Fandoms like to argue over whether Mariah Carey or Darlene Love is the true queen of Christmas. But can you really be queen if you aren’t doing Christmas music full-time?
That is the musical question raised by a lesser known contender for the throne, Elizabeth Chan, who has staked her claim as the only singer-songwriter of any renown who does nothing but original holiday songs. This year Chan is celebrating not just the holidays but the tenth anniversary of her first Christmas record. The New York-based artist has subsequently released an album a year since 2011, generating a number of singles that have invaded AC radio charts that are otherwise focused almost entirely on oldies once they flip the switch to all-Xmas formats for the month of December.
Her newest album, “Greatest of These Days,” honors the landmark by including remakes of some of the songs she wrote and recorded this last decade, with new ones sprinkled in. Chan appeared on ABC’s “GMA3” Thursday morning to perform her new single, “A Christmas Song” (a re-do of the first holiday number she ever wrote, which appeared on her 2011 debut). If you’re finding this article after seeing that or hearing her in the background on your shopping rounds, you may suspect there’s a lot of backstory to someone making an entire career out of Christmas tuneage, and you’d be right. In this conversation, Chan tells Variety about the joys and challenges of only having the season as her reason for forging a career in music.
VARIETY: Did you foresee that you’d be doing a Christmas album every year for 10 years — or, it looks like at this point, perpetually into the future?
CHAN: It’s funny. I was just in my email just now, looking for something, and I found this email that I had sent my lawyer at the time who asked me: Why did I want to quit my job and go into Christmas music? He asked me to send him the pros and cons. And I had no idea that I would be doing this for 10 years. When I wrote back to that email, I said I was going to try it for five to eight months to see what would happen. But having it as a side hustle wasn’t working for me, because I knew that it was the kind of thing that required me to put everything into it, in order for me to really be sincerely the Christmas songwriter and artist that I have become. I’m generally an all-or-nothing person.
And it’s not like if Christmas music didn’t work out for you, you would just go do non-Christmas tunes. It wasn’t a gimmick for you. You were going to write Christmas songs or nothing. What hooked you?
Since I was a little girl, and even now, the minute that Christmas music starts, I literally listen to it 24 hours a day. And I actually think it’s cooler to be a Christmas music fan now, because I can listen to radio stations all over the world (on the web) and find new Christmas songs, and I feel like it’s a scavenger hunt. It’s like going into like a musical thrift shop. Everyone plays different songs in different areas of the world. It’s kind of awesome.
What in your childhood connected you to Christmas music to an extreme that the average kid might not experience?
I grew up really poor, so I didn’t have all the things that I do now with my children. We didn’t have gingerbread houses. We didn’t have advent calendars. The only thing that we had to really usher in the holiday season was music. And I grew up Catholic, so I would go to Sunday mass and I would come back with hymns in my head, and I would make up other lyrics at home. I think like for me, this idea of faith and music was just something I was raised with. It’s very Filipino. It’s not just religious; it’s very cultural. When I went to the Philippines after becoming a recording artist, everything made sense. Because up until that point, I was just an American girl who just grew up with American Christmas music, and I happened to be half-Chinese, half-Filipino, but it didn’t occur to me that the way I was raised was really an intrinsic part of me appreciating Christmas music.
It was not something that I like grew out of. Every year when Christmas music played, I got really emotional about it and I started to tear up, and that still happens today. It’s just very true to who I am. Obviously the songs that I know the best hit a little harder. I was walking through the mall earlier today and I heard Michael Buble’s “Christmas Sweater,” and I got really happy. It just overwhelms me. I feel like I’m home — like I’m the place where I belong — and then when it’s gone, I get sad.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in lower Manhattan, in Battery Park City. During the winter, it would just be this incredible playground of a winter wonderland. There weren’t a lot of kids in my neighborhood growing up; it was very isolated, with tons of fields and empty lots and just acres and acres of snow. It was really beautiful. It’s not like that anymore. Now it’s like a crowded cesspool of COVID! We have the No. 1 cases of COVID today, and I’m like, “Yay!” But when I was growing up here, everything was magical. I mean, Cirque du Soleil was right out my window, because it was empty plots of land. They used to do this hot-air balloon festival in Battery Park City, and I’d just be sitting in my living room and then all of a sudden, all these hot air balloons would be flying and I’d be like, “Oh my God, magic is normal.” It was a really strange and magical childhood. But it was not a magical adulthood. [Laughs.]
You’ve tried to bring some heavier themes or emotions into some of your albums over the last 10 years and not have it be all frivolity.
When I approach an album, I do approach it as like a snapshot in the moment of my journey as a Christmas artist, and what are like the salient points I want to share with my fans and my audience about what Christmas means to me at this moment in my journey, and how that could relate to others? I see writing Christmas music as a service. I know this sounds so stupid, but I really do. One of the reasons why I wanted to write original music was I felt, yeah, we all love “Holly Jolly Christmas,” but we are also living in very distinctive times and in really distinctive human experiences. And I use Christmas music as a focal point to describe a year in review, or the way that I would sum up how I feel about a particular moment in time. So while we’re all kind of contemplating the good and bad aspects of the year during the season, I think it’s silly that we only wait until Christmas to evaluate things, but that’s the moment that we do it. So I want to provide the soundtrack for that. And so when I think about how I’m going to release, I think about, what would the message be that I could help comfort people with?
