SCOTT SIMON, host:
The Puppini Sisters met in 2004 at London's Trinity College of Music. Now, this isn't some separated-at-birth story. Marcella Puppini, Stephanie O'Brien and Kate Mullins are sisters in spirit and song. Although they're classically trained, they're more Andrews Sisters than Andrea Bocelli. And now, the singing Puppini sisters have a Christmas CD.
(Soundbite of song, "Step Into Christmas")
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) Welcome to my Christmas song, I'd like to thank you for the years. So I'm sending you this Christmas card to say it's very nice to have you here.
SIMON: That's Elton John's "Step into Christmas," from the new CD "Christmas with the Puppini Sisters." They join us now from London. Marcella Puppini, Stephanie O'Brien and Kate Mullins, thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. MARCELLA PUPPINI (Singer): Thanks for having us.
Ms. STEPHANIE O'BRIEN (Singer): Thank you.
SIMON: ...happy holidays to you.
Ms. KATE MULLINS (Singer): Happy holidays.
Ms. O'BRIEN: You too.
SIMON: Now, I hope I don't open up a can of worms here, but how come you're the Puppini Sisters and not the O'Brien Sisters or the Mullins Sisters?
Ms. MULLINS: Well, don't get started on that, Scott. I mean, we kind of had to make a decision quite early on. Marcella was - obviously, the name Puppini derives from Italy, and Stephanie's an O'Brien and I'm a Mullins. So, we've got one Itali(ph) and two Irish descent. And we decided to go with the Italian mafia rather than the Irish mafia.
Ms. O'BRIEN: It gave it a slightly different edge. I think going with O'Brien or Mullins might have been kind of...
Ms. MULLINS: Would have a bit fruity, yeah.
Ms. O'BRIEN: ...different kind of thing.
SIMON: Do you consider your music a throwback or something else?
Ms. MULLINS: No. What we do is, we've taken the style of the Andrews Sisters but now, it's very much the Puppini Sisters style. Because the way that we sing these songs, the way that we arrange them, it's definitely got a modern slant to it.
Ms. PUPPINI: What we do, you would not hear the Andrews Sisters versions of.
Ms. O'BRIEN: I think we had to throw ourselves back in time to really appreciate the beauty of that genre of music, and to kind of learn our craft from the bottom up.
SIMON: What did you - I mean, there you were at Trinity College of Music there in London - what did you notice about the music of the Andrews Sisters' and others that you admired?
Ms. PUPPINI: You know, we appreciated that it was fun - sometimes, we are festive - and just really good, decent music. You can dance to it; you can sing along to it. And I think we all loved the era that went with it - and it was the whole package, really.
SIMON: Let's listen to your treatment - which I really like - of "Santa Baby."
(Soundbite of song, "Santa Baby")
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree for me. Been an awful good girl, Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.
SIMON: That really melts all the icicles, I got to tell you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MULLINS: (Unintelligible) there.
SIMON: Oh, my. Why did you want to do a Christmas album?
Ms. MULLINS: Oh, it was a no-brainer.
Ms. PUPPINI: It's just the most fun thing that you can possibly do.
SIMON: I often ask no-brainer questions.
Ms. PUPPINI: But for us, I think we just...the music is just great. Those Christmas tunes from that era are just some of the best songs ever written.
Ms. MULLINS: Yeah. And actually, when we first started singing as a group - we joined in December 2004 - so some of the first songs that we were singing were Christmas songs.
And how - I don't think I've heard the story. How did you meet and form a creative partnership?
Ms. MULLINS: Well, as you said, we were all at Trinity College of Music together but at various - different times. And Marcella left first and when she left, she kind of had really missed singing in harmony, in the jazz choir. Marcella and I used to sing as the basses in the jazz choir, as there was a shortage of men. So, we kind of missed singing together. And Marcella called me up one day and just said, look, I'm missing this. Do you want to get together and start a group? And we could think of no one better to ride the top part than Stephanie. So, it just kind of happened.
And then we sat around and ate big bowls of pasta and listened to a lot, a lot of music, and tried to do it for ourselves.
Ms. O'BRIEN: We kind of started our own education at that point. We met most weeks, and we'd watch old movies. And our first, you know, first few times we watched them, we'd just be awestruck. We were setting about trying to do something in that vein, I guess. The quality of the Andrews Sisters' performance - their singing and their musicality, the way they moved - it was just awe-inspiring. Some brilliant times were had in the early days of the Puppini Sisters.
SIMON: So you were watching old Andrews Sisters movies.
Ms. PUPPINI: Yeah.
Ms. MULLINS: Well, no.
SIMON: Or just of the era?
Ms. MULLINS: We were watching all kinds of movies, really.
Ms. PUPPINI: Lots of different...
Ms. MULLINS: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and my favorites - Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Just anything of that era, just because there's so much amazing stuff to watch. And it's not just the music. It's the fashion; it's the whole approach to performance as well.
Ms. PUPPINI: Yeah, it's a discipline, really.
Ms. MULLINS: Yeah, and time. Everybody was an all-rounder. Everybody could sing and dance and act.
(Soundbite of song, "White Christmas")
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) I'm dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know. Where the treetops glisten and children listen, to hear sleigh bells in the snow.
