We've all done something to pass the time during the tedious months of COVID-19. Perhaps you perfected that sourdough recipe. Or reacquainted yourself with the piano. Or finally took up that home project you've been putting off for years.
Colin Scharf produced an album of Christmas music.
The 35-year-old Mankato musician has always loved holiday music. When he was growing up in upstate New York, his favorite was Bruce Springsteen's rendition of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town." Christmas music signified a world that's magical and beautiful and wonderful.
However, Scharf couldn't stand to hear Christmas music out of season. Christmas music in July? That just made him sad, a reminder of how brief the window is for that magical/beautiful/wonderful season.
A year ago, Robb Murray, then a writer for the Mankato Free Press, came to Scharf with an idea: to produce a Christmas album by local artists, distributed by the Free Press and benefiting Connections homeless shelter in Mankato.
Scharf is connected in the local music community. He's an adjunct English instructor at Minnesota State University, Mankato who also works at Scheitel's Music. Scharf and his wife, Laura Schultz, have a band, Good Night Gold Dust, a high-energy singer-songwriter team with electronica mixed in.
It was in February, around when the pandemic was first growing, when Scharf started buying studio gear and figuring out how to produce his first full-length record. By May, he'd started making the album. It would be 13 Christmas songs — some standards, some originals — recorded by 13 different local artists and bands. Among them: Bee Balm Fields, the Mukamuri Sisters, Generation Gap — a collaboration between Rod Scheitel, the owner of Scheitel's Music, and his 22-year-old grandson, Carter Quast — and Minnesota State's Chamber Singers.
They originally planned a big album release event. When the coronavirus made that impossible, they thought about pushing it back a year.
"But we decided it was even more needed now, because of the pandemic, than it was before," Murray said. "Something to make people happy."
Scharf spent the summer recording and tracking and thinking about Christmas songs. It became a calming feeling to wake up in mid-August with John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" in his head. The last song was "O Holy Night," his wife's ethereal voice floating over soothing electronica. That's Murray's favorite Christmas song. After the album was complete, Scharf invited Murray for a listen. By the end, Murray was hugging Scharf's wife.
"I catch his face and he's just bleary-eyed and sobbing," Scharf said. "That's when I knew we did something right."
The Free Press pressed 250 compact discs of "River City Holiday: A Yuletide Collection of Mankato Music." The discs have sold briskly, and the album is now available digitally on bandcamp. All proceeds — a minimum $7 donation gets you the digital album — go to the homeless shelter.
"I'm getting people left and right asking me, 'Where can I get this?' " Scharf said.
2020 has been tough for everyone. Musicians have been hit especially hard, with live music going mostly dark. One of Scharf's greatest fears is not being able to play music. When past bands have broken up, or when he moved to Mankato and didn't have musical partners, he was inconsolable.
"So enter quarantine: venues closing down, shows getting canceled," Scharf said. "Being able to make this album — well, that's exactly what's made this year be OK for me."