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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."