Among the songs that inspired Ingeborg von Agassiz’s new holiday album is a 16th century choral carol, 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, is about King Herod’s rule that all male children 2 and younger living near Bethlehem must be murdered — an attempt to, in the process, kill Christ. While she didn’t include the actual song “Coventry Carol” on the follow-up to “O Giver of Dreams,” she did name the album — billed as offering the “bleak side of Christmas” — “Coventry Carols.”
“I just didn’t have time,” she said of including the track that jump-started the album.
This new collection, which dropped on Friday and is available for streaming, is a 10-song mix that includes a version of “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” a nod to ghostly young chimney sweeps, and a tune that considers what the narrator wants from, not for, Christmas. It’s the second album by Ingeborg von Agassiz, the electronic/looping local artist whose debut was described by a News Tribune reviewer as being “one of the best locally made albums in the history of locally made albums.”
And that was just the reviewer’s warm-up.
“(O Giver of Dreams) seems as if it’s been beamed in from some parallel Duluth where an idiosyncratic musician working totally on her own can produce a world-class collection of songs that one could imaging finding a much larger audience almost without hype, almost solely on the strength of the artistic vision that brought it into being," Tony Bennett wrote in his 2018 critique. “But that parallel Duluth actually exists, and we’re living in it."
Her intent with her latest album: something that speaks to the darkness of the season.
Before Ingeborg von Agassiz fully emerged as the act named for Hildegard von Bingen and Eleanor of Aquitane in addition to her great-grandmother and the region of Minnesota where she was born, she played her first show — a night of creepy Christmas covers with the loops and beats she would become known for.
“I like performing songs in my own way,” she said.
Ingeborg von Agassiz is a church accompanist who, a while back, noticed that a lot of the music of Advent was dark and spooky. 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 instance, “Walking in the Air,” a song from the soundtrack of the 1982 British silent movie “The Snowman.”
“It’s so absolutely, hauntingly beautiful,” she said.
She will point back to the holiday season of yesteryear, even pre-Scrooge, when Christmas was already a time for ghost stories.
A 2016 Smithsonian magazine story quotes a religious studies professor from the University of Pennsylvania.
“The darkest day of the year was seen by many as 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 final half of the album, which meant working around the clock and burning a balsam fir candle so it would 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 creeping down the chimney, but tune-wise, could emerge from the depths of a basement.
“I chose it because it’s in the beginning piano books,” she said. “You can literally play the melody on the black keys. I rewrote the melody a little 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 90% original tunes. “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 pageant.
Along the way, there are lights in the dark, spirits and shadows, gothic choirs, doom and madness and angels. It’s the lyrics, she said, that make it a holiday album.
“You’ve got to mention some of the stereotypical things, right?” Ingeborg von Agassiz said, then referenced a joke she had made on Twitter.
“I made a Christmas album and just realized I forgot to use sleigh bells on any of the tracks,” she had tweeted.