Karmin drops covers, finds success with album 'Hello'
Their spit-polished, homespun covers of ubiquitous hits such as Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now,” LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” garnered more than 100 million views and turned the heads of virtually every record label executive -- the pair even met with Kanye West.
The duo -- whose name is a hybrid of the word “carmen,” which in Latin means “song,” and “Karma” -- consists of Berklee grads and real-life couple Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan. With Heidemann’s chameleon-like ability to switch from pop diva to spunky femcee and Noonan’s deft musicianship (he’s probably the only crooner in today's Top 40 that can sling a trombone) they scored a high-profile deal with Sony Music Entertainment, the first signing under Antonio "L.A." Reid’s restructured Epic.
Before their schedule imploded with nonstop commitments -- appearances on “Saturday Night Live,” “Good Morning America,” Jay Leno and a slot at this year’s Lollapolooza have kept the the 26-year-olds from planning their wedding -– they caught up with Pop & Hiss for lunch and drinks at West Hollywood's the London hotel.
From YouTube to pop stars, you join a small class that includes Justin Bieber. Did you think you’d actually get discovered when you started the videos?
Nick: We feel very, very lucky, but we’ve put in a solid amount of work. Still, above all that we feel lucky.
Amy: We put a lot of work in. Someone told us we should change the word to “blessed.” [Sings lyric from Minaj’s “Moment For Life”: “No I'm not lucky I'm blessed, Yes!”]
Tackling these covers from hip-hop stars got you guys a ton of ink; people were intrigued because you didn’t look or sound anything like the stars whose songs you were singing. Were you nervous about being pegged as a novelty?
Nick: That may have crossed our mind actually …
Amy: If we were on a label at the time and they gave us a song like “Look At Me Now” and said, ‘You have to record this,’ that’s exactly how it would have sounded. I can see how it would seem novelty. The first three weeks [after it was online] the labels reached out to us but said they weren’t sure what we have.
Nick: It wasn’t until we played original songs that the labels were interested.
You guys obviously had your pick of labels. What made you choose Epic?
Amy: We met with every major. One major did pass on us, but we won’t say who. We met with all the heavyhitters.
Nick: We had enough momentum that we didn’t feel there was a wrong way to go. We had a great talk with Jimmy Iovine and Mike Caren at Atlantic. What we kept hearing about L.A. is he wouldn’t follow the trends. Like if everyone is chasing one group, if he doesn’t see it, he won’t pursue them.
We kept wondering what the big three -- Jimmy, L.A. and Clive [Davis] -- were going to do. And then we finally got the call from L.A. It was hilarious because we were meeting with him and right after we were supposed to meet with Kanye.
How did L.A. Reid sell you? Was there any pressure considering you were the first act he was bringing to Epic?
Amy: His energy matched our energy. His excitement. He had us go into the lobby and sit and play on the piano with the three of us. His reactions were how we gauged how invested he would be in us.
Nick: He was straight up and there was this mutual respect -- not that we didn’t get that from the other labels. With L.A., it seemed like it matched. Another big deal was priority, who’s going to make us one. A lot of people get shelved. We like the underdog, work-your-way-to-the-top thing and the fact that Epic was rebooting and restarting, it was intriguing for us. It made the most sense.
People were used to these covers; when it came to the album, what did you want to capture?
Amy: We snuck in with producers that we love and made some really great records. L.A. is a perfectionist, of course. Everybody said the hits would come at the end of the process [the album’s single “Brokenhearted” is currently No. 4 on Billboard’s dance chart]. There are rap verses, but there’s a lot of One Republic-like big pop choruses.
Nick: It still has a lot of that hip-hop, urban undertone and the vibe is similar to the covers.
Lots of people have tried making it big on YouTube, but only few have succeeded. Whose idea was it to take that route?
Nick: That’s where our manager came in. He’s a big YouTube guy; that’s his world. It was his idea to have us do the covers. He gave us a list of songs and had us pick from there. It was what people were searching for online and listening to on the radio. He wanted us to put up two a week. It was an unbelievable amount of work.
Amy: Our neighbors must have thought we were crazy. At first we were trying to do all original music videos. There was a point where I was yodeling on top of a snowman that we built.
Nick: [Laughs] It was white girl going hard.
After people have gotten used to the sound of the covers, how will you make Karmin originals successful?
Nick: There are so many factors: what kind of team you have. Marketing. Everybody hates listening to Top 40 radio because they think the music sucks, but then why are they all Top 10 on iTunes and Billboard? There’s reasons for these things. You could be writing the best music and nobody hears it and that’s what we were struggling with. Do we write incredible stuff and just be playing for ourselves or do we want to get our music out as much as possible? I think I do an OK job, and she’s just a freak. Just the fact that she can memorize all these rap lyrics, and go from doing Beyonce riffs ridiculously clean to a [Lil] Wayne verse. Who does that and looks like Katy Perry? That doesn’t happen.
-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
Photos: Engaged duo Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan of Karmin. Credit: Epic Records