LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - It's summer and it's hot, but even so, Faith Hill is quick to warm up to talk about Christmas.
Which is more than appropriate as she starts promoting the first Christmas album of her 15-year career, "Joy to the World," due September 16 on Warner Bros.
While many Nashville-based artists record holiday records early and relatively often, Hill's was several years in the making and intended to be her definitive take on the season. "Joy to the World" is overwhelmingly a collection of standards, be it the big, booming orchestral arrangements of the title track or "Oh, Holy Night" or swinging, big-band, vintage-sounding versions of more lighthearted fare such as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "Holly, Jolly Christmas."
"I love everything about Christmas, and I have wanted to record a Christmas album since the beginning of my career," Hill said while taking a break from shooting video for potential TV spots promoting the record. The day before, Hill had been at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., taping "Sunday Night Football" promo spots with a group of NFL stars.
Even as the industry craters, holiday-themed records remain a lucrative niche for labels. Josh Groban's "Noel" (2007) has moved 6.7 million copies in the United States for Warner Bros., flirting with Kenny G's "Miracles-The Holiday Album" from 1994, the top-selling Christmas album of the Nielsen SoundScan era (1991-present). On the country side, Toby Keith's Christmas album "A Toby Keith Classic Christmas" sold 294,000 last year.
Hill was in stores last year with a greatest-hits package that sold just 257,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. She has moved more than 19 million albums in her career, topped by the 6.5 million copies of "Breathe" in 1999. Her last studio set, 2005's "Fireflies" has sold more than 2.2 million copies.
Work on "Joy" started three years ago, but the project was sidetracked by the "Fireflies" and hits packages, not to mention the massive, record-breaking Soul2Soul II tour with her husband, Tim McGraw, in 2007-08. When those projects wrapped, Hill returned to the Christmas album.
Song selection was one of the "toughest things" about putting the project together, Hill said. She didn't take the easy road, instead choosing challenging vocals, complicated lyrics and ambitious melodic structure. The album plays to her strengths as an unmistakably Southern soulful chanteuse and also conjures a vintage feel that would work in any era.
"Fortunately, most of these songs I've known my entire life," she said. "On some of them I was used to singing the lyric I grew up with, which was not really always the original lyric. I guess over time things just change, or people take their own interpretation of what the song was originally."
The more-spiritual songs on the record, such as "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Joy" and "Silent Night," feature the Nashville String Machine with conductor Carl Gorodetzky and were recorded live in the studio with Hill's vocals.
"I've performed with an orchestra but I've never recorded with an orchestra live," she said. "I don't read music, and certainly it was difficult for me to read the scores, I really couldn't. So (arranger/conductor) David Campbell had quite a task put in front of him to direct the orchestra, as well as me. That was quite a challenge, but it worked out in the end."
After a long layoff, the album was completed early this year, and Hill said it was surprisingly easy to resurrect the "spirit."
"When we got into the studio this last time to complete it, it had been 18 months since we had heard the tracks. And all of us just sat there, turned off the vocal and just listened to the tracks of this Christmas music," she said. "We were all commenting on how fresh it was and how exciting it was to be back on the project. You would think it would be difficult with it not being the Christmas season, but when you record something that you're really proud of, it kind of stands the test of time, any time of the year."
Hill won't tour to promote this release, but a wide range of multimedia promotional initiatives are being lined up. Hill has scheduled a special-edition "Soundstage" performance of her Christmas album that will be broadcast on PBS and also air elsewhere, said her manager, Gary Borman.
He added that Hill's team is in discussions with a network about Hill and her Christmas music "participating in a major way" in an existing prime-time special.
Beyond all the marketing, setup and commercial opportunity, Hill is sincere in touting the record's higher purpose.
"I want it to be spiritual, I don't want to forget why we even celebrate Christmas," she said. "To me these songs are powerful and meaningful, and I want this to be the only Christmas album I'll ever record. And hopefully in 50 years it will sound as good as it does now. That's the intent behind it."