Jose Mari Chan explains why “Christmas in Our Hearts” is an earworm.
WORDS SAM L. MARCELO | PHOTOGRAPHY JONATHAN BALDONADO
Jose Mari Chan is aware of your viral memes. He knows that when September rolls around, Photoshop-happy netizens transplant his head onto Ned Stark’s body, or onto a White Walker’s, or onto Thanos’s (or, more precisely, Jose Mari Chanos’s). “I’m the gap between the millennials and the ancients,” he said. “I don’t know who makes them up. Some are a bit clever, like that Game of Thrones one. In general, the memes help promote the song so I thank them.”
We all know “the song” he’s referring to: “Christmas in Our Hearts,” that infectious earworm he’s obligated to sing regardless of what month it is. “Even if I do concerts in April or May,” he said, without a hint of peevishness. Mr. Chan had just flown in from China during the time of the interview and was preparing to fly out again to Australia and Canada for a string of concerts. Seated by a Steinway Model M piano, the very same one where he composed “Minsan Pa,” he narrated the beginnings of his runaway Christmas hit. “In 1988, I got a call from an old friend from my college days—Chari Cruz-Zarate. It was her high school silver jubilee and she wanted me to set to music a poem she had written for their homecoming. The poem was entitled ‘Ang Tubig Ay Buhay.’ I was inspired to compose a melody to it and I did so in less than a week.” The story of “Christmas in Our Hearts” is one he’s used to telling. The details are well-worn by now: how he shelved the tune, brought it back out two years later when his record producer Bella Dy-Tan suggested that he put together a Christmas album; how a budding songwriter by the name of Rina Cañiza tapped on the windshield of his car on a Sunday morning and said she wanted to collaborate; how both Lea Salonga and Monique Wilson almost did backing vocals but for one reason or another, couldn’t (Ms. Salonga because the label didn’t want her to; Ms. Wilson because she lost her voice); and how his daughter Liza, then a student at Ateneo, came to the rescue and learned the song overnight.
How do you explain the success of “Christmas in Our Hearts”?
It’s partly due to its melodic structure. The verse starts out in a minor mode—which is Filipino and Oriental—then the refrain turns into a major mode, which is Western. This combination is interesting—very few songs do this. Also, the melody itself is lilting, very easy to learn, very easy to hum, very catchy. Kids take to it as soon as they hear it. Internal rhymes are also very important. It was Rina who came up with the first line (“Whenever I see girls and boys / Selling lanterns on the streets”). I came up with the second (“I remember the Child / In the manger as He sleeps”). It’s not a perfect rhyme but it’s there.
Tell us about your songwriting process.
When I compose, the melodies almost always come first. I compose in the car, on the plane, or at work, without any musical instruments. I hear a basic melody in my head. “Tell Me Your Name” may have come from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. [Mr. Chan is referring to the five-note sequence used to communicate with aliens in the Steven Spielberg film.]
When the song is ready, I get an arranger and I tell him how I’d like to hear it so he can instrumentalize it.
When writers are given deadlines, they come out with their best work. You work under pressure. I believe that a good song is a marriage between words and music, complementing each other like husband and wife. I’ve heard songs where the melodies are nice but the words somehow don’t fit. I make it a point to that my words and melodies complement each other.
Did you know that you had a hit on your hands with “Christmas in Our Hearts”?
I wasn’t sure. When I presented “Christmas in Our Hearts” to Bella Dy-Tan, she said it sounded too Christian and denominational. She asked me to come up with a romantic Christmas song and in two days, I came up with “A Perfect Christmas.” We played both at a press conference; the radio and TV people chose “Christmas in Our Hearts.” I was happy with that.
Do you ever get tired of singing it?
When I sing this song in concert, especially with a choir or a full orchestra, it can still bring tears to my eyes.
What is your favorite Christmas song?
“Little Christmas Tree” is quite nostalgic. I remember one Christmas eve where I was running a slight fever and so I couldn’t go to midnight mass with my parents and my lola. I had to stay home and “Little Christmas Tree” was playing on the radio. I associate the song with that particular moment.
Are you thinking of releasing another album with your new-found fame as an ambassador for Uniqlo and Shopee?
I still write songs but you probably won’t hear them. The melodies that I come up with now may no longer be relevant to the millennials. I listen to the radio and I hear the type of music they like. I’m afraid my melodies sound old-fashioned to them. Times have changed. Christmas songs are expected to sound old-fashioned. But if I come out with a love song now, the millennials will say that it belongs to the time of their lolos.
Do you still get royalties from “Christmas in Our Hearts”?
Yes, I still get royalties from Filscap [The Filipino Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Inc.], Universal, and Spotify. Sometimes, the royalties I get from radio play are enough to buy me a cup of coffee.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.