INTERVIEW: Donna Lynne Champlin, More Than Paula

It’s not often you discover albums that change the way you listen to music indefinitely. Last year, I was blessed enough to find Paula Cole’s, Ballads, which did just that. Now, nearly 6 months later I have found another album that has done the same, Old Friends, by Donna Lynne Champlin.

To say Old Friends  is magnificent is an understatement. I discovered Champlin while watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on the CW. Her musical numbers within the series took me aback. Once I found out that she had her own solo album I started a journey down a deep hole of musicality I can not find my way out of.

After discovering Old Friends I had to reach out to Champlin and express my gratitude for the music she made. She immediately responded thanking me and pointing me toward her blog she wrote during the making of the album. To say the least, this album has a back story like you’ve never heard. Read her blog here. After reading her blog, to my great surprise (I mean, she’s a big deal), she agreed to let me interview her.

I’ve never heard a backstory to an album like this one. In 2009 Champlin broke her ankle while performing in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot. During her time of recovery, she decided to make an album. This sounds great, but Champlin went about it unconventionally. She decided to make this album on a dare from her brother, on a budget of $1,000. She recorded the album in her apartment, arranged nearly every composition, played all the instruments, and mixed each song. And it sounds like a million bucks.

Did I mention she accomplished this in 6 weeks?


To begin our interview, I had to know about song choice. Old Friends ranges from Civil War Songs (“Hard Times Come Again No More”) all the way to off-Broadway favorites (“Eiffel Tower”), with a tune or two from popular music (“Only Hope,” “When She Loved Me”). Choosing songs was quite the endeavor for Champlin and she had a process.

I started by not editing and writing down a list of all the songs I loved, not necessarily songs I love to sing, just songs I love and turn to when I need to hear something really fulfilling spiritually. It was massive. From there I looked for patterns. I could have done a full album of folk songs and I could have done a full album of Irish material…It was feasible to say I was going to do completely different albums from this list and then I thought about which one of these songs did I literally double over from when I first heard them. That ended up being the playlist.

During our interview, Champlin really focused on how these songs make her double over from emotion. She focused largely on how these songs were cathartic for her. These songs were friends from years past, which is where the title for the album came from.

The album is called Old Friends because I feel like every track I heard for the first time at a moment in my life where I needed to hear that song. I would play that song over and over again and it helped me heal or heightened my awareness to something I needed to pay attention too.


A few years before embarking on this effort, Champlin had shopped around making an album to different labels that specialize in recording Broadway performers. They all told her it would cost her upwards of $30,000. This would also come with the control of producers picking and arranging songs themselves, stripping Champlin of her own artistic prowess, which leads to another inspiration in making this album unconventionally.

The best thing about self-producing is the vocals I use on my album are my true voice. When you are in the musical theater and you are someone who looks like me, you are constantly bending yourself, bending your voice to fit the job they’ve given you. In my case the job was always really loud, brassy, and belty. This is not where I live naturally. It was my chance to relieve my self of that burden. It was my chance to put out into the world that this is me. You can dig it or not dig it, that’s fine.

Old Friends became a process of self-discovery and a vehicle for Champlin to express where she lived artistically. This album goes beyond her vocals in professional endeavors. There are plenty of “brassy” moments, yet she portrays them through her vocal lens. This album was Donna’s turn.


There was a lot to lose, but a lot to gain with this album for Champlin. She is a celebrated performer on Broadway and television. This album was her first step into her own. As it turns out, the album went on to win numerous awards and was even named one of the top 10 vocal albums of 2009, but what exactly did Champlin gain from this album both personally and professionally?

Personally, the act of producing it and creating it with 100% creative control was incredibly empowering and terrifying. As an actor you do feel very powerless…you are at the whim of the agent who submits you for a project and then at the audition you are at the whim of the casting director who will cast you or not…it’s very easy as an actor to feel like a puppet in your own life. It’s easy to forget what your own instincts are and what your own preferences are…I reawakened my own decision making process and it was incredibly empowering…It made me realize that my opinion is valid. It may not be the opinion we end up going with, but just voicing it is very important. I feel more in the process of my own career.


There are many nooks and crannies in this album. What I love most about this album is that it listens like a spiritual. Champlin is able to touch emotions in the ways of a higher power bringing boundless emotion.

I think one of the reasons why this album is successful is because the impetus to do it and the intention behind all of it was…pure, authentic. I had no expectations and I didn’t think I was going to sell any of them. It was an experiment on a dare. I didn’t have anything to lose by doing it authentically. That is the key to anything. If any of your readers are thinking about creating anything to put out into the world, I would only say don’t think about the commercial success of it. Don’t design it to be successful. Design it to be authentic.


