In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, rocker Mark Mallman launched his very first holiday show, “Peace on Earth.” “Once Trump got elected, I’ve started exploring this word inclusive versus exclusive, and realizing that there’s probably a lot of people that want to celebrate the holiday but might not want to celebrate religion,” he tells me. The idea resonated with folks, and Mallman has continued the tradition since, also writing the song “Peace on Earth” with Lazerbeak a year after the first celebration.
“Peace on Earth” captures the spirit of the holidays without a focus on Christmas. Mallman said he figured there were plenty of shows around town that had that covered — so he wanted to do something different. “I thought, well, something that’s around the holidays that’s set in the context of the holidays, that isn’t my normal set, but still focuses on the vibe that I’m at right now,” he says. “Happiness, positivity, and the fuzziness without getting saccharine.”
He also steers clear of the commercialism of the holidays, and religion. “Sometimes when I hear a Christmas song, it makes me think about how certain religions are opposed to a person’s right to choose who they love,” Mallman says. “I’m definitely moving further and further away from traditional ideologies of how and why we exist and focusing more on this moment in time. Instead of the future or the past, or the idea that I was born guilty.”
I chatted with Mallman about his thoughts on Christmas, the holidays, peace, capitalism, and vibing on ant-violence. This Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.
Sheila Regan: So you do a holiday show, but there’s no holiday music in it.
Mark Mallman: Well, there’s no Christmas music.
SR: Yeah. Can you tell me about the difference?
MM: I think if you pull the religion out of Christmas songs and capitalism out of Christmas songs, you get the same spirit. When people say “spirit of the season,” you kind of find the essence of peace and love.
SR: Did you grow up celebrating Christmas?
MM: Oh, yeah. I grew up with a lot of really great Christmas memories. I remember hearing carols and watching TV shows that say Christmas isn’t about money. And then those same TV shows — you see products that are about that show. I felt like the last couple of years have really made me aware of the systemic dissonance that exists within the nature of Christmas. There’s a lot of disguise. There’s a lot of masquerading going on with Christmas songs, where they’re masquerading to be about peace and love, but they’re really capitalist-based.
SR: When you were a kid, did you have a favorite Christmas song?
MM: My favorite Christmas song as a kid was “Silent Night.” I just saw Aby Wolf perform it at the New Standards holiday show, and it was fantastic. I had performed it at this holiday show once and it didn’t vibe with the specificity of this. I’m not anti those songs, I just want to make a holiday show that stands out and there’s just one more experience so people can have multiple experiences around this time of year. People like to say the holidays are about peace and friendship and family and love. That exists beyond the scope of Santa and Jesus. Those two things are convoluted by politics and manipulation. At the core both of those things possibly are about peace and love. I’ve tried to distill it to its essence. I really would love to perform a Bob Marley song, but a lot of those Bob Marley songs have religion in them. So I take them out, because I want this to be secular.
SR: What songs exemplify the vibe you are going for?
MM: “Imagine” does a great job. This year, we’re doing “Fields of Gold,” and “What a Wonderful World.” I don’t want to give away too many. We’ve done Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” in the past. We’ve done “On Melancholy Hill” in the past by Gorillaz. We’ve done a song by Pop Staples called “Friendship,” which is really beautiful. And then guests come and perform songs. It’s interesting to kind of look and see how many Christmas songs there are and how few peace songs there are in comparison. I suppose that’s because the music industry is driven by capitalism as well.
A song like, “Do They Know It’s Christmas time”: I could do an essay on the root of that song. It’s very missionary, in sort of a lot of ways. Again, this show is not anti-religion, it just excludes religion.
SR: When you talk about peace at the end of 2022, what does that specify, particularly for you this year?
MM: I definitely feel that peace extends beyond something that is political. I wrote that book about happiness (Mark Mallman’s book, “The Happiness Playlist, is about his coping strategies after suffering crippling panic attacks following the death of his mother). And I think there’s a place after happiness — that would be calm and inner peace and oneness with the universe and the oneness with the moment that surrounds you. What I like about the concept about peace is there’s no real negative detractor from it, it is just fulfilling. When I think about peace in 2022, I think about the yearning for peace within America, politically, and also our relationship to violence. I think about peace in terms of our relationship to language as violence and a culture of hate, an antidote to hate.
SR: What are some of the things that you do to find peace in your personal journey?
MM: I try to meditate daily, I try to take care of my body by eating complete and whole foods when I can. It’s hard to eat completely healthy, the way our food system is set up. I try to love myself and treat my body with kindness, which is difficult when you have a system of capitalism that is constantly telling you that you’re not enough, that your body’s not enough, that your age is not enough, so I try to stay in touch with music and my support system of musicians. And then I also try to use a percentage of money that I can to personally donate to causes I support, like support centers that deal with domestic violence, and I support animals and the World Wildlife Fund.
I also use my voice to speak out for things that I believe in like a person’s right to bodily autonomy, or a person’s right to choose who they love here in America. I do have personal beliefs that don’t necessarily come out in my songs all the time, though, on my next album, it’s a little more talking about gun violence. In the “Peace on Earth” show I do try to keep it a little more sweeping. Laurie Anderson said, ‘If you can’t say it, point to it.’
SR: What kinds of holiday traditions do you have these days?
MM: I have less and less traditions. The “Peace on Earth” show is one of my traditions this time of year. My religious leaning is always more toward Flying Spaghetti Monster or paganism. But I honor the religion of my mom and dad, which was Christianity. I will not reject going to a beautiful mass, because there’s so much beauty and history and money in the Christian church.
My personal holiday things are a little bit more centered around solstice. I do like the lights that are around at Christmas. I like hot cocoa. I like things that remind me of childhood and trying to step away from the commercial practices and step away from some of the oppressive factors that some religions might push out, like one’s right to bodily autonomy.
SR: Can you give me any hints about the guests you’ll be bringing, or anything you’re planning?
MM: I really tried to keep this show stripped down. My band doesn’t rock out, we focus more on lyrics, and instrumental performing. It’s different from my other shows, in that it’s really about the songs, and the skill of the songwriters. There’s about 50% or 60% covers. I know Katie Vernon had said she’s OK with saying she’s going to do it. We have two other guests.
SR: Have people shared with you that “Peace on Earth” has become their holiday tradition?
MM: Yeah, lots of people go every year. It’s my fans. They see that I’m looking forward to it. It’s a way to reflect in a meditative way, on music.
Mark Mallman’s “Peace on Earth” performs Saturday, Dec. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Parkway Theater ($13 advance, $18 doors). More information here.