During the making of his first holiday album, A Different Christmas, R&B star Bryson Tiller was living out his own version of Groundhog Day. For each featured artist who came to his home-theatre-turned-recording-studio, the “Wild Thoughts” singer performed the same cycle each day: He pulled on a big Christmas sweater, plugged in twinkling tree lights and helped himself to a serving of cookies and milk. A Christmas movie played quietly on the projector screen as holiday chords resonated on the piano and artists trickled in to collaborate on Tiller’s festive endeavor. It was Christmas in July.
“People were trying to pull me away from [the Christmas album] a lot, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do since I was 18 years old,” Tiller says. Earlier in his career, the timing didn’t feel right for the album, but thanks to a grueling breakup and a global pandemic, the Louisville-born singer finally made it happen. “Experiencing that loneliness and the thought of spending Christmas alone made me [say], okay, I think I could make a Christmas album — but I’m going to do it my way.”
Over a year removed from the start of the pandemic, Tiller is having the time of his life. In the last year, he has kept busy, releasing his Halloween mixtape, Killer Instinct Vol. 2, collaborating with artists like Jhené Aiko and Ty Dolla $ign, and hanging out with his two daughters, Harley, 8, and Kelly Jade, 1.
Tiller, who ushered in a new sound from the moment he stepped into the spotlight with Trapsoul, was committed to creating something new and memorable with A Different Christmas, which came out last Friday (Nov. 19). The seven-track project features classic holiday tunes, intertwined with warm and fuzzy R&B cuts that can live on playlists year-round. Tiller enlisted the help of tried and true R&B voices, like Justin Bieber and Kiana Ledé, but mixes it up with a few features who normally stay behind the scenes — hit-making songwriters Poo Bear (“Where Are Ü Now”) and Tayla Parx (“Thank U, Next”).
The most noteworthy feature, however, is Halo — a.k.a. Harley, Tiller’s daughter. The eight-year-old singer is featured on the most classic cut of the album, “Winter Wonderland.” When it comes to his daughter’s love for music, Tiller says it was always apparent, but recently, he realized just how promising Harley’s voice is. “I was with her for Halloween, and she was singing an Ariana Grande song, and she hit some note and I was like, ‘Yo, hold on,'” he says.
At the time of his interview with Billboard, below, the 28-year-old singer and father of two is already working on the album’s deluxe version, which he says will include happier tracks, reflective of where he’s at today. Taking a break from recording to chat about the inspiration behind the project, the typically reserved Tiller also opened up about almost leaving music behind and the tragedy that pulled him out of a depressive period, teaching him to always believe in his capabilities.
“This year, I’m having those moments of clarity, being able to look in the mirror and realize who I am and what I’m capable of, and how blessed I am,” he says.
What inspired you to make a Christmas album?
I was actually finishing up my Anniversary album, and was in the studio with this [producer] named Camper and we started talking about Christmas. I remember he played some chords, and it just brought me back to my childhood. I was also going through a breakup and it was tough to deal with. The thought of spending Christmas alone just sounded super scary to me — and I made the first song for the project. And things got better over time. The more and more things got better, I started to lean more towards songs like that.
Right now, I’m in the studio working on some of the deluxe songs for the Christmas project and they are a lot happier. I’m having a good time, you know? I think this year is going to be a very merry Christmas. Not a lonely Christmas.
Why’d you name the project A Different Christmas?
It was originally supposed to release last year. But because of clearances and a couple of other things, we couldn’t make it happen. That was the first year of COVID, so a lot of people were having either a lonely Christmas or a Christmas that was different from all the other Christmases they’ve had. I just wanted to give people something to relate to. Going through what I went through experiencing that loneliness made me think I could make a Christmas album — but I’m going to do it my way. I would do it differently. It’s not going to be the traditional Christmas album, at least not right off the bat.
The album has some great features, but there’s one in particular that stands out from the rest. What sparked the idea to feature your daughter, Harley?