So I just use my own life and my experience. I wasn’t a mom when I started writing Christmas music, and let me tell you, my life is totally different now. And I’ve been through a lot of shit in the last 10 years. I don’t often talk about it because people I don’t really have a chance to.
What was like some of the heaviest stuff that you wanted to actually get across in your music as it evolved over the last 10 years?
Well, I was battling a very serious illness, and there were times where I thought I wouldn’t make it through. And that’s when I wrote “If the Fates Allow.” Because that phrase (from “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) has always stuck with me. In the history of Christmas music, we kind of gloss over that the original version of that song (had the lyrics) “We’ll have to muddle through somehow.” When Frank Sinatra did his version of the song, he actually made it more happy, but for some reason (the original version) kind of stuck with me. And so during this period of my life where it was really difficult, I would constantly say: I will see a better side of this — I will get through this — if the fates allow. And I started to curate a whole album about overcoming adversity or accepting that life will change. When I released “If the Fates Allow” three or four years ago, it’s not the kind of thing that is on people’s radars. It’s more like, “Oh, Elizabeth came out with another Christmas song. ‘If the Fates Allow’ — that’s really clever.” But every song that I choose as a single is especially meaningful to me.
Last year, it was Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Home.” I rarely do covers, but being kind of quarantined in my home as a pregnant woman, an Asian American woman, working from home, there were a lot of challenges. I couldn’t leave my house because my doctors told me pregnant women are very susceptible to COVID. Or just the layer of the Asian American hate crimes going on in my neighborhood. I was listening to Christmas music in April, and then when I heard “Celebrate Me Home,” which is truly one of my favorites, it transformed in my ears. It was suddenly a different song, and the title phrase was something that just completely shifted, and I needed to make my own version and share it with the world because I knew at that moment that’s the song everybody needed.
I’m very heart on my sleeve about this. I’m not like Kelly Clarkson and I’m not like Michael Bublé. Usually that one song that I put out is the one message that I want to share with people. I’m going to cry now because I just realized I’m really lucky to have had the chance to share my art in this way. It’s very difficult. It’s a really competitive space. It’s a hard sell when most people don’t know who I am 330 days of the year, and then I come back like a Christmas meerkat, and I share the songs and stories and then I disappear again. But when I think about like writing Christmas music, I feel very fortunate, and it comes from like a really personal place of just wanting to share my human experience with everybody else.
You were just on “GMA,” but otherwise you’re not performing this year.
I literally gave up so many performances and so many gigs and so many appearances because I still have two unvaccinated children at home. I have to walk the walk. I would love to have the best Christmas season professionally, but not at the mercy of my personal life or my family. I have a one-year-old, and I literally just spent two years keeping her alive in a pandemic, along with my other child. But I wouldn’t want to know what my Christmas music is like without my children. So I’ll do anything it takes to keep them safe.
Are you writing Christmas material all year long or do you tend to write it during the season for the following year?
Oh, I never write during the season. I write music from January to February through maybe July and August, and then I record the album and I hand it in for distribution to all my partners. I come up with like the marketing plan and everything. And by September, I’m already working on promoting the album. Outside of the season, I’m still working on Christmas stuff, whether it’s licensing to film and television or scoring pieces. I mean, I’ve ghostwritten Christmas songs for artists, too. So this is something that I do all year round, this is not something that just happens at the end of the year. And I’m only one person, so it takes me an entire year to get this work done…. There’s not a day where I’m not writing Christmas music. I’m constantly singing, you know, melody ideas, jotting down lyrics. I’m constantly inspired and pulling from my everyday life. And I think it’s kind of good that I live a life where I think about Christmas every day, because I think I’m offering a different lens on the season.
It’s never a challenge or a chore for you, in the middle of February or March, to say, “Okay, I’ve got to be inspired by Christmas somehow, even though it’s St Patrick’s Day”?
No. You know, what’s really funny is that I celebrate Chinese New Year, and Chinese New Year is like a cross between Thanksgiving and Christmas for Chinese people. So it’s like my beta test of family reunions, and a lot of the situations and the themes are the same. And I think the most important thing that helps as a Christmas songwriter is retrospect. I think when you’re in the holiday season, it’s not as good as when you’re outside of it and recalling or remembering. I think in order to write something, you need a little bit of space from it to really think about what you want to say.
What was the job that you pulled yourself out of when you realized you needed to do this full-time?
Executive director of integrated marketing for Conde Nast. I worked in the publishing side of Self magazine. I was just coming up with like integrated marketing plans for Dunkin Donuts or whatever the client wanted. I was really good at it, but I was just like, what am I doing this for? How do I help people? If I put this towards my own dreams, what would happen?
