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Music Etc.: William Shatner—Trekking Through Christmas

"Captain Kirk" himself talks about recording his new Christmas album, hanging out on Brad Paisley's tour bus, and what the recent Mars landing might mean for our future.

William Shatner’s Christmas Album

William Shatner is a cultural icon whose influence spans many generations. Many think of him as Captain Kirk on Star Trek, inspiring intergalactic curiosity, but aside from his decades long career as an actor, he is a competitive horse rider, a published author, a famous pitch man for a hotel booking site and alas, a recording artist with no less than eight albums under his belt. Now, at the ripe age of 87, Shatner brings us Shatner Claus—a new Christmas album featuring several Christmas songs, ‘reimagined.’ But wait, there’s more: Shatner made the album with artist contributions from Brad Paisley, Todd Rundgren, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, Judi Collins, Mel Collins [King Crimson], Elliot Easton [The Cars], Billy Gibbons [ZZ Top], Rick Wakeman [Yes], Artimus Pyle [Lynyrd Skynyrd] and more. Pro Sound News wanted to find out what the attraction was and why another Christmas album.

On visualizing songs

Out the blue, my label, Cleopatra, called me and asked if I would be interested in doing a Christmas album. I thought, “What a great challenge that could be considering my musical limitations.” So I said yes and began to compile a list of the standard Christmas songs, knowing that I would want to bend them a little to make them uniquely mine. So for each song, I envisioned myself as a film director and imagined what I would do to make each track a little different. For example, on “Jingle Bells,” I envisioned two guys on a sled, being pulled by horses which are filled with the joy of being in the snow and in the cold. But then the horses start to run off. On “Blue Christmas,” I imagined that I was stuck in a club due to a blizzard outside. I’m drinking at the bar and I’m blue because I can’t get home. Then all of a sudden, there’s Brad Paisley and he starts to sing. And I am like, “Oh my God, Brad Paisley is locked in here, too!” So each of these numbers has its own visual context that the listener may or may not get, but it doesn’t matter. For me, this gives each song a flavor that it would not have otherwise had.

On a soldier’s Christmas poem

There is a poem by Blaze Anthony, a wonderful poet and a veteran who has been emotionally disturbed by battle. I had a sheaf of his poetry that I loved, so I asked him if he could write me a Christmas poem. He ended up writing a poem from the perspective of a soldier, presumably in Afghanistan, who is writing to see what it is like back home. He asks, “Is there a gift for you and one for me?” So I called the poem “One for You and One for Me” and had some music put music to it. The arrangers would bring in the music, and I would make adjustments, telling them how I felt about the poem: “There is not enough battle” or “There’s not enough sadness” or “The joy of Christmas.” I wanted all those themes mixed into the music so they would support the poem. Eventually, we got there and I think it is an epic Christmas song about a soldier who has written home, asking “What’s it like at Christmas there, because it’s no fun here.”

On audience reaction

Having been doing this for many years, you don’t know if a project is successful or not until the audience tells you. It doesn’t matter if it is a written play, if it is a stand-up comic routine, or an ad-lib improvisational performance. The audience will tell you by their applause, by their laughter, by their tears, or by their trying to access whatever you are doing by buying tickets or albums. So when I finished the album and I listened to it, I thought, “God, this is really good! I wonder if this is as good as I think it is.” I feel that we have created, along with these other incredibly talented artists, something very special about Christmas. And how many times have people tried to do that?

On artist participation

Brad Paisley was playing in Los Angeles, and I was visiting with him on his bus. I said to him, “I want you to do a Christmas song with me, Brad.” And he said, “Great, what is the title of your album.” I said, “I don’t know, I haven’t named it yet.” And right then and there, he said, “Well, what about Shatner Claus?” And we all started laughing. So that’s what I used. The artists that came to participate on this album is mind boggling, and the credit goes to my record label for that. I have done other albums where they were instrumental in collecting a diverse and genius pool of talent. It turns out that a lot of these men and women wanted to be on the album, so when it was announced, my label got a lot of phone calls. I am starstruck by all these guys, but I am more starstruck by their talent than their reputations. The technology of today allowed us to ask somebody in upstate, New York to lay down a track and then send it to us. Then we would put it together.

On the recent Mars landing

I’ve been following the Mars landing and I’ve got my fingers crossed. It is an incredible adventure into the unknown. We will never solve the mystery of what’s out there, but we can get occasional peeks at the awesomeness of space and the final frontier. The glimpse of what has transpired in the past by our voyage to Mars is merely lifting the corner of a curtain to a vision that is so complex and yet so simple, that we humans cannot encompass it. But we can get a feel for it by this voyage to Mars.

Jacques Sonyieux is a devout explorer of recording studios and the artists that occasionally inhabit them. Please send any tips or feedback to Jacques at: [email protected].

William Shatner •