If you hear someone rustling around in your chimney this week, refrain from calling the police. No, Santa Claus has not decided to deliver presents early this year. Someone else is descending, rendering his presence utterly useless this Yule. Lawrence, KS residents Sam Billen and Josh Atkinson are headed for your hearts and hearths with the sort of stealth that only two grown men can muster when attempting to sneak down the flue and into your fireplace. These gentlemen have no idea how to be quiet, which is good news for us. Their noises, in fact, are good tidings of great joy for us. For born unto us today in the City of Lawrence is Sam and Josh’s beautiful, free Christmas record, A Word of Encouragement.

It is available for download at sambillen.com. Mr. Billen, formerly a member of Northern Records artists The Billions, is probably aware of the irony that accompanies releasing free music after being in a band called the Billions. Although frankly, I may be a capitalist pig for immediately linking band’s name, which could just as easily reference the collective residents of Earth, with money. Mr. Billen released a free Christmas record on his own in 2008, but it was not enough. The stocking in his soul was apparently only half-full, and he would not settle for filling it with coal just to make up the difference. In 2009 he released a full-length solo record on Kansas City-based label The Record Machine, titled Headphones and Cellphones.  It was warmly received by the panel of multiple personalities in this reviewer’s insane skull.  It was, in fact, what made my ears perk up when Kansas City-based artist Danny J. Gibson informed me that Mr. Billen would be spiking this year’s egg nog with Christmas spirits.

I had never heard of Josh Atkinson, Mr. Billen’s cohort in musical crime, but this only fascinated me further.  I sought out the affable Mr. Billen for an interview, and he was gracious enough to grant me one.  He also delivered an interview with Mr. Atkinson, whose music I have since sought out, downloaded, and enjoyed.  For the purposes of this interview, I have color-coded the words of the participants.  I am red like holly berries or clown shoes or emergency ambulance lights. Sam is black. In real life, however, he is white. As Danny J. Gibson would happily tell you, however, white font disappears on a white background. So black it is. Josh is green, like the Grinch or Oscar the Grouch. From what I can tell, however, he is hardly a curmudgeon. In fact, I want to be friends with both Sam and Josh, as they both seem like truly wonderful people. They may not realize it yet, but they also want to be friends with me.  They just don’t know it yet.

Sam and Josh, tell us about this new Christmas record. What kinds of songs and sounds are we going to hear? Have you imported authentic sleigh bells from the North Pole or leased reindeer from Santa’s Reindeer Rental Emporium to help establish an atmosphere of holiday cheer in the studio?

We have a really wide spread of songs/sounds on this album – about half of the album are covers of some of our favorite Christmas songs and the other half are originals that Josh and I wrote. In terms of sounds, you’ll hear jingle bells (of course), drum machines, African choirs, oohs and ahhs, jars/glasses percussion, low-tremelo Twin Peaks-style guitar, pianica, etc. We had a lot of fun experimenting with sounds on this album. I would describe the ‘feel’ of the album to be somber, dreamy, fun, and introspective at any given point.

What prompted this project? Where did it come from?

Josh and I did separate Christmas albums a couple of years ago and were both brought in to do an interview with lawrence.com (Editorial Note: Oh look! Lawrence.com gave A Word of Encouragement a wonderful review.) at the same time. We didn’t know about each others’ projects until then, but we were blown away by how similar our concepts were.  We were also blown away that we each had Japanese significant others – and that we used to play in bands around the KC area that had performed together on numerous occasions – etc. etc. It was an awesome connection we made that night. The connection grew into a friendship and mutual respect for each others’ music. We’ve been talking about doing a Christmas project together since our interview with lawrence.com two years ago, so I’m happy we are finally able to do it. I guess a more succinct answer to your question would be: we both love Christmas.

I have done Christmas albums for the past three years.  Two years ago, when Sam and I met for the interview, he was really pushing me to do a Christmas album with him the following year. Unfortunately, we would have to wait two years because I had decided to move back to Japan and get married. For this year’s album, Sam deserves a ton of credit for spearheading the project and getting everything organized.

What did each of you bring to the table when it came to recording A Word of Encouragement? Who did what, and what kind of influence did you have on each other in the creative process?

Although our musical influences are probably not too different, Josh and I definitely bring our own sound to this project. On this album, it’s been amazing for me to see Josh at work. On top of being great at the keyboards and guitar (which I already knew), it was awesome to see him step up to the drums and bass – he’s a great, rounded musician and that played a huge role in the album. It was very cool to work with someone that could play all the same instruments as me – we could just take turns playing instruments/singing and running the recording equipment. It was a really great experience for me – we are really a great collaborative team. We’re already talking about teaming up for more projects in the near future.

