Dan Bryk just released Christmas Record. It's his first Christmas album. He insists it will be his last.
On the back cover, Bryk is dressed up as Santa Claus, his hyperbolic white beard falling all the way to the armrests of an oversized wooden chair. Bryk had his picture taken tonight, too: First, in front of a large, metal Christmas tree, smiling wide-eyed, like a kid whose holiday wait has finally ended. He had the same expression posing in front of a pink plastic pig that wore a red Santa hat. Christmas is this guy's thing, right?
Not exactly. It's perfectly believable when, not 15 minutes later, Bryk glances down at the sidewalk, shrugs and dismisses the whole thing: "I don't know about Christmas, really. I guess it's just not my season."
Bryk isn't kidding. The 30-something songwriter, known for his piano playing and keen observational wit, doesn't hate Christmas, but he certainly doesn't like it, either. Perhaps the front cover of Christmas Record tells the story of his antipathy best: A bright, red ornament is shattered across an otherwise pristine white floor. The shards are too big for the ornament to have been thrown. It looks like it was hanging high with seasonal spirit. Then it came crashing down. The hook that held it to the branch is still there. Maybe someone bumped into it? Maybe someone shook the tree? Or maybe it just got tired of trying.
That's the sentiment of a Dan Bryk Christmas, detailed in what has to be one of the most self-effacing Christmas albums ever. It's predicated neither on seasonal and spiritual joy nor money-making maneuvers. It's just an honest (if exaggerated) appraisal of the holiday's inspired difficulties—infinite loneliness, bad luck, bankrupting ambitions and overactive materialism. You know, the kind of stuff that people call "cheer."
In Bryk's world of seasonal busts, even the birds sing sad songs. They sound like Christmas carols. They're one of the central images in his gorgeous "Winter Sad." "Love Me for Christmas" portrays a man who just wants to be loved by a particular woman, a woman that's ostensibly rebounding from an unfulfilling past. She, of course, wants nothing to do with him. But his desire is intense. Bryk hints that he's close to the stalker-versus-admirer line. These holidays, they do crazy things to sane people.
"Do I really want to hear Delilah play Michael Bolton's version of 'Silver Bells' again? No. But that's a taste thing. That's aesthetic," says Bryk, sitting in a Raleigh coffee shop that's (surprisingly) not playing carols. He's counting off the ways his Christmas spirits keep getting spoiled. "But when I see a house with 500,000 watts of bulbs and stuff, all I can think of is that we had to have used up some finite resources for that thing."
Bryk's Christmas quandaries have been especially apparent in the past five years. He moved from Mississauga, Ontario (a suburb of Toronto) to Chapel Hill five years ago, and his experiences with Christmas in America haven't heightened his yuletide enthusiasm. He calls himself a "recovering Catholic," a disenchanted product of Canada's religous-based public schools. America's alternating religion-and-consumerism models of Christmas don't work for him. He's tired of hearing Celine Dion's "Blue Christmas," too, but she's Canadian. He takes the gaffe on that one.
But the stateside custom of building up to Dec. 25 for months and being done with it the next day irks Bryk. Back home, Canada's substantial Ukrainian population celebrates Christmas 13 days later, and Boxing Day on Dec. 26 is a sort of miniature Christmas. If people try to work, cops actually send them home. As a matter of fact, it's a day for family. Bryk thinks that's the proper focus of a holiday. He's found everything but that here.
But what is Boxing Day, anyway? Bryk knows: "Oh, it's for the boxing up of the presents."
"No, I know."
"Oh, you know?" Bryk laughs, looking to his right and smiling at Erin McGinn, his girlfriend of six years. "That was an educated guess."
"It might have different meanings, for sure, but it has to do with the preparing of small gifts for the trades people, like your milkman," says McGinn cutting in, laughing at Bryk. He stops, looks at her and just smiles. "It was something that..."
She stumbles on a word. He takes her pause for a chance to jump back into it: "Oh, I think you're freestyling now."
"No, no. It's the time to box up little things for those trades people that would come to your door after Christmas," she concludes, waving him away, laughing the whole time.
He agrees, concedes and apologizes with his customary self-effacement: "Erin's a history major."
McGinn is the loophole in Bryk's time-crafted shtick of long-standing self-deprecation. It's hard to believe that a guy this in love and this giddy to be that way writes songs about such down-on-their-luck characters. But it's also not hard to believe things weren't always this good.
Bryk and McGinn met in college. She finished when she was supposed to, but he took his time, starting when George Bush was the American president and ending when his son had taken over the Oval Office. He quit school and started work as a graphic designer. But, to get an American work visa, he says he had to finish. Effectively, Bryk managed to stretch his one remaining class over a "semester" of about eight years. Neither his nor McGinn's parents think this is funny. But he and McGinn can't decide what's funnier: The length of his college career or that he chose a sociology course just so that she could help with his homework?
Though school took some time for Bryk, he does finish his albums. McGinn says that's one thing she likes most about Christmas Record: After months of hearing overdubs being recorded in their Raleigh house, the album is done and out. Bryk has a backlog of albums that are written, recorded and ready for release. He's telling a story about making one when McGinn grimaces, but just slightly. When Bryk finishes his story, he smiles and says: "When she makes that face, that probably means that last bit was off the record." In 90 minutes, McGinn makes that face once more. Mostly, she laughs large every time one ribs the other, which must be once every 43 seconds.
Bryk and McGinn are candid in a way that's indicative of two people who are deeply in love. They've talked about all of the "bigger" issues, and they play off one another's insecurities with pleasure, aplomb and certainty. In conversation, it's apparent that both know practically everything about the other. Bryk, for instance, is a bigger guy, and he's rarely short on jokes about his rotund frame. One of his trademark tunes is called "Chunky Girl [BBW]," a piano popper about his love for women that aren't exactly petite. See Bryk live, and you'll probably see McGinn, ostensibly his model of perfection, blushing and smiling somewhere in the wings.
Bryk may consider himself a recovering Catholic, but McGinn calls herself a practicing Catholic, though she admits that most people wouldn't accept that answer.
"Yeah, we're living in sin," Bryk smiles, referencing their long-standing living arrangement, the sort of thing that—in their new Southern clime—is drawled "shackin' up." The rules that frown upon two people living together are the same that have harangued Bryk and McGinn's sense of Christmas, especially in the South. Bryk notes that it's been interesting "to live in a quasi-theocracy for a while," and McGinn regrets that religion is used so often to inform rational decisions.
"What I find is particularly disappointing is that I don't see any reflection of my faith in the modern Christianity that's being espoused here, especially in the South," she says. "The fact that there is a fight about whether or not someone says Merry Christmas in a store seems like a minute detail compared to the revolutionary message of Christ and the miracle of what they brought. Whether you believe he's the son of God or not, it doesn't matter."
This isn't Bryk's area of expertise, but he agrees. It's clear that they've talked about this. After all, each knows the other entirely, and Bryk seems giddy about that. Especially for a guy who writes Christmas songs about loneliness.
Then again, his "Winter Sad" seems more of an artistic drawing board than a lifetime doldrum. After all, Bryk wasn't faking the smiles in his photos. He was happy standing there, making it clear that his holidays will be happy, even if they're not so for the customary reasons. And, in at least one of those tree-side takes, he was actually laughing. Pointing above their heads, McGinn noticed the metal star at the top of the tree, looked up at Bryk and grinned: "Oh, I do hope the top of the tree makes the picture. Then at least there will be one star in it."
Everyone lost it. Everyone was happy. Yes, this is Christmas.