The Lost Art of Writing a Christmas Song

Belfast singer-songwriter and Seven Summits frontman Rory Nellis on which seasonal ingredients together help strike the right chord

Ever since the days when Wizzard and Slade battled it out like tinsel-covered gladiators for the UK Chart top spot, musicians have found it increasingly difficult to distill the spirit of Christmas into songs with anything resembling the same kind of lasting power.

The industry's current-day climate has completely changed not only how music is consumed, but how it achieves hit status compared to then, making the annual race to Number One look more like a badly organised fun run of talent show contestants, charity singles and tedious Facebook campaigns. There's nary even a novelty track that resurfaces the year after it's first released.

It's almost as if the quota for classics was reached with Mariah Carey and the great seasonal songbook has been locked away from new entries ever since. The stars in Bethlehem truly need to align for today's songwriters to hit upon the same festive fortunes Noddy Holder and co. receive in royalties every December.

Still, despite it being a very different game for contemporary composers, and what some might see as risk attached to releasing the songs, that hasn't dampened the efforts of many in penning hopeful originals.

But what are the key componants of a solid Christmas number? And how do nascent tune-smiths avoid the common pitfalls of sounding too mawkish or saccharine? We spoke to Belfast's Rory Nellis, who has kept the time honoured tradition alive with the recent online debut of his track 'Midwinter Festival', about what went into its writing.

What made you decide to do a Christmas song and how did ‘Midwinter Festival’ come together?

Rory Nellis: I love Christmas and I love Christmas music so I’ve always wanted to write a Christmas song. I think it’s great that The Pogues, The Waitresses, Frank Sinatra and East 17 can all feature on the same playlist and Christmas makes that possible.

When I sat down to write 'Midwinter Festival' I knew a good place to start would be a descending major scale as it’s a staple of most of the great Christmas singles. I tried to make the lyrics sweet with a hint of melancholy and referenced a few of my favourite carols. Phil [d'Alton] throws in a few references to these in the piano part too, which I loved, and Herb [Magee's] bass line uses the iconic rhythm from 'Do They Know It’s Christmas?', Yuletide royalty.

The band all did a great job. The first time we all played it together was during a sound check for the Belfast gig in November. We had one run through and then played it that night. I was really happy with the arrangement so we went into the studio that week to record it.

Lyrically are you drawing on personal experiences of this time of year?

Oh yeah definitely. I was worried that the chorus line was too sweet, but I think it’s about how important it is that we remember what Christmas is all about.

In terms of writing, what for you are the essential ingredients of an enduring Christmas song?

I’d say a descending major scale and jingle bells are pretty much a must in terms of the arrangement. Some clear Christmassy imagery in the lyrics and a wee hint of wintry melancholy helps too. Oh and a choir.

How important is music's place throughout the festive period?

In my experience music is a massive part of most people’s Christmas routine. I’d say the question after ‘What was the first album you bought?’ would be ‘What album did you listen to when you were putting up the Christmas tree?’. Carols, too – I think they’re a massive part of Christmas for most people. They are for me anyway.

Do you feel it's become completely commercialised now or is there still an organic value in original songs like yours?

It’s totally different these days because nobody buys singles so the big artists don’t really release Christmas songs anymore. I think all someone like me could ask for is that a few people could enjoy 'Midwinter Festival' as part of their own Christmas playlist. I hope so.

What's your idea of the perfect Christmas?

Friends, family and open fires. Maybe a beer.

'Midwinter Festival' is available to buy now on iTunes and to stream on Apple Music and Soundcloud. To stay up to date with Rory follow him on Facebook and Twitter.