10 Questions with ... Elizabeth Chan
December 2, 2013
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
1) Please tell us about your musical journey, and how you quit your day job to pursue your dream of starting a career writing Christmas songs?
My journey started no differently than most people across this country. Everyday for many years, I would go into an office, start my day with two cups of coffee, work hard at the office, head into a happy hour or dinner, sleep, and repeat. Before I knew it, the years had gone by. I had a corporate job, a cubicle which turned into an office, and a resume which was great on paper.
Ironically, I also worked for a magazine company where paper is king. The only problem is my heart does not run on paper. If anything, it runs on music notes. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to write a famous Christmas song. Christmas music magically transports me to a time where everything made sense. It brings me this visceral joy that I want to help bring to other people. I knew this when I was a child, but it didn't really make sense until I was an adult.
A few years ago, I had this epiphany that everything on paper wasn't enough. While walking through a flea market I had an "A Ha!" moment. I was looking through these photographs of strangers, selling for about a quarter each. They were surrounded by piles of things that may have meant something to hundreds of people at some point in the past. We spend all of our days working hard to amass all this stuff and things. At the end of the day, at the end of our lives, we cannot take it with us.
Our lives were meant to leave something meaningful behind. For some of us, that is our lineage, our families. For me, I had always wanted to leave a great song behind. A song that would outlive me, and people would love beyond my generation and those who came after me.
I've pretty much given up the pursuit of paper, the pursuit of things, to pursue my dream, which is to leave a great song behind. Like the Irving Berlin did.
2) Your new album "Everyday Holidays" includes a song called "Fa La La" which is directed towards many faiths and even includes a verse about Chanukah. Please tell us about your inspiration for writing this song?
You can say I put the "Chan" in Chanukah! I really wanted to write and produce a song that had a, certain timelessness to it. Being a born and raised as a New Yorker, I have been to my fair share of Bar and Bat Mitzvah's growing up. Many of my friends are Jewish, and while being completely supportive of my journey, they would often ask, "Why not a Chanukah song?" I decided this was completely valid, and when I thought about the two holidays, I started to compare and highlight the joys we all share when we celebrate the holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas or Chanukah - some families celebrate both. We share the way in our holidays! Between the lights, the ornaments, the presents and the smiles on family trees!
My production inspiration was simple. Some of my favorite Christmas records ever were written by Stevie Wonder. At the time of penning the tune, I was inspired by Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas," and Macklemore's "Can't Hold Us." I really wanted to come up with a great a song that split the difference between the feel of both those songs, and still keep a timelessness of a great holiday record but also have a bump and a groove that would bring holiday music back into our present!
Also being a born and raised New Yorker, I wanted to pen a song that was evocative of New York City. Nothing says New York City like a great saxophone. I was so lucky to work with some of the best musicians on this record. "Fa La La" is also the first record I ever produced on my own, (under the tutelage and guidance of record producer Steve Lillywhite).
3) How does it feel to have "Fa La La" crack the Top 10 on the Mediabase Holiday Chart this past week?
I have dedicated every second, ounce of energy and resource towards penning holiday music. To have "Fa La La" crack the Top 10 Holiday Chart is an extraordinary feeling. It is also humbling as I've shared the list with some artists I look up to and admire.
The most important aspect of "Fa La La" is not so much the charting, although I am so grateful and thankful for it. But it shows people that you are never too old, too broke, too anything to go after your dream!
4) The video for your previous release "A Christmas Song" was filmed in New York's Times Square. You had dance troops, choreography, and you ended up with a big production which seems like it took a lot of advanced planning? Please tell us about the process you went through in making this video?
When I was listening to the final mixes of "A Christmas Song," I was on the New York City Subway. All of a sudden, visions of sugar plums started dancing in my head (in the dead of summer).
I was walking out of the subway and I saw this vision of people dancing around me. I didn't know how else to capture it, but to put my vision down in stick figures. That is literally how the music video started. I didn't know how I was going to accomplish the vision but I knew that it had to be created.
When I first told people my idea of having a one shot music video in Times Square with many dancers in costumes, it was very difficult to find someone to help me produce the music video. Everyone told me that it would be impossible. No one wanted to help me at first because it seems too daunting a task.
I was lucky enough to have a friend who was in a dance crew. She believed in me and my vision and brought the idea to her friends. Once they heard the song they really wanted to help me. I met them with my book of stick figures and they were able to translate my vision into choreography. I then found a video crew that also wasn't afraid of the task.
The final piece was convincing the Mayor's office of New York City to let me film in Times Square. Once I told them my idea, they were on board and gave me special permission as permits for that area were embargoed.
What it boils down to is that when an artist has a clear vision, it will get done! No matter what the restrictions, no matter the nay-sayers, no matter what! The art will be created. That music video is indicative of the village it took to raise that Christmas song, and that music video. I'm so humbled by the almost 100 volunteers it took.
5) You produced this album and you were consulted by Steve Lillywhite (Dave Matthews, U2, Thirty Seconds To Mars, etc). Please tell us what it was like working with this legendary producer?
Steve has been a key person in my journey. He has helped me to find the courage to produce my records the way I hear them and not give up!
His belief and voice of support in me helped me to stay focused and trust in my ability to create great Christmas records. He had advised through the making of this last record and I have been so lucky to have had his tutelage and his ear on this record. His support helped me to find courage, and with that courage I kept taking steps forward.
I really value the time Steve took to help me by answering my questions, listening to the mixes and giving me advice. As a novice record producer, he had identified "Fa La La" as a song that could be great from the initial scratch demo. I owe his vote of confidence in me and my music for the strides I have made in my holiday songwriting career today.