Sam is also a great musician that brought a massive amount of talent to the table.  What was most interesting for me what actually getting into the nitty-gritty of how each of us wrote, arranged and recorded songs.  I think we both have a bit of a similar style, but I also learned some new tricks and ideas from just watching Sam work on his arrangements.

Sam, on your Web site you offer several free albums to your fans. You wrote the instrumental piano album Death of a Saint as your mother lost her battle with cancer. I am so sorry for your loss. You have suffered other great losses as well. I may be wrong, but I get the sense that music has been a redemptive force in your life. Have you ever read Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning? He was a holocaust survivor and the originator of logotherapy. He was concerned with meaning-making in our lives. Suffering, according to Frankl, is intolerable if it does not mean something. While I could be wrong, I get the sense that music helps you find meaning in the midst of whatever you are experiencing. That being said, this question is for both of you: What motivates and drives you as artists? Do you create to make meaning or just because you love to create? What’s the story?

I would say I do a little of both. There are times that I just can’t hold a song or melody in – those are the times that I feel like I’m not making meaning – it’s just happening. In the times that I’m not so divinely inspired though, I really have to push myself to make music that means something (that makes it sound like all of my music is really meaningful – NOT TRUE! I do put together a lot of songs that are basically just songs – just me having fun). Ultimately though, being a musician, an artist, you have to hone your skills, and be able to create meaning – true musicians aren’t just inspired at times – they’re inspired all the time and that can, at any time, be put into their art. Am I just rambling now? Sorry!

No need to apologize, Sam. I’m kind of a one-trick pony myself, and rambling is my trick.  So I can appreciate a good rambler.

My motivation, perhaps, derives from the desire to express creativity, emotion and my thoughts.  I believe that I create songs because they make me happy.  The writing, arranging, and recording process has become very much like a time-line in my life.  I try to write about what I know, am feeling at that current time or what has moved me.  It’s always a trip to go back and listen to those old songs and remember the way you felt when you wrote them.  Other than that, I create because I feel it is cathartic.

Josh, what do you do for a living?

I work at Wheatfields Bakery in Lawrence, KS.  I used to teach English in Tokyo for a number of years.

My wife Becki loves Wheatfields.  I am a big fan of the chocolate cookies you guys sell there.  Any chance you guys are offering those free of charge like the Christmas record?

(Sound of crickets chirping.)

Sam, the bio on your Web site says you work full-time for the University of Kansas, teach ESL at Washburn University, and run BillenSounds, LLC. From the outside looking in, it looks as though you are on a great adventure personally, musically, and vocationally. I really admire that. I am friends with Kansas City-based artist Danny J. Gibson, and he and I both wish we could pursue our artistic loves full-time. We do our best to be content with what we have, but inwardly we identify with a certain Todd Rundgren song: We just want to bang on our drums all day. Do you wish you could do your music full-time, or is it better to make art in the periphery of life and let the day-job and familial matters provide grist for the creative mill?

I actually started the business BillenSounds, LLC, in an effort to do music full-time. I would like nothing more than to have a ‘day job’ in music. Unless you’re Taylor Swift or Owl City performing for huge sold-out crowds, these days you can’t really make much money in music unless you’re doing it for commercials, film, etc. I think there are a ton of musicians out there trying to take the same approach I’m taking – but I think the big decider is whether or not you have business savvy – you have to balance the artistic musician side with the easy-to-work-with business negotiator side to succeed in the field of commercial music. This field is perfect for me because I feel like I do have that balance. Also, I honestly don’t like to be in the spotlight as a musician – I’ve always preferred recording to playing live anyway.

On a related note, the music industry has become an altogether different beast over the course of the past 10 years with the advent (Christmas pun intended) of the MP3, file-sharing, home recording studios, music blogs, and the use of social media for grassroots promotion. I know you are using kickstarter.com to fund your current Christmas album. What else are you two doing to make yourselves known? What has worked for you as independent artists and what has not?

I signed to The Record Machine in KC a couple of years ago and Nathan Reusch has been a great help in getting my music out to people. He has a very grassroots approach to running the label and he seems to have an ‘in’ with a lot of great Web sites/blogs/publications. On top of that, he’s a good friend – and on top of that, the other bands on the label are awesome! It’s a great label to be a part of. I guess in terms of being an independent artist getting recognition, the key is to constantly be producing new music. The Internet has a ton of flash-in-the-pan artists and songs, so you have to compete with that by producing quality material on a constant basis.

