Interview: Celia Berk of HOLIDAY BELLS MEDLEY

Celia's new single is out, just in time for Christmas.

By: Nov. 27, 2020

Interview: Celia Berk of HOLIDAY BELLS MEDLEY Celia Berk is celebrating. It is the holiday season, after all, and it is a blessing to recognize the good things one has in one's life ... and the good things one MAKES in this life. Celia Berk has been making things, lately. In September, Berk released a single that she and her music team recorded during the pandemic, to great response. Now, the singer has gone back into the studio to record her first holiday single.

The HOLIDAY BELLS MEDLEY was an idea that Berk and her musical director, Jon Weber, had a year ago. They began putting in the work and now they are ready to share their creation with the world. With a release date of November 27th, the Holiday Bells Medley is catching the perfect holiday timing wave, so I reached out to Celia to find out more about the process of recording while socially distancing, why it meant so much to her to do this, and what the holidays of 2020 are looking like for her family.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced in its entirety.

Hi Celia Berk! Thanks for chatting with Broadway World today. And Happy Thanksgiving! You are releasing your very first holiday recording this month, but the Holiday Bells Medley is not new to you - you actually worked on this last year. Why wait a year to release it?

We actually didn't wait. We were always aiming for a 2020 release. I approached Jon Weber last year with the idea for a medley of Silver Bells and Carol of the Bells with a jazz vibe. The plan was that I would perform it live during the 2019 holiday season and then record it in the Spring when I started my third album.

Put a picture in my head of the process of creating an elaborate musical arrangement with your musical director while in different places.

We were ALL in different places throughout the year it took to complete it! Jon and I met in my apartment last Fall and we explored ways to put the two songs together. Jon brought with him the lesser-known Silver Bells verse. I didn't know it when I asked him to collaborate, but he knew Livingston & Evans really well. I mentioned that I wanted to include some vocalese, and suddenly Jon started playing the Shostakovich Waltz. Seriously, who else on Planet Earth would have gone there? I will always remember the laugh of surprise and appreciation from my voice teacher Bill Riley the first time he heard where Jon was taking me.

With a basic structure sketched out, Jon hit the road. I'm pretty sure he wrote the vocalese on an airplane. I lost track of where he was, but at one point he was somewhere in Eastern Europe with really bad internet coverage. He managed to send me lead sheets and rehearsal tracks and I emailed him back thoughts. While he was away, I sang it for the first time in Carole Demas's living room up in Westchester, at a salon she and Sarah Rice had organized. I remember coming up the stairs of the subway when I got home that night and thinking,"Oh, it should have two different endings!"

So when Jon got back, we did just that. The one for live performance ends with a sing-a-long of Silver Bells. That's what you heard at the Beach Café in December. The other, with the echo of the Shostakovich Waltz, was for the recorded version.

We were on track to record some time in Spring 2020. And we all know what happened in Spring 2020. So we were stuck. But I was really determined to do a holiday recording. And I really felt this was the moment for A Simple Prayer, which you also heard at the Beach Café.

My friend and album producer Scott Lehrer had gone to Maine, but as the Summer approached he told me that Kilgore Studio was open. He suggested that M.P. Kuo, a wonderful engineer, record the session and Scott said he would mix it remotely. Alex Rybeck came in first and we did A Simple Prayer. Then Jon came in and we did the Medley. Kilgore only has one isolation booth, which is where the piano is. So Jon was in there and I recorded in the engineer's booth with M.P. so that we could send Scott two separate tracks. I asked Bill Riley to join me, because I knew I'd never get back into Kilgore again to make any vocal changes.

Scott actually returned to the city in time to do the mixing in early Fall. When I heard the first edit of the Medley, I said to both Scott and Bill, "I hear a French horn!" Well, that was like a starter pistol for both of them. They started brainstorming instruments and musicians. We agreed on horns and woodwinds, and Scott reached out to two wonderful musicians - Steve Kenyon and CJ Camerieri. Both had left the city and didn't want to return. But they were willing to do overdubs from their home studios and Scott thought he could make it work.

