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Justin Tranter's Guide to Writing an Original Christmas Song That Rules the Holidays
“I’m like the queen of Christmas,” jokes Justin Tranter. And while a certain Mariah Carey might contest that claim, the prolific songwriter is certainly worthy of the crown, having contributed original songs to recent holiday LPs from Kacey Musgraves (2016’s A Very Kacey Christmas) and Gwen Stefani (whose 2017 album You Make It Feel Like Christmas was re-released this year with even more Tranter-assisted tracks.)
There’s no formula for writing a song like “All I Want for Christmas Is You” -- the kind of Christmas song that lives on year after year. “If we knew the answers, then we would all write a new Christmas classic every year and retire,” Tranter says with a laugh. “I would give up pop music and just write Christmas songs.”
Still, if there’s anyone qualified to give advice about adding a new tune to a formidable canon, it’s Tranter. Below, he shares with Billboard his tips for writing original Christmas songs.
Don’t Be Daunted
“Writing a Christmas song that becomes an actual classic is almost impossible,” Tranter says. But that doesn’t mean artists shouldn’t try. Instead of thinking about the pressure to write something enduring, he says, focus on the joy you’d bring to listeners if you pulled it off. “The chance to write something that might get played every single year, that to me is so exciting. Instead of being overwhelmed by that undertaking, I was just super excited about it every single time it happened.”
Let the Classics Inspire You
Most artists’ Christmas albums include new renditions of seasonal favorites, and those can set the tone in the studio and spark ideas for crafting original tunes. “With Gwen’s album, she was covering a lot of the classics, so we would be listening to them and talking about them.” These songs can also help writers and artists get in a festive mood. Because Christmas albums typically arrive in October, Tranter explains, “We’re writing these songs in May, if not earlier in April or March.” Bringing your own candles and tinsel into the studio, however, is optional.
Draw From Your Own Traditions
Gwen Stefani “doesn't allow one syllable into a song that isn't specifically happening to her,” Tranter says. That’s true of songs about her personal life -- like those he wrote with her for 2016’s This Is What the Truth Feels Like -- and it applies to her holiday songs as well. Stefani is a mother three, and [“Cheers for the Elves”] was very much about wanting to create a Christmas song that’s for kids and not adults,” Tranter says. If religion is a part of how you celebrate the holidays, bring that in too: “Gwen’s very spiritual, so there are lots of spiritual references in a couple of the songs.”
Set the Scene
How do you know a Christmas song when you hear one? It takes a little more than the sound of sleigh bells in the background to get the point across. Touching on those seasonal signifiers, either in the abstract (timely themes about family, gratitude, reflection) or in the details (references to snow and fireplaces), is crucial. “We definitely wanted to evoke different emotions that people have during the holiday season,” Tranter says. “Whether it’s certain images that we use lyrically or certain sounds brought into production, all of that stuff gives people those feelings.” Still, you don’t need to make a list and check it twice: “It's never like, "Oh shit, we didn't say 'Christmas' enough!"
Don’t Try to Sound Trendy
You Make It Feel Like Christmas doesn’t sound anything like the bold beats of Stefani’s non-Christmas solo work, and Tranter says that’s by design. “We didn’t any anything to feel jarringly modern or aimed to make sure kids think it’s cool,” Tranter says. Christmas songs don’t exist in a vacuum, so consider the other albums and staples they'll coexist with after Thanksgiving. “We wanted everything to feel classic [so] it would live in the same world and it wouldn’t throw people out of their Christmas playlist,” he notes. “You want it to feel like it’s part of holiday music history.”
Don’t Overthink It
Ultimately, the process of writing a Christmas original isn’t that different from what Tranter normally does in the studio with someone like Stefani. “We still have those conversations and catch up, we fill in the blanks of the last time we hung out -- all that good stuff before we would try to write a song,” Tranter says. Honest storytelling remains paramount: “We’re still writing about specific things in her life and the love in her life and the family in her life … I just try to add a little holiday love in there.”