We were finishing up my last album, Anniversary, and there was an idea to put her on one of the songs. I thought it was a great idea. She’d been wanting to get in the studio with me and work on some stuff. It was really a tearjerker moment for me, for sure. We sat in the studio for hours just working and we had a lot of fun. We had cookies, we had milk. She loved it. She’s really thrilled for the release.
You also featured Kiana Ledé. How was the experience working together?
Kiana is great. She’s very easy to work with, there’s no ego involved. She just loves to sing. She came through the studio one day [after] I invited her. Same thing as me and my daughter — we had milk and cookies, I had a Christmas sweater on, it was a whole little vibe. We sat there together and I recorded her, I vocal produced it. I wrote the song and she just killed it, she did everything. It was pretty easy to work out. I love Kiana. Now she’s becoming one of my good friends. We’re going to work on more stuff in the future as well.
And not to be forgotten, Justin Bieber also appeared on the album. along with Poo Bear. What’s the story behind that?
Bieber came about through Poo Bear, who is a mutual friend, an amazing songwriter [and] vocalist. He writes for a lot of people, and one of the people he happens to write for is Bieber. [Poo Bear] came to the studio and we met. Same vibe as Kiana Ledé, he saw that I was serious. I played him a different song for Bieber to get on and I told him the whole story. The breakup, the lonely Christmas, everything. And he was like, “This sounds a lot like a song I wrote two years ago,” and I was like, “Oh, can I hear it?”
And then he played it for me, and I loved it a lot. I thought it was so different. I was looking for something that was upbeat and just completely different from what people are used to me doing. It was the perfect one. Bieber had already heard the song before me and loved it, so we figured out the arrangement. You know, I wanted Bieber on this Christmas project because he’s a big inspiration for the entire project. He has an amazing Christmas album [2011’s Under the Mistletoe].
He [later] called me and told me he loved the song and wanted to work on some other stuff, so we’re working on something different as well.
We’re nearing the end of 2021 — what has this year been like for you?
I’ve been telling everybody: This is hands down the best year of my life. I’ve been confident — very much the polar opposite of what I used to be for the four-plus years after the release [of Trapsoul]. I kind of went into a depression, and I was there for a very long time and couldn’t pull myself out of it.
The thing that pulled me out was my grandma passing. I realized she wanted me to do a lot of things for her [that] I just felt like I couldn’t do, because I wasn’t sure where my career was going. I didn’t even know if I wanted to continue doing music. Then when she passed, I was just like, “Damn, man.” The reason I didn’t do anything was because I doubted myself and I was depressed and sad. The day she died, I said, “Grandma, I promise you, I’ll never, ever in my life doubt myself ever again. I don’t care what anybody says about me.”
And I am my worst critic, always looking and listening to see what I can do better. Even with this Christmas album, I see all the things that I could have done better — but I’ll strengthen that on the deluxe [version]. But no matter what, I’ll always stay confident in myself and my ability.
I do feel the pressure often, it’s crazy to come out the gate with [Trapsoul]. I never even expected to do what I did with my first album. And it’s amazing and a blessing, and the reason I’m here today talking to you about a Christmas album.
Looking ahead to new music and experiences, how do you feel?
I’m excited, man. I truly feel as though I’ve yet to make my best album. And Trapsoul was great. It was 100 percent from me. I wrote every single thing on there, picked every single beat, every song. And I’m just excited because there’s like so many other talented people out there who are really good at what they do. You see all these other guys out here who are prospering and making great music because they got to work with some of those really talented people. they expand their horizons. I’ve never done that — and with my next album I’m doing that. I’m excited to reach out and just be open to working with people.
I had a little bit too much pride for a long time — like, “I did it once, I got to do it again.” But [now] I’m just like, “For what?” I already did it. I have so many accolades to show for it. There’s no reason for me to even try to prove anything. So I’m excited to work with new people, new writers, new melodies and new producers.