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.