Video Feature & Web-Exclusive Interview


Video:  “Silver Bells


Singer-songwriter Charles Billingsley is currently enjoying success with his new holiday album It’s Christmas Time Again, recently released on Crest Music. After debuting at #3 on the iTunes Top 5 Holiday albums, his single “Silver Bells” is a solid pop adult holiday hit, maintaining a strong position inside the Top 20 on the Mediabase A/C Holiday Chart.

Seasoning traditional Christmas favorites with a classy big band sound, these tasteful arrangements evoke the stylized sound of traditional jazz and the American Songbook—delivering a dose of classic holiday cheer to a modern audience. The song is currently #26 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts.

Kicking off his career in the 90s as part of the Grammy-nominated NewSong, Billingsley spent three years with the band before embarking on a solo career. With over 3,000 shows and 24 releases to his name, he has established himself. However, It’s Christmas Time Again is new step. He also has three published books.

Recorded at the iconic EastWest Studios in Los Angeles, these treasured tunes were captured live with a full band in one studio. Billingsley swings with the sound of the band, which is reminiscent of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, presenting these vintage holiday tunes with big band flair. “I hope you will love these nostalgic and beautiful arrangements, and that they complement your Christmas season,” says Billingsley.

We talked with Charles Billingsley about his career in music, his passion for big band jazz, and his new album It’s Christmas Time Again.

CHARLES BILLINGSLEY Web-Exclusive Interview
with M Music & Musicians magazine publisher, Merlin David

How did this new album, It’s Christmas Time Again, evolve?
The last Christmas record I made was in 2007. It was a project for Kroger grocery stores. It was a fun and creative process, but I swore to myself that if I ever did another Christmas project, I would do it right—just like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby did. It’s been 10 years since my last one. The funding was just there. It seemed like the timing was right. I went for it and didn’t pull any punches. We did this thing right. I hired the best producer, best arrangers, best singers and best players I could possible find, and the final project reflects their genius efforts. I could not be more pleased.

Tell us a why you included “Silver Bells” on this album.
I needed a mid-tempo classic. We strongly considered “Snow” from the White Christmas movie, but I just have always loved “Silver Bells.” So, I ultimately chose that song. I used to listen to Johnny Mathis’ version all the time. In fact, I tried to get him to do a duet with me. But, I was unsuccessful in my attempts. When the guys came back to me with their idea for the arrangement, I loved it. It is the first song we recorded on the big studio day, and it’s probably not as tight as the rest of the tunes from a band perspective, but it just feels really great.

This album evokes the stylized sound of traditional jazz and the American Songbook. As a trumpet player, was this album a long time dream finally realized?
Oh yes. I have always wanted to make a record with every one of the players in the same room. We just don’t do it that way anymore. And, it is really a shame. All the players and singers were having a blast with this thing. We all fed off the energy flowing from the room, and it was a magical experience—especially recording in a room where some of the greatest songs in history were recorded. Frank Sinatra recorded “New York, New York” from the same podium sitting in the room. It was an emotional and powerful day. It was so much fun to watch these amazing players walk across the room to get autographs from legends like Chuck Findley on trumpet—sitting in the session with them. And we were able to have Jorge Vivo engineer and mix it all. He’s absolutely brilliant.

What Christmas albums did you grow up listening to?
I was a big fan of the Johnny Mathis / Frank Sinatra / Nat King Cole era—for Christmas music. I never listened to those guys beyond the Christmas season. But when it came to the Holidays, I always loved their classic sounds. When people hear this project, I want them to feel like they stepped back into the 40s. I love Michael Buble’s Christmas record, and I’m a huge fan of Harry Connick Jr. And if David Foster is involved, I’m going to listen to it. Another favorite is George Winston’s album December—listened to that a few hundred times in college. (Laughs)

Which song are you especially glad made it onto this album?
“O Holy Night” has to be in the Top 5 of my favorite songs—ever. So when my producer, Tim Davis, arranged and created this incredible acapella version, it immediately became a favorite of mine. I’m thrilled to have it here. It so beautifully tells the true meaning of Christmas.

How does this album differ from your 2007 Christmas album?
My 2007 Christmas project was a wonderful and creative experience. We pulled together a fantastic rhythm section, and many of the songs are one take vocals—live in the studio. It was fun to make, and I had a wonderful producer named Derek Nakamoto. But this time, I wanted to go big band, big orchestra—with a classic Christmas sound. Tim Davis has been a good friend for a long time, but we’d never worked together on a project. It was an amazing experience and my eyes were opened to his brilliance. I feel very fortunate that he took the time, along with Tony Guerrero, who did all the big band arrangements. They were incredibly helpful.

Who inspired you to write songs?
Although I didn’t write any songs on this project, I do write a lot of my own material. I’ve been inspired by writers from all over the spectrum—Phil Collins, Diane Warren and Michael Bolton to Christian writers like Scott Krippayne and Michael Neale. All these writers have the same trait to me. They communicate a message in a clear and concise way, yet it is creative, cool and always has a great hook for the listener to remember.

Tell us a little about your creative process.
I usually start with a hook or an idea I’ve heard. Then I connect with a music writer and we just start down the road of trying things. It’s a crazy process, and you have to leave your ego at the door. No idea is a bad one. Eventually, the magic happens and we are able to come up with the right lyric with the right melody. That said, I’m quite good at writing bad songs. (Laughs) You will hopefully never hear one of those.

