By IAN YEE and DANIEL SUBRAMANIAM
BARELY two years ago, YouTube duo Karmin were flat-out broke.
Singer/rapper Amy Heidemann was working as a wedding singer while playing in a girl band, and her partner-in-crime Nick Noonan was trying to make a career for himself as a jazz trombonist.
“All we had was a US$99 (RM304) mic, a guitar and a keyboard,” Heidemann told R.AGE during a phone interview last week.
And that was when they decided to start uploading videos onto YouTube.
Armed with a cajón and a guitar bought from a pawn shop, they started recording covers of popular songs with their own unique, quirky spin, accommpanied with equally quirky and decidedly low-budget “music videos”.
Their strategy was simple: “Keep uploading one cover a week until one of them goes viral,” Heidemann revealed.
While Heidemann’s sweet, clear-as-a-bell vocals and the duo’s stripped down acoustic style got them some attention with pop covers like Jessie J’s Price Tag and Cee Lo Green’s Forget You, it was Heidemann’s spit-fire delivery of the ridiculously complicated rap sections on Chris Brown’s Look At Me Now that really put Karmin on the map.
The video had hip-hop heavy-hitters like Questlove, The Game, Diplo and Jermaine Dupri raving on Twitter over her super-swag take on the light-speed rap.
A few million hits on YouTube later, and Karmin (inspired by the latin word carmen, which means “song”) were performing on The Ellen Show and Saturday Night Live; with Heidemann proving to be just as comfortable performing live as she is behind a videocam, moving effortlessly between rapping and singing.
A music critic writing on MTV.com said: “Homegirl is a master emcee. Seriously. Don’t let the Charlotte-from-Sex-And-The-City-façade fool you — this girl can THROW. IT. DOWN. No offense, Busta Rhymes (one of the rappers featured on Look At Me Now), but I think this girl just schooled you.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Noonan, who backs Heidemann up on the keyboards, guitar, cajón and trombone: “People look at Amy and expect her to be a straight-up pop singer, but she busts out a rap and she just slays it.
“I also think the attitude is what throws people. She completely embodies (hip-hop).”
The fact is, doing their own original acoustic-driven hip-hop material was what Heidemann and Noonan had always wanted to do with Karmin. Problem was, nobody was listening to it.
“Our band manager at the time suggested we start doing covers of popular songs. He taught us about tagging videos and getting people to find our music. He said: ‘People will want to see your spin on songs they already know’,” said Noonan.
It proved to be a masterstroke. The duo are now signed to Epic Records, they’ve just launched their debut album Hello, and they have close to 850,000 subscribers and 200 million views on their original YouTube channel (youtube.com/KarminCovers). Their Twitter account, @karminmusic, has over 120,000 followers, and they’ve got more than 700,000 “Likes” on Facebook.
Their debut original single Crash Your Party has received quite a bit of airplay here, and their upcoming singles Brokenhearted and I Told You So (a good sample of Heidemann’s rapping) look set to be hits as well.
Karmin have labelled their unique style ‘swag pop’, a mix of old school hip-hop swagger and catchy pop tunes.
“We really like the sound of old hip-hop music so we try to develop our own spin on that. Our favourite artistes include Dr Dre, Wu Tang Clan and Janelle Monae.
But sometimes I catch Nick listening to Mozart as well,” explained Heidemann.
Their old school vibes don’t stop there. “I really like quirky, vintage things and wanted that to be our ‘look’,” says Heidemann.
She regularly sports her signature suicide roll hairstyle, striking red lipstick and thick, plastic-frame hipster glasses in their videos.
The couple, now engaged, met at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts and had always dreamed of a career in music. They just never thought it would actually happen.
But now that they’ve been signed to Epic Records, Karmin have been able to work more on original material. Also, they can now bid farewell to the days of playing on cheap instruments and shooting those low-quality home-made music videos.
“We are able to do so much more with our music that we couldn’t do earlier. We got to work with the same producers who worked with Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry, and got the opportunity to shoot these really fun music videos.
“When we first started uploading videos on YouTube, they were all very simple because we couldn’t afford any editing software. But now we get to do all these things we could never have done before,” said Heidemann.