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."
There's plenty of delightful browsing to be had. One of the more moving contributions is "Someone Came in the Night," an original song by Atkinson set to archival footage of Christmas-morning living-room scenes and children on old sleds flying down snowy hills. It's a soft, piano-driven song with pretty harmonies, and it builds beautifully up to its last moment. "Josh and I just have a strong connection, I think," Billen says. "When he sent over that song, I was like, 'That sums up this project.' It's totally where my heart was going with this."
Billen's song, the title track, is also a highlight, with its sweet, soulful sketches of youthful holidays. I was 8 years old/In the back of the family car/Moving through the neighborhood/Where all the houses with all the lights were/I couldn't get to sleep that night/Because a light went on. You can practically hear the gentle snow falling onto the grass outside your window.
Elsewhere on A Light Goes On is video work from Kansas City artist Danny Gibson; a charming rowhouse scene by Justin Newhouse that accompanies Katlyn Conroy and Austen Malone's version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside"; and the Tenniscoats, an avant-garde duo from Japan. ("I reached out to them, and they responded and were interested," Billen says. "I'm really thrilled they're involved.") Ghosty contributed "Holiday Hymn," an upbeat Vic Godard cover that singer Andrew Connor discovered through the band Orange Juice.
"I feel the need to do at least a little bit of Christmas-y music every year, maybe because my parents put on a great series of concerts for years called 'A South Dakota Acoustic Christmas,' " Connor says. "[And] Sam is a friend from way back. We may have played the first Ghosty show ever with the Billions at Hashinger Hall at KU back in 1999."
Matt White, who made the video for Atkinson's song, says, "What Sam does that I appreciate is bringing people together. He creates situations that are fun and collaborative, and I think that's what this compilation is really about. It's why I wanted to be a part of it."
What is it about Christmas music that draws Billen? "I think it's mainly the fact that it reminds me so much of my childhood and my family," Billen says. "I grew up in a Christian home, and Christmas was always a really important time for us. The Christmas programs at church, midnight Christmas Eve service at the Catholic church even though we weren't Catholic, decorating the Christmas tree together, getting together with our extended family down in Oklahoma — it was all integral to how I experience Christmas. After my mom died from breast cancer in 2000, Christmas became the time of year that I missed her and thought of her most. She's my inspiration for keeping Christmas special with my own family now.
"I actually hate most modern Christmas music," Billen adds. "Some of it is a love-hate type thing, [like with] Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas.' But so many artists and labels just churn out Christmas music because they know people will buy it. That's one of the reasons I try really hard to make my Christmas projects free and not about 'promotion.' Of course, as an artist doing a project, I can only run so far from it being viewed as a promotional project. I get that. But I just really love putting these things out."