Donna Lynne Champlin: How to Make an Album for $1,000
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Tuesday, November 24, 2009; Posted: 07:11 PM - by Jena Tesse Fox
It’s certainly not unusual for a Broadway singer to record an album of favorite songs—in fact, it’s almost more uncommon to find a Broadway singer who hasn’t signed with a major label. But it’s certainly rare to find a Broadway singer who finances, records and mixes her own album, all for less than $1,000.
“For years and years, I’ve wanted to make an album,” says Donna Lynne Champlin, whose debut CD, Old Friends, will be released this weekend. “But sadly, I could never afford the ‘traditional’ route of hiring a label, producers, studio time, etc.” After an injury sustained during Billy Elliott, where Champlin is a singer and dancer, she found herself with six weeks to work on a new project. “It just seemed like a no-brainer all of a sudden,” she says. “The medical leave from Billy was really just a freak-timing thing but, I figured since I was going to be sitting around anyway—why not park my ass in front of the piano, be productive and have some fun. I literally woke up the day after I got my ankle cast and thought, ‘I’m doing this. Today is the day.’”
With a limited budget and some creative ingenuity, Champlin recorded the album in a different kind of studio: her studio apartment’s bathroom, specifically, which she describes as “incredibly convenient. If I was feeling inspired and in good voice, I’d just set everything up in five minutes and record. I’d record when I wanted, for how long I wanted without cost or time restrictions. It was marvelous. Plus, as I live in a studio, it’s the only ‘room’ in my apt with an actual door. So the only ‘controllable environment’ was either the bathroom or the closet.” (“Although how fun would that CD title be?” she quips as an aside: “‘Songs I Sang In The Closet featuring duets with Tom Cruise,’ or something. I dunno.”)
To turn her bathroom into a studio, Champlin simply closed the bathroom door, hung towels around the walls to dampen up the sound, set up her mike and popscreen, plugged in her headphones, put her computer on the sink and her notes on the toilet, and recorded to instrumental tracks she had already laid down. Of course, recording in the bathroom had its own problems. “Every time I was doing a great take of some really delicate and quiet moment, one of my neighbors would inevitably flush their toilets, or run their showers, or drop some sort of anvil, or whatever. That wild-card sound stuff got old really, really really fast. I lost numerous A+ takes with that nonsense.”
“Musically, I knew exactly what I was doing,” she continues. “No question. That was really the main reason I felt I could take this on—because I had no doubt that, musically, it was going to be all right.” Arranging, orchestrating, playing the instruments and singing were “not a problem, massive fun and totally in my wheel house.”
But all the other aspects of putting an album together?
“Oh, dear God,” she says. “I admit, the learning curve for ‘all the other stuff’ was…much more intense than I had expected. And had I not been so incredibly naïve as to how much non-musical work actually goes into making a solo CD, I might not have done it. Of course, I’m thrilled that I did, but…there were many times I felt like I was trying to bail out a boat with a strainer.”
Rather than look on the project as one enormous task to overcome, Champlin tackled each part individually. “And I tried to not leave things hanging either,” she says. “If I started a song, I tried very hard to work on it until it was done. That way I could mentally check it off the list, instead of feeling bits and pieces of this and that hanging over me like a net.” She describes the process as similar to that used in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd, in which she played Pirelli and numerous instruments. “When John (Doyle) would see our brains start to explode he’d say, ‘You just have to do this little bit right now. That’s it. Focus on this little bit. Nothing else matters.’ Actually, now that I think about it, this whole thing had a very similar feel to Sweeney rehearsal. That ever-present (yet ironically awesome)WHAT THE F***??!!! feeling that never goes away until….it magically just….goes away one day.”
Champlin documented the project online at http://donnalynnechamplinsfirstsolocd.blogspot.com, which enabled her to connect with a host of volunteers. “I really owe 99% of my team to the blog,” she says. “When I started, I had no team. Nobody. And I certainly wasn’t going to ask anyone to work for free during a recession. Then my brother suggested I document the whole adventure with a blog so that other people could learn how to make their own CD for a $1,000…and so that I could drive my mom crazy by swearing in public all the time. Obvious win-win there, so I started the blog on September 3, and as of today I have 86 posts on it ranging on everything from the musically hilarious to the technically tragic.”
