WMMW Featured Women in Music Wednesday Artist…Karen Waldrup
Written by Katharine W. Poole
Karen Waldrup is on the road from Des Moines back to Nashville. Her cheerful, confident southern speech is lyrical across the line. Karen shines through the cell waves. She has the story-telling nature of an experienced performer. “That’s a hot topic.” She exclaims in response to the article subject: Women of Music. It is a topic that consumes Karen’s every moment, professionally, personally and politically. She is the ultimate warrior of women’s music. Possibly the next Miranda Lambert. She is forging her own path. It is unique, educated, savvy and above all talented. She’s started a party and y’all are invited to crash it!
She wants to see women succeed in this town. She is forging the path with a powerhouse of performance and dedicated resilience. “Tell me a bit of your history…” propels a journey that answers most of the interview questions with ease. Karen is an interviewer’s dream.
A marketing major at the University of Southern Mississippi, during her senior year she was playing full-time – three to five shows a week – at night. Her boyfriend at the time suggested: “Why don’t you just move to a music city?” And so she did. Karen chose Nashville for a “plethora” of reasons and resources. She loved the songwriting country music scene that kept her within driving distance of her New Orleans family and roots. Nashville felt like a “…comforting city, it felt like home to me.” She continues, “New York and LA were so much bigger. More people doing the same thing. Nashville felt like a good fit for a Country Music girl like me.” So, in July of 2008, two months out of college, she packed up and moved, having no connections to the city. “I knew no one. NOT ONE person,” she emphasizes, “Not an Aunt, friend, acquaintance. NO ONE.” But Karen loves a challenge, she thrives on risk taking, and she does it well.
“I got an apartment on the West side. It was probably a little more expensive than I could afford. I got a job at RJ Young, a document solutions company, selling copy machines and worked with them 8-5 Monday through Friday, because I knew I needed my nights and weekends free to write and play.” Karen describes her experiences working out in the community door to door in high heels as a networking strategy. And she was good at it. Really good at it. She sold 1.5 million dollars of copy equipment over three years on her own. She connected with all kinds of people, churches, small businesses, CEOs of larger companies, building her network one copier sale at a time. One of Karen’s former customers was a CPA who eventually became her accountant and Business Manager. She worked diligently for three years, and her thought was, as her grandfather would say: “How much can I ‘rat hole,’ [put away] because I knew at some point I was not going to want to work that way, and I would need money to live. I did not want the stress of waitressing or doing something I would hate.”
Karen got her first break when she auditioned for Sony. “Sony has been my cheerleader.” She was selected for the Bravo TV show Platinum Hit. Twelve people country-wide were selected and Karen was the only person from Nashville. This experience opened her eyes introducing her to the business side of music. Her first time signing contracts, dealing with negotiating and having to ask for what she wanted. She was still working at RJ Young and was not ready to let go of the safety net it provided. Karen marched into her boss’s office and explained she had been chosen for the reality show, that it was shooting in LA, and she would need six weeks off. They gave her eight. This was a blessing. She knew it would take six months of editing before she would have to make any further decisions regarding employment, and that was six months of solid income to stow away.
The Bravo show changed the face of Karen’s career. She took the approach of one of her favorite artists and mentors, Jewel. She booked 30 shows in 30 days. “Well, actually it was more like twenty-eight shows in forty days,” she laughs. “But close enough. That’s what Jewel does and then she takes three months off to write.” Karen was now able to book shows in clubs and bars that previously wouldn’t even call her back. Platinum Hit gave her the notoriety to get her foot in the door, and once club owners heard her they started booking future gigs in advance. She had achieved status. She traveled and played Tuscaloosa, Little Rock, Memphis and more. Karen hired a tour manager, a driver, both of whom she had to pay, and went on the road playing gigs for $300-$400 a night. But still there was no love coming her way from Music Row.
Music Row was not signing women. “In 2008 they had no interest in women. I realized to live my dream I just had to do it.” She adds, “I am successful because I do what I say I’m going to do. PERIOD.” And the touring took with a domino effect. Karen started grassroots, doing her own sound and running everything, selling merchandise, working on every detail. She noticed the “merch” was selling out, CDs, Koozies, key chains, so she increased their inventory. It sold and it sold shows. It was a way to continue her dream and keep singing. She was paying the bills doing what she loved.
For a short time she partnered with Ashlee K Thomas in a band Midtown Violets. The two friends created an upbeat strong female duo supporting each other both as writers and performers. They pooled resources and talents and learned to tour together. Their music was well received, but the record release did not prove fruitful and the women decided to split up the band, each pursuing her own career path.
