Last winter, Lawrence musician Sam Billen wrote and recorded a song called "How My Brother Ruined Christmas." It contains references to Billen's older brother, Dan, rising early on Christmas mornings, when they were children, to play with Sam's presents — Big Wheels and a drum set are given as examples — before Sam woke up and could play with them himself. Billen released "How My Brother Ruined Christmas" as part of A Word of Encouragement, a collection of Christmas-themed songs that he made with friend and fellow musician Josh Atkinson.
Billen has returned this year with another Christmas album, A Light Goes On. It's a compilation of original and traditional holiday songs featuring local artists and musicians, and it has provided Dan Billen with an opportunity to respond to his brother's provocations.
"We lived on this little hill growing up, and apparently one year, I lined up all these little sleds and tried to charge our neighbors, who lived on the same hill, 50 cents to ride sleds down the hill," Billen says. "So Dan wrote a song making fun of me about that."
In a display of magnanimous maturity, Billen allowed "Sled Rides" onto A Light Goes On. He even created a stop-motion video for the song using old family photos. It's not the Billens' first collaboration: The brothers were bandmates in the Topeka indie-rock act the Billions in the late 1990s and early '00s.
"We got signed to a label in California called Northern Records and thought we were set," Billen recalls. "Then we started to learn about the music business. Those were some adjusting years. Then we all started getting married, having kids, going back to school. We had all been living in a farmhouse outside Lawrence for, like, four years. It got to the point where it wasn't sustainable anymore.
"The dream of doing big-time major-label touring was basically put to rest," he continues. "And, honestly, that's not something I even want anymore. I cannot say how happy I am now with a family — my wife, my daughter. I love being a normal dad, a normal guy. But the dream of doing music never died. The dream is just different now. I just want to put out music and have fun with it, and I can totally do that because it's so easy to record and release music now."
It's in this spirit that Billen has been producing a Christmas-themed release of some kind every December for the past five years. He started out recording modern versions of Christmas carols ("very dreamy, lots of reverb and harmonies," he says), burning them onto CDs, and passing them out to friends. The response was positive, so the next year, he added some songs and printed 1,000 copies and sent them out. The following year, Billen attempted to put together a compilation with local Lawrence musicians. "It was my first time doing a comp, and I started way too late," he says. "I didn't get it finished until a week before Christmas."
A Word of Encouragement, a 13-song collaboration with Atkinson in 2010, was more ambitious. But Billen has really hit it out of the park with A Light Goes On. He set a goal of $600 but raised $1,200 on Kickstarter to pay for flash drives of the compilation, which he's giving away. (Remaining funds are being donated to water.org.) He also has brought artists into the fold.
"I have a lot of friends who do art and design, and I wanted to get them involved in the project," he says. "But I wanted it to be spontaneous, too, so what I did was sort of assign songs to artists that were written by people they didn't know, and ask them to translate the song into art."
All 14 songs on A Light Goes On are accompanied, then, by visual representation — four videos and 10 still-art pieces. It's a rare project in that it's perhaps most rewarding to experience online, at alightgoeson.org, where the art and music are neatly paired in a clean, vibrant, simple setting. "I wanted the website to be set up like a museum, where you can go in and explore, piece by piece," Billen says. "I didn't want it to have a specific order to it. It's geared toward people who want to browse a little and spend time with it."