Old Friends has made its way onto my permanent playlist. It has surpassed all Vinyl Culture’s expectations and more. It deserves a pressing. Champlin’s vocals are a higher power that rips open your emotions to their highest and lowest. She provides hope in the darkest times and the brightest light in the dark.

This album’s story also proves that being authentic and sincere prevails in the end. If we fabricate who we are our legacy becomes tainted. I’ve learned that through the journey of this album.

As Champlin and I were wrapping up our conversation, she began to take on a different tone. She wasn’t performing, nor was she acting, she began to come to me as a friend.

She left me with some lasting words that have now rung true in my life, and I think they will in yours. It is this project’s pinnacle point and one we can all learn as we go on to create.

If I could say anything to anybody out there thinking of creating their own content is to always, always, come from a place of authenticity. F*ck the commercial success of it. You can’t control that part anyway.


 

INTERVIEW: Jon Estes, Carrying on The Tradition

Music is not what it once was. I love finding true musicianship and talking to those who truly believe in raw music. This tradition goes beyond performers; it travels down to those behind the records.

A special tradition in music is being carried out, especially on vinyl on new and vintage records. Jon Estes, a musician, and producer in Nashville, TN, is one who carries this torch.

Estes was born and raised in Nashville, yet was not raised in a musical family. He began studying bass by the age 13 and his talent for music was soon recognized. Today Estes primarily works as a producer/ engineer at The Bomb Shelter in Nashville.

 

One could only dream of having Estes’ pedigree. He has worked with the likes of Bela Fleck, Kesha, Dolly Parton, Robyn Hitchcock, and Loretta Lynn while performing at some of the world’s most renowned venues, including The Grand Ole Opry and The Kennedy Center.

Recently, I spoke with Estes about his passion to carry on these dated, yet proven, techniques of musicianship, his recent work with Kesha, and as a producer.


Vinyl Culture: Hey Jon, thanks for taking a few moments to speak with me. In music, especially in regard to Nashville’s history, how do you carry on these tried and true musical traditions?

Estes: Hey! Thanks for having me. There’s a basic framework that’s been in place in Nashville since the 1950’s where basically a group of musicians will simply play together in a room with the artist singing. The idea is that the magic of a recording session comes when people are actually playing together, trying out ideas, discussing things, and feeding off of each other and the artist trying to get it right from the beginning. You listen back to the first or second take and it basically sounds like a record. The guts are there.

On a technical level, I usually record to tape and try to get all the sounds and vibe right at the beginning, not later on in mixing. It seems really basic and obvious, but it’s not usually how records are made elsewhere. My heroes are the session musicians of the 1960’s in Muscle Shoals, Memphis, LA, New York, and Nashville. You know, where you’d show up to work and Aretha Franklin or Bob Dylan walks in the door and you make a record in 3 hours.

This framework was how Jon worked with Kesha on her number one album, Rainbows.  He played bass on the album’s version of “Old Flames” featuring Dolly Parton. We know Kesha as a colorful figure and Jon’s stories don’t disappoint.

She got there late to the studio and we knew that we were going to be recording a version of “Old Flames”…so we started working up a version of it. It sounded very traditional and old school like a Patsy Cline record, but when Kesha showed up everything turned 180. She had this crazy energy and started singing like Janis Joplin. All the musicians fed off of it. We felt free to just do our own thing and not have some preconceived notion of what  a major label or the radio might want. I think Kesha specifically said “f*ck the radio!” She was cool.

Vinyl Culture: Did you play differently on that record, especially given Kesha’s attitude?

I think everything that day I tracked with a Fender bass VI, distortion, and spring reverb. That’s a cardinal sin in bass recording! [laughs] I’m sure the mixing engineer was thinking, ‘What the hell?’ Everything weird and wacky we did, they used on the record. I’m pretty sure that recording is all the live take, vocals included. It’s a good example of why musicians need to play together and feed off of each other.


Throughout the year, Jon works on nearly 250 sessions. He is a multi-instrumentalist. He often records on bass, pedal steel, guitar, piano/keyboards/organ, cello, and mandolin. He has found a love of arranging instruments and now works nearly full time as an engineer and producer.

Vinyl Culture: What do you look like as a producer? That term seems to mean something different to many who wear the title.

I’m a musician first, so playing instruments and being part of the band is sort of the core of it. I actually hate the idea of a “producer” sitting in the control room telling everybody what to do. That’s a dying concept. For me, it’s more that I’m just another musician and we’re all in it together. You know, the parents have left town for the weekend and the kids took over. 