Interview: Celia Berk of HOLIDAY BELLS MEDLEY At the same time, I realized I would have the chance to tweak some things vocally after all. Bill and I worked by Facetime while he was in New Hampshire and then in his New York studio. Scott and I then spent an epic afternoon in his studio putting together a mix to share with CJ and Steve. The four of us then got together by Zoom to figure out how the process would work. CJ and Steve both felt it would be best if they recorded sequentially. So in the space of 48 hours: Steve sent his overdubs; Scott added them to the mix and passed it on to CJ; CJ added his overdubs; Scott added those in; We identified a few places for some potential changes; Steve and CJ did those; We did a final Zoom and everyone agreed we had what we needed. I sent a version to Jon, who was very happy. Bill listened from various locations as Scott did final mixes. Then Oscar Zambrano mastered it at his remote location.

When it came time to write the credits, it was very clear that this was a group effort. Jon had arranged the medley and the vocalese. CJ and Steve had together done the trumpet, French horn and woodwind arrangement. And, as Producer, Scott had influenced the arrangement in every way imaginable. All because I said, "I hear a French horn."

Interview: Celia Berk of HOLIDAY BELLS MEDLEY

You have the gift of being able to sing different styles of music - were you and Jon Weber able to put that skill to good use in the Holiday Bells Medley?

I think so! It helps that this was the second piece that Jon and I have done together. He did a ravishing arrangement of It Only Takes A Moment for the Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention a few years ago. And he has been so encouraging of my impulse to add a bit of jazz to my range of styles. Over the years, whenever he'd hear me sing, he'd say, "There's a jazz singer in there!" Before we recorded the medley, we went to Bill Riley's studio to review what we did last Fall. After I ran the vocalese, Jon said, "I'd tell you what you're doing, but I don't want you to get self-conscious. Just keep doing it." In the medley, I think you can hear the work I've been doing with Bill on arias. And popular standards. And vocalese. Jon's arrangement allows me to use all of it.

This is your second recording made during the global health crisis, and A Simple Prayer could easily fit into the holiday music mold. Is the intent to, eventually, release an album of holiday music?

It wasn't. But we are all struck by the response we're getting to the track. I half-joked, "We should release a new one every year!" And you know what, now I think we should do it. And eventually, end up with an album. I hadn't thought of A Simple Prayer in the context of holiday music, but yes it absolutely could be.

Last year you performed in the 4 For The Holidays show at The Beach Cafe - a show that featured cast members of different faiths singing both secular and spiritual holiday music. How did your faith inform what you would sing on this recording?

I've wanted to do Silver Bells for a long time. Alex Rybeck and I actually considered it for our MANHATTAN SERENADE album. It's about the way the holiday season can make you feel on busy city sidewalks. It's not about religious beliefs. Neither is Carol of the Bells. I'm not sure I want to do something more overtly religious, especially when it's not my religion. But I reserve the right to change my mind about that.

Is your faith playing a significant role in your day-to-day survival and sanity during the madness of 2020?

Oy, I don't know! I don't think I'm navigating this challenge in a way that's fundamentally different from how I've navigated other difficult times. To be Jewish is to struggle! And feel guilty! And eat! But in all seriousness, it's also about reaching for your best self and finding ways to help others. I've tried very hard to do that. And I did participate in a Passover seder by zoom. And joined High Holiday services by zoom. And I'm about to attend my cousin's bat mitzvah on zoom.

After recording two songs in the middle of a pandemic, do you think that in 2021 you might dip your toes in the waters of virtual performance?

Anything is possible! Necessity is the mother of invention, and I have no doubt that someone is working on better ways to do that even as we speak. The virtual performances are certainly helping artists reach a wider audience, which is really exciting.

Where and when can people hear and purchase this single?

It drops on Friday, November 27. You can listen to it on my YouTube channel (Celia Berk Music). And Santa's elves are delivering it to all the major music platforms, including Apple Music, Amazon, Spotify, and Pandora.

Celia, why go to the trouble and expense of putting out this single now, rather than wait until next year when we will, hopefully, have gone back to our normal lives?

It was definitely not the most efficient or cost-effective way to do this. But I wonder if it would have brought me quite the same sense of satisfaction as an add-on to an album recording session. It was such a pleasure to be able to make music with such wonderful collaborators. And I think they all felt the same - a little creative oasis in the pandemic storm.

So, how are you and the family approaching the holiday sprint to 2021?

Carefully! We didn't work this hard to stay safe - and keep others safe - to lower our guard now. I really do feel we're in the home stretch.

Celia, thank you so much for sharing this time with me and your wonderful new recording with all of us. Have a great holiday season.

Thank YOU for helping us tell our stories and share our material. Stay well and safe. Happy Holidays!

Find HOLIDAY BELLS MEDLEY on all streaming platforms and visit the Celia Berk YouTube channel HERE.