Merry and Bright: Hello Elizabeth. Welcome to Merry and Bright!
Elizabeth Chan: Hello! I'm so happy to be here! :)
MB: Elizabeth, you’re one of the most Christmassy artists out there. Where did your passion for Christmas, and especially Christmas music, come from?
EC: When I was a little girl and throughout my entire life, I loved Christmas. Growing up, my sister and I would listen to Christmas music 24/7 in our house. Listening to Christmas music can instantly transport you to a warm happy place, which is a testament of the power of music. It has been a life dream of mine to write a holiday song that would become a standard that would become part of people's happy holiday memories. Christmas is the only time throughout the year that my family is reunited.
MB: You’ve written, literally, hundreds of Christmas songs. Tell us a little bit about your process – where do your ideas for Christmas songs come from? And how do you develop the ideas into the final, polished songs?
EC: In life, I always knew I wanted to be a musician. For some reason I had ignored this early on - and had lived a non-musical life, which I was pretty successful at, but spent many days lamenting and daydreaming about songwriting. When days would be really bad I would turn to my friends and family and ask them what they thought if I just dedicated my life to writing a Christmas song. Most people would just chuckle - and I would go into the motions of my regular life.
By the grace of incredible luck, I had the opportunity to embark on my dream to write a Christmas song and an amazing thing happened. Despite not knowing how to play an instrument, despite having never written a Christmas song... the songs just started to pour out. They flooded out so fast. It's almost like I go into a trance. All it takes is for me to pinpoint a few key chords I like and then to build an idea, it will make me think of a story and I'll start to scribble down phrases. When I'm in this moment, I can sometimes envision how I hear the song in my mind and try best to capture the song to share with others. I become rather transfixed when I'm in this zone. I don't stop until the song stops. This can take minutes, hours or days. I went from having no instruments in my home to having two guitars, two keyboards, a ukulele, a voice harmonizer, 3 recorders and a pro tools setup - all to help me catch the songs I hear in my head.
The inspiration for my Christmas music is mostly my family. I really do not see my entire family in one place except for Christmas. Sometimes life isn't the way you planned, and the ones you love the most are the farthest away from you - even if they are not so far away. For me presents are secondary to presence as true Christmas gifts. This is the core motivating message I try to evoke in my songs. How to bring people together with my music is key, because it’s the story of my Christmas life and it’s this idea that I've dedicated my life to. Eventually the way I live my life will probably become a song in itself. More like a symphony! That isn't over yet! :)
MB: Who are your main influences as a musician?
EC: When I was 6 years old, my parents used to record me singing to Whitney Houston. I have my favorite bands, most of which I only knew because of sitting in the backseat of my parents’ car. I love the Carpenters, Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys. I was taught to sing by listening to the radio. I still listen to the radio EVERY morning. No matter what. I love the radio. For example, this past record was partially inspired by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis "Can't Hold Us," and Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas."
My dad purchased my first keyboard when I was about the same age, but it only had a few octaves of keys. I would play him what I heard on the radio and turn to him and say "this key I need - is here [point off the keyboard], but it’s not here." Before anyone knew it I came home to a big grand piano and had all the keys. When I was about 7 I took a few ear training and solfège classes, but I taught myself to play piano. I didn't know the keys by their standard names (CDEFG) or have any proper piano training. I only knew solfège (Do, Re Mi). So I really struggled with reading. I took a piece of music and would write "Do, Mi, So" on the music paper to learn how to play piano. I remember finally learning a piece of music and playing it at school the way I learned - and then a classmate saying, "That's not how you play it!" After that moment, I kind of decided learning piano wasn't my thing. I loved my piano though. So even though I didn't know what I was playing - I would continue to play. Match the chords in my head that sounded right and would compose my own music, instead of trying to read other music. I'm musically illiterate but I am a prolific songwriter. Apparently I'm in good company, the one artist i hold in my pocket as an example is Paul McCartney.
Looking back, it was probably this idea that because I didn't know how to read music that helped me to stay away from music for so long. Sometimes the music is just in you, and for me it is truly my calling.
My main musical influence is a need to get these songs out of my head, I write music and sing songs and parts every day. I need a release valve for the inspiration!
I had one guitar lesson that changed my life with Mike Doughty. He was gracious enough to teach me how to play guitar and taught me how to tune a guitar to open chords. He told me to just make sounds I like. I took that single lesson and never looked back. Since then I've written over 300+ songs.
