It’s not often that an artist’s debut LP consists entirely of Christmas songs – but James Fauntleroy is no ordinary artist. Nearly a decade after the release of the original Warmest Winter Ever, the four-time Grammy Award-winning R&B singer-songwriter is making his formal debut as a lead solo artist with The Warmest Winter Ever. The steamy new project compiles the first two Warmest Winter projects with nine brand new songs — eight out today and one more coming alongside the set’s full release on Dec. 8 — perfect for a sultry Christmas between the sheets.
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The announcement of The Warmest Winter Ever comes exactly one week after Fauntleroy picked up his seventh career Grammy nomination. Recognized in best progressive R&B album for his bossa nova-inspired Nova collab album with Terrace Martin, the nod marks Fauntleroy’s first Grammy nomination as an artist. The acclaimed musician has won four prior trophies thanks to his writing contributions to Justin Timberlake’s “Pusher Love Girl” and Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic (“That’s What I Like”; “Finesse”). That’s no small feat for someone who claims that “for the last 20 years,” they’ve “been telling everybody I’m not an artist constantly when they ask.” With more previously released music making its way to DSPs soon, Fauntleroy is set to truly step into his own as an artist – and he’s redefining holiday music as he swaggers down that path.
Filled to the brim with jaw-dropping harmonies and hilariously sultry wordplay, The Warmest Winter Ever finds Fauntleroy inviting his audience to expand their understanding of what holiday music can sound like. Why stop at “O Holy Night” and “Deck the Halls,” when you can croon “bring that s–t to Santa” to your special someone? The first two Warmest Winter projects primarily feature cozy, acoustic-forward arrangements, and the 10 new tracks broaden that soundscape into a wonderland of skittering bass and intimate a cappella joints. Take “Sleigh,” a tongue-in-cheek harmonic rhapsody that answers the question: What would it sound like if James Fauntleroy took “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and absolutely freaked it?
In a wide-ranging conversation with Billboard, James Fauntleroy discusses the making of The Warmest Winter Ever, why Mariah Carey is “one of the best writers in the history of man,” working with Beyoncé and the state of male R&B.
Billboard: What’s up with you, man? How’re you feeling?
James Fauntleroy: I’m excited, man! I’m happy and surprised that I’m still in the game. Appreciative, you know, so I’m feeling a lot of gratitude. I’m going from my first artist-led project — ’cause the jazz album, or I guess R&B album, was [with] Terrace — getting nominated for a Grammy to now my first album even though I’m damn near 20 years in the game. This is gonna be my literal first album, so I’m super excited. I’m a new artist. This is my gonna be my first project.
Why is now the time to bring The Warmest Winter Ever to DSPs?
We had a meeting this morning, [and] I found this old tweet of Rihanna posting about the first [Warmest Winter] project and because I knew it’d been out for a while, I did the math and I was like, Damn, this was nine years ago! The first project, I put out nine years ago, and I put out the other one sometime between then and now, and basically these projects are my first official releases.
I’ve been putting music out the whole time, [but] there’s one other project that I hear about all throughout the year, every year, even though it’s like 13 years old. This is one that all year-round people are telling me it’s July and [they’re] still playing the Christmas album. It’s so mind-blowing that music has the power to be something that people care or talk about after — especially now when s–t comes out and you switch your playlist up the next f–king day – a week. A big part of wanting to put these things on DSPs is just to show all my core fans appreciation because even though the s–t’s on SoundCloud, for whatever reason, they’re always like, Please put this on Spotify, please put this on Apple Music!
I’m just slowly starting to put all these songs on DSPs, but also give them something new, because another part of my compulsion to release is that while I do it because I love it and I get paid to do it, it’s also because I know so many people study me from them telling me and also from my ears. That was a big part of why I started my school called the 1500 Sound Academy. I also feel compelled to take it to the next level for people who I’ve inspired. A friend of mine [named] August 08 — he just got caught in the crossfire in the hood, a couple of [months] ago and passed away — I met him when he literally ran up to me in the airport and he was like, “Oh my God, I’m such a huge fan, I never even thought about making music until I heard your music and I got your album cover tattooed on my leg!” He opened up his jeans because they were already ripped and I didn’t even say nothing yet, and he said all of this. Then he went on to have success as a writer, got signed to Def Jam, had a song with Jhené Aiko.
