Soul revival singer-songwriter and Monophonics lead singer Kelly Finnigan was sitting around one day listening to the Sacred Four’s old gospel-funk song “Someone’s Watching You.” The “someone” is meant to refer to God—it’s a religious song, after all. Suddenly, a thought popped into Finnigan’s head—if he tweaked the lyrics, it could be about Christmas.
“I know who else is watching,” Finnigan recalls thinking. “I was in such a mode of Christmas, where my brain was at, a lightbulb just went on.”
Finnigan had Christmas on the brain because he was working on a Christmas album. It was something he talked about doing for years, but didn’t get the time to do it until the pandemic shut down live music. He spent the spring and summer of 2020 obsessing about Christmas, and released the album A Joyful Sound in November of 2020. “Santa’s Watching You” was one of the tracks.
He was hoping to perform the album in its entirety last year at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, but with Covid cases on the rise, the show was a no-go. This year, he debuts the Joyful Sound live show in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles and right here in Santa Cruz at Moe’s Alley on December 16. He’s hoping it will become an annual tradition.
Christmas music can be very polarizing; there are those who can’t get enough of it, and those who loathe walking into Walgreens anytime during November and December. Finnigan is hoping to appeal to both groups. Or at least he hopes the Christmas-music haters give A Joyful Sound a chance. They are all original tunes, with the few covers being old obscure soul songs transformed into Christmas songs, as is the case with “Santa’s Watching You.”
“I like Christmas music—it’s not always done the way I like it,” Finnigan says. “I wanted it to feel like Kelly Finnigan made a true record for himself that is Christmas music. I didn’t want it to make people who know my music look at me sideways and be like, ‘What’s this guy doing?’”
Indeed, the record sounds much in the vein of Finnigan’s prior solo old-school-soul-style record The Tales People Tell.
When Finnigan imagined doing a Christmas record, he wasn’t picturing Bruce Springsteen doing “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” or Mariah Carey singing “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” He thought back to the records his family would listen to when he was a child, by artists like Ray Charles, Mahalia Jackson, BeBe and CeCe Winans and Rotary Connection. He wanted to make a Christmas album in that tradition, “when it was new and exciting to make Christmas music with pop artists, jazz artists and blues artists. They were figuring out they could do this. There was an excitement to the creative process. And that comes through in the performances,” Finnigan says. “Whereas it became popularized. Sometimes those efforts sounded phoned in. Like a producer picks the songs and a singer comes in and just banged that out.”
A Joyful Sound is an emotive, feel-good soul record about Christmas that occasionally dips into the sadness of the season, while maintaining an uplifting tone. “Waiting on the Big Man” is about dreading Christmas because of past trauma attached to the holidays. It also encourages people to focus on love and not on how much they spend on presents.
“This can be a tough time for people, especially what was going on in 2020. There’s some very positive-vibey tunes. But I wanted to not be overly joyous given that this is also a tough time of year for a lot of people,” Finnigan says.
Finnigan is really looking forward to these four shows, and hopes he can hit more cities next year. It’ll be a lot like his normal show—in other words, great live soul coming from a nine-piece band—but with Christmas lyrics.
“I’m not going to dress it up too much. Just playing through the record. Just trying to bring a really good vibe,” Finnigan says. “I’m sure a lot of people that like my music don’t like Christmas music, and maybe I can convince them to come to the show and convert them. It’s just soul music, but I’m singing about Christmas.”
Kelly Finnigan will play at 8:30pm on Thursday, December 16 at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $12/adv, $15/door. (831) 479-1854.