Lindsey Stirling explains the magic behind her 'whimsical, different' Christmas album

Wendy Geller
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

When violinist Lindsey Stirling decided to release an album of Christmas music, choosing a theme of the most magical time of year seemed a perfect fit for the performer. After all, the lithe viral sensation already has a résumé of unforgettable music videos featuring her in a variety of dreamy visual scenarios, with her ethereal violin work all poured over the top. Who would be better to take on the fantasy of the season?

Fans seem to agree. Stirling’s album, Warmer in the Winter (which dropped in October) debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Classical Crossover Chart, No. 9 on the Digital Albums Chart, and No. 32 on the Top 200 Album Chart. It continues to perform admirably in a year that saw an exorbitant number of Christmas releases. Stirling’s careful curation includes 10 holiday classics (both secular and religious) as well as three original numbers.

It was a labor of love that kept her quite busy in an already busy 2017 that hasn’t let up, even in the final weeks of December. Indeed, Stirling’s schedule is so packed at the end of the year that she almost (just almost) seems to forget that Christmas is just around the corner.

When asked about her Christmas plans, she seemed a little dumbfounded for a second. “Let’s see, what am I doing for Christmas?” Stirling wondered, before joking, “I hope I have plans. Just kidding!” As it turns out, she’ll be wrapping her holiday tour Dec. 23 in her home state of Arizona, and is looking forward to what sounds like very nice plans directly afterward: a big traditional family gathering, plus a well-deserved couple of weeks off.

Before rushing back into her swirl of activity, Stirling took a few minutes to chat with Yahoo Entertainment about the challenges and rewards of recording a Christmas album, as well as her experience on Dancing With the Stars (where she placed as first runner-up even after suffering a painfully debilitating rib injury).

Yahoo: This is your first Christmas album. What put it in your head to approach a full-length holiday release this year?

I wanted to do a Christmas album for years. Every year I do a Christmas song and put it on my YouTube channel, just throw it out there to the world. They’ve always done really well, and fans have always really liked them. So, just the idea of getting to add to people’s Christmas memories with my own music was such an exciting thing. There’s so many Christmas albums that I have that tie me back to my childhood and family traditions; they bring back these very tangible memories. So it was like, it would be really awesome if my rendition of these holiday songs could possibly become a part of other people’s memories, in the ways other artists helped create my memories.

What Christmas albums are your personal favorites? 

Mannheim Steamroller’s albums were my favorites, I loved those as a kid. Still to this day I hear those songs and I get so happy, even though they’re completely dated. I’m like “No, I love them, they’re lit!” Michael Bublé as well — you can’t beat Michael Bublé. Mariah Carey. And my new favorite from last year was Jordan Smith, from The Voice. He had a killer Christmas album last year that got added to my holiday favorites.

This year had literally dozens of Christmas album releases, from all genres, and from quite a few big names in addition to your own. Were you surprised at how well your album did even in the midst of such unusual holiday competition? 

Yeah, I was talking to my manager just yesterday, “How’s it doing?” — the overall scheme, not just on iTunes — and I was shocked to hear how well it’s done on all the different platforms. Because, yeah. Gwen Stefani, Sia, just to name two, but those are two of the biggest artists out there. So to hear that my little album was doing so well in this sea of new music — that’s really cool!

How challenging was it to narrow down a list of selections for a holiday album? There are hundreds of Christmas songs out there to choose from! Did you find it intimidating at all when first facing the task?

It was a whole different type of challenge than writing an original album. I didn’t realize until I started exactly how challenging it would be. It was like, oh my goodness, there’s so many songs … and there’s also so many different types of Christmas “flavor.” Religious, secular, fun … there’s the jolly, and then there’s the emotional. So it was really kind of a fun challenge, and I decided I wanted to fulfill all the different buckets. I wanted songs that make you want to dance, I wanted songs that make you feel classic — the way Frank Sinatra does. And I wanted some songs that felt whimsical and magical. Once I made these buckets, I filled them in, and I picked a couple different songs for each bucket. It was really fun, really different from anything I’d ever done.

