Music

Local musicians team up for a holiday album that raises money for rural Alaska crisis shelters

Bright Lights Holiday Songs Compilation

Anchorage musician Andy Tholberg used to loathe holiday music.

“I worked retail, so I hated it,” Tholberg joked.

But that hasn’t stopped Tholberg, along with a battery of other local songwriters, from turning the ubiquitous soundtrack of December into a project that raises money for crisis shelters across rural Alaska.

Bright Lights” began in the winter of 2020 when Tholberg’s friend and fellow musician, Chad Reynvaan, suggested creating original holiday music as an exercise in writing for a specific genre. The idea to compile those efforts into a fundraising album came shortly after the project started.

Now it’s become a recurring feature of the holiday season. Bright Lights Vol. 3″ was released this month, featuring nine holiday songs from 10 local artists.

“The first year, we didn’t make very much, but we seem to be growing more each year,” Tholberg said. “I just kind of want to build it into a little staple every year.”

Most of the modern Christmas canon was recorded decades ago, and it’s sometimes tough for new holiday songs to find audiences. But Anchorage musician and engineer James Glaves — who did much of the organizational work for this year’s compilation — has been pleasantly surprised by quality of the songs on the albums.

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“It isn’t easy to record and write Christmas songs,” Glaves said. “It can be really, really hard to write something that’s not sappy and corny.”

Glaves collaborated as a performer on two “Bright Lights” songs this year and has also done the mastering for all the albums so far.

“These are Christmas songs, but they’re really good songs in general,” he said. “I think people have a urge to recoil when they hear ‘holiday compilation,’ but three years in a row I’ve been blown away.”

The album cover for "Bright Lights Vol. 3" designed by Stefanie Miller.

The songs over the three albums cover a variety of styles and sounds, from jolly holiday prototypes to downbeat meditations.

“We do have people writing about really sad experiences, and some of them aren’t sad, some of them are just happy Christmas songs,” he said.

Tholberg, Reynvaan and Glaves all have deep histories as musicians in Alaska. Tholberg most recently played with synth-laden dark pop group Hazia and was in guitar-driven rock band Ghost Hands with Glaves. Glaves has also played with Medium Build and is among the state’s top audio engineers. Reynvaan has played with numerous rock bands, including the Chromies and the Jangle Bees, and he also operates Wattage Studio.

That long history has helped in recruiting some of the state’s top musicians to participate.

SunDog frontwoman Abi Sparkman contributed to the inaugural album. Fairbanks rockers Casey Smith Project have been regulars on the album. Alaska music veterans Emma Hill and Matt Hopper have recorded songs for Volume 2. Behind the scenes, local musician Matthew Witthoeft, along with Tholberg and Reynvaan, helped organize the first two albums.

“It’s pretty easy to get local artists on board for charity,” Tholberg said. “I think that’s helped the attendance for all three.”

Newcomers to Volume 3 include dreamcat and Strawberry Friend, as well as Pepper Kit.

All proceeds from the album are donated to the Tundra Women’s Coalition (Bethel), Hooper Bay Haven Shelter (Hooper Bay), Emmonak Women’s Shelter (Emmonak), Bering Sea Women’s Shelter (Nome) and Maniilaq Family Crisis Center (Kotzebue).

The “Bright Lights” albums cost $7 each and are available on bandcamp.com. Any additional donations made upon purchase will go to the shelters as well.

The albums have received some corporate support from Ryan Air, where Tholberg works. Stefanie Miller, who designed cover art for all three albums, is a Ryan Air employee.

The songs provide an opportunity for local artists to challenge their boundaries — just as envisioned by Reynvaan at the onset of the project.

“You don’t have to be yourself. You can, like — you can use a disguise,” Glaves said. “I think that it gives people that opportunity to kind of let their hair down and just try something different. And some of the people that I’ve heard over the past three years, I’m just like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you can do that. Do more of that.’ ”

Glaves said it’s been rewarding to be involved in “Bright Lights,” which he said also brings awareness to Alaska’s very serious domestic violence issues.

“This isn’t a big, six-figure-like thing,” Glaves said. “It’s a little bit of money, but even still, the fact that it’s going to help at least a handful of people (is heartening).”

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Glaves and Tholberg have noticed purchases are still coming in for some of the previous albums — a trend they hope will continue for future holidays.

“At the end of the day, it’s fun too, you know, even though it’s a very, very serious matter that we’re trying to support,” Glaves said. “I’m very happy to be a part of it and see no reason why it’s going to stop.”

Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.

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