2021 may not have been the most cheerful year, but that didn’t stop singer/songwriter and holiday fanatic Rehya Stevens from delivering some well-needed holiday spirit. Her Christmas album ‘Tis The Season released in 2021 featuring 11 carol-worthy songs is now being reintroduced into the Christmas canon along with 10 all-new festive tunes off of her new album Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town. The Deluxe Edition CD features both albums combined and beautiful album artwork that radiates holiday nostalgia. With classical compositions, sultry jazz-infused vocals, and jingle bells aplenty, Rehya invites you and your family to cozy up by the fireplace and enjoy some Christmas magic as we inch closer and closer to the beloved holiday.
Q. You’ve done two widely successful Christmas albums before this one. How exciting is it to hop back in the studio and record some new holiday cheer?
A. It was exciting and unexpected! I hadn’t planned on recording a new Christmas album until I met Brian Steckler, who produced and co-wrote most of the songs on this new album. In 2022, I decided it was time to leave Los Angeles and move up to Placer County (in Northern California) to be closer to family. I figured I’d just bounce files back and forth with my LA music team, in hopes that it would be a sustainable way to work long-term. Then one afternoon while running errands in Auburn, CA., an acquaintance suggested that I reach out to Brian and introduce myself. I DM’d him on social media and said, “Hey! I hear you’re the best producer in Placer County. I’m moving up in a year, and would love to get together for coffee once I’m settled in.” He said, “Do you have anything we can work on now?”
I sent him two finished songs to produce, “The Flame” and “Be My Man” (you’ll hear those on my next album), and we finalized mixes on both tracks in a few weeks. It was so smooth. From there, we started co-writing Christmas songs, one right after the other. By October of 2023, we had made a new, all-original Christmas album! I was not planning to make a new album in the middle of a big move, but it all came together quite naturally.
Q. For the deluxe edition CD of this album, you’ve decided to combine the songs from Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town with your other popular album ‘Tis The Season. Talk about this choice.
A. Well, I feel like ‘Tis the Season has so many great songs! It was recorded during Covid, across all of 2020 into the middle of 2021. I worked with an amazing team on the album, and we gave it all we had! My core team included Jon Kubis (arranger on Dancing With The Stars), Tom Keane (songwriter/producer for Chaka Khan, Celine Dion), Gardner Cole (hit songwriter for Madonna, Amy Grant), and Gene Black (songwriter for Heart, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker). Honestly, 2020 for me was fabulous, musically and artistically. My team was incredible! I released ‘Tis The Season on all streaming platforms in November of 2021 when the world was feeling pretty “Bah Humbug.” The songs on ‘Tis the Season are fun and effusive but nestled in between are a few romantic songs that just melt the room. My favorite song on the album is “Marry Me For Christmas.”
I really want to give people the opportunity to enjoy ‘Tis The Season the way maybe they couldn’t have in 2021. So, I decided to release the Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town Deluxe Edition CD, which includes the new 10-song album, Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town, plus ‘Tis the Season, which has 11 songs. The artwork on the CD is so fun. It has a lot of great family photos that remind me of a retro scrapbook. So with the CD, you get 21 songs, and the physical album art that is designed to make the listening experience more intimate and engaging.
Q. Take us through Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town track by track. What are some highlights you remember during the writing and production process?
A. Fun question! Here goes!
Track 1. “Christmas Is Near” was the last song written for the album. I composed the classical intro on piano, thinking it would make a great vignette or interlude to weave between songs on the album. I sent it to Brian and he built it into a full song with such brilliant orchestration! He had a melody all worked out, so I wrote the lyrics to his melody. It’s one of my favorite pieces of music on the album. Brian knocked it out of the park! It sounds like a Christmas song from the Victorian era!
Track 2. “Don’t be late” was SO fun to write! I pictured children across the ages sucking up to Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Grandpa just a little more each day as the 24th approaches. I was definitely one of those kids! I always wanted someone to give me a kitten for Christmas, and I was relentless about it. Brian did the orchestration, and I didn’t have a single note for him. He sent me the file, and it was a slam dunk!
Track 3. “Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town” felt like we were producing an enormous bonfire! I heard the production in my head while writing, and it felt like Brian was inside my head. He knew exactly what to do. The horn arrangement, the guitars, the piano, there’s nothing about it I don’t love. When it was finished I knew we had made something special.
Track 4. “Be My Baby By Christmas Night” was pretty magical to hear back when it was finished. I was sitting in my office feeling so grateful while listening. It’s the kind of production I love to listen to, and the song is so much fun! I made myself a latte after finalizing the mix, looked up at the sky, sent up a big thank you for the gift of music, and for such a great track to have on the record.
Track 5. “Early Winter” is such a personal song. Initially, I thought I’d produce it as a guitar and vocal, real simple, singer-songwriter style. Brian generously offered to produce it, and I said, “Are you sure? This one may be a dud. I love it, but everybody seems to like my fun songs the most.” He ignored me, thankfully, and a few hours later, he sent me the track. I cried. It was so beautiful. I couldn’t even bring myself to do the vocals for a few weeks. It’s the most raw, close-to-the-bone song on the album, and so far, people have connected with it from the first listen. I’m so grateful for this piece of music.
