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Student Spotlight: Alison Barrett on the Best Christmas Video You’ve Ever Seen

Alison Barrett

“She insisted I keep the ‘blah, blah… sex!’ bit from the demo even though I was planning to fill it out with actual lyrics.”

That pretty much says it all about the track (and accompanying video) you’re about to witness. It’s whimsical but considered, goofy but apropos, and a window into the collaborative lyrical superpower that is the dynamic duo of Alison Barrett and John-Ryan Griggs.

Most of the following interview was conducted with Alison, who has at this point undertaken two mentorship sessions with Soundfly mentors (under my own administrative tutelage), and because over the last year and a half the phone calls we’ve had together have been some of the most entertaining imaginable.

When Alison told me she wanted to work on her “holiday-themed” songwriting and production skills in 2020, I thought that sounded weird but also kind of endearing, and she was certainly passionate about it. But earlier this year when we followed up, and Alison told me she wanted to work with a mentor who could help her indulge her fascination in and inspiration by “Eurovision style songs…” that’s when I realized how unique and creative she was.

But enough of me, here’s “So Christmas,” the best holiday song you’ll hear this year, I’m sure.

Q: Well I don’t want to talk all day about this song, but I honestly could — and after watching this video on repeat five times, I’m not even sure I remember what life was before this holiday asteroid smashed into Earth. So let’s start with this song, which is so catchy and hilarious and well done. How did it come about in general?

Alison: I met John-Ryan Griggs, my partner in Christmas crime, when I auditioned for his production of Showgirls: The Musical. After that show, he must have heard me referring to myself as “Christmas Alison” and he asked if I’d want to help him put on a Christmas variety show. We did John-Ryan’s Christmas Spectacular in 2019 where one of the show’s highlights was me singing Dolly Parton’s “Hard Candy Christmas” while sitting on a sparkly moon.

After that show, we decided we wanted to do the Spectacular every year until we’re dead (and maybe after); but there are only so many Christmas bangers to dance and sing to, se decided it would be smart to come up with some original Christmas party songs.

John-Ryan: We had about six different ideas cooking when I came across a track on Envato Elements called “Slow Retro Funk” by Diego Murovankin Pelaez. I wrote some very quick, under-developed lyrics and shot the roughest of demos to Alison to listen to. When we got together in person, Alison surprised me with pages of lyrics! We only kept the lyrics that made us laugh. She insisted I keep the “blah, blah… sex!” bit from the demo even though I was planning to fill it out with actual lyrics.

Did the video come together at the same time as the song? And did you make it yourselves?

John-Ryan: The video was a bonus. I knew I wanted to hire our friend, John Thompson, to shoot something for it but he initially declined because he was very busy. After some pestering, he said he’d see if he could squeeze it in if he liked the track and we promised to keep things simple. I sent him the track and he instantly agreed.

We shot the whole thing on a rainy Thursday night in his garage against a green screen and another backdrop of a bazillion strands of lights all fed into a couple outlets. The whole thing was like a PSA for how not to use electricity. We also brought all of our fake Christmas trees, and I hired a couple of our dancer friends to spice it up — then John really worked his magic.

“Just as we were finalizing the song, I went totally Janet Jackson on it and added several tracks of harmonies and riffs on the chorus.”

“So Christmas” has such this odd blend of New Jack Swing style funk songwriting with almost Dr. Dre-esque West Coast hip-hop production. And yet it’s a holiday song… Did the lyrics or the beat come first? 

Alison: The beat came first and it is such a good one. We sent our video to Diego to show him what we did with it and to say thank you for bringing some funk to our Christmas song. The lyrics came so easily because we truly love Christmas. One interesting thing for me was that I kept hearing a little seven note melody in the chorus and at first I tried singing it but I had the darndest time making lyrics fit.

It occurred to me that maybe it didn’t need lyrics, maybe it needed to be instrumental. I found a goofy keyboard sound and played it and Eureka! That’s the part in the video where we pretend to play the different instruments. It’s a small addition to the song but it made a huge difference sonically. The other major contribution of mine was what we call the vocal fancies. Just as we were finalizing the song, I went totally Janet Jackson on it and added several tracks of harmonies and riffs on the chorus.

Alison Barrett

How do you usually write songs in general? What’s your process like?

Alison: I think I’m meant to collaborate. My favorite songs that I’ve worked on have all been collaborations. The first one I wrote when I was 19 and my friend gave me a cassette of him playing some chords on the guitar and I drove around listening to it and the melody and lyrics just fell into place. It was so easy!

