Amidst the deluge of new holiday music this year (much of which has been truly excellent), one album has stood out from the rest of the pack. The O’Pears, a Toronto-based trio comprised of Lydia Persaud, Jill Harris, and Meg Contini, recently released “Stay Warm,” a winter-themed album of original songs interspersed with snippets of more traditional seasonal music. Not only is their take on these songs original and fresh, but their vocal prowess (and, for this former chorister, their genuinely refreshing attention to details like phrasing, articulation, and vocal cutoffs) turns them into far more than just recreations of well-known songs.
I would consider the whole project a standout recording, but I found myself especially drawn to “Lady Winter,” a slowly sinuous exploration of the darkness that winter and cold can be. (It’s especially effective placed as it is after a portion of “Bleak Midwinter.” The trio’s harmonies stand out throughout the project, enhanced not only by their voices’ natural blend but also by the creative arrangements they have used throughout.
If you are looking for a new take on holiday- and winter-themed songs, and you enjoy superb singing and harmony, this is without a doubt the project for you. Highly recommended. And for those of you in Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia, you can hear this material live – check their tour listings to see if they’re coming to a city near you.
We’re delighted that The O’Pears took some time out of their busy schedule to speak with us about the project.
As I listened through the album, the themes that struck me most were those of light, warmth (per the title, of course), and how relationships can deepen and brighten even in the depths of winter… what were you hoping to convey with this project?
There are definitely those elements, but our mission with this record was to also capture the bittersweet, hard, and lonely elements of the winter season. We all experience a wide range of feelings at this time of year, and so much comfort and warmth can come from being seen and heard in that sense as well.
Several traditional winter/holiday songs are included, but I find it really intriguing that you took snippets of them (as opposed to the entire song/carol)… why just the chorus of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” for example, and one verse of “In the Bleak Midwinter”?
We’d been inspired by Sufjan Stevens’ “Songs for Christmas”, which explored a real range of holiday music: original, traditional, intimately recorded, fully orchestrated, sprawling tunes, and interludes. There was a beautiful flow to the album which was aided by the short interludes sprinkled through the album. This was something we knew we wanted from the start. Additionally, we didn’t want this to be a traditional ‘holiday’ album, where half of the songs were full-length carols. This allowed us to pay homage to those types of albums, while keeping our bittersweet-winter theme.
You’ve also changed the tempo and harmonization on several of the traditional choices – which definitely freshens their sound, without making them too different to listeners. How do you balance those competing needs – to make a song your own but also to keep it a bit familiar?
This is something we’ve always loved about arranging covers. Re-harmonizing, shifting tempos and phrasing allows us to put a bit of ourselves into the songs while staying true to the original feeling!
What inspired you to characterize winter as a lady?
Mostly through the concept of Mother Nature, and hearing a friend (and avid downhill skier) describe the snow-covered mountains of winter as his first love.
I think one of the things I enjoy most about your music (and there’s a lot!) is that you combine the sensibility of folk/roots artists with the tremendous attention to detail that characterizes great choral singers (breathing, cutoffs, rests, and the like)… did you arrive at your sound pretty easily or has it evolved over time?
Thanks for the kind words! Our sound has definitely evolved after singing together over the last ten years. We share a really similar musical intuition, and all have choral backgrounds so that refined way of singing has been ingrained in us. When we first started though, we had a lot more to work on! Now it comes pretty naturally.
You’ll be touring with this material through the winter; any hints on what might be coming next for you all?
We’ll be touring through northern Ontario with our long-time friends, The Barrel Boys, starting in early April, and putting out a few new singles and live videos!
Photo credit: J. Mitchel Reed