Multi-award winning singer/songwriter Jimmy Rankin has just released his fifth solo record, Tinsel Town, which features an eclectic and fun mixture of original and traditional Christmas songs, just in time for the holiday season. The much beloved Cape Breton icon kicked off his Christmas tour in Miramichi, New Brunswick on Sunday evening and he plays hometown Mabou, Cape Breton at Strathspey Place on Wednesday November 28th before playing with Symphony Nova Scotia at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium November 30th and December 1st in Halifax. The tour is also taking him across British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario later next month.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Jimmy via telephone about Tinsel Town, his memories of Christmas and the upcoming tour and here is how that went:
Amanda Campbell (AC): Hi! I know you are on the road today. Where are you calling me from?
Jimmy Rankin (JR): Actually, I’m at a truck stop between New Glasgow and Truro. Very Romantic.
AC: Ah yes. Absolutely. So, I’ve been listening to your Christmas record [Tinsel Town] and I just love it.
JR: Oh, cool. Thanks very much.
AC: I know that you started writing the original songs on the record with Patricia Conroy-
JR: Patricia and I are writing friends and good friends, to begin with, and we wrote four songs for this record.
AC: What made you decide to write Christmas songs together?
JR: Well, I was asked to do a Christmas Special last Christmas along with bands like Barenaked Ladies, Great Big Sea and Chantal Kreviazuk and I sang a Christmas song for them and that was shot in the Fall and I was inspired to continue on to make a record. In December  I started writing songs in the Christmas season for this Christmas record and [Patricia and I] wrote about six and four of them ended up on the record.
AC: Do you approach writing a Christmas song differently because it is part of such a specific musical canon?
JR: Actually, to tell you the truth, it’s actually something I stayed away from for a long time because those pieces of music that are standard songs are so well written and so ingrained in people’s memories and their psyche- there is a high bar set- so it took a long time to get to a point where I felt comfortable enough to write them. So, when I did finally sit down to write with Patricia I found it was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it and we came up with some really good songs, which I wouldn’t have put on the record had they not stood up to the other songs. I’m very pleased with them. In fact, I named the CD after one of them called “Tinsel Town.”
AC: It’s a great song. I’m expecting it to be playing a lot on the radio this season.
JR: Yeah! It’s been released to radio across the country and it’s being picked up and people are responding to it very well.
AC: One of my favourite original songs on the record is “Boogie Woogie Christmas.”
JR: Yeah. A lot of people really love that. I’ve only performed it twice in concert so far and that seems to be one where their ears perk up. I guess it’s because it’s kind of a fun, light song, you know?
AC: It seems like if people know about your very musical family, growing up with Celtic roots and eleven siblings and singing at dances and kitchen parties in Mabou [Cape Breton], this may be the way they would imagine “Christmas at the Rankins.’”
JR: Yeah! When I was much younger and when all my family used to come home for Christmas there was a lot of mayhem and fun and people in and out of the house visiting during the Christmas season. And always music. I was definitely harkening back to those memories. My mom and dad really loved Christmas and my mom would start preparing and baking months before Christmas and there was always tons of food and sweets and we always went out to pick out a Christmas tree and decorated the house and put decorations outside and inside with boughs and lights… So, there were a lot of children in my family so it was a pretty special time and I have terrific memories of it. We would buy each other gifts, we drew names at some point because the family was so large, you know? And we would open them on Christmas Day or sometimes on Christmas Eve. It was lots of fun, yeah. It was a great time in my life. And now that I have a couple kids I’m experiencing it again.
AC: And you have them singing a little bit on the record!
JR: Yeah, I have James and Chloe singing the opening line for “White Christmas,” which is really special. It was so funny, because I’m not really great at being a “showbiz dad”- if they want to do music, they’ll do it naturally and fall into it. But they really stood up to the challenge. I asked them if they wanted to sing on my record and I tried not to make a big deal of it. I set up a little mic and a digital recorder and had them singing it and they were having fun doing it, but they were very serious about getting the right take.
AC: They probably get a little bit of that from you.
JR: Well, yeah. They see me perform and they know what I do and they sort of understand- they’re very young- five and seven- but they really wanted to be on the record, they were having so much fun, but also taking it seriously, but they really wanted to do it. (laughs).
AC: Their singing is really very cute. In “Don’t Wanna Say Goodbye to Christmas” there is a lyric that says “Charlie Brown’s my favourite Christmas show,” is that true?
JR: (laughs) Well, when I was a kid we only had two channels. And every Christmas Season they would play certain Christmas Specials and that was one of them, Charlie Brown Christmas Special, so you would wait, you know, the whole Christmas season and it was aired only once. So if you missed it, you missed it. But we always watched it every Christmas season. I think for a lot of people they have that same memory of The Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Now, you know, you can buy it on DVD or pull it up on YouTube– it is readily available– but back when I was growing up, if you missed it, then you MISSED it. But we always looked forward to it. The music in it was so touching, you know? Vince Guaraldi, Jerry Granelli on drums and then that beautiful little children’s choir. So, it’s still a classic record for me- the Peanuts Christmas.
