Amy says neither of them had any idea that they would click so well, and she remembers feeling anxious and excited to see Nick again. “The next day, neither of us called each other,” she said. “I don’t know if Nick was over-thinking it like I was but I was pacing around my room, checking my phone every five minutes like ‘What is going on?’ That’s what the new single ‘Brokenhearted’ is about.”
Three years ago, Nick and Amy decided to put their chemistry to work by forming a group. As Noonan recalls, selecting a band name was fairly tricky. “We were going through these different names and trying to find some meanings in other languages. Karmin in Latin spelled with a ‘c’ and ‘e’ means song. We took that and combined it with the word karma to get our own version… Karmin.”
Karmin were frequent buskers on Newbury Street in Boston, where they played acoustic guitar and cajone while singing a mix of originals and covers. “We performed with the guitar case open with CDs for sale,” Heidemann said. “It was actually the most successful format for us in the city because there are a lot of people from different countries walking down Newbury. We would do community events, talent shows and open for local artists who were friends of ours, but it wasn’t easy.”
Fast forward to 2010, when Karmin began uploading videos of original song performances on YouTube, which coincided with the release of a four-track EP of sweet, sexy acoustic pop called “Inside Out.” Video views were slow to start until they took the advice of their manager and uploaded some favorite cover songs. Nick remembers being stunned when an April 2011 video cover of Chris Brown’s “Look At Me Now” racked up nearly 10 million views in its first three weeks. Thirteen months later, the same video has nearly 65 million views. Celebs like Ryan Seacrest and Nicki Minaj retweeted the video to their followers. Three days after that video hit the web, a booking agent from “Ellen” called. Karmin-mania had begun.
The major labels began showing interest after hearing the duo’s original songs, and over the next six weeks, Nick and Amy met with all of them. Ultimately, Karmin partnered with producer L.A. Reid, who brought them to Epic Records. Some of Reid’s past high-profile artists and signings include Pink, Rhianna, Kanye West, Avril Lavigne, Mariah Carey, Justin Beiber, Usher, OutKast and dozens more.
Amy says the pair are not worried that Epic and Reid will keep them from keeping it real. “Our label has been so supportive,” she says. “L.A. Reid signed us for what we were, which was a quirky, honest duo that’s musically trained.” If anything, Heidemann says that having such a powerful support system in Epic and Reid actually provides the group with virtually unlimited resources. “It’s so exciting to explore these things,” she said. “We understand our fans and supporters can’t be with us in the studio when we’re deciding to do things, so we’re being very careful.”
The new CD, “Hello,” features seven tracks that Karmin classify as “Swag Pop” – music full of vibe, hooks, attitude and at times, raps. Rapping is something that Amy loves to do but until Nick gave her the confidence to go public with it via YouTube, most of her raps had been confined to the shower. “I grew up loving rap music, but I come from a Christian household,” she remembered. “I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of what we would consider legit rap music. The parental advisory sticker limited my abilities to listen to that, but I always wanted to be part of that world.”
Nick says the duo wrote and recorded nearly 50 songs for consideration for “Hello.” “He (Reid) ended up picking three or four of our originals that we wrote 100 percent by ourselves. We’re lucky that L.A. Reid loves our writing. We had some co-writers too, including Claude Kelley who co-wrote “Grenade” for Bruno Mars’s “Party in the U.S.A” for Miley and “Circus” for Britney.
On Feb. 11 of this year, Karmin lived a dream when they performed on “Saturday Night Live” – “Such history, everybody has been on that stage,” Nick said. Karmin nailed it with a spot-on performance, but hearts were heavy that night. Hours before taking the stage, they were informed that Whitney Houston had been found dead in her hotel room, and the news hit Amy especially hard. “It was very sad, but we redirected that energy to our performance,” she said.
On “SNL,” Karmin performed the current single “Broken Hearted” followed by the Middle Eastern-influenced “I Told You So” - an obvious follow-up hit. “I’ve always been obsessed with the Middle Eastern sound,” Heidemann said. “Studying those progressions at Berklee, we were like, “This would be a really cool musical hip-hop homage to “Look At Me Now.” Nick put some trombone down and the rhymes just started flowing. Nick and I wrote the song completely by ourselves.”
The big question for Nick and Amy is, when is the wedding? They had originally planned on a 9/10/11 wedding. “That’s true,” Nick told me. “We were planning on getting married on that date. It was a comedy of errors. It was literally 10 days before the wedding and I didn’t have a tux yet. We didn’t even know how anything was going to happen.”
The week they had originally planned on exchanging vows was a profoundly busy one for Karmin. “We had a video shoot that week,” Noonan recalled. “We were booked to perform at the iHeartRadio music festival the next day, which streams to something like 20 million people around the world. There were all of these opportunities and we kind of felt like, ‘Why put that pressure on the marriage right now? Let’s just postpone it a little bit.’”
Nick admits that he had some serious butterflies when he proposed to Amy. “I worked down the street at a boxing club,” he recalled. “I used to come over and see her for lunch sometimes. This particular time, I said, ‘Hey, I have a new song for Karmin.’ She said, ‘OK,’ and I plugged the iPod in. Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ came on. She just kind of looked at me (and said)… ‘Oh….’ Then I got down on one knee and did the deed. I didn’t think I was going to be nervous, but I was really nervous.”
