Singer and songwriter JJ Heller will be releasing her first full length Christmas album "Unto Us." To create the album, JJ went to Kickstarter, hoping to raise $30,000. Her fanbase stepped up in an incredible way, pledging $81,000 to support the project. This outpouring has already allowed JJ to donate over 4,000 her "I Dream of You" CDs to hospitals and families who have babies in NICU units across the country.
Q: Congratulations JJ for the release of your new Christmas album Why did you decide to cut a Christmas record?
I was on tour with Josh Wilson past Christmas, and one night during sound check my husband, Dave, and I started to play Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas just for fun. Josh was in the room and he said, "Wow! You guys HAVE to play that song tonight!" Although we didn't end up playing it that night (because we didn't have enough time to practice), it got us thinking about Christmas music and how much we love it. There's something thrilling about the feeling of nostalgia and innocence that music from the Christmas season can stir in our hearts.
Q: With so many Christmas albums out there, what was the direction you took for this album?
My hope was to try to capture that sense of child-like wonder that only comes at Christmas time. I wanted to make something timeless and classic. My dream is for this album to become the soundtrack to countless family Christmas memories for years to come. When I was a little girl, my family listened to the same vinyl record by Evie every single time we decorated the tree. We also had a tradition to pull my grandparents' Christmas tree to the middle of the room, and all the cousins would dance around it while they put on a polka record of theirs. It's hard for me to think of a Christmas memory that doesn't involve music, and I love that my music can now be a part of someone else's music library.
Q: You have two of music's communities best producers on this project, Ben Shive and Brown Bannister. What do these gentlemen bring to the record that you appreciate?
Dave and I have had the privilege of working with Ben on many projects, including our lullaby album, I Dream of You. When we decided to make a Christmas album, Ben was an obvious choice! He is a genius when it comes to creating musical moments that are simultaneously powerful and sweet. We told Ben how important for us to nail the vocal sound for the album, and he said we HAD to work with Brown. There are a lot of legendary stories about how talented, insightful and wonderful Brown is, and they are all true! He has a way of putting artists at ease. I think I delivered my best vocal performances on these songs, because of the way Brown was able to make tracking fun. Together, Ben and Brown are a dream team.
Q: On this album you have included a few originals, let's talk about them. What's the story behind "Unto Us?"
Dave and I actually finished writing this song just a few days before going into the studio. I was thinking about how much a I love Handel's Messiah and how powerful those scriptures are. When they're set to music, they resonate with me even more! With this in mind, it seemed like a really good idea to take this classic text and put my own spin on it. I have to say, it's one of my favorite songs on the album. We chose to track a children's choir on several songs, and there's something heavenly about the sound of children's voices singing of the birth of Christ!
Q: What about "Oh to See Christmas"?
Having children of my own is making Christmas new again. It's so fun to see their eyes light up when they see the presents under the tree, lights on the houses in our neighborhood and all the candles in the Christmas Eve service. The hard part about getting older is that it's easy to lose our sense of wonder, and children are great at reminding us! We wrote this song to capture the sense of anticipation of such a special season. So often we focus on how solemn and holy Christmas is, but Jesus came to give us abundant life. That means enjoying time with our loved ones and having fun! I hope that's communicated in this song.
Q: And "Christmas is Here"?
In Nashville, Winter can be a little drab. The color of the season is often brown or grey because the majority of the plant-life dies, and it doesn't snow very often. Last year a rare winter storm came through Nashville, and I remember sitting up at my desk on the second floor of my house, looking out over the rooftops in my neighborhood as the snow quietly fell. It was an uncommon and beautiful sight in this part of the country and I couldn't help but think the snow looked like sparkling diamonds. The beginning of the song was born out of that thought, and it reminded me how thankful I am that we have a designated time of the year to pause and reflect on the beauty of the birth of Christ and how Christmas turns the world from gray to white.
Q: Besides your own Christmas record, what are some of your favorite Christmas albums?
I'm a big fan of Bing Crosby at Christmas time! I also love the "White Christmas" soundtrack, The Andrews Sisters, Sarah McLachlan's "Wintersong," and Vince Guaraldi's "A Charlie Brown Christmas." My husband, Dave, grew up listening to Amy Grant's "Home For Christmas," and after we began our music career, we really enjoyed Jars of Clay's "Christmas Songs" too.
Q: What does Christmas mean to you personally?
Christmas might be my very favorite time of the year. I love giving gifts, so it's a fun challenge for me to think of special presents for the people I care about, and if I can make the gift, it's even better! It's a great excuse to spend time with family members I don't get to see very often. Christmas is a time that helps me refocus on what really matters; to remember the humble birth of our Savior and the gift he was and is to all of humanity. It's even more special now that we have two little girls to celebrate with each year. I love the opportunity to decorate the house and baking with them too!