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The renowned piano composer explains his method for reinterpreting Christmas favorites and writing original songs that strike to the heart.




Jim Brickman avoids "White Christmas." He's recorded a sleighful of Christmas classics and written several of his own, but that one gets messy - too much movement in the chords. But something like "Silent Night" or even "Blue Christmas" - that he can work with.

Brickman has become a Christmas tradition. His 2017 album, A Joyful Christmas, includes a new song called "We're Going Caroling" with Dick Van Dyke and Jane Lynch on vocals, and another called "Christmas Where You Are," a collaboration with John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting) that pays tribute to the many military personell who can't be home for the holidays.

Emerging from the Cleveland Institute of Music, Brickman cut his chops as a jingle writer before releasing his first album, the all-instrumental No Words, in 1994. His captivating piano arrangements earned him acclaim, and in 1997 he had his first crossover hit, "Valentine," with Martina McBride on vocals. The long list of singers he's worked with since includes Lady Antebellum, Wayne Brady, Kenny Rogers, Michael Bolton and Johnny Mathis. He's landed 36 songs on the Adult Contemporary chart and 45 on the New Age tally.

We used much of our time with Jim to deconstruct Christmas songs. Something we learned: When he plays "Jingle Bells," he runs into the same problem Schroeder does when he plays it for Lucy. We also found out how he creates his signature sound, and if there are any Christmas songs that make him go Grinch.

Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Jim, when do you have to start thinking about Christmas?

Jim Brickman: January 1st! I think about it even through the tour. Sometimes I'll be on stage on the Christmas tour and thinking, "Gosh, you know what would be cool to do next year?"

It's the way that I am. I think ahead quite often about the kinds of things that I want to do, so I conjure them up and then they fulfill throughout the year.

Songfacts: But you must be doing this material when it's sunny out and there are no signs of reindeer or sleigh or anything like that.

Jim: That's true, but I'm so connected with a lot of this music, especially if it's a brand-new song. If I were writing something that I wanted to be like "Jingle Bells" it might be harder, but in the case of "Christmas Where You Are," it's not really a Christmas song. It celebrates a feeling that happens during holiday time but it's not a Christmas song, per se.

Songfacts: Do you think you could say the same about "Sending You A Little Christmas"?

Jim: I think so. It's so interesting. Every time I write a song like one of those, I think to myself, "Why is it that it's only at this time of year that it's time to say, 'I miss you'?" It's because the emotional awareness of people and nostalgia is so amplified, so we tend to think that this is the time of year to write those things, but the message in that or in "Sending You A Little Christmas" or "The Gift" or "Christmas Where You Are" is evergreen.

Songfacts: When you and John sat down to write that song... I don't know if you even sat down, maybe you did it remotely.

Jim: No, we did.

Songfacts: I would like to know about how you wrote that and if there were any particular people that you had in mind?

Jim: Well, when you co-write there's always a dynamic between two people - the way that they connect. For example, John and I complement each other but we're very much alike in the sense that on the outside we have trouble expressing our emotions, but on the inside, when we write a song, they just come pouring out. His songs, if you really listen to them, are very much like that and so are mine.

So, when we sat down, this started with an idea that wasn't the troops idea. It started as an anthem/hymn type of thing based on church music or on very simple American themes, and it grew from there to where we started thinking about, where are the deepest emotions felt? Well, they're felt by people who are away from each other during the holidays. That's a time when everybody's talking about togetherness and family and friendship, and the ones that are the farthest away, literally, are the men and women who serve in the military. That's how we started down that road.

Songfacts: Was "Sending You A Little Christmas" a similar origin story?

Jim: It didn't start that way, but it was appropriated as that. When I wrote that, we were actually thinking more about kids not coming home from college, because the concept of that song was what you might send somebody. If you could send Christmas in a box, what would it be?

It's what I call a "list" song. You start with all the things you might put in this box that represent the relationship that you have with someone else. In that case, a candy cane, some gingerbread, a stocking I made that has your name on it. You start making a list of all the things you might put in a box to send somebody. Then it was sort of appropriated by the USO and Operation Care Package because of the message.

Songfacts: These are kind of interchangeable love songs for Christmas. Another song I think of that preceded these is "All I Want For Christmas Is You," the Mariah Carey song, which you've recorded. Was that an influence at all in your writing?