I think about that kind of thing especially as the Internet and life and music go through growing pains. I’m always trying to think about maintaining the art form and pushing the envelope forward. Maybe everybody on Earth doesn’t listen to it, but if it gets to the right person and has an impact on them, then you know that makes it worth it. So those are all the reasons. And then I found the right team, honestly. Everybody thinks I’m trying to be mysterious, but really I’ve been waiting for the right time, the right platform, and the right team to put something out that is giving my audience the level of quality that they expect from what my music sounds like.
Does it feel weird having your first official solo album be a Christmas record?
No, it feels natural to me because when I’m thinking about it in terms of my legacy — not what I’m trying to build, but where I’ve come to at this point — I think that it’s so unusual to have your first album be your Christmas album, but considering all the s–t I make, it makes it the perfect first album. I’m always trying to find ways to express that there’s more, that you know that I’m different, that I’m doing something. As a writer — that’ll always be the core of what I’m doing — I love it because why I even started doing it was it was never about trying to f–king take a small percentage of that Mariah Carey money, which, oh my God, I’d love to have some of that, but it was really about finding new ways to tell stories. It’s just an opportunity to have a new topic; finding something new to wrap the art around is my primary method of coming up with new art. This project, it’s 25 Christmas songs, like, is it really 25 things about Christmas to sing about?! I don’t even know. [Laughs]. They’re all about Christmas, but they’re all so different from any Christmas music I’ve heard, so they’re doing their job of helping me push myself forward.
I had a lot of fun making all this s–t. It’s so fun to make music with no pressure. I produced, I think, every song on here. Maybe there’s like a few that I brought in some talented musicians, and there’s two songs with other people’s voices on them. I just had a blast doing what I wanted and trying to figure out how to do something different from what I have done in the past.
This record has some steamy joints on there. What inspired the sonic world of The Warmest Winter Ever, and what was it like to return to that place for a third installment?
When I’m thinking about where I want to draw inspiration from my projects, at its core, it’s all about drawing from references. There’s Stevie Wonder all the way up to the Timbaland-Missy s–t. There’s a bunch of different references technically. As far as the artistic inspiration, it’s less music and more film.
In the song “Neck,” you know, I’m imagining the movie Elf. “Christmas List,” that’s a song where I’m talking about picking up a gun, and that’s a different kind of movie. But then you also have “Miracle,” where in the second verse, I was thinking about The Santa Clause. I’m thinking about Black movies like Soul Food because when I’m thinking of a song, I’m doing a lot of visualizing, which is where I’m pulling a lot of the descriptive lyrics like, “She’s Grand Theft Auto 5 stars bad” — I was laughing while I wrote that. It’s really just trying to create a movie because that’s how I view music.
Sounds like you were in a very cinematic headspace. Any music videos on the horizon?
I have so many ideas! Do I have enough money to do all those things? Absolutely not. So it’s really based on how people respond to it. “Sleigh,” for instance, which is maybe my favorite song on the whole thing, is actually about imagining that Santa Claus worked at FedEx and he’s about to go out to do a shipment and he has Mrs. Claus with him and his manager or whatever, he’s like You can’t take this lady out. He’s like What?! If she don’t go in there, we ain’t going nowhere. This is how I do it. The message is about a relationship that empowers you and strengthens you and gives you the ability to do magic. If I could do a video, it would be UPS Santa with a real ultra-bad Mrs. Claus with her arms folded. [Laughs].
“Sleigh” is also one of my favorites. Talk to me about crafting your vocal arrangements and background harmonies? Who are you building on and emulating?
The goal of the song is the same as the goal of the arrangements, but the arrangements are the primary. The lyrics are really important, but those tend to hit you after the third or fourth listen. The first goal is to catch you with the arrangement and the music. My number one goal before streaming, but especially now, is you really need these motherf–kers to play that s–t more than once. My goal is to make a song that you want to hear again. What is the use of this song? How is this of service to people you know?
Typically, the use I’m aiming for is that it makes you feel good. It gives you an escape out of the moment you’re in, makes you feel good about yourself, and makes you think about something differently, it’s world-building.
On the technical side, there’s more and more s–t going on. There’s more and more parts coming in. I tell my students and people this all the time, I usually think about the different notes in the harmonies as different people. They’re different background singers, so sometimes I’ll pronounce what I’m saying a little differently. I might use a different dynamic. On “Sleigh,” I really overtly did it. In the second verse, the way I sang the first line and the way I sang the second line is two different people. The first line is all soft and pretty, and then the next one I’m singing three times louder. It’s just all these dynamics that I’m trying to turn your attention to.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask this since you do sing “Sleigh like Beyoncé” in the song, so have you worked with Queen Bey recently?
