The new CD “A Different Kind of Christmas” has soul, even if it isn’t quite right for church.
The hip-hop and funky grooves on the CD include Staxx n Waxx & Audio Stepchild singing “I’m Leaving You After Christmas” and Jerome Bigfoot Brailey & Buffalo Stille performing “Holiday Wavy.”
One of the more spiritual songs is Montclair resident Zara Phillips’ slightly jazzy crooning on “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“My mum would say, ‘Why are you singing about Christ?'” said the green-eyed, elegant singer with a throaty laugh, talking to The Times at Tierney’s Tavern recently.
Phillips is Jewish.
Singing a Christmas song reminds her of her childhood, she said. In England, when she was growing up, “They never celebrated other holidays. It’s not like here, where we get to celebrate Hanukkah and all the rest of it. We love Christmas in England, no matter the religion,” said Phillips.
“A Different Kind of Christmas,” from Hoopla Media Group/LRT Entertainment, is available now on iTunes and on Amazon, and will shortly be available in some select stores, said Phillips.
Phillips attended a girls’ school called The Mount, in Barnet, a borough of London, where students routinely sang carols and hymns, “even though half of us were Jewish.” Her family would have Christmas lunch, “but we weren’t allowed a Christmas tree.”
She has one in Montclair, Phillips acknowledged with a big smile. When she found her birth mother, a journey documented in Phillips’ book “Mother Me,” which was published in England in 2008, and in America in 2011, she discovered that while her mother was Jewish, her father was Italian.
That discovery meant “Christmas tree” to Phillips. In her Montclair home, which she shares with her husband Jonathan, her three children, ages 16, 12 and 10, are being raised “alternative Jewish.”
Singing Christmas songs brings back happy memories of her girlhood, Phillips said. The production of her CD track was a modern marvel. Phillips came on late in the day, and had to work long distance, Skyping and sending recordings back and forth with her producer, George McFarlane. She also had bronchitis, she said. Phillips loved the backing track McFarlane had already made for “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”
“I liked the vibe he’d done on it. It was a little more funky,” recalled Phillips, describing her own music as a combination of rock and folk, influenced by Van Morrison and Kate Bush.
The blend of funk and acoustic particularly appealed to Phillips, who has worked with hip-hop legend Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC, of Run-DMC. Phillips recorded her song called “I’m Legit” with him, to bring awareness to the state of sealed birth records in New Jersey. McDaniels is also adopted.
As a singer, Phillips said, she is always looking for new avenues for her music. She became a backup singer after a double date with two rock-and-rollers, she said, which led to singing backup with Bob Geldof. She toured with Geldof’s band around Europe, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.
“For somebody young it was pretty amazing,” said Phillips. But then, “I realized I was a writer and even though it was great fun, it wasn’t enough for me.
“I wanted to write.”
Her songs, she said with a laugh, are inspired by “pain. Emotional pain.”
“I like to observe situations. I’ve even written a song called ‘You, Me and Us,’ which is really me standing in the courtyard picking up my kids, and observing parents.”
Songwriting has helped her to get through difficult times. “I don’t know what people do that don’t have that outlet,” said Phillips. One of her best songs came out of the period when her mother was dying. “It helped me understand the relationship,” Phillips said, adding that the song is not depressing.
When she began her career, Phillips used her contacts and connections to play gigs all around London. Her “break” came, she said, when she decided “record deal or no record deal, am I ever going to stop singing and performing?
“The answer is no. Since I made that decision I have had a lot of what I call my successes. For me it’s very rewarding.”
Future plans include a one-woman show telling her story, using music and speech, hosting the TV34 show “Arts Up Close,” and opening for Cliff Eberhardt at Outpost in the Burbs on Friday, Jan. 25.
Coincidentally, Montclair is a “sister city” to Barnet, London, where Phillips grew up. According to the website of the Montclair School System, English families from Barnet sent children to friends and family in Montclair during the Blitz of World War II in 1941. The two towns have stayed in touch through the Friends of Barnet cross-cultural exchange program.
It is not the city where she was born, but Phillips said being in Montclair, and not just on the holidays, “feels like coming home.”
Contact Gwen Orel at “firstname.lastname@example.org.