Did you have a lot of money saved up to finance this dream?
I had just gotten married. We had saved money for a down payment for an apartment, and that was what we started with, and it wasn’t even that much money. I think in my mind, it wasn’t really going to be like that much of a risk, and that’s why I said five to eight months. But the more that I realized that I had this gift of wanting to create Christmas music, the deeper that I got, the more I knew I couldn’t let it go. And me and my husband went through all of our money. It was so bad. There was a New York Times article yesterday about how dollar pizzas aren’t a dollar anymore, and I got sad because I literally lived off of dollar pizzas during our most stark financial times. I knew that if I just kept going and stayed focused, I would figure it out and it would be okay. But I mean, it took years, and it wasn’t okay. It was really bad, actually.
It was hard because I was doing it the way that people told me. People said to me that you need to get a publishing deal to write for famous artists, and that was not working for me at all. I couldn’t crack placing songs on albums. And I was offered a publishing deal, but they wouldn’t let me just write Christmas music. They explained that I would need a quota (of non-seasonal songs), and I didn’t want to do that. So I didn’t have a blueprint or a guidebook.
What was a turning point?
Really it didn’t finally click until I sat down next to the music supervisor of Bunim Murray Productions at a conference. And this was like the third conference that he had seen me at. And he said to me, you know what, I already seen you in like three different cities in the last like year, like you do Christmas music. And like, yeah. He was like, “Well, I’m doing a Christmas special for the Kardashians. Send me some of your music.” And he licensed nine of them. And he asked me, “Who’s your publishing company?” And I was like, “Oh, I have my own.” And he’s like, “ And what about the masters?” And I’m like, “Oh, those are from my company too.” And that’s how I quickly started a record company and a publishing business. Because I’d been waiting for someone to give me a chance — waiting to meet a publisher or somebody to do it for me — but I that’s how I formalized my business, with my first client.
You said you’ve done some ghostwriting for other artists?
I don’t want to out the artists that I wrote Christmas songs for, but yes, I have.
What was that like?
My goal is really simple: I just want to create a standard by the end of my life — something that I could look back on and say, “I did it. I’m leaving behind a song.” I don’t even want to be remembered. I just want to leave behind a “Jingle Bells” or a “Silent Night,” a standard that would outlive me and live forever. What is that song going to be? It might not even come from me as an artist. It might come from somewhere else. So I’m just willing to put as many songs out there and see what sticks.
I literally have over a thousand songs at this point. People don’t realize it, but I have like 30 songs that play at any given time in the universe. During the season, I get like dozens of texts a day from people around the world saying, “I just heard you in Ikea,” or at Walmart. I can see the songs that stick with people in different ways, in different parts of the world, and I’m just waiting to see what that song is going to be, and the magic ingredient is time. I don’t get to decide that, you know? I don’t know if I’m on the verge of the best song.
You don’t get tired of it? You don’t ever think that publishing company was right back then, when they told you that you couldn’t limit yourself to Christmas?
Being a Christmas artist is really special because I can bring people together in a way that you can’t with other forms of music. I really think it’s my calling. I mean, I’m not Black, I’m not white, I’m Asian. I grew up half-Filipino, half-Chinese and an all-American girl with Italian and Greek godparents. I went to Quaker school. I have more Jewish friends than I can count. I have this very distinctive perspective of the world and a real respect of people’s faith and belief and love and family and home… And I think that it’s a responsibility of mine that I take really seriously. So, no, I don’t tire of it. I worry that I won’t have enough time. Everything else is bullshit.
What’s some of your favorite Christmas music by other artists?
I really love Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” I love anything Stevie Wonder did. But the one song that really makes me pause that I love so much is Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” because it’s such a real song.
The beautiful thing about Christmas music is that it’s never just about one song. Could you imagine living a Christmas season and only deciding to listen to one song? You’d go crazy. The beauty of Christmas is like Christmas lights. You can’t just have one; you have to have a string of them.
There’s still nobody else doing what you’re doing, 10 years later.
You know, I produce all my own music, too. So I’ll just call up the musicians that I work with and I’ll be like, “Okay, today we’re going to do a humongous horn section.” The fun part about being just a Christmas artist is that I work in different genres. So I might do a jazz record or, like, a rock record or a power ballad or a gospelly-sounding record.
Sometimes it’s a very lonely place to be me, because everyone reminds me how small I am in this major-label world. Everybody tells me, “Oh, Elizabeth, you should do cover songs, because radio programmers only want new versions of the standards.” And that is not true, because if that was the truth. I would not be here 10 years later. People think they know, but they don’t know, about what makes Christmas records. They just know what makes Christmas money, and that’s different. I wish they would stop saying that and just start enjoying and embracing that we do like new music, and we do like new thoughts on, like, how Christmas is different from the ‘50s. Christmas for me is very different from what my parents or my grandparents experienced, but the tenets are the same and the belief and the joy of the season are the same. I just feel like I get so frustrated with the music business in that sense, but I’m here for the long run because nobody has more heart for the genre than me.