The last thing we did was that song with Nas and Jay-Z [DJ Khaled’s “Sorry Not Sorry”]. I sang the hook. That was the first song I ever put out that I didn’t write, actually. They sent that to me done already and just asked me to put my voice on it and [there’s] Beyoncé at the end which sounds epic.
As I was saying earlier about service, it’s really to make whoever is playing Beyoncé, the listener who is Beyoncé in that moment, have the opportunity to feel that. I’m always gon f–k with Beyoncé on whatever s–t she’s doing, but the idea came into my mind because of what she represents.
Since that Nas song, I’ve worked on some s–t for her, I’ll say. But nobody knows what’s coming out except for her, so I really have no idea.
The new tracks sort of depart from the cozier, more acoustically intimate vibe of the first two projects. Was that an intentional choice or was that simply where your heart was during the creative process?
No, it’s super intentional because if you listen to the first [project] and the second one, you can hear my progression as a producer because I’m just starting to take beats seriously. I love when I look back at these projects that they’re time capsules of where I was in that moment, what I thought was cool, and what my capabilities were. Literally, the first one, I’m playing the guitar and I don’t know how to play the guitar. [Laughs]. I’m also playing the guitar on this one, but it’s 10 years later. So I still don’t know how to play the guitar, but you can hear the growth.
What are some of your favorite original contemporary Christmas songs? How about the classics?
As far as contemporary — I can’t wait to hear [this one] because you asked me about harmonies and the core of all that is Brandy. Let’s just keep it real, that’s the basis of my style in general – I’m super excited to hear Brandy’s Christmas album.
I’ve heard some good Christmas rap songs over the years. I’ve heard some good contemporary [songs], but I’m trying to think of something other than this Brandy s–t. I think my favorite contemporary Christmas songs are my own. As far as my favorite classics, of course, Mariah Carey. I’ve had the pleasure of working with her a couple of times, and she’s always pretty upset that nobody acknowledges that she’s one of the best writers in the history of man. When I hear her snapping about that s–t, I’d be like You right, man. F–k that! because they is not putting nearly enough respect on this motherf–ker’s name. Not even close, bro. And then when I worked with her, I was like, Oh, [she] really does write? She’s not just an artist who wants to write to get the money, she’s an actual writer who can just sing her a– off. She’ll always be number one, literally and figuratively and philosophically.
I really love [Paul McCartney’s] “Wonderful Christmastime.” “This Christmas,” that’s a classic. The modern Christmas song Chris Brown put out called “It’s Giving Christmas,” I like that one too.
You just picked up your first Grammy nomination as an artist and your first Grammy nom this decade. How does that feel? Especially in relation to your career longevity?
Man, I can’t believe it. I’ll tell people all the time, that the typical lifespan for a person like me in the business, it’s like one to three years. Even for a big act, if you get one year, you did it. I’ve been doing this s—t for like 18 years. I was not expecting to get nominated for a f—king Grammy as an artist because I’ve been telling everybody under the sun for 18 years or however long that I’m not an artist. I am an artist, but I’m not a professional recording artist. It’s extremely exciting to still be in the game at all. A month ago, Saturday Night Live had a Donald Trump joke about “No Air,” and I’m like Yo, that was my first hit song!
For people to still give any amount of attention or conversation or anything for anything I’m doing is such a big deal to me because that’s the part that never gets old because they just don’t have to do that. That means it really had an impact on them. To be this late in the game and still have new achievements and new opportunities and new possibilities happening is really such an honor.
R&B has been in a great space lately with artists like Victoria Monét, Coco Jones and SZA killing it both critically and commercially. Where would you like to see the journey go next?
My hope is if you listen to SZA’s development over the years, it’s gotten to a quality level that I think is really admirable and respectable and serious – and still, she’s growing. Every genre experiences a point where it goes off of the tracks of the mainstream and it kind of turns into this isolated place where it can just develop on its own, and typically that means people pay attention to it differently. But it also means that the genre has the freedom to develop without the pressure of success, so the creators are not thinking about it like that.
