Singer/songwriter Melanie Penn has just released her first-ever Christmas album. The ten-track release contains nine originals and one classic carol, retelling the Christmas story through the perspective of the angels and people who lived through it -- Mary, Joseph, The Wise Men, The Innkeeper, and even The Star of Bethlehem -- in a compelling and deeply human way.
Melanie Penn is a singer/songwriter from Brooklyn, New York. After having success on the national Broadway touring stage, Penn shifted her her attention to her career as a songwriter and artist, desiring to sing her own words rather than those of others. Her first album Wake Up Love was released in 2010, followed by Hope Tonight (2014). Her latest, Immanuel, produced by Ben Shive, is now available.
Q: Melanie, thank you for doing this interview with us. Congratulations on the release of your new album "Immanuel." What are you most excited about this album?
This album helped me encounter the Christmas story in a new way. Even as a Christian who believes in all of the supernatural events of Christmas, it can still feel like a surreal narrative. Christmas happened over 2,000 years ago ... that's a long time! Christmas can feel too far away to access. But writing this album put me in touch with Christmas personally. I hope it does the same for others.
Q: This is a very special album, in the sense that there are 9 original songs and only a traditional carol. What inspired you to go the route of writing original songs for this album?
The inspiration for this album definitely happened "to me" as opposed to my chasing after it! In December 2016 I very unexpectedly wrote a song from the perspective of the wise men traveling to Bethlehem. I didn't set out to do that. Then other songs started coming out from different perspectives ... the angels, Isaiah, one of the shepherds. I stumbled into this idea and followed it through to the end.
Q: And each song was viewed from the perspective of characters around the Christmas story. Which song was the easiest song to write in this regard?
That's a great question. None of the songs felt easy necessarily. Writing the song for the Star of Bethlehem was the most fun. I loved getting my imagination around that song and personifying the star. We're told that God named all the stars, so what was it like to be told from the beginning of time, "Hey you there, star, you're going to be the Star of Bethlehem - that's gonna be your job!" Stars have a lifespan of thousands of years - and their light sometimes doesn't reach us until after they are gone. So it's interesting to think about all the planning and intention that went into that one particular star shining over Bethlehem.
Q: Which was the most challenging song to write?
Mary's Song, "Great Things" was the most difficult song for many reasons. The chorus didn't feel right for several months, so I kept writing and rewriting it. Mary also has been depicted through art and culture in so many ways. Just go to Italy and there are so many paintings of her! To step into the noble tradition of depicting Mary through an art medium felt daunting and intimidating.
Q: What I appreciate most about this record is that it's not just songs about what happened 2,000 years ago, but you also try to connect our stories with the first Christmas story. Why is it important to see how our stories interact with that of Christ's story?
Because the story is so famous, it is easy to forget that the souls in the Christmas story were just normal people. As far as we know Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and even the innkeeper were somewhat ordinary people going through life. In God's providence, He chose to intervene into their lives in a supernatural way. I believe all of us have moments like that, when God steps in and interrupts us. Most likely it is not as dramatic as the events of the Christmas story but those moments definitely happen if we're watching and listening for them!
Q: Prior to the making of this album, I believe, you were not well. How did your illness affect and influence your songwriting for this record?
I struggled with illness that many women struggle with, and one of the outcomes of my recovery is that I won't have biological children. I'm older anyway, so who knows what would have happened had I not become ill!! But the point is, the opportunity to bring life into the world through having children went away completely. Recovery made me think a lot about what it means to leave a legacy and give birth to life. I believe that songwriting (and any creative act) is a chance to bring life into the world so illness and recovery helped clarify the creative process for me.
Q: You got to work with producer Ben Shive. What do you appreciate about Ben and what he brings to the album?
I really love the rapport I have with Ben. He is intensely creative and such a hard worker. I think most of all I love that we have the same odd sense of humor so working together is really high energy and full of laughing.
Q: What does Christmas mean to you personally?
I'm still figuring that out every day. All I know is that I believe that it happened. I feel very privileged to get to write songs about this story and sing them. I don't take it forgranted!