Saturday, November 9, 2019

A Conversation with The Wizards of Winter

Over the course of the last ten years, Yuletide rockers The Wizards of Winter have been spreading their brand of Christmas cheer with three Christmas albums and annual nationwide tours.  What started out as a tribute band to raise money for a local New Jersey food pantry quickly evolved and grew into an all-original Christmas act with fans worldwide.  The group consists of a host of first class musicians and vocalists whose backgrounds include Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Def Leppard, The Irish Tenors, Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, Blue Oyster Cult and more.  The band recently released their third album, The Christmas Dream, to rave reviews. I sat down with the founders of the band, Keyboardist/Musical Director Scott Kelly and Flutist/Vocalist Sharon Kelly to talk in-depth about the new album and tour.

Photo courtesy Jeff Smith of ReflectionsNYC

Dan Roth: On social media, you had been talking about making a new album for a couple years now. What was it that finally got everyone into the studio?

Scott Kelly: It was having enough material ready and having everyone available at the same time.

Dan: A few of the songs on the new album made their debut in concert before you recorded them. Does playing these songs out first help when it comes to recording them?

Scott: Absolutely. The songs get refined. We come up with a rough idea of the chords and melody structure and Fred will work up the guitar leads. By playing them live, we find out what worked and what didn't and come up with the final format. The arrangements really get tweaked, as we experiment with them.

For example, if you just listen to Fred's solo on "Secrets of the Snow Globe", his solo is amazing. When we first started playing that song live, that wasn't the solo that he played on it, but now it will be.

Dan: What was the first song written for the album?

Scott: The first song conceived for this album is one that we call "The Happy Song". This was a song that we started working on in 2016 with just me, Sharon and Fred. We banged it out with the drummer that we had at the time. In the two years this song has been around, we could not come up with a name for it. Any time that we would play it for someone, they would always remark what a "happy song" it was. It just stuck. It is sort of a running joke within the band that our songs have four or five names internally here. We tried to come up with a name for it, but "The Happy Song" just stuck.

Dan: Describe the creative process that went into this. Do you write all of the songs beforehand? Or is any of it done in the studio?

Scott: Both. The way it works most of the time is that I will develop the melodies, the chord structures and most of the lyrics. Sharon will then work me over with the lyrics.

Sharon Kelly: He puts too many words in each line. [Laughs]

Scott: I'm not a singer, Sharon sings a lot of these and she will tell me where I need to rearrange and edit the lyrics without losing the spirit or the story. I'll record all of it on my keyboards and Sharon works on the vocals with me and then the next person in the process is always Fred. My writing style is more prog rock/Broadway and a lot of our songs need that metal edge. Fred puts all that on top of what I come up with.

Sharon: He and Fred have a very unique writing ability that they share together. They are just a really great writing team.

Scott: I've tried writing with other people, and it doesn't work the same as it does with Fred. Together we make a great team.  He'll hear things in what I bring him, and ideas immediately come into his head. Fred lays down all of the guitar work on the melodies that I gave him. Then it goes to John O.Reilly and Greg Smith and we determine what the final arrangement is going to look like.

Sometimes, we finish way in advance before we get to the studio. Other times, some songs don't get finished until we are actually in the studio to record. Like the song "Midnight Noel" on the new album. That was around in my head for a couple years without me bringing it to anyone. We wrote it in one day, rehearsed it that evening and recorded it the next day. And even that - while we were recording it, Greg remarked how he would love to hear some organ on it. Our engineer chimed in about Deep Purple and I immediately thought of "Highway Star".  With that in mind, I worked in an organ solo that fit in with the song, recorded it in one take and it came out great.

Sharon: When we were originally putting that song together, we envisioned the flute carrying the "First Noel" lead. When we did it that way, it just didn't sound right and didn't sound heavy enough. We flipped it and Fred played the lead on guitar. Allowing us the freedom to make moves like that in the studio is critical to how our songs come out.

Scott: "Midnight Noel" is a great example of that. We recorded the whole thing with flute carrying the lead and without the organ part and it came out a bit too "pop" for our tastes. We do try and keep our songs commercial enough to get airplay, but this one felt too far that way. So, we re-worked it until it came out how you hear it.

Dan: Even though Greg Smith has been the bass player in the band for several years now, this is the first Wizards album that he has recorded on. Additionally, this is the first album with drummer John O.Reilly on board. These two have played and recorded together before with Rainbow and Joe Lynn Turner. What was the recording experience like with these two in the band?