SIMON: We're speaking with the Puppini Sisters in London about their new Christmas album.
OK, it worked. I have a tear in my left eye.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. PUPPINI: I have a tear in my glass eye.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. O'BRIEN: It's got something a little Walt Disney about it, that track.
Ms. MULLINS: Yeah, that's right. We did really try to do an arrangement which emulated those kind of big Disney epic, you know, the vocal kind of follies(ph), and things like that.
Ms. PUPPINI: It's very different from the original.
SIMON: It is very different but, I mean, it hits the same spot inside here.
Ms. PUPPINI: Aww.
Ms. MULLINS: Aww. We all get to pay you later.
SIMON: So who sings what parts in the harmonies - or does it vary?
Ms. MULLINS: No, it doesn't ever vary. And also the position that we stand in on stage doesn't vary, either. So we've got Stephanie singing the top line; Marcella is the middle line; and then I'm Kate - myself - as the bass. And why I say that we don't ever kind of move from where we stand as well, in the group, is because so much of what we do is about body language, and about reading each other. Just kind of from the corner of your eye, you can see what somebody's kind of intending with the next phrase.
Ms. O'BRIEN: You can read them.
Ms. MULLINS: ...you can really read. So if we kind of swapped around, it would just completely throw us.
Ms. O'BRIEN: It would be really weird.
Ms. MULLINS: And actually, we did do this for fun - God, the things we do for fun. In our dressing room sometimes, before a show, we'll swap parts. And it sounds catastrophic because we're so - kind of used to the blend that we spent so long creating between the three voices. It's very specific to the parts that we sing.
And you can see why the sister groups kind of were so successful at doing that kind of music - because it's all about knowing each other very, very well and spending a lot of time together.
Ms. PUPPINI: We have to achieve one voice.
Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah, there is no solo star.
Ms. PUPPINI: No, no, no.
SIMON: I think your harmonies are particularly lovely. Let's listen to a little bit, if we can, of "All I Want for Christmas."
(Soundbite of song, All I Want for Christmas")
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) I don't want a lot for Christmas. There is just one thing I need. I don't care about the presents underneath that Christmas tree. I don't need to hang my stocking there upon my fireplace. Santa Claus will make me happy with a toy on Christmas Day. I just want you for my own, more than you could ever know. Make my wish come true, all I want for Christmas is you.
SIMON: Do you have as much fun the 50th time you sing this as you do the second or third?
Ms. O'BRIEN: Oh yes.
Ms. PUPPINI: Well, you always find something else to do with it. There'll always a new meaning to a line, or something, that we'll all just kind of get.
Ms. O'BRIEN: And the lines that we sing, the way that we arrange it, is quite comical.
Ms. MULLINS: They're mental. I mean, if you took the lines kind of individually, they'd be unrecognizable as a song - for a start. And you kind of just sit...
Ms. O'BRIEN: You can't admit that. That's not a sign of a good arranger.
Ms. MULLINS: No, it is a good sign. Because, yeah, the sign of a good arrangement is that each part sounds like its own little melody. But it's...
Ms. O'BRIEN: Well, they certainly are.
Ms. PUPPINI: But they do.
Ms. MULLINS: Sometimes you're on stage and you do stuff, and you listen to what you've just sung. And you're like, that is just insane; what does that mean?
(Soundbite of Mele Kalikimaka)
SIMON: You included a song here about a place where white Christmas means surf caps. You have an Hawaiian song.
(Soundbite of song)
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say on a bright Hawaiian Christmas day. That's the island greeting that we sing to you from the land where palm trees sway.
Ms. O'BRIEN: Mele Kalikimaka.
SIMON: That's what I meant to say, exactly. It's easier to sing it.
Ms. O'BRIEN: And when we've been performing it over Christmas this year, people have been in stitches when we pull out our ukuleles on stage, and we start playing away.
(Soundbite of song)
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) A very, very merry, merry Christmas to you.
SIMON: We're going to finish up by asking you about a real classic: "O Holy Night." How - so do you say, let's try this; let's try that? What did you set out to do with this version?
Ms. MULLINS: Oh, this is just easily one of our favorite songs, not just for Christmas but of all time. It's one of the most amazingly crafted things.
Ms. PUPPINI: It is probably the most beautiful Christmas song ever written.
Ms. O'BRIEN: Yeah. And I think at Christmas, each of us go home to our families, and carol singing's been a big part of each of our lives. And I think we felt it was important to include one song that we really loved, that was a Christmas carol - and that was it.
(Soundbite of song, "O Holy Night")
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) O holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior's birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, 'til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.
SIMON: Do you have any wishes for the holiday season into the new year?
Ms. O'BRIEN: For peace and tranquility.
SIMON: And brilliant, three-part harmony?
Ms. PUPPINI: For the world to be in harmony, in three-part.
SIMON: Well, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. O'BRIEN: Thank you.
Ms. PUPPINI: Thank you.
Ms. MULLINS: Thanks very much for having us.
SIMON: Speaking from London, where they light up the season: Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O'Brien. Their latest CD, on Verve, is called "Christmas with the Puppini Sisters."
(Soundbite of song, "O Holy Night")
THE PUPPINI SISTERS: (Singing) O night divine, O night, when Christ was born. O night divine...
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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