Earlier this year, a group of Peterborough musicians secretly came together to donate their time and talents by recording a version of the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. The single is now available for purchase and download, with all proceeds from the sale of going towards affordable housing.
Organized by Sam Tweedle, The Purple City Chorus is made up of Beau Dixon, Missy Knott, Grainne Ryan, Kevin Siena, Kate Suhr, Andrew Shedden, Chelsey Bennett, Matt Crowley and Kent Randall of Union City, Jeffery Danger, Carling Stephen, Scarlett Grace, Meg O’Sullivan and Bloody Boy Blue, with Rob Phillips on piano. The group came together for the first time with a single four-hour recording session in May 2014.
You can purchase and download “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for $2.99 at www.cdbaby.com/cd/purplecitychorus. All proceeds will go to Homegrown Homes, a charity that helps provide safe and secure housing for low-income families in the Peterborough community.
Sam has also organized a benefit concert that features many of the same musicians who participated in the recording of the single. The “Red Dog Olde Christmas Pageant” takes place Saturday, December 13 at 9 p.m. at the Historic Red Dog Tavern (189 Hunter St. W., Peterborough, 705-750-1710).
Performers will include Union City, Chelsey Bennett, Missy Knott and Brian Melenbacher, Kate Suhr, Caitlin Currie, Scarlett Grace, Kevin Siena, Carling Stephen, Your Friends, Ryan Hancock and Bronte Germain, Steve Peconi, Meg O’Sullivan and Hannah Bailey, Bloody Boy Blue and Avery Cantello.
Tickets are $5 at the door, with all proceeds going to Homegrown Homes.
Read on for behind-the-scene photos of the “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recording session (taken by photographer Linda McIlwain), along with Sam Tweedle’s in-depth story about the origins of the idea and profiles of the participating musicians.
Behind the scenes at the recording session
The Story of The Purple City Chorus
Who decided to re-record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 2014 first: The Purple City Chorus or Bob Geldof? It’s really a chicken or egg thing.
Of course, Bob Geldof wrote and recorded the original version — always one of my favorite Christmas songs — when he brought together a number of high-profile friends including Wham!, Boy George, Phil Collins, Paul Young, U2 and Duran Duran in one huge recording session to raise money for the famine in Africa in 1984.
In May 2014, I had the great pleasure of bringing together a group of some of Peterborough’s finest performers — that I’ve since named The Purple City Chorus — in a “secret” recording session at Trent University to record our own version of the song to raise money for affordable housing in Peterborough. At the time, I had no idea that Geldof was planning to record a new version of his song with a new crop of musicians the very next month. Geldof released his new version on November 16th, where our version was released on November 25th. So we recorded ours first, but Bob released his first.
While Bob’s new version relies on studio magic and autotuning to create the illusion that his performers are together, our version stays true to the spirit of the original recording. We brought together a dynamic group of performers in the same room to sing together for the first time in a single four-hour recording session. With no post-production processing, our version is a little raw — but it’s an honest performance with an intimate energy that can only be achieved when people and their voices come together.
The end result is two different interpretations of a great Christmas song. Which one is better? You be the judge, but I’m partial to the version recorded by The Purple City Chorus.
The OriginI’m a bit of a Christmas music connoisseur. I realize that Christmas music can be an acquired taste, but it’s one of my guilty pleasures. For years, I’ve been trying to collect and archive the great Christmas recordings made.
Producing a Christmas song of my own has always been on my bucket list. I didn’t know if I wanted to actually sing on it (I’d rather leave the music to the musicians), but I have so many friends who are musicians that I’ve always wanted to produce a Christmas recording featuring people I know.
Two Christmases ago, I was talking to my good pal Jeffery Danger about the idea of bringing together all of our musician friends to do our own version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. We laughed about it at the time, but a seed was planted in my brain that just wouldn’t go away.
I’m not a musician and I don’t know anything about making or producing music. However, I know what sounds good and I had a vision of how “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” could be done. Over the next few years, every time I met somebody who had recording equipment, recorded albums, or even just did their own recordings at home, I’d bring up the idea of recording the song. They’d tell me how they would do it, but nobody seemed to share my vision.
Then I met local musician Andrew Shedden.
When I spoke to Andrew about my idea, he shared the same vision of bringing people together to do a live version of the song. But Andrew took my idea and raised it a notch higher; he envisioned a simple recording featuring a single piano player and a chorus of voices intended to invoke the feeling of people singing around a piano as in Christmas celebrations of the past. The idea was to keep it simple and let the music speak for itself — the magic would come from the music and not from studio wizardry. I liked the way Andrew thought and I knew I had found the person I needed to record and master this project. Visit Andrew’s website at www.andrewsheddenmusic.com.
