Among the songs that inspired Ingeborg von Agassiz’s new holiday album is a 16th-century choir, a lullaby from a mother to her infant son on the eve of the Massacre of the Innocents.
The story, taken from the Gospel of Matthew, concerns King Herod’s rule that all male children 2 and under living near Bethlehem should be murdered – an attempt to, in the process, kill Christ. Although she did not include the song “Coventry Carol” in the sequel to “O Giver of Dreams”, she named the album – touted as offering the “dark side of Christmas” – “Coventry Carols”.
“I just didn’t have time,” she said of the track that launched the album.
This new collection, out Friday and available to stream, is a 10-song medley that includes a version of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” a nod to ghostly young chimney sweeps, and a melody that takes into account what the narrator. from, not for, Christmas. This is the second album from Ingeborg von Agassiz, the local electronic/looping artist whose debut album was described by a News Tribune reviewer as “one of the best locally made albums in the history of the locally made albums”.
And that was just the critic’s warm-up.
“(O Giver of Dreams) seems to have been broadcast from a parallel Duluth where an idiosyncratic musician working totally alone can produce a collection of world-class songs that one could imagine finding a much wider audience with almost no hype, almost only on the strength of the artistic vision that gave birth to it,” Tony Bennett wrote in his 2018 review. “But that Duluth parallel actually exists, and we live in it.”
His intention with his latest album: something that speaks of the darkness of the season.
Before Ingeborg von Agassiz fully emerged as the named act for Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitaine in addition to her great-grandmother and the area of Minnesota where she was born, she performed her first show – a night of spooky Christmas covers with the loops and beats it would become known for.
“I like to interpret songs in my own way,” she said.
Ingeborg von Agassiz is a church accompanist who some time ago noticed that much of the Advent music was dark and scary. She liked it – in fact, she had always liked it.
It wasn’t just the religious works – this dark tone could also be found in, for example, “Walking in the Air”, a song from the soundtrack to the 1982 British silent film “The Snowman”.
“It’s so absolutely, hauntingly beautiful,” she said.
It will recall the holiday season of yesteryear, even before Scrooge, when Christmas was already the time for ghost stories.
A 2016 Smithsonian magazine article quotes a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The darkest day of the year was considered by many to be a time when the dead would have particularly good access to the living,” Professor Justin Daniels wrote.
In mid-August, Ingeborg von Agassiz began in earnest to finish the last half of the album, which meant working around the clock and burning a balsam fir candle to make it smell like Christmas.
She describes “Coventry Carols” as a concept album. She built it around her version of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas”, a take on the character where the lyrics find him crawling up the fireplace, but in terms of the melody, could emerge from the depths of a basement.
“I chose it because it’s early in the piano books,” she said. “You can literally play the melody on the black keys. I rewrote the melody a bit to make it sound minor and more sinister.
“That’s what I wanted to do with a bunch of Christmas songs.”
She had imagined a 50-50 mix of covers and original songs, but ended up with 90% original material. “St. Children’s Choir” is inspired by the practice of using children as chimney sweeps, often to tragic ends. “Snow Globe City” has the feel of a music teacher at the piano and children singing in a show.
Along the way there are lights in the dark, spirits and shadows, gothic choirs, doom and madness and angels. It’s the lyrics, she says, that make it a holiday album.
“You have to mention some of the stereotypical things, don’t you?” Ingeborg von Agassiz said, then referenced a joke she made on Twitter.
“Made a Christmas album and just realized I forgot to use bells on one of the tracks,” she tweeted.