Sharon: Too much fun! [Laugh]

Scott: [Laughs] Very true. They know each other so well musically. They are so tight together; our engineer was loving it because they would be done in a take or two.

Dan: We've already talked about "The Happy Song" and "Midnight Noel". Let's take a look at the rest of the music on The Christmas Dream. “Secrets of the Snow Globe”, the album opener, though five minutes in length, feels like a mini-epic with a few different movements that make up the song. It kicks off with sort of a haunting intro with keys and Sharon’s wordless vocal lines before it moves into the vocal portion, and then into this prog-metal instrumental section led by Fred’s fiery guitar work, before moving back to the vocal portion to wrap the song up. There is no real chorus to the song either. Can you talk about how that song was constructed and came about? It feels like something that could have become a 12-minute song a la Dream Theater or Yes.

Scott: [Laughs] It easily could've been. And it almost did. [Laughs]

Sharon: The vocal intro to "Secrets of the Snow Globe" was actually something we were going to use in "Spirit of Christmas" at one point. We eventually took it out, but always had that in the back of our heads.

Scott: "Secrets of the Snow Globe" went through many different iterations over time, and for a while was known as a song called "Avalanche". At the time that I was writing it, I wanted to showcase Sharon's phenomenal range. I also had the band Nightwish, who we love, in mind as we composed the song. Because this is the opener to the show and it is taking you inside the snow globe, we needed that eeriness of the intro. Once inside the globe, she tells the story of what the snow globe is about and that it keeps these secrets inside about Christmas. Then the prog metal piece is the journey as you are flying from place to place inside the snow globe. That was what I was thinking of as I wrote it. It could have gone into many additional directions, which it did for a while [Laughs]

Dan: “Handel’s Torch”, the instrumental rocker that comes up next has some elements of Hallelujah Chorus mixed in there, as well as some bits of other classical melodies mixed in. It also features some prominent flute and guitar interplay. How fun is this one to play?

Scott: We haven't played it live yet, but I suspect that this will be a blast to play in concert. We had so much fun playing it as we learned and recorded it.

Sharon: I envision a lot of things for that song.

Scott: I got the initial lick of this song from "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella", but no one else besides me hears it when we play it. [Laughs] I then melded it to the Hallelujah Chorus, and it came out great. When I brought it to the band the first time, everyone was all over it. I told the band that I really envisioned it with a groove like Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" and the band really took to it and it is one that we are really proud of.

Dan: “Gonna Snow” is one of your more playful songs, getting away from the heaviness and complexity a bit. This one seemed to get a pretty fun reaction when you played this live.

Scott: It really got in there as a place-fitter in the storyline of the show. We set things up with that "Special Feeling" and you're in a snow globe, so it's gonna snow! And it also set up for the first time it snows on us in the show.

Sharon: It's just a fun, radio-friendly song.

Dan: “Polar Eve” is one of my favorite songs from the album. It is a bit different and the longest piece on the album. It brings to mind a Nightmare before Christmas-feel when I hear it, with its angular melodies and halting pace. What is this song about and where did this come from?

Scott: The melody and some of the lyrics just came to me in the middle of the night. I came down to the piano and started putting it together. That Nightmare Before Christmas vibe is there mainly because of the great record producer, Johnny Z, who we worked with for some time. I had never seen the movie and Johnny just loves it. At his urging, we sat down and watched it, so "Thank you, Johnny Z". I don't totally get the movie, but I was looking for a song about Santa and the North Pole and I gained some inspiration from the movie. As I was working on the melody, what was going through my head was "Dasher, Dancer, Donner...", all the reindeer. I changed the melody just enough to fit them in.

Dan: Karl Scully of the Irish Tenors sings this. Sounds like he really embraced this, with his nuances and phrasing. This had to be some new territory for him?

Sharon: Yes, it is. But he is such a professional and really did an amazing job.
(L-R): Fred Gorhau and Karl Scully
Photo courtesy Jeff Smith of ReflectionsNYC

Scott: Karl does just a great job on delivering on that song. One minute he is singing operas in New York City and then we bring him here and he does something completely different. He loves it though and he says that it has expanded his ability.

Dan: On your self-titled album, the band tackled the original Christmas story of Christ’s birth with “Once Long Ago”. Now you revisit that time period but with a little twist with “Four Kings”. Who knew that there was a fourth king and that they were a band?