When you’re bringing performers together for a project like this, you sort of have to throw your players at a wall and see who sticks. I made a list of all of my favorite musicians in Peterborough — some that I knew personally and others I knew only as a fan — and I invited each one individually.
I wasn’t just inviting anybody who could sing: I invited each and every artist for a specific reason. I could hear their voices in my head as I charted the song parts out.
Some people got on board right away, while others didn’t bother answering my e-mails. Often schedules didn’t always come together; some interested parties were on tour, while other had to drop out for various scheduling conflicts as time went on.
Eventually the night of the secret recording session came together. I just hoped people would show up, and they did. I remember looking at the room full of musicians at Lady Eaton College on a hot May evening and I couldn’t believe the calibre of the diverse group of people who showed up to sing. It still sort of blows my mind today.
So let me tell you about the people who came out to perform on our version of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”.
First off, we had to find a piano player and there was no doubt that Rob Phillips was the guy for the job. When I met Rob as a teenager, I thought he was the coolest guy in the world. Now, as an adult, I realize that he probably is. One of Ontario’s most respected jazz pianists, Rob graciously agreed to transpose the song for us and play the sole instrument on the track. Rob is often difficult to pin down due to his busy schedule, so we were extremely lucky to have him for this project.
When I heard the song in my head, the first voice I heard was that of Beau Dixon. One of Peterborough’s most beloved performers, Beau has become a mainstay as an actor, director, and musician in our city. However, Beau has been spending more time expanding his career in larger city centres throughout 2014 and this past summer he was in Toronto as part of the company for Shakespeare in High Park before spending time in Calgary. He came back to Peterborough to take part in our recording and is the first voice on the track. Check out Beau’s website at www.beaudixon.com
Like many people in our community, I’ve been in love with Missy Knott‘s music for a long while and have been lucky enough to get to know Missy on a personal level. One of my favorite local performers, Missy’s brand of very personal lyrics combined with her passionate vocal style helped me believe in music again when I was going through a period of strong cynicism. However, timing was of the essence if Missy was going to be involved on the recording, because she was about to depart on her own adventure to record in Nashville. Luckily, all the dates came together and we were able to nab Missy between visits to the US. For more on Missy, visit www.missyknottmusic.ca.
My loyalty to Grainne Ryan started with a late-night expertly made Reuben sandwich during an overly dramatic night of drunken heartbreak. But beyond that, Grainne’s original songs have always managed to stir my soul. Beyond her own music, Grainne is a choir director for Shout Sister! Choirs — who she was performing with prior to the recording, making her the last arrival. Despite little time to rehearse, Grainne gave me another goosebump-inducing moment on this track. For more on Grainne, visit music.cbc.ca/#!/artists/Grainne-Ryan.
One of the most exciting musicians I’ve discovered this year, Kevin Siena is reinventing acoustic rock ‘n’ roll. A cross between Bryan Adams and Lou Reed, Kevin’s lyrics are playful while poetic, and nobody performs harder on stage. Being a professor at Trent University, Kevin also scored us the sweet recording space on campus! Listen to Kevin Siena on SoundCloud at www.soundcloud.com/kevin-siena.
I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love Kate Suhr. An incredible singer and actress, Kate is a powerhouse of talent with a large stable of fans and admirers. This fall, Kate has taken the internet by storm with her incredible series of “Duets” videos where she has been melding her voice together with many of Peterborough’s other performers. High in demand and performing at almost everything, Kate double-booked herself on the night of our recording session. She sang all night at a show and still made it in time to sing with us. Visit Kate’s website at www.katesuhr.com.
Rob Phillips put Chelsey Bennett on my radar, and I’ve been thankful ever since. Meeting Chelsey in person for the first time the night of the recording session, she has since not only become one of my favorite performers in the city, but I’ve probably been to more of her concerts than anybody else’s all year. One of the busiest musicians in town, Chelsey performs a set of her original material every Wednesday night at Carpe Diem, and then joins Rob for their jazz sets at The Blackhorse Pub on Thursdays, along with additional gigs throughout the area. Chelsey manages to melt me every time I hear her sing. Visit Chelsey’s website at www.chelseybennett.com.
Local photographer and music lover Linda McIllwain (Linda took all the photos of our recording session) brought the band Union City to my attention and I was fortunate to get guitarist Matt Crowley and keyboardist Kent Randall, who also do vocals for the band, to come out to the recording session. Still riding high from the success of their 2013 album A Drop in the Ocean, Union City has had widespread success throughout North America on the college radio circuit. Check out their website at www.unioncitymusic.com.