Track 6. “Christmas Is Comin’ Again” is so innocent, platonic, and leisurely! I wrote this song while on a writer’s retreat at The Dorland Arts Colony in Temecula, CA. The sunsets at night over the wine country were breathtaking. I imagined people celebrating simple Christmases on those plains in the early days. The production captures the simple Christmas vibe in such a charming way. The Bari sax makes me smile every time. It’s cute as a button!
Track 7. “Wonderful World Tonight” was really Brian’s baby! He put so much time and effort into the track, and I just couldn’t seem to get the mental picture of what the songs should be about. I think I wrote 8 different drafts for the top line. It wasn’t until we got together in the studio that I knew it had to be about celebrating “friends-mas!” I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but that day in the studio, I knew that was the right direction. I was so relieved. It’s nerve-wracking when you feel like you’re disappointing someone by not coming up with the goods. I recorded a lead vocal on my own, comped it, Brian mixed it, and I absolutely hated it. So, Brian graciously offered to record the vocals together at his place. It came out great in the end, but this track was such a wrestling match for me. But you know what? People love it! That just goes to show that hanging in there pays off! Don’t throw in the towel. Keep chiseling away until you love it.
Track 8. “Me, Myself & I” was a song I started writing in Temecula. I have never been estranged from family, but I’ve held steady gigs in enough bars and clubs to know people who are. While recording this vocal, I imagined I was singing at a dive bar on Christmas Eve, telling the stories of these people I’ve known. For them, the bar is the one place they don’t feel alone and where they know they’ll be understood. I understand.
Track 9. “Welcome One & All” is a non-religious hymn about softening our judgments, and widening the welcome table. What warms me so much to this track is that Brian is playing his Steinway grand. It sounds so honest and humble. I love the intimacy of this simple production. We have to humble ourselves to come down from a high horse. This track feels very humble and somewhat fragile to me.
Track 10. “Spread A Little Love For Christmas” is the only track I have with an island feel! It was fun to do a 180, and play! We recorded this in the Summer of 2021, with the idea of a “Christmas In July” vibe. If celebrating Christmas in July were to become more of a tradition, I would love to hear this song blasting from campsites and RVs all over the world.
Q. On ‘Tis The Season you worked with a number of notable producers including Jon Kubis, Tom Keane, and Gardner Cole. Now for Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town, you worked closely with producer Brian Steckler. Talk about how these producers helped bring these two albums to life.
A. Jon Kubis is a dear friend. When he and I work together, the conversation runs deep, so the songwriting soil is rich. We talk about the way a song should feel, and we hold onto the vision and chisel away at it until it becomes a reality. Jon is a wonderful arranger and a brilliant person. He feels his way into production, but he has all the necessary tools, and tech skills as an engineer to deliver the sound he’s going for. Watching him work is like the study of a mad genius, and we have so much fun! I LOVE his piano solo on “Marry Me For Christmas.” I can’t get enough of it! His retro expertise is such a wellspring. I love working with Jon because we’re friends first, then colleagues, but we’re mostly music geeks who keep our noses to the grindstone until it’s right.
Tom Keane is a rare gem of an arranger. His string arrangement on “Christmas In My Heart,” is as timeless as it gets. He’s studied with the best, and he’s worked extremely hard to be as good as he is. His arrangements bring so much depth to a song! When I listen to his work, I feel like I’m living inside of the “song movie,” except, it’s more like a painting from a fine artist. His shading, layers, and the subtle but complex harmonic textures he uses are stunning. He brings a production to life in a way that is very powerful. He’s a master. “Wonderland Of Winter” is one of his masterpieces. “The Old Red Sleigh” is straight-up classic Christmas perfection in my opinion, and “Santa Won’t You Hurry” is so much fun to listen to! His sensitivity on “Christmas In My Heart” just bowls me over.
Gardner Cole wrote “Open Your Heart” for Madonna back in the 80’s, and lives a life far, far away from the rat race of Hollywood! He’s earned it! We produced “Santa Baby” remotely. He sent me the track, already cooked to perfection, and I recorded the vocals and did the background vocal arrangement. From there, he mixed it, and it was a wrap! It was a pretty seamless production without much back and forth about anything. He did his job, I did mine, and we were both thrilled with the end result. It’s fun to have such a smooth collaboration like that.
Brian Steckler is one of the fastest, most facile producers I’ve ever known. He has keen musical instincts with an uncanny knack for nailing the right hook. When he sends me mixes, I’m listening for the really cool subtle layers that he’s tucked. It’s like a game of “Where’s Waldo.” I’m always asking him to bring those tucked elements up in the mix because, to me, they create the vibe! A lot of times he’ll say, “Oh yeah! I forgot about those. It sounds good!” There are so many fun goodies in there, it’s a treasure trove! Brian is so gifted and wonderful to work with.