MB: And who are some of your primary inspirations in the Christmas music genre?
EC: I look up to Irving Berlin and carry his biography everywhere I go, and leave his biography on my nightstand. His story is one I love reading. Without a doubt, my primary musical inspiration in the Christmas music genre is Stevie Wonder. I listen to all his Christmas records year round. Like everyone I have my favorite songs "Merry Christmas Darling," "Last Christmas," "Happy X'Mas (War is Over)." I cannot name all my favorite songs. I listen to Christmas music all year round and keep up with people who put out new Christmas records every year. I spend a lot of time studying the Christmas music genre that I am somewhat of a historian. I'm also very lucky to live in New York City, where many of the standards we love were penned. I'm still able to see the inspiration that has inspired those before me in my day to day life.
MB: You reached out to your friends and fans via Kickstarter to help fund the production of “Everyday Holidays”. Tell us how you felt the day your funding goal was attained.
EC: I was truly reluctant to start a Kickstarter campaign. I'm not the kind of person to ask for help, and in a way I'm still learning how to ask for help. I had written songs that I knew I wanted on my EP and was confronted with the fact that I could not afford the recording of the record unless I had help. After letting Steve Lillywhite listen to the initial scratch demos of the songs, he suggested that I start a Kickstarter campaign, that if people heard the songs they would help. I ignored that suggestion for a bit, but then realized that this record would not come out if I didn't have help. When I launched the Kickstarter I really thought it would never get funded, but was just happy to see that people did truly support the making of this record. I knew that even if I didn't fund the Kickstarter I would try to make the record in any way I could. Then someone named Santa Claus backed the Kickstarter and before I knew it, as the clock started to close in on the deadline - my entire record was funded.
This whole experience taught me a very important lesson. That if I let this fear of asking for help in my way - I would have never put out "Everyday Holidays" or have been able to continue on my journey.
MB: Besides funding, what were some of your challenges in making “Everyday Holidays” a reality?
EC: The music business is possibly one of the toughest industries to be in. The funding only took care of the recording costs of the record. It didn't include making the design of the album cover, manufacturing, the music video, marketing the record. There are a lot of things that go into getting music out into the world. There is such a deluge of holiday music that comes out every year that it’s very hard to cut through the noise. I would list out all the slammed doors and failures that I had this year - but that would depress people and demotivate other aspiring musicians and artists! :) The bad is part of what makes good - well.. Great ;)
MB: Well, I think “Everyday Holidays” is fantastic. Although it’s only been released for a few weeks, is it too soon to ask what we might expect next from Elizabeth Chan? Do you hope to record and release another Christmas CD?
EC: God willing, I will continue to make new holiday records every year. I will be as committed to this as life will let me stay committed to my dream of penning a Christmas classic. My first single “Fa La La” has already charted on radio stations across the nation. It is a small step but an important one for me.
MB: Here’s a tough question: What’s the one best thing about Christmas in New York City?
EC: Not that hard! My family! :) My favorite thing in NYC is the Snowflake on 57th street. My ultimate favorite holiday thing. I saw it the other night, I was so excited.
MB: Do you have a favorite Christmas song, or a favorite recording of a song by a specific artist?
EC: This question is MUCH tougher than the last one! How can I choose a favorite Christmas song? It is almost like asking, "What is your favorite Christmas light?" Can you really only admire just one Christmas light? It's the string that makes it beautiful. Lucky for me, I have quite a long string of favorite Christmas records of my own! I do absolutely love "This Christmas" by Donny Hathaway. I listen to the song in the summer and feel really Christmassy. I guess to be fair, I love "A Christmas Song," by Elizabeth Chan ;) Not because I wrote it, but because it is a real reminder and an artifact of someone who has gone for their dream. I'm sad this song will probably never be on the radio.
MB: Is there anything else you’d like to share with your fans, both current and future?
EC: To my fans, thank you for taking the time to listen to my records. The words are autobiographical and sometimes not so easy to share, so I don't take for granted the moment that you choose to listen to my song. I hope that my songs are the kind that you'll turn back to every holiday season and share with your family. I promise to continue sharing my journey through my Christmas songs with you as life will allow. :)
MB: Thanks for spending this time here at Merry and Bright! Have a very Merry Christmas, Elizabeth!
EC: Merry Christmas and Thank you for having me!!!! :D