Over the years, Old Town High School has seen several alumni achieve success in the music business - from Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Patty Griffin to 2003 graduate Matt Chilelli, who won an Emmy for writing the theme for PBS program “The Purple Couch.” The school has a nationally-renowned music program and recently celebrated a big win in April at Disney World in Orlando. Band Director Jeff Priest says the band earned a “Golden Mickey” along with four other trophies accumulating more points than any other school.
Priest remembers similar victories from Nick Noonan’s years behind the trombone for Old Town. “From 2001 to 2004, we won the Berklee Jazz Festival when Nick was with us,” he told me. To win it once is an achievement, but a win four years in a row is virtually unheard of.”
Old Town High’s victories at Berklee are an important piece of the Karmin puzzle. Those wins garnered a summer program scholarship for Nick, who decided to enroll in Berklee full-time, where he later met Amy.
Nick made his mark during his time at Old Town High, according to Priest. “He was such a great kid,” he remembered. “He was well liked by the other kids and by his teachers. That’s the thing I’d like to people to know. Nick had many good teachers, not just me.”
Jeff Priest’s wife, Shianne, is another of Nick’s former music teachers, and looks back with fondness. “Even in grade 5, Nick was an extremely gifted trombone player,” she said. “The funny thing is, many of us really did think he was going to be famous someday, but we thought he would be buying CDs of Nick playing trombone in a jazz group. None of us imagined that he would become famous in a group like Karmin. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Both Jeff and Shianne Priest cited examples of Nick Noonan showing encouragement to other students. “In Nick’s senior year, I was observing a jazz ensemble rehearsal,” said Shianne. Nick played a solo which was extraordinary. Then, a 9th grade boy took his turn playing a solo. I overheard Nick when he turned to the boy and said, ‘Hey man, your soloing is getting so much better – keep it up!’ He wasn’t aware that anyone else could hear him. It was kind of a ‘caught you being good’ moment but that’s the way Nick was. He spent a lot of time encouraging other kids.”
Priest recalls another story that is revealing of Nick as a person. “During one of his last jazz concerts at Old Town High School, I remember he played an absolutely amazing jazz solo. Things came out of the end of his horn that should not have come from a horn played by an 18-year old – it was simply incredible. At the end of the concert after everyone had left, three people remained to pick up stands and chairs - me, my husband, Jeff and Nick, who had changed from his concert shirt into a T-shirt. He stayed and helped us clean up after everyone else had left. That speaks volumes about the kind of person he is and I’ll never forget it.”
I spoke with Nick’s father, Mike Noonan, on May 8, the day that Karmin’s “Hello” hit stores. Noonan told me that his wife set out to purchase the CD that day only to discover that nearly every copy in the Bangor area had been snapped up. “Judy went to Bull Moose and they were out,” Noonan said. “Then, she went to Books-A-Million and they were sold out too. She then drove over to Target, where they had two copies left in the store and a girl was holding both of them. Judy told her, ‘I came here to buy one – that’s my son.’ As it turned out, the girl was a friend of Nick’s and she handed one of them to my wife.”
“Hello” is set to make an impressive debut on Billboard’s Top 200 albums chart this week. In its first three days of sales, it debuted at number 10 on the Nielsen SoundScan Building chart, which tracks sales from six major merchants.
Mike Noonan says that he and Judy have mostly become accustomed to the fact that they have a famous son, but he admits that it’s still a little surreal. “To be honest, once their video took off, it’s been surreal ever since,” he told me. “From going on “Ellen” to meeting Kanye and Ryan Seacrest and going on “Saturday Night Live” - he’ll call us to talk about the things that are happening, and it’s continued to be surreal.”
I asked Mike Noonan if his household was particularly musical during Nick’s formative years. “Not as much as you’d think”, he said. “To be honest, the biggest influence, by far, was the school system. In the 4th grade, he had to choose an instrument, and he chose trombone. Nick was a well-rounded kid – he did three seasons of sports and he did very well in school. It wasn’t as if music was his whole life, but it was important to him.”
Noonan and his wife could not be happier and more proud of their son and his fiancé and musical partner. “They’re just a great couple,” he said. “They were here together last fall and did a set for Old Town’s Riverfest in the park. They love touring and meeting people, and it will be very exciting to see where this goes.”
Now that “Hello” has been released, Amy and Nick have hit the road for a summer of live “Swag-Pop” that takes them from New York City to Los Angeles, Minnesota, Chicago, Mansfield, MA (Comcast Center on Saturday, May 19), Kansas, Hartford, Las Vegas, Florida… and that’s just the next few weeks.
Nick and Amy say they are excited about the quality of the live show and can’t wait to get in front of the crowds this summer. “It’s going to be fireworks and we’re going to be up on an elephant – that’s right, we’ll be bringing an elephant on stage,” he said laughing. “No, I’m kidding! It’s me and Amy, obviously. We have a guitar player, a bass player, a drummer and they’re all killing. They’re ridiculous – so good. It’s a lot of energy,” he said.
The title track from “Hello” tells part of Karmin’s story, according to Amy. “We had gone through a lot of stuff,” Heidemann says. “In the chorus, we wanted to get some of our pride out because we were like, ‘You know what? We actually could be the next big thing and we want people to know that.’ We used to have a joke where we were like, ‘Hey, we’re your new favorite duo!’ It’s kind of a cocky thing to say, but that’s kind of the story it tells: ‘Here, we think you’re going to love our music.’”