An Exclusive Interview with 'Mr. Christmas' - Greenwich Native Rob Mathes Heads Home For Holiday Concerts

What better way to celebrate this joyous season then to attend a Holiday Concert by Greenwich’s own Rob Mathes, an Emmy award-winning and Grammy and Tony-nominated musician, composer and arranger who - for the 24th year in a row - happens to be returning to his hometown to rock in the holidays!

Rob Mathes is Sting's producer and works with top musicians arranging, producing, directing, recording, and performing with the likes of Bono, Bennett, 21 Pilots, Panic! At the Disco, Leslie Odom, Jr., Josh Abbott, Springsteen, Yo Yo Ma and more. But despite his busy schedule, he returns to the New York area each year to perform his spectacular holiday concerts and it’s always a treat to have this Greenwich, Connecticut, native “home” for the holidays.

What can you expect? The annual Rob Mathes Holiday Concerts are a combination of funk- and R&B-laden original tunes, holiday classics, and audience favorites certain to put you in the spirit of the season. He'll be joined on stage with his amazing band that includes bassist Will Lee of the Fab Faux and the David Letterman Orchestra; guitarist Billy Masters who has worked with Suzanne Vega; drummer Joe Bonadio who works with Sting; horn players from the Rolling Stones, vocalists Vaneese Thomas and James D-Train Williams and a choir of “Saints and Friends.”

Rob Mathes, who is lovingly referred to as “Mr. Christmas” by Vanessa Williams, will be rockin' in the holidays with his annual Rob Mathes Holiday Concert with three shows in the New York City area: December 15, 16 & 17. Links to purchase tickets can be found further down on this page.

  

Pam Grunow of Living Greenwich had the good fortune to sit down to an interview with Rob Mathes in anticipation of his upcoming Holiday Concerts. This was their conversation:

Tell us about your early musical influences

I had a pretty great childhood. My dad was a wonderful classical musician and band teacher, my mom was a classical pianist, my uncle loved jazz and played in a big band, and my aunt played in the New York City Opera and in the Greenwich Symphony for many years.

I got Sinatra, Count Basie, Duke Ellington from my uncle. From my mom I got the classical influence and my dad was a band teacher so I got that as well.

I love edgy music, I love Lou Reed, Darker Dylan - and Radio Head is probably my favorite band. But as a writer, particularly writing holiday music, I inevitably tend to write warmer music. It’s hard to have grown up in my world and write edgy music. I do embrace a certain melancholy and darkness because I’m a writer and we tend to be sensitive so that comes out in some of my music. That’s what you hear in William the Angel - the sense of this poor angel with a broken wing who can’t get a break.

What was Christmas like growing up in the Mathes household?

Well as you can imagine it was unbelievable. That was the focal point of the year. December 25 in my home was the most important day of the year. It was a day when my parents were determined to see their kids smile to the point of breaking their face.

For my mom and my dad, the message of the holiday is celebrating the story of the birth of a baby who comes into the world as a inspired revolutionary who teaches turning the other cheek and living a life of grace and love. Whatever your religious beliefs, it is a great story.

What was the catalyst that inspired the first Holiday Concert?

Well, I tried for about 10 years to get a record deal as a singer songwriter. I always thought I would be a singer songwriter. The one thing that always held me back was that I loved too many styles of music. I had grown up around a jazz loving uncle, a bassoonist playing, opera loving aunt, my dad would play Dylan in the front room, my mom is teaching Chopin. So that’s what I knew.

You cannot get a record deal unless you have a particular sound. Every artist we really love has a single sound. If you go to the Holiday Concert you will definitely hear a Rob Mathes ‘thing’. There are these kind of rich chords, a harmonic approach and a kind of yearning to the melodies. But still, from a record company’s standpoint, I wasn’t this hot guy and I just wrote music in a bunch of different styles.

If I were a record producer, I wouldn’t have signed me either. They couldn’t figure out which chart to put me on. So I kind of gave up and realized that wasn’t my destiny. Maybe I’m meant to do a bunch of arrangements for other people, musically direct, be more of a behind the scenes guy.

So, one Christmas I decided to just go nuts out of a protest in a sense. I thought, I’m gonna write a Christmas song cycle where I allow myself to do anything I want to do. The main tune we started the concert with, ‘When the Baby Grew Up’, has a blues feel from my love of Bruce Coburn and Sonny and Brownie McGhee. I wrote choral chords to some songs from my love of choral music.

If you listen to each of these individual songs you will hear Rob Mathes, there is a voice, there is a lyrical approach but I’m using brass instruments, choral instruments, I’m using different styles. I thought, if I’m not getting a record deal, I’m just gonna write a bunch of Christmas music and play it with my friends. And that’s what birthed the Christmas concert.

How has the Holiday Concert evolved?

As the years went on and my career grew and I met extraordinary artists, the concert expanded from this scrappy kid writing Christmas songs. The first venue was 2nd Congregational Church in Greenwich and it was more Christian centered and called The Christmas Concert.

A few years later I met this great musical genius Rabbi Mark Golub. So I began writing Hanukkah tributes to him. I went over to his house and I asked him to teach me everything about this holiday. Some of the best songs I’ve written in the past ten years are these Hanukkah songs.

Then I started writing arrangements for these horn guys I get every year. One horn guy is from the Rolling Stones, there is a guy from Paul Simons band that plays every year, Nile Rogers’ lead trumpet player is my second trumpet player. This led me to write sweeping swing songs, we have a Duke Ellington version of the Dreidel Song. Now we are playing at the Purchase Art Center and that’s just great.

What can people expect from this year’s Holiday Show?

People can expect new music and some deep and joyous performances. I hope they enjoy my swing version of “I Saw Three Ships Coming Sailing In”. I wrote a choral piece about the feeling we all have about the world right now. I hope people leave with a tear in their eye, hope in their hearts and a smile.

How does it feel to be asked to direct events such as the Kennedy Center Honors, or President Obama’s inaugural concert or the Pope’s concert at Madison Square Garden?

The great thing about resumes is, when you’re feeling down and you’ve done a fair amount of decent things in your life, you can look back and say ‘wow I’ve done some pretty cool stuff’. But while I’m doing the work, my concern is that the people who are employing me and the artists I’m working with get what they need out of me.

I’m not star struck when I’m working, I know why I am there. I’m a good musician and I work hard on my craft. When I am working with Sting or Springsteen, I’m their peer at that point. I’m not in awe, they are just people who are very good at what they do. That being said, the level of awe at some of my jobs often comes in retrospect because when I’m in the middle of a job I’m really just trying to hit the ball out of the park.

Rob - thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. Can't wait to see the concert this weekend.

  

Concerts this year are:

Performing Arts Center - December 15 and 16, 2017, 8:00 p.m.
Friday, December 15, and Saturday, December 16, 8:00 p.m., at the Performing Arts Center at Purchase College (PAC), 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, New York.

Tickets for the concert are $40-$75 and available through the PAC Box Office at 914-251- 6200 or online at artscenter.org.

Click Here To Purchase Tickets

  

Schimmel Center - December 17, 2017, 3:00 p.m.
Sunday, December 17, 3:00 p.m., at the Schimmel Center, 3 Spruce Street, New York, New York.

Tickets start at $29 and are available online at schimmelcenter.org or by calling 212-346-1715.

Click Here To Purchase Tickets

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