Karmin Goes Viral
The past month has been a whirlwind for the pop duo Karmin. Since their cover of Chris Brown's "Look at Me Now" exploded on YouTube in April, the 2008 Berklee graduates Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan have been on Ellen and the Ryan Seacrest Show and played with the Roots. The video currently has over 14 million views, the single was in the top 100 on iTunes, and they're being courted by some of the biggest producers and record labels in the business.
The couple—now engaged—met at Berklee in 2004, where Heidemann majored in professional music, with a focus on vocal performance, songwriting, and business, and Noonan majored in performance, with a focus on jazz trombone. They've since branched out to guitar, keyboard, and cajón, and to rock, pop, R&B, hip-hop, and more.
I caught up with them just after a live WGBH performance. The following is a condensed and edited account of our conversation.
Whose idea was video covers?
Nick: Our manager, Nils Gums '06, who's also a Berklee alum, was like, "Start the channel, do covers, do at least one every week. And put as much personality as you possibly can into it, so they'll look at it and they'll know the song, but it'll be a completely different arrangement."
Amy: The cool thing about doing cover songs, if you're relatively unknown as an artist, is that people are searching for "Look at Me Now" by Chris Brown. And if you're able to put the right search tags in, your cover will sneak in there with the actual song.
Nick: [Nils] is going to really shake stuff up. Matt Maltese '04 is his business partner, in RAWSession.
Amy: He's on track to be the next Clive Davis. Nils is working harder than we are!
How do you choose the songs to cover?
Nick: Nils helps a lot with that.
Amy: He pulls from Billboard and iTunes top 100 charts.
Nick: Mostly from iTunes, because that's current. He was the one who suggested the "Look at Me Now" cover.
Is this a totally different style for you?
Nick: Before we did this cover, we were writing songs that had big pop hooks and rap verses—like the song "Take It Away" we wrote months ago that has a rap section on the bridge. So it was perfect that the cover blew up the way it did, because now everybody is expecting that.
Amy: That rap element was kind of the missing piece to our blueprint.
What do you think made the "Look at Me Now" video so popular?
Nick: I think one of the biggest things was World Star Hip-Hop.
Amy: It's this hip-hop blog, and it's got this ginormous audience, and they're very harsh critics. The fact that they supported us gave us a lot of street cred.
Nick: A lot of people started finding it from that site, and started reposting and tweeting, and then the next day it was on RyanSeacrest.com, and he made a widget—What's your favorite Karmin cover?—and in 48 hours I think 13,000 people had reposted that widget.
Amy: I think Perez Hilton was another one. I'm glad he was nice about it.
What were you guys doing before this?
Amy: We had day jobs. Nick worked at a boxing club on Comm. Ave. called the Ring. I was a wedding singer. I used to work at Berkleemusic.com. Any free time we had we'd be arranging or recording video. We performed on the street a lot. It was more profitable than playing at a club.
Nick: We'd sell 40 CDs in an hour. And it's great practice, because if you don't have great songs or your energy is bad, they're not going to stop, they're just going to keep walking.
How did your Berklee experience affect you?
Amy: I think for me Berklee got me out of Nebraska, and it got me a lot of experience. When we graduated we really needed two or three years to just process all the information that we learned.
Nick: You want to soak it all in, and then when you get out you really do need about two years to process it. And then say, What's on my iPod? What, at the end of the day, do I listen to?
Amy: I think it's interesting that Nick studied jazz so heavily. Everybody asks us, "How do you feel playing pop music?" He just feels so good that he knows that stuff, because when you have this big vocabulary, no matter who you work with, you know what you doing. We can reinvent pop music.
You met at Berklee?
Nick: We met in '04 and did a bunch of Berklee shows together. We started writing a little bit together, projects for classes, our senior year, and we formally started the group in January '10.
You have a very distinctive style. What are your influences?
Amy: In high school I did a lot of musical theater, and that's where a lot of the facial expressions come from. We always had to do our own makeup and our own hair, and I love retro. Even the vibrato in my voice is inspired by some of those singers from that era. Janelle Monáe is actually one of the first people who helped us out. Last summer she found us covering her song, and we became really close friends with her and her group.
What about Chris Brown? Is he supportive?
Nick: He tweeted it.
Amy: And his publicist reached out to see if we want to do anything in collaboration, but he was in Australia, so it didn't work out.
Are you getting tired of singing the "Look at Me Now" over and over again?
Amy: No. Believe it or not it's a challenge every time. And it's a different audience every time. WGBH, that's not really what they do, so it was so fun to see their reactions.
Nick: It's cool to see that we're bringing in people who might not listen to it otherwise.