Melanie Penn recently dropped a Christmas album, entitled Immanuel. The unique concept of the album was birthed from a single song, “Follow the Star,” written and performed at a Christmas show in New York. “Follow the Star” is a first-person musical narrative of one of the wise men who travelled to Bethlehem.
Other songs followed; each from the perspective of people and angels present at the birth in the manger: a shepherd, the angel Gabriel, Joseph, Mary and the innkeeper. The songs encompass a diverse yet distinct group of individuals. Some saw signs, some had dreams and still others received revelations from angelic beings. In each instance, they were principals to the seminal news – God is with us.
It’s a gorgeous album, full of charm and grace, highlighted by Penn’s crystalline sylph-like voice. HuffPost called Melanie Penn in New York to talk about the genesis of Immanuel as a whole, and “Immanuel The Shepherd’s Song” in particular.
Where did you get the idea for the album?
I don’t have any explanation for how it came to be. The first song appeared out of the blue, the song where one of the wise men is following the star to Bethlehem. I sang it at a Christmas show. I thought it was interesting that the song was so well received. Then a couple of weeks later, I wrote the second song from the perspective of the angels and the angel chorus singing over the shepherd. Then I wrote “The Shepherd’s Song” and realized I had stumbled onto an idea.
I was scheduled to work on a signature singer/songwriter project in Nashville and I sent my producer some of the songs from Immanuel. He listened to the demos and called me and wanted to know when I was coming to Nashville to make this Christmas album. We pushed my singer/songwriter project to 2018 and decided to focus on this instead.
What’s the response been?
I’ve been literally blown away by the response. There are two camps that have responded. The Christian community has been very favorable to it. But for a few days it was number one on the Holiday chart on Amazon, as well as the Christian chart and the Worship chart. So I think the fact that the album is so story-based is making it accessible to people. Because the songs are in the first-person they are very humanizing.
What was the inspiration for “The Shepherd’s Song?” Do you put yourself in character when writing the song?
The shepherd really intrigued me. They were the first people to be asked, “Do you want to go check this out?” So I approached it with a modern sense of being asked the question. I like the song because it’s a conversion story without cheesy lyrics.
What’s your background in music?
I’m a classically trained singer. What I really wanted to do was write songs and make albums, but I was so afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. So I took the Broadway route and spent about eight years in New York doing Broadway national tours, regional theater and off-Broadway shows. And then the creative urge to write songs became too strong. I couldn’t fight my fear any longer. I stepped away from musical theater and decided to devote myself to songwriting. I made my first album and it was well-received and I really didn’t know what to do with that because I didn’t expect anything to happen with it.
Tell me about the video.
What I wanted to convey with the video was that whether you believe the story or not, Christmas is a time of goodwill. I wanted to present the idea of a gift being passed from person to person through the city, a story parallel to the shepherd’s narrative.
The video is splendid. Who directed the video? Did you do it yourself?
No, a friend of mine directed it. James Cernero is his name. The director of photography is Nick Dabas, and the assistant director is Elina Street.