Sam Billen wants you to get in the Christmas spirit with ‘You Can Always Give,’ a free holiday-themed album
Sam Billen is like the anti-Scrooge of Kansas City. For the last seven years or so, the local singer-songwriter and owner of production company Primary Color Music has been conceptualizing and creating a Christmas compilation album and delivering it to local ears for free.
This year, Billen’s compilation is titled You Can Always Give. It’s a delightful 12-track collection of Christmas classics like “Auld Lang Syne” and some relatively modern ones like Wham’s “Last Christmas,” plus a few original holiday songs from the contributing artists. There are a few local names on this list, like Billen’s long-time collaborator Josh Atkinson, Kansas songwriter Suzannah Johannes, Ryan Pinkston from the Republic Tigers, and more – plus some nonlocals, too.
You Can Always Give has just been released today on Bandcamp as a free download. We chatted with Billen about this year’s crop and what the compilation means to him.
The Pitch: Give me a little background on this project. Do you always do a free download?
Billen: Usually, in the past, the project has tended to focus on doing something more than just giving music to people. The projects have always been free. One year we raised some money and pressed CDs and handed them out for free. Other times we’ve donated money to Water.org.
Is there anything to the title You Can Always Give?
The collaboration aspect of the album is one of the most important things to me. I like the idea of community and family coming together over Christmas time and doing things that might be a little out of your comfort zone and helping people do things that might revive our spirit. I think “You Can Always Give” is supposed to highlight this idea – that even when we feel like we’re depleted, when we’re totally tired and there’s nothing left for us to do because we’re stressed out by Christmas and shopping and all that, that we can always give a little bit. That’s kind of what the album is inspiring.
So you change themes year to year.
Yeah. This year is kind of a new twist on it. I kind of go off and on in terms of how big or epic I want the project to be… A couple years ago, I did a big compilation with 20 or so musicians and 20 artists to kind of collaborate for the songs. The musician would come up with the song, and then the artist would come up with artwork for the song.
This year is a little closer to that. I invited a bunch of musicians to take part and then paired them up with other people for a cover or a Christmas song or something. It’s turning out to be half original songs and half covers. It’s turned out really cool. Every year I’m kind of surprised by the people that want to take part in it.
How did you find these people, and how did you decide to pair them off?
A lot of them are close friends. About half of them live all over the world: Someone’s from NYC, another from Ohio, two people from Japan involved… Of everyone involved, I’m a fan of every single person. I know their musical styles pretty well, so I chose people who would complement each other.
What are some musical surprises on You Can Always Give?
A lot of the time, the Christmas project I do tends to lean towards the old traditional hymns and softer, gentler, more pretty-sounding Christmas music. This year, there’s a huge mix. We’ve got somebody doing Wham’s song “Last Christmas” – my brother [Dan Billen] and Ryan Pinkston from the Republic Tigers… some other people are doing more happy, upbeat covers. It’s pretty cool. Andrew Conner from Ghosty and the ACBs and I are doing the song called “Christmas Gift,” it’s a soul or funk Christmas song from the ’70s.
To stream or download You Can Always Give, go here.