Where some bands stumble when it comes to covering other artists' material, Letters To Cleo have been showcasing their unique talent for reinterpretation since their original run in the 1990s. They memorably became soundtrack/compilation phenoms with covers of The Cars' "Dangerous Type” (from cult classic "The Craft"), Fleetwood Mac’s "Dreams" (from the Spirit Of '73: Rock For Choice album) and their double-dipped entry of Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" and Nick Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind" from the soundtrack to the high school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (a film in which they also make multiple on-screen appearances).
For Ok Christmas, Letters To Cleo bypassed the well-worn holiday fare for a trio of Christmas covers from The Kinks, Elvis Presley and The Dogmatics, a fellow Boston rock band that was active in the early-to-mid 1980s. However, even when they start off with another band’s material, Hanley and her bandmates can always find the right avenue through which to properly "Cleo-ize" their bouncy, buzzy, cranked-to-11 interpolations. There are no kids' choirs, church organs, "Jingle Bells" motifs or any other seasonal saccharine to be found here—not even in the EP's title. "We went through all the schmaltzy titles like Cleo For The Holidays or Cleo Does Christmas, but none of that was working. I suggested Ok Christmas because it’s a play on Radiohead's OK Computer, which is a phrase I’ve been using a lot in the last few years when responding to bots on Twitter," laughs Hanley.
To get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Ok Christmas, the Recording Academy chatted with Hanley about her own connection to holiday music, the band's song selection process and the inspiration behind each of the four tracks.
Kay Hanley: Once we finally decided to record a Christmas EP, everything came together pretty quickly. We did a little deep dive into potential songs and democratically chose which ones we were going to do. However, as with most holiday albums, we had to record it in the least Christmas-like atmosphere you could imagine: 90 degrees in July in Los Angeles in a little studio over in Koreatown. But we had a good time and just went for it. Even the artwork process turned out simple enough. Our graphic designer, Nicole Anguish of Daykamp Creative, came up with the cover on her very first pass. She only showed us one thing and we were immediately blown away!
During the recording sessions for Ok Christmas, the band didn't try to manufacture any fake holiday spirit by stringing lights all over the studio or by putting up a Christmas tree in the corner of the control room. Instead, Hanley felt that she and her bandmates were able to stir up the exact inspiration they needed from their own nostalgic memories and their personal connections to the holiday music of their childhood.
Kay Hanley: I grew up in a very devout Catholic family and my parents listened to a lot of Elvis and a lot of religious music around the holidays. So, I was a big fan of Christmas music, especially the big dramatic church songs like "O Holy Night." In fact, we almost did "O Holy Night," but it was really hard to figure out how to get the right Cleo vibe on it, so we didn't push it. Even though I'm a Catholic atheist, I love the holiday and everything about it. I haven't been to a Christmas mass since moving to Los Angeles. However, there's a church right across the street from us, so maybe I’ll take the kids this year because the place is really beautiful.
One of the potential tracks that all of the band members immediately agreed on was The Kinks' 1977 holiday single "Father Christmas." While the original has long been an anchor of power-pop holiday playlists thanks to its roaring guitars and propulsive drumming, Letters To Cleo managed to further the song's intensity through their amped-up romp that serves as the door-busting opener to Ok Christmas.
Kay Hanley: There was never going to be a Cleo Christmas album without The Kinks on it. "Father Christmas" was just automatically going to be on there. It was the first one we chose and we just all knew it was going to happen. We all love The Kinks and it was such a blast to record. I hope the fun we had really comes through in the recording.
However, hidden away in Ray Davies' satirical lyrics about a department store Santa getting roughed up by an unruly gang of kids was one specific line—"But if you've got one, I'll take a machine gun/So I can scare all the kids on the street"—that didn’t sit quite well with the band in light of America's ongoing gun violence epidemic.
Kay Hanley: We had just finished tracking all of the music for our version of "Father Christmas" when the mass shooting in El Paso happened. Our guitarist, Greg McKenna, texted the band on our group chat and asked if we should change the machine gun lyric. My first instinct was to leave it intact, just because I’m a songwriting purist. To be honest with you, the machine gun line had always just floated over my head because the whole song is just so tongue-in-cheek in the way it’s commenting on class and the haves vs. the have-nots. But it only took a few minutes for me to be like, "Oh no, we can't use that lyric." It just seemed really tone-deaf in the face of the gun violence crisis that our country is going through. I went to Twitter and slid up into The Kinks' mentions, told them that we were recording the song, and explained why we wanted to change the machine gun lyric. We didn't hear back from them, but our fans saw it and offered up some ideas on how to switch it up. One of our fans, Eric Reiberg, made a suggestion that I ended up modifying a little into a new couplet —"Can you meltdown all the machine guns/So the kids are safe on the street." It feels so much better now. Hopefully, Ray Davies won't be mad at us.
