Anthony Hamilton wanted to put his own funky twist on Christmas music. His latest album, Home for the Holidays, features soulful renditions of the rarely-touched holiday classics like James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto,” an Outkast-inspired version of “Little Drummer Boy,” and guest appearances by pop singers Gavin DeGraw and ZZ Ward.
The 15-time Grammy nominee also co-wrote six original holiday songs for the album. “I think Christmas needs my personality,” he tells ESSENCE.com. During a recent visit to ESSENCE, Hamilton expounded on the direction of the album, shared his family’s holiday traditions, and why his greens will have you coming back for seconds.
The minute I heard Home for the Holidays, I thought, ‘Where is Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas”?
You know what, that song has been done so many times that people expect it on a Christmas album. I wanted to stay away from songs that have been done a bunch of time because that’s not a different experience for the listener. I felt like these are other songs that people want to hear.
You do an amazing rendition of James Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto.” That was surprising. There’s also a duet of “The Christmas Song” with Chaka Khan.
Chaka has that classy voice—she can take it and either be jazzy or soulful; whatever you need. She has versatility in her voice. She just lends the right personality to that song.
And why make a Christmas album?
I’ve always wanted to do one. I might even do a Halloween album…[laughs]”Trick or treat…whatever sweet…” But Christmas is one of those times of year that everybody’s involved in, everybody’s affected by it. I have a lot of fans who wanted a new album. And in terms of me putting together a new album, I wasn’t exactly ready. A Christmas album was a good segue into a new Anthony Hamilton album.
Are you a big holiday person?
Yes, holidays are special. Every day is, but with the holidays people really make an extra effort to tell each other, communicate, and to love on each other.
Sometimes you’re on the road during the holidays. What are the ways that you’ve managed to do it?
My band is my family. We’re very close. We love each other and we make it feel special by creating a familiar family environment that. We make the best of it.
What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever gotten?
I’m a really big Ultimate Fighter fan. Once, I got a whole kit; membership, and a punching bag. It was a huge surprise. It’s kind of hard to get a gift for someone who you think has everything. My wife got really creative. Another time I got a barber chair—a real official barber chair. I cut hair so that was a great present.
Can you share a holiday you’ll always remember?
There’s a particular Christmas that stuck out to me. In 2000, my brother-in-law was still alive, and so it was all of us together—my in-laws, all six of my boys, and we were all at my house. The Christmas tree, the stockings; everything was up. Everyone came over to eat, just like all the families from all sides–extended family, adopted family–we all were in one place. It was about everybody coming to one place and just celebrating and being connected to each other.
What’s your favorite Christmas meal?
I love good turkey, garlic mac and cheese, dressing, and yams. I make some of the best greens with Swiss chard, turnip greens, mustard greens, and onions.
What makes your greens so special?
It’s the way I sauté the onions; first in olive oil and then in butter, a little salt, and some extra stuff that I’m not going to tell.
For your greens, are you ham hock, or turkey leg guy?
Sometimes, it’s no meat. If anything, turkey bacon. I haven’t eaten pork in over 20 years. I miss it.
Can your wife co-sign on those greens?
Oh yes, she can.
Anthony Hamilton’s Christmas album, Home for the Holidays, is out now.