Vinyl Culture: In our conversation, you mentioned how you were not classically trained. How do you achieve your vision and sound?

I did go to college at the University of Miami, but I’m a Jazz guy, not classically trained. I’ve fallen in love with string arranging the past few years; my wife is an amazing violinist. On a lot of records I produce, I’ll try to do some arrangements and get a few players in, but I’m a big faker. [laughs] Classical musicians have been very patient and cool with me! I’m always running in the tracking room and asking them to turn their bows backward and do weird things. Like everything else, it’s trial and error.


After winding down our conversation, I had to know what was next for Jon. With his given pedigree, what’s next?

I’ve sort of fallen in a good place now where I primarily produce records. I love working with a songwriter, seeing them through the process of making a record from beginning to end. I primarily work with indie artists and I like it that way. It’s a sweet spot that allows for full artistic liberty without labels or anybody breathing down your neck. Some of the best records I’ve made were with people who had never even been in a studio before. The process is so efficient here that people can come make top notch records with the best players in the world for not that much money. That’s something that has sort of carried on through since the 1950’s.

That is how the tradition continues, and vinyl culture remains alive.


For more information, including many of his credits, visit Jon’s official website here.

PLAYLIST: A Few Top Female Trailblazers

I haven’t written in a while. Life has gotten away from me and I haven’t been able to update as much as I would like. Today felt like a fitting return, as it is a day to truly celebrate.

Many strong women have impacted me through out my life. From my mom to mentors, women have had a profound impact on my character and integrity. As a self proclaimed quasi-feminist, I truly value women’s impact on our society, and to be honest, I feel sad that we need to be reminded to celebrate them.

That’s another argument to be had another day, today I want to celebrate International Women’s Day. In celebration, I have comprised a list of the top female trailblazers in music history. It’s safe to note, this list is not a comprehensive list.  One may not agree with all my choices, but I think we will all agree these women are music royalty and deserve to be celebrated.


1. Wanda Jackson

To say that I am a fan of Wanda Jackson is an understatement. I adore her music, faith, and tenacity in her life and career. Jackson created the female rockstar and the country bombshell at the same time. If it wasn’t for her there would not be any Joan Jetts or Carrie Underwoods. The best thing about her trailblazing history is that she didn’t even know what she was causing at the time, but she knew she was doing something.

2. Cher

Cher has as many definitions as she does hair colors, but she was the original female pop mega star. Not only did she have immense success as 1/2 of Sonny and Cher, she went on to score 3 number one hits in the early 1970’s. The press couldn’t get enough of her and neither could her fans. To this day she keeps blazing new ways showing that superstars are ageless while defining “Twitter advocacy.”

3. Diana Ross

If Cher created the first female pop mega star, then Diana Ross created the first female soul/R&B mega star. From her early days with The Supremes to her continuous solo career, Ross has more iconic hits then one can remember. Ross created fierce and paved the way for African American females in the music industry.

4. Reba McEntire

As a die-in-the-wool Oklahoman, I love Reba McEntire. As a music fan, I am devoted to everything she touches. Her career started in the early 1970’s without much success, until she finally hit number one in 1982 with “Can’t Even Get The Blues.” She created the country music superstar single handedly while always keeping the tradition of those who came before her. Not far from being over, she just won the “Best Roots Gospel Album” at the 2018 Grammys.

5. Tina Turner

There is so much to be said of Tina Turner. She created the “comeback.” After a tumultuous and abusive relationship with her husband and musical partner Ike Turner, Tina walked away with only her name. She began to perform in Vegas dives for someone of her caliber until Capital records took a chance on her. Thus she created “Private Dancer” and the rest is history.

6.  Madonna

Although I am not particularly a huge fan of Madonna, I do respect what she has done in the music industry. With that being said, I have nothing left to say.

7. Billie Holiday

As Paula Cole pointed out to me, Billie Holiday was the first great female American singer/ songwriter. Writing classics like “Don’t Explain” and “God Bless The Child,” Holiday declared herself the mother of jazz vocals. She was also one of the original leading musicians to take a social stand with her music with the song “Strange Fruit.”

8.  Judy Garland

Judy Garland was the greatest American stage performer. Her voice could touch every emotion and her presence could fill any venue. Sadly, we lost Garland when she was just 47 years old. Although many remember her from The Wizard of Oz, she was more than Dorothy.

9. Whitney Houston

Some artists need essays to describe them, but Whitney only needs two words: The Voice.


With that, I would like to say Happy International Women’s Day to all today! Let us truly remember the impact women have had on all of our lives.

Godspeed to every woman today and every day. All I can simply say is thank you.