6) You are a unique artist in that you only release Holiday songs. Do you also write other songs as well?
For the past two years, I have only written holiday songs (except for one song I wrote for the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, a tragedy that has affected my life and family). Before that, I had not written songs in almost a decade.
I have written non-holiday songs in my life, and I wrote many when I was a teenager and all through college. I have books of lyrics and tapes of songs. People ask me this question all the time and if I would be interested in writing non-holiday music. As of now I'm just very focused on writing a great holiday record.
7) Several songs from your album "Everyday Christmas" have been licensed to "The Kardashians, A Very Merry Christmas" which recently premiered on E! Please tell us about this experience?
Christmas music is it. That is it. This is my world, my life and my fulltime job. I don't have a backup plan. I made a concerted decision to dedicate my life to this career and this journey.
Earlier this year, I realized that I would need to find some allies to help me keep on this path. Quitting your day job was tricky as I no longer had that stability to fall back on. In its place was urgency. I cashed in every frequent flier mile I had, packed up a book bag filled with Kind Bars and Purell and tried to meet as many people as I possibly could who wanted to hear anything about me and my holiday music journey. I attended conferences, networking meetings, I went to the ASCAP Expo, and any event that I could make it to, I was there.
I had met Jonathan Weiss, not once but twice, in two different cities. I had two different opportunities to remind him that I was a holiday songwriter. He was not working on holiday projects both of the times I met him.
He admitted to me that he didn't quite understand why I would write only holiday music until he heard my music and paired it with "The Kardashians: A Very Merry Christmas," he told me he finally understood what I was creating and thought my songs were fantastic for the special. The experience was pretty straight forward. He listened to my entire record "Everyday Holidays" and out of the 11 songs, he asked for 9 to license. The rest is history!
8) You were signed to Sony Japan (C+C Music Factory) early in your career. Please tell us about this experience?
Many people are only hearing about me for the first time this year. The truth is, my journey in the music business is not an overnight thing. I was first signed when I was 15 years old and I was discovered during an audition by Anastasia.
At the time, signing a record deal was really traumatic. I didn't really have the freedom to be the kind of artist I wanted to be. Nor did I have any say in the projects I was part of. I was signed for a while and I was part of not just one but two shelved albums. That experience made me question whether I could ever make it in music. Then a major tragedy occurred in my life, and I felt that music wasn't in my cards. So I walked away onto a different career path. At that moment in my life, I had to walk away from music. The funny thing about music is that it never really leaves you if you were born to create it.
9) Please tell us what is it like running your own label as an indie artist, versus being on a major label?
My second act in the music business has been both liberating and terrifying at the same time. It's almost the polar opposite experience I had from being signed the first time.
I now have all the freedom in the world to make any decision I want. The scariest part is wondering if I was right or wrong? I have learned that in running your own label, you have to embrace failure. It's not the falling that makes failure great. It's the ability to get back up again.
I have made some mistakes on my journey, but with those mistakes have come an enormous education. I love being able to run my own label because the truth is, no one is going to discover your art anymore. Scooter Braun isn't going to knock on my door, Simon Cowell is not calling me for coffee. You have to stay true to your art, and also take your art in your own hands and figure out a way to get it out there.
I really respect independent artists like me everywhere. It's a constant struggle to stay dedicated to your art and vision. The struggle is both brutal and beautiful at the same time. This is what life is about. Carving out what you can from the time you are given.
10) What are your plans for the future? Will we be hearing new music from you for many a Christmas to come?
Life and luck willing, I will continue to write new Christmas and Holiday music for the rest of my life. I'm just at the beginning. I've already penned over 320 original holiday songs, I already have the track listing of my next album in my mind!
I would love to write holiday music for other artists as well. Would love to share this love I have for the holidays with other artists!
What do you do in your spare time?
I am consumed with Christmas related stuff! I do love the Food Network and the Cooking Channel! I will often catch what I've missed on my DVR. I love cooking!
Believe it or not, I also have a singing dog! We go on adventures and sing.
What is your favorite Christmas movie?
Other than my life being a real Christmas movie, "Home Alone!" I quote "Home Alone" almost everyday in every meeting. "Christmas is the Season of Perpetual Hope!"
Before "Home Alone," it was definitely "A Christmas Story."
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Whitney Houston is my greatest vocal influence along with Stevie Wonder, The Beach Boys, The Carpenters, The Beatles, and Irving Berlin. I respect and appreciate the songwriters and the artists that have laid the groundwork for me to have discovered my passion for Holiday music.
Who are some of the artists we might find on your MP3 player?
When I'm having a bad day, I almost always want to listen to Hall & Oates. There's something about "I Can't Go For That," or the Doobie Brothers "What a Fool Believes" that can pick me up!
Of course I listen to Christmas music all year round! I do listen to the radio everyday and am a fan of Top 40! The artists I listen to are constantly changing, but there isn't a genre of music I don't like.
I'm a Holiday song composer across many genres so I love all music. Right now, between the Hall and Oates and my lifelong favorites, I'm into the new Eminem record about his mom called "Headlights." It gave me goose bumps after the first listen because I can relate to what he's saying.
Much of my Christmas music is along those lines of repairing relationships. I've had the extraordinary opportunity to attend the Country Music Awards this year, so I'm on a bit of a Country kick! Some of the tracks I'm loving are "Sober" by "Little Big Town" and Taylor Swifts Bluegrass version of "Red" is inspiring.
What is the one truth that has always remained constant throughout your career?
No matter what circumstance, career, responsibility I have always lived by one proverb,
"If you sit by an inkwell you'll get dirty."
I always try to surround myself by good people. People that I admire and people I respect, so that I can myself be good, admirable and respected.