When I write songs alone, the melody and lyrics come to me but then it’s usually an arduous process trying to craft a beat to go with them and I often don’t end up finishing. That is one reason I came to Soundfly.

“I tend to take myself too seriously if I’m trying to write a regular song from the heart. With holiday songs, I worry less about what people will think of me when they hear the lyrics. There is less vulnerability and I like that.”

…And this ain’t the first time you’ve taken a holiday song and added some freak to it. I remember you writing a Halloween song in which Death comes to the door and develops a teenage crush on their victim…. What is it about this material that gets your synapses firing?

Alison: I love holiday songs because they’re allowed to be more outrageous. Halloween songs can be scary and evil and just plain weird, and Christmas songs can go anywhere from super sad to wildly joyful. I tend to take myself too seriously if I’m trying to write a regular song from the heart.

With holiday songs, I worry less about what people will think of me when they hear the lyrics. There is less vulnerability and I like that.

I’ve worked with you a few times over the years to set up mentorship sessions with various mentors, how has the mentorship process helped you shape your creativity and focus your musical muses!?

Alison: The Soundfly mentorships helped me get better at using Logic. With each session, I learned to tricks and methods that helped with overall sound and workflow efficiency. Having mentors also got me into a better place to collaborate. I can be pretty shy about making and sharing music so the mentorships were out of my comfort zone but I am so glad I pushed myself to do them.

Having worked with pro mentors, making music with my friends is no longer intimidating anymore.

+ Learn about Soundfly’s goal-oriented custom mentorship program here, and fill out a quick form if you’d like to get paired with a mentor to improve your skills!

learning on soundfly

The last session you did was with Ian Prince, and centered around getting better at “Eurovision style” songwriting practice. Firstly, how did that go?! And follow up, why the heck are you so interested in the campiness of Eurovision music?

Alison: Ian Prince was an awesome mentor and I spent a lot of time asking him questions about his career and the songs he’s worked on. He had so many great tips on lyric writing and beat making that a lot of present day Eurovision contestants could totally benefit from.

When the pandemic hit, I watched every Eurovision Song Contest from 1958 to present day on YouTube. The 1970s were my favorite era, and the year 2000 was my least favorite. There were a couple I had to watch in a different language because I couldn’t find the BBC broadcasts. I don’t think there is a better treasure trove of songwriting inspiration anywhere. Different countries use different instruments, the subject matter varies widely, and the delivery might just blow your mind.

What was the spark that brought you to Soundfly initially?

Alison: Whoa, Jeremy, I’ve been at Soundfly for a couple years now so I can’t remember exactly what referred me but I had been taking various music classes online and nothing was clicking. When I landed on Soundfly’s home page and looked through the course offerings, I was like…holy cow, this is exactly what I need.

I will confess that I don’t participate as much as I should on Slack and I don’t always finish the courses I start. I am kind of a lazy lurker — but lurking on Soundfly for a couple of years has been awesome and inspiring. Kimbra’s course is one of my all-time favorites. Some weeks all I can do is read an email that Mahea or Ian sent out and even though that is the barest of minimums, I still feel connected to the Soundfly community and our shared goal of making music. (I am going to give John-Ryan a subscription for Christmas!)

Alison Barrett

Who would you say are your biggest influences and why?

We already talked Eurovision, but my biggest influence has always been Michael Jackson. One thing I learned from him and his life is that it’s good to try to thrill people. When you are focused on delighting your audience, you can’t go wrong.  When you are thinking about yourself, things can go pretty far off the rails.

And since you mentioned Dr. Dre earlier, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre were some of my first cassette tapes and I have loved those guys since I was little. I’m in a B-52’s tribute band called the Wanna Be 52’s. The B-52’s are also the coolest cats I can think of. Their music has never had any rules. The subject matter of their songs is all over the map and I love that surf guitar sound and the farfisa organ stuff.

After the holidays are over, what’s next on your plate (holiday songs or otherwise…)?

The holidays are never over for me, Jeremy. I’m seriously thinking of specializing in Christmas and Halloween songs. I am working on a beat for a new Christmas jam right now. Big goals for 2022 are a Halloween album in a studio with a band and a Christmas album and another video with John-Ryan.

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Jeremy Young

Jeremy is a Montreal-based musician, sound artist and improviser who loves giving advice to emerging artists on how to make their tours more effective. He writes, records and performs electroacoustic "concrète" music for tape, oscillators and amplified objects and surfaces, as well as solo guitar. He has performed and released material throughout Europe and the UK, Asia, the US and Canada, mostly with his trio Sontag Shogun.