Jim: No. The reason I say that is because most songwriters, including amazing ones who have a legacy, will tell you there's only five ideas. So, these are the category of, I don't need material things when I have love, and that's a very common theme. That's really the theme in "The Gift." The gift that you give me is you - I don't need all this other stuff. I've probably written that song five or six times in a different fashion.

Songfacts: Do you consider "The Gift" a Christmas song?

Jim: I consider it a love song that takes place during holiday time. It sent me down this road of writing songs that are set in the holiday rather than about the holiday. When you write about people and relationships instead of about things or inanimate objects or weather or whatever, that's when it starts to connect, because everybody can relate to it.

So, you set the scene, almost like you're writing a book or a play. The winter snow is falling, it's holiday time, and really, when it comes down to it, the gifts that I care about most in life are you. I don't really want stuff, which is the same message as "All I Want For Christmas Is You."

Songfacts: Many songwriters need that lyrical starting point, maybe a title or a hook, but the majority of your songs are piano compositions. So, how do you even start writing one of those songs?

Jim: Well, I'm primarily a melody and hook writer, so I always have the hook. The concept and the hook, whether it's vocal or instrumental, always start with the idea. You have to have one strong idea, whether it's a lyric concept or whether it's a musical theme. And what I notice and what I feel like I've tried to create in my career is the concept that, if you start at the beginning when you're writing a song, it will end up on five different tangents and 12 different ideas. You have to know where you're headed in order to go back to the beginning.

So, I always like to write the theme first, even if it's a simple melody idea that in my mind would be the chorus, whether it's instrumental or vocal. I always start with the idea - a simple thought first.

Songfacts: Do you have to be at a piano when you're doing this?

Jim: Not always, no. Sometimes in my phone at the airport, sometimes when I hear other kinds of music. I'll hear, let's say, a rhythm. Sometimes if a song is playing wherever, even if it's in Target or something, and there's a rhythm that I connect to it, I'll start to sing in my mind. I'll start to sing a melody idea over like a rhythm track.

Songfacts: I'm starting to get an idea for how you put your own spin on so many Christmas songs that have already been written. You still need to come up with some kind of musical theme or hook. Can you talk about reinterpreting Christmas songs in this manner?

Jim: Yes. When you reinterpret hymns and carols, it comes very, very naturally. The harder ones to interpret are the pop songs, which is why, for the most part, I don't do pop songs in my live concerts or that much on the albums. I don't in concert do things like "White Christmas."

Pop songs that have certain chords and dynamics that are already really solidified you can't stray much away from or it won't sound like the song and then people won't connect to the familiarity of it. But, with hymns and carols, there are so many places to go and ways to get there because they're all the same chord structure and they're all extremely simple, so it gives you latitude to be able to interpret and invent. A lot of them are also only 8 or 16-bar phrases, so once you're through it one time you can't just keep playing the same thing over, you have to invent a B section that's complementary. So, in a way, I'm songwriting while I'm interpreting.

Songfacts: Were there any that you tried and failed?

Jim: "White Christmas" is a really hard one to do because there's so much movement in the chords. When there's that many chord changes in a short amount of time, if you don't play [sings chord progression] there's not a lot of opportunity to take that and do anything else with it than what it is already.

Songfacts: That's interesting because there are so many vocal versions of that song, but you're saying it's very hard to interpret on a piano.

Jim: Yeah, I could do it and it would be very pretty but if I played it for you and I took a lot of license, you might say it doesn't really sound like "White Christmas."

There aren't a lot of popular instrumental Christmas albums. Most times, vocalists cover the standards for the thousandth time, but there's not a ton of solo piano, pop instrumental versions of Christmas songs. When I first started it, it's where I found the real opportunity because there just was not that much of that out there.

Songfacts: It reminds me of the Peanuts bit where Schroeder is playing "Jingle Bells." Are you familiar with that?

Jim: Yeah, of course.

Songfacts: If you play it like somebody isn't used to hearing it, they're going to squawk.

Jim: Right, exactly. There's a fine line between that's a cool version of that song and that doesn't sound like the song.

One of the ways I handle that is to hasten back to theme and variation - come out and say it the way that people know it. For example, "Silent Night" is in three-quarter time, so I would play it the way people know it the first verse, and then the second verse I may straighten it out and play it in a four-four time. So, once you've established, "Oh, it's 'Silent Night,'" then it's almost like you have permission to be able to go off and interpret.

