Guitarist Joey Burns once heard somebody say there are two kinds of holiday albums: ones that cover all the classic Christmas standards and others that are a little more experimental and creative.
Seasonal Shift, the first holiday record by Burns' band Calexico (drummer John Convertino is the other primary member of the band), combines the two varieties. The album, which came out on December 4 on ANTI- Records, features Southwest-flavored renditions of "Christmas All Over Again'' by Tom Petty and John Lennon and The Plastic Ono Band's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." Burns said when he heard the lyrics of the former Beatle's anthem, they felt just as appropriate for 2020 as they did when the song came out nearly 50 years ago.
"I know it’s popular, but I don’t hear it all the time," says Burns. "To me, it still felt fresh and relevant to what’s going on in our lives these days, especially in July of 2020 with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I think it set the tone for the rest of the record."
The original songs on Seasonal Shift focus on the spirit of togetherness that comes when friends and family meet during the season, which seems ironic considering that much of this year has focused on staying apart. That feeling of isolation has weighed heavy on Burns as his family moved to Idaho over the summer so his 9-year-old daughters could be closer to family.
As Seasonal Shift started to come together, Burns realized he had left Tucson without his instruments, thinking he would go back when it was time to use them. Thankfully, band member Sergio Mendoza and producer Chris Schultz drove up to Boise several weeks later to deliver them to him and help set up shop. When they arrived, Burns felt inspired, and the trio helped him put the record together.
"There’s a certain magic that occurs when making music with others," he says. "If they hadn’t come up or if I was by myself at home, it would’ve been a different type of record. I know that the special qualities of the record are the product of being together."
Other collaborators, including Bombino, Gaby Moreno, Gisela João, Nick Urata of DeVotchKa, and Camilo Lara, contributed virtually, adding to the feeling of togetherness on the album's dozen tracks and reflecting on who each musician is and where they're from.
"On most radio stations, there are standards being played for the purpose of celebrating Christmas," says Burns. "I wanted to do something different and more reflective of who we are as an international band."
As the album's title implies, Seasonal Shift isn't strictly about Christmas. There are little details sprinkled throughout the record that reference Tucson and Arizona and how it comes alive when the weather cools down. The song "Hear the Bells" references Dia de Los Muertos celebrations and the All Souls Procession, and Burns croons about the tamales in the freezer during the ballad "Peace of Mind." When speaking with the singer, there is a longing in his voice, and it's clear that he's homesick for the Southwest, especially as the holidays approach.
"I really miss Tucson right now," he says. "There’s so much great music year-round. The night before we moved, my sister contacted Sergio [Mendoza], and he contacted some of the mariachis from the group Mariachi Luz De Luna to surprise us. And we had a party that was as socially-distant as we could. My neighbor gave me a hug, and it was the last hug that I had. We both had tears in our eyes."
Despite the changes the year has put all of us through, Burns is grateful for the opportunity to connect with friends creatively.
"Let’s just enjoy the home and the holidays in whatever state it’s in," he says. "Let’s just make the best of it.”
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