We chat to Christmas songwriter Elizabeth Chan about her incredible journey in the industry, and following her dream to turn Christmas music into a successful career.
How did your Christmas music career get started, and where did your passion for Christmas come from?
My dream ever since I was a little girl was to be a musician, and more specifically to write Christmas music. It was just something I always wanted to do, but it was never really encouraged as a career. There’s not really a steadfast path for being a Christmas songwriter, it’s not like I could major in Santa Claus!
So I went to college and ended up getting a regular job, and joining the “real world”. I was living this amazing life in New York, I had a great career in magazines, I had everything right on paper, but I felt so empty. I thought, is this it? You go to school, you go to work, you do this for years and and then repeat? I had this mental awakening where I realised that life is very short, time is very valuable, and instead of working towards somebody else’s dream, I wondered what my life could look like if I went after this one specific passion I’ve always had.
One day I had a bad moment with my boss and she got me so upset that I started to look for another job. I was looking at listings online and there was this post that said, “Have you ever had a dream that you were too afraid to try? If you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?” So I answered and didn’t think anything of it, and it ended up catching the attention of Morgan Spurlock, who produced and directed Supersize Me. That’s how I got started writing Christmas music.
And you became a part of a documentary series Failure Club where, in a way, you were expected to fail. What was it like putting yourself out there like that?
I think the most important thing I learnt from it was that sometimes the world keeps us in places where we don’t belong. It’s a function of what everybody else expects from you and also what you don’t want to do. Most people don’t want to fail, most people want to pay their mortgages and put food on the table. I think that fear of failure keeps us in this very pigeonholed direction. That was definitely who I was. The only thing that makes me different is that I stopped caring whether going after my dream would be a complete disaster, because the flipside was living a life that was so unfulfilling.
And then you achieved your goal of having a Christmas hit.
I did, and I didn’t expect it, because I was ok with failing. I had never put out a record, I was completely new to the music business and I didn’t know what I was doing. The Christmas music business is not for new artists, it’s for the established and the very famous, but I just wouldn’t take no for an answer. Sometimes when something is truly your calling, you can’t ignore it. But I didn’t expect to succeed at all – in fact I was pretty much resigned to failure the entire time!
And now Christmas music is your career. What’s the process throughout the year? Are you in Christmas mode 365 days of the year?
I started off as a Christmas composer, and I would get so far with A&Rs, but not far enough. One of my mentors at the time who, in his own right, wrote the very successful Christmas song “Fairytale of New York”, convinced me to start a Kickstarter, and put out the record as an artist on my own. So that’s how I started my company Merry Bright Music.
It is an everyday, 365 day a year thing thing. I write the music, I produce it, and then I’m in charge of overseeing my team to distribute it around the world. Sometimes I struggle switching hats between the art side and the business side. It’s difficult not to take things personally, as your art is a personal reflection of who you are, but I have to keep a well balanced mind-set. It’s a lot of work and Merry Bright is very small, but we’re very focused on everything Christmas, so it is a year round endeavour.
What’s the timeline?
It gets earlier and earlier every year! Last year I was already finished with my record by Spring, and I’m constantly writing and producing, and also doing business and signing deals. I have teams that I work with all over the world to help me make sure I can be the artist, but also mind the shop and make sure the business is taken care of. There’s no start or end, it’s just perpetual.
Do you ever get sick of Christmas?
Never. That’s how I know! In my last job I would wake up and I would really lament going to work, and I never feel that way now. I love Christmas music and I feel very strongly about it. They say that you should follow your dreams and worry about everything else later. I just wake up and want to write better music – there’s never a moment when I’m sick of it. I still keep very much in touch with regular music too, so I love listening to all music all year round.
Your goal is to write a Christmas classic. What does that involve? Do you think there’s room for a modern Christmas hit?
The one that most people point out is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You”, but that song is actually a quarter of a century old. I can’t really tell you what the Christmas classic will be. I just write them, and it’s really up to the world to connect and decide. Mariah’s very lucky that she gets to see it in her lifetime, a lot of the historical composers did not get to see it. I just want to make sure that I spend the rest of my life, if the fates allow, writing as many songs as possible and I’ll let people decide.