Sharon: Only in Scott's world.

Scott: That's true. The story has been told a million times, and there are always the unsung heroes that are in the background. Did the shepherds get credit in there? Do the kings get much credit? I started thinking about the band, and you have the road crew who are the unsung heroes. If it wasn't for the road crew, the show wouldn't happen. I wanted to put the Fourth King up as the roadie. Ted, the fourth king, is the sound man. He's what is making it happen. If you listen to the lyrics, "Ted mixed the sound to spicen the taste" and he's rolling up the cables and setting up the amps. He is helping to put on the show for the stars of the show, the Three Kings, but none of it would've happened without him. I was just trying to be playful.

Dan: Obviously you are having some fun with this, but any trepidation injecting some humor into the holiest of stories?

Sharon: No, I think because in our set, we do have some somber moments and some very serious songs. I think it balances it out. Our first set is quite serious. "Gonna Snow" and "Four Kings" are a nice break with some fun, as is "Nutrocker" when we throw that in there.

Dan: Did you write this with vocalist Vinny Jiovino in mind? Like 'Once Long Ago", this is a real tour-de-force for his vocals.

Scott: I did, actually. I wrote it specifically for Vinny to sing.

Dan: Some of the lines between the verses, like “Hey Ted, Don’t forget those microphone cables, you know we got to tell a story, don’t you?” are real fun – did they come later?

Scott: Vinny created those with Tony Gaynor. During the show, it becomes this whole shtick and they thought there should be some rap in between the verses. Vinny played with them a bit and we decided to leave them in when we did the recording.

(L-R): Vinny Jiovino and Tony Gaynor
Photo courtesy Eletra Johansen
Dan: In concert, you pair this song with “Once Long Ago” as narrator Tony Gaynor urges lead vocalist Vinny Jiovino to tell the audience the “whole story” in what is one of the more comical exchanges on stage. Is any of that scripted?

Sharon: They came up with that on the fly and it just worked. But it's never the same every night, whatever they are feeling during the show, they go with.

Scott: It is a lot of fun. The band is just basically riffing while those two go at it. Some nights, it's gotten to like three minutes of them joking around with that and we have to signal, like "Hey guys, let's go". But it is a real fun exchange.

Dan: “In Plain Sight” tackles the tough subject of homelessness and encourages us to see life through their eyes. Why is that important? And why on a Christmas-themed album?

Scott: It ties it back to the first Christmas. If you listen to the beginning melody, its "Silent Night" but in a minor key. As I was writing this, I started thinking about how the Holy Family were homeless. They were supposed to be included in the census. They get there and they don't have any money, there's no room at the inn. Someone out of kindness took them in, even though it was a stable, it was someplace to be. I took "Silent Night" and put it in a minor key to make it more somber. It's not in the saddest of all keys, D minor, [Laughs] but rather A minor. It also hearkens back to how we started this band, which was to help the food pantry.

Dan: This song of course features Vinny once again, but also marks the debut of Alexis Smith on backing vocals. Tell me about Alexis, as she is new to the band.

Sharon: She does the chorus with me to make it stronger. She is a wonderful singer and I really enjoyed working with her in the studio. During the tour, she will be singing the lead on the "How did they get to this place?" part of the song as well as "Gonna Snow" and a few others.

Dan:  "A Christmas Dream (Salzburg Carol)" – I understand this is an arrangement of My Favorite Things that you have personally been playing for quite some time?

Scott:  I've been playing it for at least 20 years.  It is just an arrangement that I have been playing personally, mixing "My Favorite Things" with "Carol of the Bells".  We decided to flesh it out and add the other instrumentation.  We also beefed it up with probably sixty tracks of horns and bells, etc.

Sharon: Scott and I spent a lot of time in the studio after he and Fred came together on that song. We added horns, bells, that violin riff, the flute part. There are so many layers to it, but we think it came out so beautiful.

Dan:  Why do you think "My Favorite Things" has become a piece of music so associated with Christmas?  It certainly didn't start out that way.

Scott: It didn't, but The Sound of Music used to be shown on TV around Christmas time for many years, so for us personally, it is a song that we just wound up singing and playing around Christmas. Of course, it also has lyrical references to sleigh bells and snowflakes and The Reader's Digest book of the best Christmas songs always included it. We call it "The Salzburg Carol" because that is where the story takes place.

Dan: “A Toast to Time (Farewell)” is a very reflective song. Looking back one one’s life and wondering if they would do it all again. Since you write these lyrics, what provoked this one?