What songwriting tip would you like to offer?
It ain’t over until it says what you want to say—in the best possible way, and in the most creative and concise way.

Tell us about writing with someone like Brian White. How did that inform your songs?
You mean Brian White & Justice? He’s a prolific writer. He’s written many #1 hits in Christian circles. Not only is he a ton of fun to be around but he’s got a great heart. I have recorded several of Brian’s songs and we have collaborated on a lot of songs from my past projects—particularly songs produced by Don Cook. Over the years, I’ve had a total of seven #1 hits in Christian music—four of them with a group, and three solo, and Brian wrote on at least two of those three hits.

Tell us one experience where something unique inspired you to write a song.
The first song I ever wrote came from a sparrow that landed on a window sill one early morning as I was worrying about my future during college. I wrote a poem about that sparrow, and it became my first recorded song.

Which instruments/equipment can you not live without?
We always write from either an acoustic guitar or a piano. Since I am primarily a lyricist, I need a creative music writer with me. Recently, it’s been Michael Neale from Dallas, Texas—who has helped me put music and words to ideas.

Top 5 musicians who inspired you to become a musician?
Phil Collins, Luciano Pavarotti, Journey, Larnelle Harris, Sting.

Top 5 favorite albums of all time?
Pyromania (1983) – Def Leppard
Serious Hits… Live! (1990) – Phil Collins
Brand New Day (1999) – Sting
Continuum (2006) – John Mayer
Shelter Me (1996) – Richard Page

What PRO (Performing Rights Organization) are you with?
ASCAP. I have not written enough to get too involved with them. I know they are a great resource, but I haven’t spent enough time in that arena.

Tell us a “pinch me” moment where you thought, “Wow, this is really happening to me!
There have been so many amazing moments over the years. The first time I sang at Carnegie Hall was amazing. I was also recently with Jonathan Cain (Journey) and he asked me to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” with him—that was cool for me and my band. And the first time I sang in an arena was the New Orleans Superdome. Also, a concert with Michael W. Smith on the southern steps of the temple in Jerusalem, and opening for Amy Grant on the House of Love Tour. And one that I can’t forget—while recording a song called “Kyrie,” which has a very strong and heart-wrenching lyric, I was doing the vocal at the same moment that TWA Flight 800 exploded over New York City. It was a powerful and heartbreaking moment. Oh, I sang for President Bush three times. And recording this Christmas album—that whole day was like being in a dream.

Do you remember the first time you heard one of your songs on the radio?
Yes, I do. I was a newlywed, and my bride and I were on our honeymoon. We weren’t able to take a honeymoon right after the marriage because I was on tour with the group NewSong. About six months after our marriage, and after the tour had completed along with the recording of a new record with the group, we were finally able to get away. We landed in Los Angeles and were headed down to Huntington Beach when I started flipping through the FM channels. I stopped on K-LOVE, a Christian station. I knew the song they were playing, but I couldn’t recognize the singer. (Laughs) I said to my wife, “Wow, I know every word of this song!” She said, “That’s because it’s you.” (Laughs) I almost ran off the road. I was shocked and totally thrilled to hear our song on the radio—and in Los Angeles, no less.

How does writing books provide a creative outlet for you?
I love to write in order to encourage other people in life’s journey. Life can be hard. We all go through deep and sometimes dark valleys. My hope is that in writing devotions and short words of encouragement, people will be enlightened to a better way to live—showing that there truly is hope over the horizon.

How did your time with NewSong and the success of those albums inform your solo career?
My days in NewSong were extremely important. It shaped my career. That time helped me determine what kind of artist I wanted to be—what kind of communicator I should become. I am very grateful for that time. We had an absolute blast together, both on and off the stage. I wouldn’t trade that time for anything. It was not without its challenges, but then again, nothing of any significance ever is.

Best advice someone has given you?
It came from an old pastor friend of mine. He reminded me that singing isn’t just music, it is communication. It’s not just about having a good voice—it’s about communicating a message. I always tell myself, communication isn’t about what I say—it’s about what they hear. This advice literally changed how I approach singing or writing a lyric. I’m trying to communicate something of meaning to people’s lives. So I am drawn to songs that teach me something or really make me think about something important and meaningful.

Best advice you’d like to give upcoming musicians, or your teenage self?
Be yourself. Determine who you are and what your message is, and stay true to it. In a world of fake personas, gimmicks and hype, people will be drawn to your authenticity. Then, be the best. Whatever it takes, develop the discipline to become the best you can possibly be in your genre—both personally and professionally. You get one shot at life. Make it count. Finally, I would warn against letting success get you too high, or failures getting you too low. You are guaranteed to have both. (Laughs) Success in the music industry is largely based on whatever you have done lately. Remember, things are never quite as good as they seem, but they are never quite as bad either. If you live for just the ups, you will get depressed when you have a down turn. Instead, base your career around enjoying the process. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Work to develop a fan base that is loyal to you because they love you. If you are loyal to them, and allow them to see your authenticity, they will follow you for years—and you will have a long and wonderful career.

What’s next?
I’m enjoying performing these Christmas concerts, and lots of music ahead. I’ll also be writing for a live worship project from my church—to be recorded in the fall of 2018. I’m having the time of my life, so I don’t plan to slow down anytime soon.

Where can your new fans get more info and stay updated?

Twitter:  @cbillingsley
Facebook Fan Page:  Charles Billingsley
YouTube Channel:  Charles Billingsley
Instagram:  charlesbillingsley

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