Posted December 19, 2017 by Jeff in Tunes

Jim Brickman: A Joyful Christmas

Jim Brickman
Jim Brickman

Grammy-Nominated songwriter and pianist Jim Brickman began releasing holiday albums way back in 1997. He’s just issued his latest endeavor, A Joyful Christmas. It includes the first single, “Christmas Where You Are,” a collaboration with the rock band Five For Fighting. He spoke to us via phone from a Grand Rapids tour stop.

You started playing piano at age 5. What motivated you to start to learn how to play?
Honestly, it was really just music that attracted me. It was the idea that I could express myself on something that was so beautiful. It was the way I found that I could say some of the things that I didn’t know how to say verbally. I was inspired by movies and anytime I heard music, it connected and moved me. It wasn’t necessarily the piano as much as it was the idea of making music. It just happened to take shape on the piano.

What was your experience at the Cleveland Institute of Music like?
I was a little bit of a black sheep. I was sort of known as such. I think they came to appreciate that. At first, it was like, “What are you doing here?” I had gone to their preparatory department and had taken lessons from one of the only jazz improv teachers at a place that had classical pianos everywhere. I took improv jazz and classical and I had two different teachers.

How’d you transition from writing commercial jingles to making albums?
I loved doing jingles. I did it for a long time. I did it until my early 30s. It was my career. I didn’t have designs on anything else. I think people who do what I do aim towards that. I didn’t think of it as a stepping stone to lead me to something. It was what I was doing. I became fairly successful as it. Once I had done every product, store, mall, dog good and cat litter, I felt like I had done it. Because I started when I was 18 and 19, I don’t think I was emotionally ready to write about life or love.

Until you’ve lived a little bit of life, it’s hard to write about love, which is mostly what I write about now.

You signed to Windham Hill Records in 1994. Talk about what it was like to be on that label.
It was perfect. I had gone to a lot of labels. What led me from the jingle business was that I had moved to Los Angeles. I felt like if I went to L.A., I would have different kinds of experiences. I could write songs for other people and do movie scores. I didn’t go with the mission to be a solo artist. But when I decided there was a place for this type of music in the world, that’s when I went to labels. The most common reaction would be, “There’s no singing or anything? There’s no rhythm section? There’s just piano? It’s just you?” That still happens in my live performances. It’s just me.

You released your first Christmas album back in 1997. What made you go there?
The music by nature is of an emotional quality. It tends to be celebrated quite often during high emotional times like weddings and the birth of a child and Valentine’s Day. It really lends itself to the emotional connection with the nostalgia of Christmas. Songs [such as “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” or “Silent Night”] are so oversaturated . . . when someone tries to cover them as a vocal, there are only so many ways to do it. Beyond that, it’s always compared to the definitive. It’s never so unique. If it’s too different, it doesn’t sound like the song, and if it’s too much the same, why bother covering it?

Did you try to do something differently on A Joyful Christmas?
Yes and no. One of the things that’s happened over time, is that there’s lots of original songs. As a songwriter, which is what I think of myself as more than a pianist, I started to write songs that are their own contemporary Christmas classics. There’s always a portion of original music. “Hallelujah” is original. It’s an anthem made for choirs. That’s made for them. “Christmas Where You Are” is a tribute for the troops. That’s the Five For Fighting duet. The aim is to be eclectic as possible and give as much variety as possible while keeping the through line. There’s a consistency in the tone but a variance of energy and emotional moments. I love the idea of having Dick Van Dyke on the same album as Five for Fighting. You can still play it while you’re trimming the tree. Especially in a playlist world, it acts that way in some fashion.

How’d you team up with Dick Van Dyke?
It was just crazy. The first movie I had ever went to, my grandmother took me to Mary Poppins and I was enthralled. It had of impact, the music and joy and just the energy of it. I was so enamored with Dick Van Dyke. I told my mom that I wanted to call him on the phone and tell him how much I liked his performance. My mom said I couldn’t. When I met him, I told him it only took me 50 years.

“We’re Going Caroling” (also featuring Jane Lynch) is really freewheeling.
It’s the only kind of song he could sing and have it be like that. It has to be nostalgic. Something similar happened when I worked with Johnny Mathis, which was also a “pinch me” moment. You hope that they sound like the person you think you’re going to sound like. You forget that as singers age, that’s not a given. Dick is 92. He sounds like he hasn’t aged at all. It’s a perfect. It was a perfect talk/singing song for him.

Having done Christmas tours for years, what keeps it fresh and exciting for you?
It’s a challenge that a lot of us have. If you have a handful of hits that people want to hear, then some of it will be the same because the songs are the same. People want to hear the hits. There’s a certain aspect that requires you play certain songs. The tone and the concepts are how you do it. For example, I take a direction for what I feel like is needed in live entertainment. A few years ago, the tour was called “On a Winter’s Night.” It felt like a time that was more reflective, and people were talking about the meaning of Christmas. This year, what’s missing is joy and happiness and fun and escape. I want the tone to be lighthearted and joyful. I don’t want anybody to think about anything. I want people to come and laugh and have fun and escape the chaos of the holiday season. Hopefully, it’s the antidote the chaos.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.