In 2012, Karen auditioned for the third season of The Voice. She was selected with the top 142 (out of approximately 70,000 performers) to attend the “blind auditions” in LA. The blind auditions are filmed over the course of 5 days, and unfortunately for Karen her day was day five. All of the coaches had selected their full teams except for Christina Aguilera, who had one spot left. Karen walked on stage, belted out a beautiful rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee, and the crowd went wild. But no one turned their chair.
“I’m not a Christina Aguilera singer. She loved my singing, but she needed a power house to finish off her team. I’m more a Sheryl Crow.” The other judges made it clear in their comments they were kicking themselves for not waiting. Karen’s audition ended up on the cutting room floor, while she scratched her head at the luck of the draw. It was a let down. her worst experience to date of being in the music business. She felt as if she came so close; 30 million viewers would have seen her, but it was not meant to be. It was the ultimate let down after “cancelling her life” for six weeks of intense work. She was hoping for a fair shot. “BUT,” she emphasizes, “They paid me well; gave me some of the best vocal training I would ever experience – I learned HOW to sing with The Voice, and for that I am thankful.”
Wondering why that experience ended the way it did, but determined to live her dream, Karen went back to “the grind.” The good news was, the grind had a new label. Karen worked with Dale Morris Management at Sony Red. They released her first single “Sharin’ the Night Together.” And she came to the realization that she needed a band. “The only way to get larger clubs was to have a full band behind me, but I couldn’t afford it. So how could I do it?” True to form, she figured it out. Karen hired a band and got a gig at Tootsies on Broadway. She and the band played there for a small flat fee and tips. She paid them, they felt invested in – and the gig? Well, it was like a free rehearsal space.
“We looked at it as a paid rehearsal every week. It was OK to mess up, because half the people are drunk and they don’t notice. And people loved us. We built a fan base from all over the world.” She continues, “I have learned what downtown really is. It is a room filled with eager country music fans. They want so bad to experience the next best thing.” They want to like bands on Facebook, so their friends see their pictures with country singers in Nashville. They want new music that no one else has. They buy CDs. They request original songs. “Most bands only play covers on Broad, but we have gotten away with playing twelve original songs a night. They flock to us. They say: ‘You are the best thing we’ve heard in the three nights we’ve been here.’”
So Karen and her band hit the road with a new vengeance on the weekends, played Tootsies on week nights and in November of 2014 she had 10 songs ready for a new record. The record would only cost around $30,000 to produce, but her management company had Kenny Chesney. They did not need to break a new female singer who was more of a gamble than their superstar in flip flops. So they dropped Karen.
“I got myself a nice bottle of wine, and thought about what to do. I don’t have the dollars. I don’t have an investor. I don’t have a booking agent. No one buys records anymore. So, I decided to self fund and produce four songs, call it an EP and shoot a video.” She spoke to Leslie Fram at CMT, who Karen says became her next “cheerleader.” Leslie advised her she could shoot the video for $2,500 and no more.
“I met with Leslie and asked her which song to shoot for the video. She chose Trashy [Crashed the Party], because she said – ‘It is different than any of the songs other female artists are saying in music right now. It is funny, silly. It relates to people. Primarily women in the South. They all have their story. They get drunk at a wedding, their 21st birthday, girls night out. Every one has a story like that.’ – She told me that I could produce a really good video for under three grand, there was no reason to spend more. And, she promised she would spin based on the song, not on the video.”
So, Karen went ahead. She had Billy Brown as a contact, after he produced her Sharin’ the Night video for Sony Red, so she called him. She paid Billy to shoot/direct/edit. She scouted locations, begged, borrowed and convinced. She hired her best friend “Stylist” (Amy Lewis of Louisiana) to do just that, style and advise. “We used our brains and our hearts to create the video. And I learned so much in the process…” Karen made it happen, trusting it would all work out. “I put it on my credit card. $3000. I knew God would take care of it. I believe in sharing the light and the light comes back.” And it did. She and the band played seven straight nights at Tootsies, had a gig in Panama City Beach FL, played clubs, festivals and any live performance they could. Karen paid off her debt in one month. All of it. “It was a great testament to believing in yourself and taking a risk. This is America. It’s what we do here.” The video Trashy Crashed The Party was #2 for three weeks in a row on CMT Purepack. It went to #3 for two weeks and held its own in the Top 12 for 5 weeks.
What did Karen learn? “I’m not sure if people, particularly young women, understand what ‘distribution’ means. Like the wool has been pulled over their eyes. They don’t think: ‘Who is going to get this out there?’ I met with several people and they all told me the same thing…‘I’ll get you on iTunes and Spotify…digital distribution…’ But I have a marketing degree. I knew I could do that myself. So I started to ask: ‘What can you bring to the table [that is different]?’ Could they guarantee me a feature on iTunes? They’d try to butter it up, but [what they offered] I can get on Tunecore. I spent every dollar I made on music. Everything. My kitchen stuff is old, my mattress, my couch – I don’t have new things. I want my music out there.”