Songfacts: Right, because you give the listener something to come back to.

Jim: Yeah, exactly. This happens so often. I just judged a competition where it was like this. Most of the time, songwriters, artists, people who interpret or even write their own songs, start out by coming right out of the gate to impress you instead of just playing the song and then interpreting it and trying to impress you. To me, the objective is to connect emotionally with something. If I'm going to play covers, I'll do it with something that's familiar and then try to interpret it in a way that is heartfelt and authentic instead of, Watch how many notes I can play and how fast I can play them. Or just constant sound, which is the other thing that, a lot of times, people will do. There's so much sound with no silence and no space that you can't take in all of that at once. It's too much. It becomes noise after a while.

Songfacts: I'm thinking of "Let It Snow," but you can apply this to any number of these 1940s songs that were written by these brilliant songwriters. As you're saying, a lot of noise comes through. What happens when you try to interpret those?

Jim: Well, every composer is different. So, if it's somebody like Irving Berlin or Frank Loesser, their talent was to write catchy, familiar, whistle-out-of-the-theater music, and that's what you find when you hear some of those songs.

Simplicity is such an important part of it. But, there are only so many ways to vocally interpret it, and the more you try to be different, the more uncomfortable it can be. Because once you start thinking, "I'm going to be different," you're already past the point of authenticity because you're trying - it just doesn't come.

When I sit down, I make my choices about what to play on stage and on the recordings based on my ability to sit down and play it without even looking at the music. It's whatever comes to me. I just play it, and then if I can't find my way around it or I can't get it right away then I feel like it's not meant for me to be playing it.

Songfacts: One song that does have a very different feel when you do it is "Blue Christmas." I did not feel so "blue" after hearing your version of that song.

Jim: Well, this is the issue: "Blue Christmas" is synonymous with Elvis and I can imagine there are hardly any instrumental versions. Maybe there are, but I can't imagine there would be. But it's a very simple song so it comes naturally. If we were at a party and you said, "Can you play 'Blue Christmas'?" I wouldn't have to listen to it to be able to play it. And so, to me that says this is simple enough that I can interpret it and give it its own voice.

Songfacts: Is there another song other than "White Christmas" that you find immensely complicated?

Jim: "I'll Be Home For Christmas" is a difficult one, as well. The common theme between all these is that they change chords within the bar. So, [sings chord progression] those are four different chords, so there's no room to interpret. When you're doing "Silent Night" and the first four bars are all on the same chord, there's room to treat it dynamically in a different way: in the tempo, in the sounds and silences, in the time signature.

Songfacts: You were a jingle writer before you did this, as was Barry Manilow, who I think you've had on your radio show [the syndicated Jim Brickman Show]. What did you learn from jingle writing that applied to what you do now?

Jim: I learned creativity on demand because the time that I was given to do the work or to turn something around didn't lend itself to, "Oh, I don't feel like writing a song today." What that helps you do is not overthink things. It's like a recipe: it's never really done, you could constantly be toying with it, but at a certain point you have to stop. The time constraints helped me with my gut instinct about what was good and when it was ready.

I write very quickly and if I get together with a collaborator and something good doesn't come in the first couple of hours, then I feel like it's not meant to be, like it doesn't connect. And I don't mean the whole song, I just mean the concept. If we don't have one in a couple of hours I have to leave.

It also helped me as a producer. It helped me to work with singers and understand who's right for a song and who isn't, and why I would want somebody to sing one of my songs as opposed to someone else.

And, it helped me with style - instantly being able to do a style. So, somebody would say, "We want a country song today for an air freshener," and then the next day, "We want a reggae song," and then, "We want a '40s song." So, you have to be really adept at a lot of different writing styles.

Songfacts: Well, you're not only adept at writing styles but you've figured out the math behind how to sit down at a piano and make music that will create very specific moods. Can you talk about how you developed that and what the science is to it?

Jim: The science is not trying to do it. It's like somebody asking me, "Why did you decide to do this style of music instead of classical or ragtime?" I would say to that, I didn't decide. I didn't choose, it just is. It's how I play the piano. It happens to be that what comes naturally to me is fairly mainstream and fairly commercial.

