Calexico's Joey Burns says the band didn't set out to record an album of seasonal music this year.
The band's European label, City Slang, asked them if they'd like to do one holiday song "as a way of giving something back to the fans in between releases." But ideas began blossoming and before long, bandmember Sergio Mendoza and producer Chris Schultz made the drive from Tucson to Boise, Idaho, where Burns moved this summer. There, in a home rented through Airbnb, they set up a makeshift home recording studio for a week and started laying down the basic tracks.
From there, the files started racing around the globe like Santa's sleigh. They went off to El Paso, where drummer John Convertino lives; and from there to Brooklyn, where bassist Scott Colberg added his contributions; and then off to Spain, where Jairo Zavala laid down guitar tracks, and to Germany, where Martin Wenk added trumpet and accordion. The songs came back to Tucson, where Jacob Valenzuela added more trumpets and vocals and multi-instrumentalist Mendoza added piano, vibes, glockenspiel, cowbell, some steel string guitar and more.
"We were just handing the baton to each person," Burns says.
When all was said and done—and with the inclusion of a few covers, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" and Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again"—the band had a full-length album on their hands Seasonal Shift (Anti- Records), drops Friday, Dec. 4.
Burns says it was important to him and Convertino that the album didn't fall onto the schmaltzy side of holiday albums. (And Burns' twin 9-year-old twin daughters encouraged him to avoid "sad dad music" and record something "a little more upbeat.") So the band decided to put an emphasis on the changing of the season and the rebirth that accompanies those changes.
Which isn't to say there aren't songs about Christmas. The title track, "Seasonal Shift," is more a straightforward Christmas song detailing the various disasters that accompany the holiday, especially this one, where guests are instructed "stand in the corner and hold their breath." The song concludes: "There it goes 'round the bend/The year that would never end/Gonna wave bye bye."
The album's lead song, "Hear the Bells," takes inspiration from the Pogues' classic "Fairytale of New York," with a narrator who misses a lover name-checking different Tucson haunts and experiences: Hotel Congress' legendary Tap Room, the monsoon storms, the annual All Souls Procession, the local missions.
Convertino shines in "Glory's Hope," an instrumental solo he recorded in his home studio, performing not only drums, but vibes, marimba, glockenspiel and accordion.
Seasonal Shift features a variety of special guest stars on the album. Gaby Moreno lends vocals on "Mi Burrito Sabanero," a Latin American seasonal standard that Moreno had also recorded on an album of holiday music. (Burns remembers seeing her holiday album, Posada, at the merch table when they were touring together some years ago and thinking: "We could do something like this. I didn't realize we'd be doing it so soon.") The song also features vocals from his daughters, Twyla and Genevieve.
Burns had a Christmas wish of his own granted when Bombino agreed to provide vocals on "Heart of Downtown," which would feel right at home on any of Calexico's recent releases.
Camilo Lara of Mexican Institute of Sound added vocals to "Sonoran Snoball," a song that, with its distorted vocals (Burns sang through his kids' walkie-talkie toys), is reminiscent of "Guero Canelo," another song named for a Tucson food landmark that has evolved into an anthem that often closes live shows.
The international collaborations helped bring home the theme of the album, which was "openness and inclusivity," Burns says.
"You've got musicians from so many different backgrounds and languages and cultures and guests that are from all over Mexico, Africa, Europe," Burns added. "I just thought it could be a good influence for this time. This time of year, but especially for this country, which is a country that's built on immigrants and refugees coming from all over the world."
The album concludes with a reprise of "Mi Burrito Sabanero" that includes messages from the band and the guest performers delivering messages of holiday cheer.
"With all these different languages and voices, it kind of is a nice reminder, as you're leaving the record, and leaving this little window of time," Burns says. "Like, hey, 'We're better with each other and working together.'"
Burns is hopeful that next year, the Old Pueblo might get a holiday concert from Calexico. In years past, they have performed in holiday concerts at the Temple of Music and Art to raise money for radio station KXCI and other beneficiaries. And now the band has some holiday music to play.
"It was a great way to bring people together to raise some money for the station," Burns says. "I would love to do that again."