New York, NY (Top40 Charts)
Christmas music has the power to transcend present circumstances and vast stretches of time to evoke poignant memories like nothing else, no matter the time of year or the temperature outside. Worship leader Kim Walker-Smith experienced this as she entered the studio to record her first holiday album, When Christmas Comes. The vocalist, best-known as the front woman for Jesus Culture
Band, donned a tank top, shorts and flip flops most days to usher in the Christmas spirit in the middle of July. Still, despite the 115-degree heat, Kim admits the songs brought back a flood of childhood memories throughout the recording process. "I'm finding out it doesn't matter what time of year it is, if you're listening to these classic songs, it just brings out these special memories and really warms your heart, thinking about how special family is," she says.
The suffocating heat aside, the prospect of recording a Christmas album was a new venture for the singer from every angle. The ministry of Jesus Culture
has always been at the core of Kim's career for more than a decade. In fact, she was on the forefront of what we now know as the Jesus Culture
movement that began in the summer of 1999 when the youth group at Bethel Church in Redding, Calif., launched the inaugural Jesus Culture
conference. Since then, Kim has been featured on 13 albums and has also been involved in releasing more than 25 projects on the Jesus Culture Music
Label, where she currently serves as president, now operating out of Sacramento, Calif. In addition, Kim has also released two solo projects—2008's critically-acclaimed Here Is My Song and 2013's Still Believe, which debuted at No. 1 on the Christian retail chart and No. 5 on the overall iTunes chart.
Recording When Christmas Comes in-studio with well-respected producer Jeremy Edwardson (Michael W. Smith, Kari Jobe, Jesus Culture) was also a different experience for the singer. Aside from collaborating with her husband, Skyler, on the couple's folk/Americana flavored effort Home, Kim has recorded all of her albums to date live. "The reason I always record live is because we're trying to capture a moment in worship, but with this…it's a little bit different," the multi-Dove Award nominee explains. "We're making something fun and creative, but an album that still carries my heart in worship. I wanted a mixture of both—songs that could show my heart of worship and songs that are just fun and a part of Christmas, a part of magical childhood memories."
The studio environment provided a safe place for Kim to experiment and broaden her creative palette. "When you're recording in the studio, you don't have to capture everything in one moment. When I'm leading worship, I'm not really branching out or experimenting vocally because I'm singing a melody I want people to sing along with me," she observes. "With a Christmas album, people are going to sing along no matter what because everyone knows the songs… So, I could try a lot of different ways of singing it, which I don't get to do live, making it fun creatively."
The result is a warm blend of all the whimsy and nostalgia of childhood mixed with Kim's moving and authentic vocals. When Christmas Comes boasts well-known classics and respected carols side-by-side, and one original, "Tell Me the Story," written by Anthony Skinner. All 17 tracks reflect vivid memories for Kim, who grew up in a small farming town where a group of senior citizens hosted a Christmas event each year for the families in their community. Kim recalls the excitement she and her siblings experienced anticipating the annual party, which included breakfast with Santa, caroling and a "gift shop" where she could choose gifts for her family. "It made you feel so grown up and special," she remembers. "We couldn't wait for all our family members to open our presents and see what we picked out for them."
Cuts like "Let It Snow," "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" and "White Christmas
" are a departure for the singer, best-known for powerhouse worship anthems. Yet, longtime fans will love hearing Kim's unforgettable voice paired with these timeless classics, melded together for something altogether new—each cut a snapshot of holidays passed.
Kim's nostalgic take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a personal favorite of the singer's. As a four-year-old Kim found herself as the lead in a Christmas musical, serving in the role of a granddaughter. On the night of the final performance, her pretend "grandmother" gave her a reindeer that she still uses each year when decorating her home.
"To this day, I still have the little reindeer and pull it out every year at Christmas," she shares. "It was so special to me because at that time as a little kid, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' was my favorite Christmas special that came on TV every year… I thought it was so neat, like, How did she know that was my favorite?"
The album also conjures memories of Bethel's annual Holiday Feast, a dinner the church hosted for the homeless and low-income families in the area and an incredible community outreach that became a highly-anticipated event for both the church members and the attendees each year. Families in the congregation would sponsor tables and decorate them with their best china, beautiful holiday decorations and gift boxes full of candy at every place setting. Dinner included prime rib, mashed potatoes, stuffing and more. From the inception of the event, Kim was dubbed the "jazz singer," backed by a soulful band as she crooned carols. "It was so much fun just watching people's faces as they're coming in. They loved the music and entertainment," she recalls. "They'd always come up to me and ask, 'Are you a famous singer?'—wondering where I came from, this jazz musician. I'd say, 'I'm just a worship leader here at the church.' They were always so surprised that a worship leader would sing jazz Christmas songs."
It was at these events that Kim saw how unifying Christmas music could be, regardless of someone's religious beliefs. Numerous people encouraged Kim to record Christmas songs through the years after hearing her perform them at the Holiday Feast. It was the imprint she saw these songs leave on the guests that solidified her decision to make recording a holiday album a priority. Although the tracks on When Christmas Comes give a nod to her Holiday Feast days with an occasional bluesy flair; on the whole, the album is more cinematic in scope, relying on grand orchestral strings to carry the melodies. There's also a subtle retro sensibility to the project, with Kim's rich, soulful voice sounding Adele-like. It's a direction that will simultaneously surprise and delight longtime fans of the worship leader.
"I know that at the core of who I am, I am a worship leader. I am someone who loves Jesus and loves to adore and worship Jesus. So, no matter what I do, that just comes out of me naturally," Kim says. "It comes out in these songs celebrating the whole reason for Christmas—it's Jesus, that He came to change our lives and set us free. The message of the gospel is the whole theme of Christmas and why we celebrate and what makes it so wonderful."
For Kim, Christmas has always been about family. "I don't have a single Christmas memory that my family isn't all together," she adds. "No matter what kind of hardship we may have been going through, we were all together for Christmas." This Christmas will be especially significant for Kim as she and Skyler welcome their second child into the world. Her due date, ironically, is Christmas Day. "It's so funny. Being a parent just changes Christmas for you," Kim says. "It makes it even more exciting."
She hopes When Christmas Comes will provide a soundtrack for families all around the world celebrating Christ's birth. "I hope people have fun with the album," she says. "I hope it becomes part of their rotation at Christmastime and they pull it out every year."