I feel like I have the same music taste as my audience. I have very mainstream music tastes. I like pop songs, I like great singers, I like emotional songs, but I'm not a jazz aficionado. I don't like too much improv, but I love melody. And so, the science to it is being who you are. If that happens to be something that becomes popular, then of course I benefit, and I can continue to do it more and hone my skills at that.

It seems really obvious, but it's not something that I learned until I was more of a grown-up, like in my early 30 or mid-30s: You're not supposed to be like someone else, you're supposed to be like you. A lot of times, people will come up at concerts and say, "I want to be like you," and I say, "No, you want to be like you. There's already me. If I was like someone else, then you wouldn't be at my concert."

Songfacts: What is it about your style that is unique?

Jim: Well, that's a really hard thing to articulate, but I would say that the best way to describe it is that it allows for the listener, in my hope, to take in the feeling. There are enough moments of silence, there are enough moments of high emotion and bittersweet moments that it has an emotional arc. The only way you can do that is if you really give people a chance to take it in.

That's what I was referring to before about playing too many notes, because there's technical proficiency and then there's emotion. For example, there are a bunch of songs on my albums where there are mistakes in the performances. You might not notice it, but somebody really listening could hear it. And I leave them instead of making it perfect because I'm not after technique and perfection, I'm after the emotional connection.

So, it's really playing authentically what's coming from your heart, and simplicity is really, really important. A lot of times, if I'm tutoring somebody or I'm doing a masterclass and somebody plays for me, inevitably the concept will be really good, but they'll play it three times as fast as it should be. You've got to let it breathe.

People can't take in all of that information. It's like somebody who never stops talking. We speak in melody and we communicate with pauses. The way that we communicate verbally is in patterns like music, and if the music doesn't have silences or pauses or dynamics just like the way we talk, then it doesn't connect to people because it's just notes and technique.

That was a mouthful! Sorry about that.

Songfacts: Not a problem. You spoke about Christmas songs very objectively in terms of how they're played, but are there any that on an emotional level that you can't stand? That when you hear them on the radio you have to turn it off?

Jim: You know, with me, it's more about the version of the song than it is about the song itself. I was watching one of these TV specials that had pop stars on it for ratings. I don't know who it was - Ariana Grande or one of those people - and let's say they're singing "White Christmas." They do this phony, [sings] "Ah-ah-I'm dreaming of a wh-ah-ha-ha-hite..." It's like, you know what, sing the song. We know you're trying to be clever and unusual and everything, but it's just annoying to me.

I like to hear somebody who interprets the song with the spirit intended, let's say The Carpenters' Christmas album or Nat King Cole. You can take the song and make it your own, but don't re-write it to accommodate your vocal gymnastics. That drives me crazy.

Songfacts: I'm thinking about the vocalists you've worked with and they are not over-singers, they are people who really do support the song.

Jim: Yes, because singing a song is telling a story, and those people are most interested in singing the song because that's what they are good at. Like Kenny Rogers, I remember him saying to me, "I only want to sing a story. I don't really want to sing just any old song." Johnny Mathis, the same thing. Occasionally you get somebody who you're partnered with, not by choice but by politics or something, where it isn't that way, but most of the time that's true.

Songfacts: Did you already have the songs for Kenny Rogers and Johnny Mathis when you approached them?

Jim: Well, Johnny Mathis, I just wanted to do a song. I would do "Jingle Bells" just to work with him. But they asked me to send a bunch of original songs and he loved "Sending You A Little Christmas." When that type of thing happens, it's such an incredible honor and I'm always so blown away because there is a very big difference between he and I doing "Jingle Bells" together and him singing one of my songs.

And then Kenny, I actually sent five or six different songs, none of which he really connected with, and when it really came down to the wire, I thought, OK, think about him and how he would sing a song. So, I started over again and that's when I wrote "That Silent Night," because I could hear him singing it rather than attaching him to something that already existed.

Songfacts: Was "Valentine" the first vocal composition you did?

Jim: The first duet on the album that had a vocal was a song called "By Heart." It was on my second album, and it was a single. I asked the girl who sang the demo, Laura Creamer, to sing it. She's a jingle singer and demo singer primarily, but she sang it so great on the demo that when I kept pitching it to other people, every time I listened I thought, "Why am I trying to pitch someone else to sing it? She's perfect for this." She's not famous, but so what?

Songfacts: But then when you did do "Valentine" you ended up with Martina McBride, who I guess was pretty early on in her career at that point.