The point is, her music now earns her enough money to keep doing what she loves. She can perform at the free gigs, like Smokey Mountain Songwriter Festival, and open for superstars like Jason Aldean (even if she’s not being paid) just to get exposure. And for the first time in these ten years, she is getting a lot of attention from labels, because she produced her videos. Those labels that did not care before, and were catering to a male driven audience, are now meeting with her. “It’s the real deal, like you walk in the front door of A&R and you are playing your songs for the people with the pen in their hand.”
Karen would like to see Nashville change the face of music by getting behind female artists; listeners and producers encouraging radio to play more female music. “Between 2008 to 2011, the male-driven market pushed women performers out on the road – sent us on the highway. It turned into the male ‘Bro-Country,’ which affected sales, and the focus for females…we lost Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Patty Loveless – I mean they are still here, but people weren’t listening. They thought it was boring. It was all the movement of ‘the party’, larger than life. The only way to satisfy my passion for music is to to make music. Sometimes that means playing clubs, building a fan base and [hopefully] getting attention from labels.”
“I am really working two fronts here. On the right hand I want a record deal, a grammy. On the left hand I have thousands of people who love me. I lived it. I did it. [Already] This front pays the bills, buys groceries. I run a business, the dollars come in and go out, and I can get my nails done and eat mangos and pistachios, things I don’t need. The fans help me to get to the next place. I am shipping out CDs to people around the world. We played Ireland, coast to coast, city to city – Dublin to Donegal and down Ballycotton. It was so much fun! And they love our music. I love the Irish culture. It’s much like New Orleans, so I get them.”
What is next for Karen?
“Constant meetings with managers and labels. The gotcha is: ‘date before you marry.’ They test you out. I am doing the best damn job that I can, even if I don’t get a deal. I want to Increase our shows, bigger venues with hard ticket sales. We take 100% of door – we will take a loss in transition but in the end will come out ahead. Venue owners like because is less risk for them. A lot of male artists do this and find success. I like to push myself into uncomfortable places to do better. Karen believes in the theory of high risk high return.
Her advice to the inexperienced? “Women do not sell a lot of records – you gotta play clubs – look at Miranda Lambert. [Women who play clubs] turn out to be the best entertainers. “ Karen speaks to the reality shows pointing out that just because you were on American Idol doesn’t mean you can handle performing in clubs. “It’s a whole different beast.” She is right on the mark. “Lots of women are not willing to do it,” she points out. “It takes a strong passion in music to do that. It’s not glamorous. Women want ‘the deal’ not the reality. The key is to “Sing every time any one asks you to – because that is your job. That is what God gave you. I sing everything, everywhere. Karaoke, for my family, at a bonfire – any time any one asks – because you never know…”
Karen finds the process of her art most exhilarating. Her best musical experience? Creating her EP – Get Away – with her co-writers, Aubrey Lane, Ed Hill, Steve O’Brien and Wood Newton. She loves the co-writing process. Meeting at the Hilton to write Trashy Crashed The Party, recording her EP in the studio, and most of all sharing her songs with her ever growing fan base. This is what inspires Karen.
The Nashville 7:
The final questions posed to Karen (inspired by James Lipton’s approach to interviewing for Inside The Actor’s Studio.)
*1 In one Word describe Nashville: “Mamma.”
2 Your favorite food experience in Nashville: “Does it have to be a specific restaurant?…no? OK. Sushi.”
*3 One word that describes your music style: Without pause: “Grit”
4 Who is the one person you want to meet in Nashville: “Miranda Lambert.”
5 If you could ask (him/her) one question what would that question be: “Will you write with me?”
6 What is your favorite Nashville venue: “3rd and Lindsley.”
7 Your favorite lyric from a song you wrote: “I’m wild at heart. I’m young. I’m free. I swear I know what I’m doing. Have some faith in me.”
It’s not a hard request looking at all she’s accomplished. Karen Waldrup has faith in herself and has proven time and again that she can do it all. This artist knows how to throw a party – touring or on lower Broad, no matter the venue – all country music fans will want to crash!
Karen Waldrup will be performing 12/7 @ 6:00PM @ The Women’s Music Business Assoc. Toys for Tots Benefit
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*The material included in this article is the sole property of the writer, (Katharine W. Poole,) and the photographer and President/Founder of WMMW, (Cilene Bosch.) All elements may be used in other publications as determined by the owners. Permission must be obtained for reproduction.