I couldn’t do this project without Jeffrey Danger on the recording — especially when he had a part in coming up with the original idea in the first place. Former lead singer of Vancouver-based band Flip Nixon, which had a hit in 2008 with “Sex and Candy”, Jeff was also formally associated with Before the Curtain and can be heard playing guitar on the current Emm Gryner album Torrential. He’s also working on his own solo project right now. In my head, I always heard Jeff singing the Bono solo, and I still get a charge every time I hear him sing it in this recording. Liste to Jeffrey on SoundCloud at www.soundcloud.com/jefreydanger.
The first time I ever heard Carling Stephen sing, she took a piece of my heart. With her powerful delivery, she can take the stage in a noisy bar with people talking amongst themselves, and get them to stop talking and give her their full attention. One of the most soulful performers in Peterborough, Carling continuously blows me away with her vocal talent. She stepped out of the blue the night of the recording and acted as choir director, prompting the performers and bringing everybody’s voices together. Carling was an essential element of the success of this recording which I’m eternally thankful for. Visit Carling website at www.carlingstephen.com.
One of the most exciting musical projects I heard throughout 2014 is Scarlett Grace‘s EP Bleed. With her sweet voice juxtaposed against dark lyrics that bluntly talks about the harshness of modern life and love, Scarlett is a talent waiting to be discovered by the larger world. Luckily, we were able to get her for this recording first. Visit Scarlett’s website at www.scarlettgracemusic.com.
I’ve seen a lot of Meg O’Sullivan on stage throughout the last year, as both an actress and a singer. However, it’s her performances covering Amy Winehouse’s song “Valarie” that made me a fan. An obsessive Amy Winehouse fan, I’m incredibly critical when it comes to people covering the late singer’s music. Meg knocks it out of the park every time, leaving me breathless with her performance. This was the first time Meg and I worked on a project together.
My love for the music of Scott Kendall, known to fans as Bloody Boy Blue, began on a Friday night after I watched him open for BA Johnston. I talked him into going to El Camino’s to play his song “Burrito Girl” to my two favorite burrito girls. The performance was caught on someone’s cellphone and, for a little while, went sort of viral through Peterborough. Also, nobody rocks a keytar quite like Bloody Boy Blue. Somebody just a little bit different, Scott was actually the first performer that I contacted for “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and I was excited to have him on the track. Visit Bloody Boy Blue on SoundCloud at www.soundcloud.com/bloodyboyblue.
One of the amazing things about this recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is that the entire session took only four hours. Many of the musicians had never even met before, let alone performed together. A few of them didn’t even know the song. But because of the talent of the group, we were able to come together as a group and record something that I think is truly special in a short period of time.
Why the Name?
When putting the song on CDBaby.com for distribution, I had to come up with a name for our group. This wasn’t something we ever formally discussed and I hadn’t thought much about it before. I wanted to find a name that reflected our city in a distinct and nostalgic way, but a name that was also original. I decided on the name The Purple City Chorus.
People who grew up in downtown Peterborough in the 80s and 90s may remember the optical illusion that we called “Purple City.” On dark nights, many of us teenagers would go to George Street United Church where, at the time, they had giant flood lights that illuminated the church. If you stared into the lights until you could see the bulbs clearly, when you looked away and down George Street the city looked purple. All the city lights would shine bright purple, and there was a purple hue to the sky. Thousands of teenagers in Peterborough burnt out their retinas doing this and, eventually, George Street United Church removed the flood lights. I wanted to pay homage to that childhood memory with the name of our group.
Once you have a recording like this, what do you do with it? Having acquired the license to record the song, I decided that we could sell the song for charity just like Bob Geldof. Since the performers are from the Peterborough community, I wanted to keep the money in the community and used my own affiliation with Homegrown Homes as a starting point. A local charity organization, Homegrown Homes is an affordable housing provider that helps give safe and secure housing for low income families in the Peterborough community. Housing is an ongoing and often overlooked problem in Canada, and Peterborough has thousands of people on the waiting list for adequate and affordable housing. Homegrown Homes is doing what they can to help defeat the housing crisis one success story at a time. Although this project I something on my personal “bucket list,” I am proud to be able to use it as a platform to be able to raise money to help people in our community.
A Final Note of Thanks
“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by The Purple City Chorus is one of proudest things in my life. I hope you enjoy it and that you will share it with your friends and relatives throughout the holiday season. It took so many people to put it together. I want to thank Andrew Shedden for sharing my vision and for recording and mixing the track, Jeannine Taylor and Bruce Head from kawarthaNOW for being a sponsor and helping with the promotion, photographer Linda McIllwain for coming out and capturing the recording session on film as a historical capsule of the event, Trent University for giving us a space to come together and record, Rob Phillips for transposing the song and coming up with the arrangement and, of course, all of the performers for giving their time and talents to make this come together.
Hopefully, through sales of the song, we’ll all bring some holiday cheer to many families throughout Peterborough.
All photos courtesy of Linda McIlwain, www.flickr.com/photos/grlngrn/.