Ever since he moved in 1994 to Austin, Texas, JM Stevens has returned to Mississippi annually each holiday season to visit his family.
When the pandemic put a stop to his streak in 2020, Stevens’ songwriting reflexes kicked in, and he tapped into his feelings to compose “A Different Kind of Christmas.”
“There was a lot of hurt and loss and uncertainty in the air, and that’s what inspired the tune,” Stevens recalls. “I guess I was just looking for some hope and positivity to hang on to, and the song is about looking to the future to hopefully find some.”
On Dec. 23, 2020, Stevens posted a straightforward solo acoustic performance video of “A Different Kind of Christmas” on YouTube. Wearing a string of yellow lights on top of his blue flannel shirt, and with candy canes dangling from his microphone stand, Stevens sings, “Won’t be overpacking the car / And traveling oh so far / It’s gonna be a different kind of Christmas this year.”
As 2021 unfolded, Stevens says the song had slipped his mind, but eventually “the algorithmic overlords of YouTube made the live version pop up to me one day, and I thought to myself, ‘Man, that sounds not too bad: Maybe I should record this thing for real.’ ”
In revisiting the song, Stevens realized it “didn’t sound blatantly pandemic-related” and that it was more about being lonely and missing loved ones.
“I wasn’t really interested in beating the pandemic point anymore, as that’s fairly ubiquitous,” he adds, “but it didn’t give me that vibe, and I ran it by a few trusted others to get an outside opinion, and they felt the same. At that point it was [getting] close to Thanksgiving, and I knew I better get to cooking on it quick to pull it off in time to make sense.”
Stevens tracked his vocal and guitar in mid-November at his East Austin Recording studio. For drums, he recruited George Duron, who played on Stevens’ 2019 solo debut, Invisible Lines. Next came bass, courtesy of Kevin Smith. “I’ve never had acoustic bass on any of my music,” Stevens says, “but this seemed like the perfect tune to change that.”
Jonny Keys Grossman added piano and accordion, while fellow Austin singer-songwriter BettySoo provided harmony vocals.
“I love her voice so much, and she always sounds great on tape, and live and I knew she’d nail it,” says Stevens. “She was in Vermont at the time, so I sent her a rough mix and we talked about the vibe over FaceTime. She recorded it, sent me the part and that was that.”
“A Different Kind of Christmas” was released Dec. 8 on Bandcamp via Chicken Ranch Records. With his regular director Marty Robbins unavailable to do the accompanying video, Stevens seized the reins.
“I guess I fooled myself into thinking I’d gained enough novice video skill over the last year doing livestreams and such to give it a shot,” he says. “I had the idea of filming each player’s hands running down the song while they were in the studio, with the aim of cobbling something together on the back end that was hopefully passable — a classic fix-it-in-the-mix scenario.
“After crash-coursing on a video editing program that almost killed me for a few days, I emerged with something I feel pretty OK about. I guess sometimes you gotta just go for it and not worry about if you’re supposed to be able to or not. That’s how I got into recording music.”
With about 40 songs written during the pandemic — “they’re marinated pretty good from playing out live a lot over the last several months” — Stevens says he’s working on the best plan of attack for recording in 2022.
“I’m thinking I’ll start with a single or two to kick off early in the year,” says Stevens, who is booked to perform at the Folk Alliance International Conference in February and South by Southwest in March. “I’m excited for the future.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Photo by Felicia Graham