Nice use of a Christmas lyric there – “if the fates allow”!
Just hang out with me for a while and you’ll be like, “she bleeds Christmas!”
There’s such a mix of Christmas classics. “Fairytale of New York” doesn’t exactly fit the cozy, happy formula, yet it’s very popular.
Yeah, it’s very popular in the UK. In Scandinavia, one of my friends says his favourite Christmas song is “Driving Home for Christmas”, and that song doesn’t play very often in the United States. It’s so different around the world. In New York we love our Nat King Cole, our Burl Ives, and all the standards. I was very humbled and honoured to have been under the tutelage of Steve Lillywhite, who really saw something in me very early. Though it was kind of embarrassing because we would be in conferences and he would describe me as the Christmas rain man and I didn’t like that so I’d run away!
You’re the Queen of Christmas!
Yes I am! They say that Mariah is, but she didn’t even want to write her Christmas song, her ex husband forced her to do it. But I bet she’s happy now!
And Michael Bublé! There is actually a meme that says, “Christmas is coming, Michael Bublé emerges from his cave.”
Oh my god we love Michael Bublé here! I was just joking with my friend saying, “this is Michael Bublé’s world and we’re just living in it.
What advice would you give to artists wanting to get their music out there for Christmas opportunities?
From one artist to another artist, I think you just have to stay true to what you want to say, and if it happens to touch upon a Christmassy theme that’s great. You should never write a song for the sake of writing a song in a certain genre, it would be disingenuous. I sign a lot of producers and composers, and people are always sending their demos to Merry Bright. Some of them just want to write for the sake of having a Christmas song under their belt, and often that’s where the worst Christmas music comes from. So just stay true to your art.
And if you think your music is suitable, it’s about having relationships with supervisors and ad agencies, sync agencies, etc.
Yeah, it is based on relationships, and whether people really get who you are as an artist, you can’t fake that. Music is so subjective, and is based on the visceral reaction of the person that’s listening to it, so you can’t ever force the issue. It can only naturally be in a certain time and space.
What major sync opportunities have you had?
I think my first deal is most important because it took me several meetings to get, and it really taught me a lot. I had 9 songs licensed to the Kardashian Christmas Special, and I got that opportunity by constantly going out there and shaking people’s hands until my face became familiar. This one music supervisor saw me everywhere, and at first he didn’t get it, but then he had this project and he thought about me. So we ended up striking a deal, and t’s really a very poignant special because it was the last special that they did with Bruce Jenner.
Getting a sync deal really takes a leap of faith on the person that’s listening, and the right timing and circumstances. I have a reputation that took years to build; I’ve just released my fourth album! It’s about being very true to my business and my brand, because music supervisors have to trust you. You can’t pretend to be something you’re not, otherwise you won’t be a reliable source.
You have a new album out called Red and Green, and your single “Christmas in the City” has just charted on Billboard! Can you tell us about the record?
Yes it has! I write hundreds and hundreds of songs every year, and the ones that I feel are ready to put out are sometimes the ones that I’ve been marinating with for years. Every time I put out a record I always put out songs that broke on radio the year before, because my fans like the familiarity. All the songs I write come from my life, because I live Christmas every day. My album is really a mini autobiography.
I have one song, “A Christmas Song”, that I hope may be a classic. People have glommed onto it even though it’s never been on the radio, or marketed at all, and taken it upon themselves to make it their own. That’s the biggest honour any artist or composer can get.
Let’s end with a difficult question, what’s your favourite Christmas song?
I don’t have a favourite Christmas song! Every year, depending on how I feel, I glom onto one song that I listen to on repeat. This year it’s “The Christmas Waltz”, I’m really into that song. But I can’t choose a favourite, there’s no way! No way!
Thank you so much Liz, and Merry Christmas!
Thank you! I hope that everyone has a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays, and thank you to my team at Merry Bright Music!