When a simple video of a boxing-gym employee and a wedding singer rolling through a bare-bones, live-take version of Chris Brown’s “Look at Me Now” went hugely viral back in 2011, Karmin officially made the leap into the pop arena. The duo signed with major label Epic, enjoyed two hits (“Brokenhearted” and “Acapella”) whose respective platinum and gold sales belied their deceptively middling chart performance, and collaborated with a bevy of established hitmakers.
And that’s where Karmin admits that its own weaknesses started turning into a trap.
“Not always necessarily in a bad way — I think our biggest problem is that we are very painfully open-minded and we’re chameleons in a way,” says keyboardist Nick Noonan. “That maybe is our one weak spot, where we do love — sincerely, absolutely love — different styles of music, genuinely. So getting different writers and different producers, it was good to learn from these people. But one thing we found, that might be maybe not necessarily always positive, was that everyone was always looking for the single.”
Adds singer Amy Heidemann, “And that’s what working with the record label can be about if you’re categorized into the pop genre. So that was our first step after this last album [2014’s “Pulses”] came out: How do we get out of the record contract?”
Which is exactly what Karmin, which plays the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion with Lindsey Stirling on Saturday, did — with the help of an astrologer. (More on him later.) Heidemann and Noonan are quick to scotch any suggestion of ill will toward their former label. “It was an amazing stretch, and I would do it again just because we learned so damn much,” Noonan says. “But we just felt it was time. You know, we’re 29 now, so we wanted to grow up, more or less.”
In Karmin’s case, that means something of a return to how the group started in the first place. Where the number of contributors in the songwriting and production credits of “Pulses” and 2012’s “Hello” could be dizzying, Noonan is producing the upcoming “Leo Rising” alone. The difference is striking. Despite a relatively minimalist template (largely just pulsing synth bass and rhythmically layered drum thwacks) lacking the production flourishes that gave Karmin’s previous releases their turned-to-11 punch, the new “Didn’t Know You” manages to sound bigger and more three-dimensional than the group’s ever sounded.
“We tried to just have it be an actual performance,” says Noonan. “And what a lot of people are saying when they hear even just a couple of streaming songs so far – because these aren’t really mixed yet, either – they’re saying that is the most us that we’ve ever sounded like.”
It’s especially true of Heidemann. Listening to “Leo Rising,” it’s hard not to get the impression that you’re hearing her voice for the first time. “One of the biggest things we wanted to do was to get rid of the Auto-Tune,” she says. The result is a bracing new directness to her vocals that scrubs away the candy coating of earlier hits.
Even so, Karmin hasn’t suddenly ceased being a pop act, nor has the lack of label or production team involvement turned the duo insular. Thanks to a shared manager, Heidemann and Noonan connected with guitarist and fellow Berklee alum Jeff Gitelman, who has played with Alicia Keys, J. Cole, and Stevie Wonder, among others. The three hit it off quickly while recording the openhearted forgiveness jaunt “Along The Road.”
“We built up such a communication, like a telepathy almost, after meeting each other, hanging out for 10 minutes, that you can really hear it,” says Gitelman. “And that was really all from just that second take. It was actually amazing. It’s very seldom that you hit a vibe with somebody like that. After that, I just felt total trust from them creatively.”
Noonan agrees. “I was watching him and Amy go back and forth when they were playing that,” he says. “Everyone was yelling and crying. It was so much energy.”
Moments like that seem to have justified Karmin’s decision to jump ship from Epic. The astrologer who advised them on their departure — “He told us the way that he thought we should get out, and it worked, like, crazy accurately,” says Heidemann; “Literally to the day,” adds Noonan — sparked an interest in the zodiac that gave “Leo Rising” its organizing principle. Each of the 12 songs corresponds to an astrological sign, with the title position taken up by “Pure Imagination,” in which Karmin’s own verses are affixed to the chorus and bridge of the “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” song.
“Leo is actually a childlike, imagination-based sign,” says Heidemann. “He comes into the party after everybody has already tried the food and tried the drink, like ‘Yes, let’s celebrate!’ And he makes a huge mess, and then Virgo comes in afterward and cleans up after him.”
“The king sign,” says Noonan. “Everyone loves him. He’s the center of attention.” It’s something that a duo that grabbed pop music’s ear by demanding “Look at me now” can understand. And Heidemann isn’t willing to let go of that innocence just yet.
“We were starry-eyed,” she says. “I’m glad that that happened when it happened, because now we’re a little bit more jaded and realistic, I guess. But we were pretty naive, which played to our advantage.”
Marc Hirsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.