Scott: The older that you get, the more retrospective you get. You've been through so much in your life, whatever your life experiences have been, good, bad or indifferent. Personally, I do it throughout the year, but specifically at Christmas time it becomes something that many of us do. A tradition that Sharon and I had was that once the Christmas tree was all decorated and we had all of the presents under the tree and the kids were asleep, we would sit and think about what the last year delivered to us? What will the new year bring us? And then we tied it into "Auld Lang Syne".

Dan:  It is a really pretty song, but a very stark arrangement; just piano and vocals.  Was there any thought to bringing the full band in?

Sharon:  No, I feel the song would lose its intense emotional impact if it was performed by the full band.

Scott: In our show, it gets included in the encore. You come out of "Spirit of Christmas" with everybody singing, the band is roaring, people are on their feet. For us to go right into "A Toast to Time" is almost a complete shutdown of that and an emotional moment that the audience really enjoys. We see so many in the crowds with tears running down their cheeks. We also tie it into remembrances with famous people that were lost over the year and also family members that passed. We make it personal for the band. 

Dan:  I know songwriters are often hesitant to pick a favorite, but is there a song on here that you feel especially strongly about? Maybe it was the most fun? Or happiest on how it came out?

Scott:  "Handel's Torch" is the most fun to play, for sure. I'm proud of "Secrets of the Snowglobe", just from what we delivered as a band in that song. Sharon's vocals and Fred's guitar playing over top of that, the prog madness that is happening in there as a band.  That is probably the most musically intensive song, while "The Christmas Dream (Salzburg Carol)" is the most complex.

Sharon: I think as a band, everyone just delivered on this album. I can't say enough about Fred and his writing and playing. And of course, John and Greg have added so much. Greg writes such tasty bass lines to our songs. This is probably the strongest that we have ever been.

Dan: Now that the band has its third album out, how do you look back on the others?

Scott:  Looking back to the self-titled album, I sometimes cringe knowing how we have progressed as a band.  The songs are good, but we didn't have the money or experience yet to deliver the way we do now.  If we take into account the band's musicianship, tightness and maturity, if we were to go in and re-record that album, it would sound so much better.   

Sharon: I think every artist goes through that though, the growing pains. I am proud of all the albums, but if we were to record some of those older songs, they would reflect how we play today.

Dan: I feel with songs like “Polar Eve” and “The Four Kings”, the band is taking musical chances and stretching beyond its comfort zone. Would you agree?

Sharon:  I think that since The Magic of Winter, our albums portray a wide variety of musical styles.  That is definitely felt on the new one for sure. Contemporary, progressive rock, a little bit of rockabilly with "Four Kings", some metal.

Scott: I think that's what makes The Wizards, The Wizards. We do take chances on things and are not afraid to go into those different directions.

Dan:  Will the 2019 tour include many of the new songs?

Scott:  All of the songs except for one will be part of the setlist this year.  Along with many songs from our two previous albums of course.  That is always the challenge as you record more - what fits into the show and story and how does it work out timing-wise?

Dan:  Over the last couple of years, the band has added a few new members. Last year, John O.Reilly came on board for the tour and then went into the studio to record the new album. What does John bring to the band?

Scott: He is one of the nicest guys we have ever met. And as a drummer, he brings a level of precision that we had never consistently had before.

Dan: The word is that your band has had its share of musicians inquiring on openings. Steve Brown, guitarist known for his work in Trixter and Def Leppard, came on board this year. How did you know that he would be right for the Wizards?

Sharon:  He was recommended to us and we went to one of his gigs to see and meet him.  There was definitely a connection right away.

Scott: Steve had come to see us when he first got the Def Leppard gig, I think in 2014, and told us how much he loved the music and the show. I never forgot that. Now we went to see him, and we listened to his playing style that will fit in with what we do.  Plus, he came highly recommended by several people.

Dan:  Let's talk about a Wizards of Winter show. How has the show evolved over the years? What can a fan expect?

Scott:   This year will be the biggest production that we have had on any of our tours, though nothing compared to our friends in TSO.  Production is not the main focus of our shows, but we have introduced some video elements and new lights and some other fun stuff that complements our music.

Sharon: This will be our third year with Abner Torres of Out of Darkness Designs. He and Scott have mapped things out to a greater extent than years passed.