As the blog picked up steam, various people in the field contacted Champlin and offered their services. “The only person I called personally was Jessica Wright, my violinist. Everyone else called me, offering songs for free, talent and skills for free, graphic design, mixing, studio equipment, PR help….all for free. My mind still can’t comprehend the incredible selflessness of all those people…I still feel quite undeserving at times, of all the kindness that people have shown me through this project.
“The really fun part was when people would offer things I didn’t even know I needed,” she continues. “I can’t tell you how many times I learned I needed something only after someone offered it. Phil Bond offered to host the CD Release party at The Beechman—and then had to explain to me what the hell a CD Release Party was. Insane.”
Champlin reserves particular praise for one member of the team who, she says, “helped me above and beyond what I would even expect my own family to do.” Robbie Rozelle, of PS Classics, started off doing Champlin’s graphics work (“When I brought them to Play-It Direct—the CD Reproduction house—they all started to cry just looking at the art, because his work is so beautiful.”), and moved on to press releases, ad banners, sell sheets—“he’s like a whole Production Company in one man,” Champlin says. “He knows everything about this whole business. He’s a total rock star. I don’t know what I did to deserve Robbie Rozelle in my life, but it must have been some kinda Mother Theresa stuff…I’m sure the amount of work he’s done for me on this CD adds up to at least $15,000. At least. If not $20,000.”
Describing the record as a “concept album,” Champlin narrowed down her song options from lists of songs she likes to listen to and songs she likes to sing. “But if I’m totally honest here, I would work on one song and then I would sit at the piano and think, ‘what would make me the happiest to work on next?’ And whatever song popped into my head is what I’d do. I didn’t worry about patterns, or arcs…I just listened to my heart and worked on whatever would make me happy. That’s how ‘Hard Times’ got on here. I hadn’t even thought of that song in years and yet all of a sudden, all I wanted to do was work on ‘Hard Times.’ So I went and dug it out of some box and I have to say, it turned out so cool we made it the first track on the album.
“Not to sound completely bonkers,” she continues, “but I really believe the ghost of my Grandma has been strongly present during this whole thing. She’s definitely been pulling some angel strings up there and I’ve felt her so strongly the past couple months. There have been too many things that should have gone wrong with this whole project that didn’t, and I know she’s been helping out from up there.”
Champlin describes the album as “chilled-out and very warm and comforting. The reason I named it Old
Friends is because every single one of these songs is a tune that I have personally turned to in my own life for healing and comfort. Every one of these songs has been played on a loop by me—over and over and over—because I needed its help at some point in my life.” Likewise, she hopes that the album will be a source of comfort to other people. “That they might turn to it when they just need to sit back and listen to some really cool tunes, or maybe they’ll just need to listen to one track over and over and over until they feel better. That’s my hope, anyway, that its warmth might have a healing touch to it.”
Overall, Champlin calls the experience of creating an album for $1,000 “very humbling…I went into this perhaps to show why you don’t need to pay all that money to all those people, but I’ve sure as hell walked out of it convinced that all those people don’t get paid nearly enough for what they do. Producers, sound engineers, graphic designers, PR people….those people earn every penny.”
The convenience and the freedom of recording at home was “awesome,” Champlin says, and adds that everyone for whom she has played the CD “has been absolutely shocked that it wasn’t done in a studio. And I owe a lot of that to Steve Jamail, Terron Darby and Chris Nichols. Those three sound engineers transformed my vocal tracks from hissy, cheap-sounding crap to extremely expensive sounding sassiness. They’re modern-day magicians, all three of them.”
Champlin had only intended to do the album on a lark: “Put in $1,000, lose $1,000, have some nice stocking stuffers for the family and something to sell in the lobby at the occasional concert, and that’s about it. The fact that it’s sort of taken on a life of its own has been a total surprise and a complete kick in the pants.” She hopes that people will take a lesson away from her odyssey of creation: “I highly recommend anyone who has time on their hands and a creative project they’ve always wanted to do….to just do it. I have not felt this happy or fulfilled in so many years. Whether you sell it or just give it away, the making of it is just so incredibly satisfying. Please, I’m begging you…do it.”