I don’t do much besides put music up at www.soundcloud.com/joshumusic.  Other than that, I usually show my music to my wife and my father.  They seem to enjoy it.

I enjoy it too, Josh.  Especially your cover of Elliott Smith’s “Pitselah.”

Sam, with regard to your most recent solo record, Headphones and Cellphones, my favorite songs include (but are certainly not limited to) “The Garden,” “Summer of ’95,” and “Choices.” I get the sense that you are the sort of person who enjoys reminiscing. Would that be an accurate assessment? Are you a nostalgic person? Is that sort of where these Christmas records come from as well?

I’m a very nostalgic person. My mom died when I was 18 so I always enjoy reminiscing about my life up to that point. I’ve had a number of great, amazing experiences after she died (getting married, having a child, lots of musical achievements, etc.), but up until I was 18, I had an amazing life because my mother and father were such amazing parents. I think that’s probably why I enjoy looking at the past so much. And yes, Christmas is definitely part of my memory with my mom. One of my best memories with her was one day that I was sick and stayed home from school. My mom and I decorated our Christmas tree together as I had Ben Folds Five‘s album, Whatever and Ever Amen, playing in the background.

Any other favorite Christmas memories you’d like to share?

I have a great story about my brother stealing my Christmas presents – actually I tell the whole thing in the last track of our Christmas album, “How My Brother Ruined Christmas.” I’ll let the song speak for itself!

Sam, you will be pleased to know that my wife and I put up our Christmas tree on Monday, November 15th (Yes, I realize this is early) while listening to your 2008 album, Merry Christmas. It reminded me of the hope I have in Christ as my Savior, and it lit up our living room along with the lights on the tree. I grew up listening to Christmas records and have made one of my own titled All is Calm, All is Bright, which is also available as a free download this year. Are there any specific Christmas records that hold a special place in your hearts? Your record, Low’s Christmas EP, Tooth & Nail’s Happy Christmas albums, and Ren & Stimpy’s timeless/tasteless Crock o’ Christmas are all in my player these days.

I’m always moved by Mannheim Steamroller’s, Christmas is Here Again! Already? and Mariah Carey’s song, “All I Want for Christmas” (I seriously do kind of like that song though). I like to pull out my old Christmas album(s) and Josh’s old Christmas albums – I think there are some great songs on there. I like James Taylor’s Christmas album, too. The Chipmunks did some nice old Christmas songs too – those always bring me back to my childhood. Charlie Brown had some nice Christmas songs as well.

You may laugh when I say this but, at least from a compositional standpoint, the song “Choices” (from Headphones and Cellphones) reminds me of some of Björk’s melodies. I could actually imagine her covering this. On a related note, I know you have covered the Postal Service, and I think of them almost immediately when I hear Headphones and Cellphones. What artists have influenced you the most as a singer/songwriters?

I would say that I probably have different influences for every album (maybe every song?) that I do. Some of my songs on the Christmas album are pretty heavily influenced by a Japanese artist named Shugo Tokumaru. He’s like Sufjan Stevens, but better at times. Other artists that influence my music: Nathan Phillips, Sufjan Stevens, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, The Choir at Your Door, Dan Billen (my brother), Simon Bates (my friend), Josh Atkinson, Björk, Phoenix, Paul Davis, Todd Rundgren, etc. etc. – I could go on forever with this one!

While writing lyrics for this album, I found my mind wandering into my elementary school days with my older brother at my side.  Songs like “Brother Snow” and “Mid-December” really put into words those heartwarming Christmas experiences that I’m sure we all share.  Just small memories of walking down a snowy street, or having your brother show you where you mother (a.k.a. Santa) hides the presents.  I will cherish those memories forever.

I noticed on your Web site that you offer a variety of rewards – CDs, coffee mugs with your two “mugs” printed on them, etc. – for donating to the Christmas record’s production on kickstarter.com. For the $1200 donation, it looks like the donator gets everything including the Billen family kitchen sink. I think that’s a fantastic idea. Have you had any takers for the $1200? That is, will your kitchen be sinkless in 2011?

Unfortunately, there were no takers for the $1200. We did have a handful of $100 backers though – they’ll each be getting a framed picture of Josh and I in Christmas garb, along with 20 copies of the album.

Well, at least you get to keep your kitchen sink.  And your fans get a free Christmas album out of the deal.  Here’s to creating new Christmas memories with A Word of Encouragement.  Thank you for your time, Sam and Josh.  I appreciate it.  To all of you readers out there:  Go and download the new record, and download the rest of Sam and Josh’s catalogs as well!