Singer/songwriter/actor Hayley Sales, who spoke with 360°Sound about her music in October, has returned to talk about her new Christmas recordings. Last month, she released her first original holiday composition, “It Can’t Be Christmas Without You Here,” as well as her take on the classic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Beginning in mid-December, Sales will live stream several Christmas shows.
“I want them to be more of a hang out while I sight-read Christmas tunes and tell stories about the crazy Christmases I’ve somehow managed to collect over the years,” Sales said. “We can’t necessarily be with our families this year, at least not all of us, and I want to have fun creating a little portal where it feels like the holidays, no matter where you are or who you are with.”
360°: Tell us about the songwriting and recording process for “It Can’t Be Christmas Without You Here.”
Hayley Sales: I often joke that I can’t write songs. Or at least not on purpose. Whenever I try to sit down and write a song, it never works. Instead, I find myself staring blankly at the piano while my mind flies off into the trenches of self-doubt.
It’s always when I least expect it. I’ll be on a run, doing dishes, tending to chickens, or just listening to music – something will pop into my head – a lyric, a melody, a chord, even just a feeling or a memory. And then I know it’s time. I’ll run over to the piano or guitar and attempt to decipher what the song wants to say. From that moment on, it tends to happen fast. But it’s all a feeling thing. I can feel when it’s done, or when something’s not right. I’ll sit there for hours if I need to until I get that feeling. But above all, if the song isn’t moving me, if the melody and the lyrics aren’t saying the same thing, I’ll let it go. I’ve gone years without writing. And I’ve also written 100 songs in a year. It’s so manic and unpredictable. But it can never be forced.
With this Christmas song, I was reminiscing about the loss of a dear, dear friend – the loneliness, and emptiness of having a Christmas without him. The first lines came first, and I could feel it. I felt like I was there. I knew I should keep going. And the song wound up becoming something incredibly fitting to what I know a lot of us are feeling this year – separated and alone.
When I put the pen down and looked at the lyrics, I realized in writing it, I felt less alone. I told my team I wanted to head back into the studio to record it. We pulled the tune together pretty quick, performing most of it live in the studio on my parents’ blueberry farm. For the strings, I elicited the help of my arranger, Carl Marsh, one of the true musical geniuses alive right now, he and his wife Elizabeth, an incredible violinist. She tracked all the strings at their house. When I listened I was brought to tears. It was perfect. I had tried to make sure every instrument gave me that feeling of sitting under the Christmas tree looking up at the lights, the ornaments, the whole nostalgia of it, and the strings made that vision come to life.
All in all, this song is about a Christmas alone. About a Christmas wishing that you were cuddled up on a couch opening presents and watching Elf with your best friend, or the one that got away, a loved one you lost, the family you can’t be with – I’ve always been madly in love with the holidays. There’s something so romantic and fantastical about them. But I also know the holidays can be the hardest time of the year if you aren’t able to spend them with the ones you love.
This song is about that moment after the party is over. You’re sitting alone, looking back over the year, thinking over everything. Swept away by the melancholy romance of it. And missing, with all your heart, that person that makes Christmas. The person that isn’t there. While it might seem like a sad song, I actually hope it inspires people to feel less alone.
You recorded a lovely version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Why did you choose that particular Christmas classic?
Something about the way the melody and the lyrics work together in “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” really captures the hope and romance of the season, at least to me. I’ve loved the song for as long as I can remember. It’s heartbreaking but it’s real. And this year especially it felt like the song I needed to listen to on repeat to get myself through it all. In some ways, I tend to record the tunes I need to hear.