For their next cover in the Ok Christmas tracklist, Letters To Cleo pulled out another '70s seasonal singalong. "If I Get Home On Christmas Day" was originally recorded by Elvis Presley for his 1971 album Elvis Sings The Wonderful World of Christmas. While the maudlin mid-tempo ballad may have shared a release decade with the spunky "Father Christmas," it certainly didn't share the same level of enthusiasm from the band during the Ok Christmas song selection discussions. At least, not until McKenna reworked the overly sentimental arrangement into the charming, twangy shuffle that eventually won Hanley over.
Kay Hanley: Greg brought this one to the band because he was the only one daring enough to look for the unknown songs that no one really covers. Initially, I wasn't into that approach at all and wanted stuff that people would immediately recognize. So when Greg first showed us this Elvis song, I was like "Hell no, absolutely not!" However, he worked up a different arrangement on guitar and sent me over a demo and I was like "Yes, this is fantastic now!" Our sound lends itself nicely to that sort of soft rockabilly vibe. So, even though it’s kind of twangy, I still feel like it’s very Cleo. It was surprisingly hard to sing though!
For the final cover of the four-song EP, the band tipped their hat (a Red Sox cap, naturally) to their Boston roots by tackling the surly "X'mas Time (It Sure Doesn't Feel Like It)" by the Boston garage-rock band The Dogmatics. Originally appearing on the hard-to-find 1984 holiday compilation A Midnight Christmas Mess alongside Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Droogs and The Cheepskates, "X’mas Time" paints a dour picture of the snowswept city during the holidays, while shouting out a few of the "less touristy" local landmarks.
Kay Hanley: This song was actually our manager’s idea. I think he’s been trying to pawn this one off on us for years. I have to admit, even as a huge Boston music fan, I wasn't familiar with the song at all. At first, we ignored him, because that's what you do with managers, but we eventually came around to it. Musically, it's kind of long and doesn't go anywhere, but the vibe of it is absolutely perfect. It’s very defeated, very Boston—it doesn’t get more true-to-type than this song. I like that the lyrics are so visual for me. Filene’s Basement was my grandmother’s favorite department store. It was downtown, right at the edge of the Combat Zone, with a lot of seedy characters around there. Pine Street Inn is a homeless shelter in the South End. At the time this song was written in the early 1980s, it was in a very desolate, very bleak area. Now, the South End is one of the most gentrified areas in Boston. Pine Street Inn is currently in the middle of total opulence. The difference from then to now is absolutely nuts.
As nostalgically warm as the thick Boston threads that run through "X'mas Time" may be, the most personal musical moment on Ok Christmas lies within the band’s newly penned original, "Miss You This Christmas." Throughout the holiday heartbreaker, melancholy lyrics like "I'm not used to stringing lights alone" and "There's no cheer if you're not here" contrast smartly against the upbeat Spector-esque production touches of ringing guitars, clanging chimes and a bubbly bassline.
Kay Hanley: We really wanted to write an original for this record, so Michael Eisenstein and I made an appointment to sit down with a guitar and give it a shot. Writing a Christmas song can be really daunting because it feels like no one can bring anything new to the subject; like everything that could be said about Christmas has already been said. So I started trying to think about my boyfriend who tours a lot and is going to be gone through the holidays. I've also got two young family members who are serving overseas and I was thinking about how soldiers' partners must feel during deployment. So it all came together around hoping that your loved one will come home safe and sound for the holidays.
From the charming album artwork to the merry-making covers and the heart-warming original, Letters To Cleo have managed to craft an authentic, grade-A seasonal souvenir with Ok Christmas. They even pressed up the vinyl version of the EP on "holiday candy"-colored vinyl. Free of commercialized schmaltz and full of signature Cleo, Ok Christmas manages to find its own sonic space in the Christmas canon without just adding to all the Noel-hyped noise. However, according to Hanley, putting out a Christmas release isn’t exactly going to become a yearly tradition for the band.
Kay Hanley: As fun as this was, we are one-and-done on the holiday EPs. A part of our annual gift is that we’re always going to try and do something different each year. However, we are hoping to have another regular, non-holiday, full-length album out sometime next year. We’ve already got like five or six songs ready to go, so that’s our plan.
The limited-edition "holiday candy" vinyl version of Letter’s to Cleo's Ok Christmas EP can be ordered directly from the band here.