AC: Yeah. Me too. That record is great. You also say in that same song that “White Christmas” is your favourite Christmas song, is that true?
JR: Well, you know, when we were writing that song–always, as you know, when you’re writing you’re drawing from your own personal experience and your memories– but for that song we were thinking of a big, tough guy who was really a kid at heart. And, of course, drawing from our own favourite Christmas memories, Christmas songs and all that. But “White Christmas” is such a classic; it’s probably one of the all time best contemporary Christmas songs ever written.
AC: And Bing Crosby does a pretty great rendition of it.
JR: Yeah, exactly. That’s the ultimate version, that version; it’s the one that everyone would go back to. And then Nat King Cole has such a great voice and the Jimmy Stewart Special… They’re like Christmas standards.
AC: They are. I know you live in Nashville, at least part of the time when you are not on the road. Is there anything really special about Christmas in Nashville?
JR: Well, I haven’t ever spent a Christmas there, this is my first Christmas spent there. It’s going to be fun. You know, Christmas is really, for me now, it’s fun to have your friends over and do dinners and all that, but really, I’m re-living it again with my children. That part of Christmas is really about children and them believing in Santa and their anticipation for Christmas Day and having to be “naughty” or “not naughty” and getting their gifts and all that. Stuff that I really grew up with. It’s really nice. We try not to be too materialistic about it because Christmas has become really materialistic and we try to instill in our kids that it’s not about that… but at the same time, they know they’re going to get some gifts and just their excitement for Christmas Day and hanging out with them and having them playing with their new toys all day….
AC: And I’m sure they will be really glad to have you back home after being on the road for a month!
JR: Yeah. And I don’t get home until the 23rd, it’ll be very exciting. I can’t wait.
AC: How has moving to Nashville influenced your writing?
JR: Well, to be quite honest with you, since I’ve moved to Nashville I’ve been so busy promoting records and touring, I haven’t spent the time there that I want to writing. When I am there I do write with people and Nashville’s really an incredible town, there’s ten thousand songwriters there- some really great ones- it’s all about music there. It’s a music town, so when I’m there I feel like the bar is high and I need to be writing and I’m bumping into people all the time who are writing and getting cuts and so it’s very inspiring that way. And the idea of co-writing with me, I started out as a solo writer and I still love to do that, but I love writing songs with other people. I find that a natural thing for me as well.
AC: What I find so fascinating is that you collaborate with so many different, great, musicians and yet, ultimately, I think the songs on all your records still do feel very much like Jimmy Rankin tunes. You have a very distinctive sound.
JR: Yeah, I think I have a very strong personality when it comes to writing and my choices. I’m not dogmatic about things when I write with people- you can’t be that way- you have to compromise, but I love the idea of collaborating with people. I think part of collaborating is discussion about what’s right and what’s not good, and making the proper choices and I think perhaps what you’re talking about is the choices that I decide to go with and that we decide to go with, when I’m writing with other people, and my personality shines through in that department. I have very good instincts when it comes to writing.
AC: I would say that same distinct personality is present when you cover songs as well, like on the more traditional Christmas songs on Tinsel Town. They become Jimmy Rankin tunes as well.
JR: Well, yes. You know I was very conscious about that as well, the delivery of those traditional, standard songs that have been covered so many times and that was a challenge in itself, trying to put your own stamp on something. I think I’ve accomplished that. There are so many incredible versions of those great songs out there and part of the trick was to really put your own stamp on it and make it your own.
AC: I think you have done that very well.
JR: Well, thank you.
AC: In the two concerts in Halifax [November 30 and December 1st] you are playing with Symphony Nova Scotia. What is that like?
JR: I’ve played with symphonies before, but I’ve never done a full Christmas show with the symphony before. I’m very excited about it. I’ve had some of my songs arranged for orchestra and I have some scores from earlier material that I’m going to do with the orchestra as well. And then other stuff I’ll just do with the band. I’m very excited about it. It’s fun. Having that big wall of sound behind you is pretty amazing. Hearing it for the first time with your material is a really terrific experience. I’m really excited about doing those shows and I’m doing them with the band. It’ll be a lot of fun. I really try to enjoy it and be in the moment because it is a rare thing for me to play with that kind of ensemble.
AC: You also do a great cover of a John Denver tune on Tinsel Town–
JR: That’s correct. Yeah, “Christmas for Cowboys”. That’s a Steve Weisberg, he is the writer of that. That’s one of the songs that when I sat down to put all these songs together and select songs for this record I really just picked songs off the top of my head that resonated with me from my early days of listening to Christmas music and songs that I thought would be fun on a record that you could listen to at a party, in the background or in the car or something. That song I got from a John Denver record from an album he put out back in the 70s called Rocky Mountain Christmas  and it was a record my sister Geraldine brought home from University and it was played all that Christmas season and then every Christmas after that in my life, even when I moved out of my mom’s home I bought a copy of that record and I always played it at Christmas. So, I’ve always loved that song and I knew that if I ever made a Christmas record I would put it on. It was one of my first choices.