Q. You wrote the music and lyrics on your own for 6 songs on the Santa’s Takin’ Over The Town Deluxe Edition CD. How important is it for you to have this kind of autonomy over your music?
A. As a female artist, it’s important to me to leave a legacy of musical substance, especially as a songwriter. For context, not many people know that Dorothy Fields wrote “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance,” “On The Sunny Side Of The Street”, and “I’m In The Mood For Love.” I’ve been in the music industry for a long time, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard producers and musicians say, “She only wrote the top line.” Or worse, “She wrote the song, but my production is the best part.” Or, “There’s no way so and so wrote that song. I don’t care if her name is on the credits. She did not write that.” Even Mariah Carey has said that her writing ability is overlooked in the industry! For crying out loud, women have been writing hit songs for a long time and have been denied their worth, when it’s undeniable!
There are times when I have to register a producer as a co-writer because we live in a producer-centric era of music. Many of them insist upon a writing credit. But, I choose my battles and fortunately, not every producer I work with insists on taking credit for songs they don’t write from the ground up. I appreciate them so much! If a songwriter is also an independent artist, they have astronomical release expenses to shoulder annually that producers often don’t pitch in for even when claiming a 50/50 writer/publishing share.
My perspective is this: being a great songwriter is a fine art and a hard-won skill. It deserves a place of honor the same way producers are given theirs. If I am not a producer, I’m not going to demand a producer credit. That credit belongs to the producer. However, in most cases, I am a co-producer! I record my vocals, comp them, provide musical direction for tracks, cast and contract musicians, help to refine mixes, and I do the deep research and development at the outset to find out what’s needed in the film/TV/ad world to maximize the potential of the music. So, if I’m not assuming a co-production credit for all of that, why should the writer/publishing credit be up for grabs without question?
Q. What are some of your favorite holiday traditions and how do they inspire you when writing your holiday albums?
A. I love to rally a few of my favorite people for a day trip in the snow! Those memories always inspire the fun side of my seasonal songwriting. The song “Wonderful World Tonight” is all about “friends-mas” fun! While writing it with Brian Steckler, I was recalling all the fun memories I’ve made with friends, chugging along through town, being together, and doing festive stuff. I love that I have those vivid memories, and look forward to friends-mas plans every Christmas.
Q. What are some of your favorite Christmas songs? How might these songs influence your music?
A. I love various Christmas songs for different reasons! As a child, I was enamored with “Up On The Housetop,” “Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” I still adore those songs, because they remind me of my childhood and the anticipation of Santa Claus. As an adult, I fully immerse myself in ALL the Vince Guaraldi Charlie Brown Christmas songs. “O Tennenbaum”, “Christmas Time Is Here”, and “Skating” are some of my favorites. I also love the melodic brilliance of “What Child Is This,” “The Holly & The Ivy,” and “O Holy Night.” Those compositions are exquisite.
I think the fun-loving, child-like songs about Santa, combined with the elegance of the more mature Christmas classics have inspired the dynamic range of seasonal songs I write. The classics are in my bones, but even I need to hear fresh new Christmas music every year. I think that’s what I’m doing. I’m creating the Christmas songs I want to hear in addition to the classics.
Q. What would you say to listeners who might encounter hard times over the holidays? How does music, holiday-oriented or not, bring us all together and offer solace during these difficult moments?
A. To anyone who is struggling during the holidays, I want to tell you that you are not alone. Hard times are inevitable, and everyone goes through them. If you live long enough, you will encounter difficult holiday seasons. There really ought to be support groups for people who are struggling through the holiday season. The great thing about music is that it creates a comforting space that feels alive, and less lonesome. Music can be amazing company.
I have had long lonely spells where music has been my greatest friend and deepest well of solace. If you can find a candle, pour a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and put on something lovely to listen to, you are winning! If there are no presents under the tree, but you have a day off work to take a long walk, and make some banana bread, count that as a gift because it’s a wonderful way to spend a day.
Q. There’s something very theatrical about your Christmas albums and your voice. Have you ever considered performing in this regard? What would be your ideal musical if you could create and star in one?
A. I would love to write a holiday musical about my life experience as a songwriter! It’s been such a roller coaster with hilarious encounters, dramas, and foibles. It would be a blast to write it all down and turn it into entertainment! I think the reason I’ve written and recorded so much Christmas music over the years is basically because I’ve been trying to escape the reality of life in the music business! It’s been a magical experience creating a fantastical world that is warm and welcoming.
For a screenplay, I would tell my story through the eyes of a songwriter who goes through rejection after rejection, #metoo moment after #metoo moment, and along the way, manages to write a collection of Christmas songs that are delightful and beloved. I would cast myself as a far more casual archetypal festive version of Mary Poppins who “makes special happen” under any and every challenging holiday circumstance!