But … how did you choose?!

[Laughs] I literally spent a week and a half just sitting on my couch listening to Christmas music. I literally didn’t leave the couch for almost two weeks. Just figuring out playlists and putting together spreadsheets — treating it almost like it was a big math problem.

Given that this was a pretty big and different project overall, what was the most difficult aspect for you personally about creating the album? 

There’s only one track on the album that’s electronic, that has no instrumentation on it, which is really different for me. In the past, all my albums have been completely synthetic — done on the computer, and I play over them. And so it was really cool this time to work with a full orchestra. We went to Capitol Records and recorded some amazing big-band players — trumpet, saxophone, live drums. It was so different, not only the recording process, but also the writing process.

Do you have a favorite song on the record, or one you felt you put a special amount of work into? 

“Angels We Have Heard on High” was one of the more special songs to me. It’s one of my favorite Christmas songs for the meaning behind it, and it’s very close to my heart. So I really wanted that one to be special, and it turned into my favorite on the album, but it took a little bit of work to get it there. I wanted it to be almost like a film score, so you could see something while you listened to it. But in order to make it sound really special, it took quite a bit of time to figure out what exactly it was going to be.

Were there any Christmas songs you wanted to include, but couldn’t make them work for whatever reason? Any runners-up? 

There were plenty that I loved that didn’t make it on, but the one that I tried several times to figure out and it just wasn’t coming to me was “Mary Did You Know.” I originally had it on my “definitely going to be on the album” list, but it wasn’t happening. I couldn’t figure out how to make it my own and make it special. So that was one of the ones I had to set aside. But instead, I ended up writing [original song] “I Saw Three Ships,” which came as a last-minute idea, and it turned into one of my favorites.

Where do you feel you made the greatest creative leap, or pushed the envelope the most, on this record? 

Stylistically, for me, I’ve never done big-band music before. So that was a bit of a risk. Because it’s unlike electronic music — where if you hear it and if you don’t want to use it, it’s pretty much you and a computer and a producer, and you can decide not to use it. Big-band-style music, we actually had to get into a room with the arranger, and record with the band — you really have to invest in something like that. You can’t just be like “Well, those three songs, we’re just not going to use them,” after you’ve recorded it and paid all those musicians. It was a big risk because I’ve never done it, but I really wanted to do it because it’s a big side of Christmas music. I’m really glad we did. Violin with trumpet and horns and saxophones — it’s definitely a little different to have a violin featured in that way.

You’re out on the road now and seems like everything is great, but just to put fans’ minds at ease, has your rib injury completely healed? You’re feeling OK? There were so many concerning reports about the severity of it, even though you managed to finish Dancing With the Stars. 

It was quite amazing how quickly it healed! I was in pretty severe pain for about two and a half weeks, and then it began to subside and become more manageable. And now I don’t even think about it. I’m 100 percent better, which is such a miracle and such a relief, because when the injury happened I honestly wondered if I would have to cancel the beginning of my tour until I got better. It hurt so badly to play, to move. But amazingly enough, nothing got canceled, I made it through Dancing With the Stars somehow, and worked through it. And I feel all better!

Speaking of Dancing With the Stars, you did so well on the show. Any plans to return to reality TV in some form or another?

I’d definitely decided i was done with reality TV forever after America’s Got Talent (in 2010). I was like, “Nope, never going back there.” But Dancing With the Stars was such a different style of reality TV. It was a night-and-day difference from my experience on America’s Got Talent — just the way you were treated, it’s pretty straightforward, they’re not trying to make you look or act a certain way. You just are who you are and they capture it. I don’t think I’ll be doing any more reality TV now, I think I’m done with it, but I did love doing Dancing With the Stars. I learned so much and had so much fun.