Scott: Our story is always the same, in terms of going in search of the true meaning of Christmas, but it has evolved and matured to the point that I think how the story transitions and the emotional feel comes across will be the best this year.

Dan: The Wizards’ concerts often get compared favorably to early TSO performances, before they added their big production elements. Would you say that is accurate?

Scott: We do and that is a compliment. The early TSO tours are much different than today's and we are much different from what they do today. We're not as "staged" as their shows. In many ways, particularly as they incorporated their giant video screens and play to a click, they became a soundtrack to a movie. There is no room for any flexibility or improvisation at all. And that's fine for them. That's just not us. We play more as a band.

Scott Kelly, in a moment of levity
Photo courtesy Jeff Smith of ReflectionsNYC
Dan:  One thing that The Wizards also do is poke fun at itself, which TSO would never do, whether it’s Tony’s fun interactions on stage or a certain keyboardist going into grinch-mode. Do you enjoy keeping it light?

Scott: Oh yes. Christmas is all about fun. If people are spending money to see us play, they should leave with a smile on their face and their heart lifted. Plus, we're not trying to be rock stars, we're trying to have fun and put on a great show.

Sharon: We have serious songs and serious moments, but when we have a chance, we like to take advantage of it and have some fun and be spontaneous.

Dan: One of the noticeable differences is that while your show has a narrative arc, your albums do not. You fit your songs into the live story.

Scott: We intentionally write like that because I didn't want to be trapped in a story. I wanted our overall story theme to be the same each year, but where do we go and how do we get there and what do we see is always different.

Dan: What are some of the challenges of touring nationwide in a 7 or 8-week time frame?

Scott: Long hours on the bus. We try to cover the geography with one band that acts like Mannheim Steamroller and TSO do with two.

Sharon: We so appreciate our fans and we do feel bad when we cannot get to their town. We see their comments and messages and emails asking why we aren't playing in their area.

Scott: What fans don't always understand is that we go where the promoters and agents send us. We would love to go back to some of the cities that have embraced us, but if there is not an invitation or if it doesn't route well, then it just doesn't happen. It is the same for all bands, I suppose, but we are locked in to playing in a certain time frame around the holidays.

Dan:  You’re operating in the independent universe, with no major labels and A&R people. Is there a certain freedom in that? And is there a hindrance to that?

Scott:  Both.  The hindrance is that it is hard to rise above the noise level to get noticed. With Sharon and I, this is our tenth year into the band, and we have put countless hours, all of our heart and soul to make it what it is today.  There is no financial investment coming from outside the band, there is no management. We have the flexibility of decision-making, but you have the responsibility and financial burden that comes along with that.

Dan: Scott, you wear a lot of hats in the band. Songwriter, keyboardist, musical director. In the ten years of The Wizards, how have you evolved in those roles? Have you learned to share yet?

Scott: When we first started this, I didn't understand the music business as a business. I have become really educated in the business side of things and what it takes for a band and a tour of this magnitude to get on the road. I like to control things, but I have learned to share. In the beginning, I did it all, but I eventually shared more with Sharon because the load became too much to handle. On the songwriting side of things, I have gotten a lot better. I had never really written songs before until we set out to create an album; I didn't know I had it in me. Though the earlier songs are good in their way, I feel the material I am writing now is stronger.

We do get offers from high level management companies that want to come in and manage the band. We also get offers from people that want to invest financially in the band. It becomes tough for us to loosen up enough to let things like that happen. Not so much giving up some control but being forced out of something that you spent the last ten years building. This has been a family project, with our daughters being involved in many aspects as well. It has grown and matured to the point that we probably can't handle it all ourselves anymore. What does the next step look like? I'm not sure. We're in the good problems to have/serious growing pains stage.

Dan: Have you looked past the 2019 tour yet? Any plans for what might be next musically?

Scott: Over the years, we have talked a lot about doing a project outside of the Christmas season. It's been tough to get people that want or are able to do it. Every year that we talk about it, everyone winds up with other commitments. This is the first time that I have a group that seriously want to do something in the off-season. I have some ideas, but I don't fully know what it is going to be yet. So, we'll explore that after the tour is over. Beyond that, there is always the talk of splitting into two bands for Christmas since we get enough offers and just can't accept them all. That is not something that we have seriously considered yet, but the conversation happens.

Dan: Well thank you for taking the time to chat about the new album and tour.

Scott: Anytime. Thanks for making the trip.

For more information:

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Stream the new album:
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