TCB Exclusive: Melanie Penn Talks Re-Imagining Holiday Music With 'Immanuel The Folk Sessions'

Singer/songwriter Melanie Penn recently released her second Christmas project Immanuel The Folk Sessions. Produced by Ben Shive (Mercy Me, Brandon Heath, Ellie Holcomb), Penn delivers all original songs based on the Christmas story, recorded with a bluegrass twist. Penn’s six-song EP is the fourth studio collaboration between Penn and Shive. The Arcadian Wild band and Nashville players provided backup for the songs, which features mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar and a rhythm section. Immanuel The Folk Sessions can be purchased at all digital music outlets today. Melanie recently took a few minutes to talk with us about her hopes for the collection and crafting the sound of this new collection.

Congratulations on your upcoming holiday release, Immanuel The Folk Sessions. When did you first feel the desire to put out a new Christmas collection?
Thank you! Recording these songs was a dream come true on many levels. The first Immanuel album came out in 2017 and was received so well. So, for the last two years I've dreamt of reimagining those songs and writing new ones. All of the Immanuel songs are original, written from the perspectives of characters in the Christmas narrative. Also Immanuel: The Folk Sessions is the first album I've ever recorded live in-studio. Another dream! Capturing real-time moments with such wonderful musicians like The Arcadian Wild, Marcus Hill, Dwan Hill, and Matt Pierson feels like a real career highlight. 

What inspired you to write the songs from the perspective of the angels?
There are two songs on Immanuel: The Folk Sessions from the perspective of angels! There's a song for Gabriel and a song for the entire angel chorus.
When I'm asked about where the inspiration for Immanuel came from, there's never an obvious answer. The idea just appeared in my head like a flicker of light. I feel that the Immanuel songs were always supposed exist in the world and be presented. Somehow by God's grace, I got to be the one to write them. It's a privilege I don't take lightly.

How did you balance the desire to stay true to traditional Christmas sounds while also bringing your own flavor to these tracks? 
That's a great question. Hopefully, the musical approach is very pure, with a very ‘major sound.’ That major chord sound becomes important during the Christmas season. There's not a lot of harmonic complexity or melodies that stay unresolved on Immanuel. It's certainly a celebratory time of year so I wanted the songs to have that joyous quality.

What message do you hope listeners take away from this collection? 
Even for long-time Christians, it's easy to take the Christmas story for-granted, especially in Western cultures where we are bombarded with Christmas music, decorations, movies and the commercialization of the season. But the unbelievable way Christ's birth happened should never escape us. Jesus could have come to earth in spectacular fashion, with the whole earth at attention (and one day He will). But on that night back then - the first Christmas - He chose to come to earth in a very human way, and touch normal people like us. I hope that these songs help open peoples' imaginations to the Christmas story so they encounter it again. 

Who or what were your biggest influences in creating these new original songs? 
I have a background in musical theater / Broadway musicals so that experience probably influenced me a lot. A musical is basically a collection of songs from different characters' perspectives - by the end of the story you know what each character might think or feel. So, the form of the musical itself definitely influenced Immanuel

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions? 
Strolling Fifth Avenue and looking at the store windows. 

What are your biggest hopes personally and professionally as we prepare to enter into the new year? 
In 2020, I'm releasing an entire project. It's a pop album that Cason Cooley, Ben Shive and I spent a year making. We'll release the songs on the first of every month starting in February, with a story and visuals to go with each song. We can't wait! I aspire to sing well into my old age and for as many people as possible.

[Lead photo by Sasha Arutyunova]