R&B hit that point. I’m more really thinking about R&B as it relates to gospel because gospel music has been able to develop so much that you have — even since the ’90s, but from the ’90s till now — this gospel tangent that’s actually jazz. Kim Burrell‘s doing jazz s—t up and down, left and right. All these kinds of singers are, not just her, but like the whole genre of gospel that she started, it’s all heavily jazz-based. I feel like R&B went through a bunch of different growing pains trying to figure out what was going to happen when it wasn’t the Confessions era — that’s pop at this point, we’re only calling it R&B because Usher’s Black, but that’s another conversation. It was at the height, and then it experienced what every genre that reaches that level experiences, which is too many opinions from people who aren’t in it, because now it’s making so much money. When [R&B] went through the struggles it went through, it had an opportunity to evolve and I think what it turned into is gangster rap.
Future, Migos, Drake is the most overt because he’s actually singing, but that’s what happened to R&B, bro. It turned into gangster rap on one arm and it turned into [what] they call progressive R&B at the Grammys. But is that what is actually? It’s just the freedom that the genre is allowed when it’s not under the scrutiny of the machine to develop to such a point that it can focus on the quality. I think that that’s where we’re at. I think it’s been happening. It was happening the whole time, like when the industry stopped f—king with it, it didn’t go away. I really feel like what we’re going to experience going forward is a mixture of both.
Music has been going on in the industry since the 1920s and even though the hit songs have changed over the years, tempos, topics, whatever, the point of the music hasn’t changed. It’s to make people feel a certain way and these are the ingredients that I think are going to give us more diverse and more interesting forms of R&B going forward, and so I’m personally going to continue to put that s—t in my music and show as many people as possible that there’s more.
I named only women in my previous question because I wanted to dig into your take on the state of male R&B, specifically in relation to women’s dominance in the genre for much of the young decade.
They gotta start talking to women, bro. I can’t say it any simpler than Drake is the biggest n—a, and who is his demographic? Which of his songs are the best ones? Because he got a lot of songs talking to n—as, but which ones matter the most? Which ones make him Drake? It’s just being aware of who you’re talking to. I won’t name their legendary names — but I talked to a lot of legendary people about when it happened and why it changed and, basically, when gangster rap came in, they all started saying the same thing. Women were like “We don’t want that soft s–t no more.”
Still, women are having such a big impact on what men are doing. You have to look past the statistics. You have to look past what the data is telling you people want and think about first, who are you? They need to focus on what we know is right. Yes, you can make money giving people the world to escape into where they can be Scarface and be going extra hard on h–s and beating people up and killing them and s–t and that could be fun. But you could also just watch Taken. You’re not gonna get the same feeling out of your target, which is women. There’s two women for every man, and you’re not gonna get the same response out of a woman that watches Taken versus The Notebook.
I think that’s part of the reason why the male artists are struggling. We need more. It should just be who you are. And I think that’s really the issue with any modern artist, it’s like, Are you doing something that’s gonna matter? Are you doing something that’s going to set you apart? Or are you doing what you heard yesterday? Because in today’s world, that’s just not going to be acceptable. You don’t want to be a replaceable slot in the playlist to have a long career, so I think the R&B guys are figuring that out, but it’s going to be a process.
Looking beyond the holiday season – once the decorations are taken down – what can fans expect from you in the new year?
I’m about to really be an artist, bro. How else can I show the people [who] supported me and made my life into what it is, my appreciation? I put my full power, mind, creativity and energy into giving them what they’re asking for. I’m really about to be putting out music and doing shows — I just did the first show I’ve done in years at a jazz festival with Terrace singing some of the Nova songs a couple of days ago. It’s time. There’s some more music that’s been out that I’m gonna finally put on DSPs. I did a joint album with someone that I think people are gonna be really surprised and excited about, and it’s done. I’m really about to start giving everybody my interpretation of what albums should sound like in the world I’m trying to create and we’ll see how it goes, but I’m excited!
Here’s the full tracklist for The Warmest Winter Ever:
2. Bad Bad Bad*
4. Bring That Shit to Santa*
5. Mrs Claus*
6. The Neck*
8. Christmas List*
10. Nice Or Not
11. Body Heat
12. Spiritual Gift
13. Is It Morning Yet
14. It Rains Everywhere
15. Christmas Lights
16. Christmas Everyday
17. Christmas Everynight
18. Give You Love
19. The Present
20. Stocking Stuffer
22. Like Summer
23. Mistletoe ft. Maeta
24. Open Up
25. You Can Get It