Jim: Yes. It's always revisionist history. People say to me, "What was it like to work with Lady Antebellum?" and I'm dying to say, "Why don't you ask them what is was like working with me?" Since I practically discovered them.

With Martina McBride, at that time we were both in the same category. We were in our own respective genres but it was a perfect match at a perfect time with the right song and the right singer and the right production and the right tone. Everything about it was right.

Songfacts: Tell me about writing the song "Valentine."

Jim: Again, it really goes back to simplicity. The song title comes first. I thought it was odd that for a day or for a word that is such a euphemism for love that there wasn't a song that celebrated it, considering that most songs are love songs. So, it seemed odd to me that the only one was a sad song: "My Funny Valentine."

The word "valentine" is a euphemism for love or a replacement word for love, so I wrote it like, "You are my love," only, "You are my valentine."

I like to write the way people speak, instead of with too much poetry. What do people say? how do they communicate? "Will you be my valentine?" "You're my valentine." So, that's what you write in the song: "You're all I need, you're my valentine."

"Christmas Where You Are" is very poetic but that's a lot of John's sensibility. I like to write the way people talk or have conversations but with enough descriptive tone or enough visual imagery to complement. But, at the core, the message and the way they're written is intended to be the way people talk.

Songfacts: I haven't heard it yet, but can you talk about the song you did with Dick Van Dyke and Jane Lynch?

Jim: Well, I didn't write that song, but that was another situation, like with Johnny Mathis, where they could have been singing the alphabet - it wouldn't make any difference to me. The first movie that I ever went to in my life was Mary Poppins, and I told my mom when I was four years old, when I got home from the movie, that I wanted to call Dick Van Dyke on the phone and tell him how much I loved his performance. It was so emotional, and it really got me interested in music.

Jane approached me about it and asked if I wanted to have him on. Uh, yes. He's on the TV special as well.

At this point in my career, what you learn and what you gain by the wisdom of people like him or people like Johnny Mathis or Kenny Rogers, is so fulfilling. It really helps to put everything in context. The audience thinks it's cool because it's Dick Van Dyke, but I also get a lot from it, personally.

Songfacts: Just as you do when you bring a guest onto your show: the audience gets something out of it, but you also get something out of it, personally.

Jim: Yeah, because I ask the questions. One of the most enlightening things that Dick Van Dyke said was, "You know, I still feel like I'm faking it." And he's 92 years old! I said, "I know exactly what you mean." He articulated it by saying, "When something comes so easy to you and so naturally, and you're not working at it, you feel like you're faking it because how can it feel so easy when you're not even putting that much effort in? You must be faking it."

Those kind of life lessons are so valuable - I feel like they could teach so many things to young people coming up in the business.

Songfacts: Wow, that's tremendous.

Jim: It is, and I totally know what he means. I feel the same way when you ask me about my style. Part of me wants to say, "I have no idea. I sit there, and I put my hands on there and it just does it. I don't know." It's what I want to say, but some people are that way and I admire that in others because I relate to it.

Songfacts: Most creative people have a very hard time articulating what they do, and I know that's a very hard question and I appreciate you being able to answer it.

Jim: I'm very conscious when I'm writing about how it's going to be taken. I'm not in a bubble, and so I'm very conscious of what I'm playing right now, once it becomes digital and gets into somebody's life, how are they going to use it? So, I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm not just making art to hang on a wall for somebody to admire. I'm doing it to share, and if there's not an emotional connection, then I must be either trying too hard to make it something that it's not, or it's not connecting.

Songfacts: Are there certain Christmas songs that lend themselves to improvisation?

Jim: There are a lot of Christmas songs that lend themselves to improvisation. There are many times when, usually for the encore, I will mash up Christmas songs and honestly do not even know what I'm going to play. So, there are a handful of songs that usually fall into that category: "The First Noel," "Silent Night," "O Holy Night," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "We Three Kings," "Carol of the Bells," "Greensleeves." These all have the same chords for the most part - a similar chord balance and structure. You can put them in a medley and have it sound completely seamless.

November 30, 2017
Get A Joyful Christmas and tour dates at jimbrickman.com

    About the Author:

    Carl WiserCarl was a disc jockey in Hartford, Connecticut when he founded Songfacts as a way to tell the stories behind the songs. You can also find him on Rock's Backpages.More from Carl Wiser
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