AC: I heard that John Denver was a big fan of The Rankins.
JR: Well, yeah, he was. I remember back when he was living I heard that he had gotten a copy of North Country  and just loved the original songs and loved the whole group and the harmonies and everything that we were doing. And then recently, a few years ago, I met a former manager and friend of his and I went out to dinner with him in Nashville and he told me the whole story about how John Denver had all these plans to work with The Rankins.
AC: Oh, wow!
JR: Yeah, he was a huge fan. He just loved the whole Rankin thing. Unfortunately, he was killed shortly after that in a plane accident, so none of that actually happened. But it was nice to know- we were fans of his music growing up. I used to sing his songs when I was a little kid. So, to know that he was a fan is really heartwarming.
AC: Yeah. Wow. I am really interested in the interdisciplinary aspects of The Arts and the cross pollination of artists and their audiences, and I know that you are a visual artist as well as being a singer/songwriter and that your sister [Heather Rankin] is an actor as well as a singer and you have equated song writing to painting before, which I love-
JR: Heather is terrific. She is really talented. Even back when we were kids, back in Mabou, I always knew she was talented in that regard. I think all the Arts are connected in some way. You talk about song writing and painting, I’ve always equated the two in that with a song: you have a blank canvas and then you approach it in the same fashion: you do broad strokes and then you get more detailed. That’s the way I approach it, anyway.
AC: Yeah, I think you could apply that to any of the Arts, you’re always starting with that blank canvas-
JR: Yes. Exactly.
AC: I heard you’re a bit of a voracious reader too.
JR: I like to read. I always have two or three books on the go.
AC: What was the last great book you read? Can you remember?
JR: Oh, God. I buy books all the time. I’m still working on this book Devil in the White City [by Erik Larsen] that someone recommended. I have a biography of Van Gogh on my nightstand. That’s probably the most recent thing, it was put out a few years ago. What else? I have a Michael Ondaatje book on the go (laughs). I am so scattered in my travels that I take stuff with me on the road and then I go home and have other stuff on my nightstand. I’m kind of all over the map.
AC: Me too.
JR: One thing I also want to mention about the CD is that it is also a greeting card.
AC: Oh, yeah! Talk a little about that!
JR: Yeah! It’s really cool. Of course it has my picture on the front, but, you can open it up and, of course the CD is in there, but there’s a space where you can do a personalized greeting and then there’s a sticker that you can put the address of the person you want to send it to. You close the CD and you put a stamp on it.
AC: Oh, great!
JR: Yeah. It travels really well. It’s a really nice way to send music to somebody and it’s a relatively inexpensive gift of music and you can write your own nice greeting.
AC: Where can people pick up their copies of Tinsel Town?
JR: Needs Convenient Stores are selling the record and Walmart. Are you in Halifax?
AC: I am.
JR: Is there even a record store in Halifax anymore? Is HMV still open, or did they close?
AC: The one on Spring Garden is closing, but there are still HMVs in both the malls.
JR: I would imagine that they are there. It’s really difficult nowadays to get your CDs out there so you have to be resourceful.
AC: It’s smart to be selling them at Needs.
JR: Yeah, it’s great. And Needs is all over the Maritimes. And, of course, in Cape Breton I have them in all the little convenience stores and gift shops. We’re in such a transitional time. CDs are becoming obsolete in one way, but a lot of people still want to go into Needs and get their milk and bread and then buy a CD and leave it in their car.
AC: Yes. I feel like a lot of people are listening to their CDs in their cars now.
JR: Exactly. You just leave it in your car, you don’t take it out. I still listen to them. I download a lot of music from ITunes but I still like to get CDs. I still like to read linear notes.
AC: Yes! And if you download Tinsel Town from ITunes, you also get the Digital Booklet to go along with it, which is helpful. And there’s some great photographs in there of you.
JR: Yes. I had a good photography session this time around. (laughs)
AC: Those are all the questions I have for you, Jimmy.
JR: Great. Thanks. Are you going to the show?
AC: Yes! On Friday.
JR: I’ll see ya there.
Hopefully we will see all of you out there too. Here’s all the information that you need to celebrate the holidays with Jimmy Rankin:
Jimmy Rankin rocks out in Concert with Symphony Nova Scotia at the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium in Halifax at the Dalhousie Arts Centre (6101 University Avenue) November 30th and December 1st at 7:30pm. Tickets are $29.00-$54.00 and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at 902.494.3820 or 1-800-874.1669, in person at 6101 University Avenue or by visiting this website.
Subsequent Tour Dates are as follows: