People ask me, people ask me all the time
How you doing that? How, how you doing that?
People ask me, people ask me all the time
How you doin’ that Busta rhyme?
From “Busta Rhymes”
By Qveen Herby, Nick Noonan and Steve Tirogene
The Qveen contains multitudes. Of music – rap, hip-hop, soul, rock & pop and more – also multitudes of confidence, wisdom, whimsy, rhythm, street smarts, diligence and strength. Her story is a story of empowerment; as one-half of the pop duo Karmin, signed to Epic Records, when she felt her creative spirit hindered by corporate pressure, she walked away from what seemed at first to be a dream come true. Yet her truth was being lost, so to find it she reinvented herself as a symbol of strength and determination. And Qveen Herby was born.
Karmin was a collaboration with her husband Nick Noonan, who co-wrote and co-produced their music. But as his passion was for writing songs and making music in the studio, with no love for performing and being a public figure, the Qveen option agreed with him as well. With the third member of their team, producer-writer Pompano Puff – aka Steve Tirogene – they redirected their energies towards making new music for the Qveen.
So in 2017 she officially became Qveen Herby, a metamorphosis heralded with the words : “Karmin Is Dead, Long Live the Qveen.”
Their first single was “Busta Rhymes,” showing her new Qveen incarnation in all its glory – vigorous, fast rapping over great tracks with words both funny and pointed. Any woman in hip-hop is making a statement of empowerment in this male-dominated genre, but she did it with grace and joy, and the Qveen phenomenon has been blossoming ever since.
We spoke to her over the phone, as she was in lockdown in her downtown L.A. home. Asked how she was getting through this uncertain lockdown time, she said a nightly bath with lavender oil with classical music playing calmed the disquiet.
She shared her creative journey, from growing up as Amy in Nebraska, where she discovered hip-hop, a passion none of her friends even slightly shared. It was from there to the Berklee School in Boston, where she studied songwriting with Pat Pattison, met her future-husband, and learned every kind of song there was to perform in wedding bands. Then came the Karmin years, where they made two albums, and on to the Qveen. This is the first part of our conversation.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER: You grew up in Nebraska, yet you became a major hip-hop fan. How did that happen? Did you have friends who liked hip-hop too?
QVEEN HERBY: No! None. I found it on accident. I was watching the Rickie Lake Show, which I wasn’t even really allowed to watch it because it had a lot of adult content. I grew up in a very Christian house, but I remember seeing this group called SWB, which is an amazing R&B group that was signed by Puff Daddy at the time and I thought, “Wow. Who are these beautiful women in these leopard -print body suits singing their asses of to this intoxicating beat?”
And I didn’t know because my parents listened to classical rock, maybe a little bit of soft rock like Billy Joel and Elton John. I had a good musical upbringing. They were into rock & roll, and we know rock & roll comes from black music, so I’d heard a lot of soulful elements. But when I heard it on the show that day I knew I had to find this. I remember going to Walmart and furiously searching for anything R&B and I just had to have more.
I would say everybody was into boy bands, so it was NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears at the time. Pop music was amazing at the time, but I was more interested in Brian McKnight and Mariah Carey and Brandi and a lot of those R&B acts who would have rappers on their song. And that was the only time I could hear rap was when it didn’t have the cursing, so it was the radio edit.
And that spoke to you when you first heard that?
So much, yeah. I didn’t know why. We just didn’t even have people rapping in Nebraska. We hardly have any people in Nebraska, so I became obsessed. I saw these musical gods and I just couldn’t want to get out and get to a big city and find out more.
It’s so raw and so real and honest. The only way you can describe it is soul and everybody’s got different tastes. By the time I got to the city, my first city was Boston with the Berklee College of Music and they were teaching jazz, and that was also black music. And so experimental and free. I think it was the freedom that really appealed to me. Because pop music is so structured and strict and there’s some rules, right?
But with jazz and hip hop, especially hip hop today, it’s anything goes.
You took piano lessons as a kid starting young?
Yes. My piano teacher had so much patience, rest in peace, Marcy Myer. She forced me to learn theory when that really wasn’t the cool thing to do and you’re young and I just didn’t care, I didn’t want to know the math of music. I wanted to play by ear, I wanted to be soulful and she made me go back and learn pieces by Bach and Handel and I was like, “Oh, God. Here we are,” but I do appreciate the discipline, kind of like the discipline I got growing up in a church town. Really made me a hardworking, grounded person.
Did it help you?
I think it gave me at least a language so that I could speak musically to people. By the time I got to college I tested out of a bunch of classes, so it saved me money and time in college and I jumped right into GB gig, which is what they call General Business Band, so weddings, corporate events. I was able to make a living almost immediately when I got to Boston, which was a big issue.
My parents were already terrified that I was going to a big city. They’d ask, “How are you going to pay your rent?” So I do think that learning the theory helped me communicate with the band and get all that out the way before I jumped into the workforce.
My husband and I met at Berklee and he’s basically my producer along with this other producer called Pompano Puff. Such a talented guy. Never went to music school and it’s most amazing collision of creative minds when the three of us create, so I have let go of a lot of the music theory.
But we always joke that we had to graduate from Berklee and then forget everything. It takes two years to forget everything and remember why you make music in the first place. Not to overthink it, to go back to operating off your intuition-
I would go and sing for four to six hours at events for corporate parties and weddings. It was great; I was so proud. I think when I started it was $100-$150 a night and by the time I left Boston, I was making $600 a night or something which was grand. My parents were relieved.
Were you booking all those gigs yourself? You did well.
No, I got into a band that was pretty established and I learned so much from them. We did everything except “YMCA,” because everyone hates doing that song. We did everything from Norah Jones to Beyoncé, to Nat King Cole. During dinner you played jazz and then you started to ramp it up and get people on the dance floor. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was my specialty.
So many of the greatest songwriters, from Lennon and McCartney through Ed Sheeran, became great songwriters who could write in every style because of playing covers for years, and learning the lyrics and music to all those songs. Did it inform your songwriting?
Absolutely. I always say that I’ve just been a sponge this whole time and a fan first, so I think my perspective has been really healthy. But singing other people’s hits for hours on end and seeing the way that the audience responds is the greatest boot camp you can put yourself through. Because when you then sit down and try to write your own music, you’ve got context for how a hit feels. How does a hit song feel in your voice?
Every six to eight months, it seems, I’m having epiphanies as a songwriter. Such as, “Oh, the only thing that matters is the concept.” That one has been a new thing. Every song we write now is really focused on a unique concept and an angle. How do we tell that story in a couple of verses? Because musically we’re experimental.
Of course, this whole next EP was really inspired by R&B like Missy Elliott. We’re having a lot of fun with background vocal harmonies and getting creative with that.
But the concept, wow, I mean there was even a songwriter I was talking to the other day and he said, “You can even just go back to the Billboard charts from the ’70s and rewrite a hit song title, just rewrite the whole thing and it won’t sound anything like it. It will be just be like you’re reiterating that concept but in a modern way and with completely new music.”
terms of the business – and the writing – all of it has been about learning it
on my own. Nobody sat down and showed me how to do this.
I think it’s the Midwest upbringing, the Christian household and not coming from a lot of money. My parents had no connections to the entertainment world whatsoever. A first grade teacher, my dad still works the same desk job, essentially, that he’s had his whole life. So I have very humble beginnings, and my willingness to do things, like editing my own music videos and just enjoying the process, enjoying the growth, I find that my skills are more valuable as time goes on.
Now we’re in an industry climate where you have to do everything yourself. I’m trying to shift my efforts to even helping fellow indie artists create sustainable careers because it infuriates me that for so long labels have been taking 87% of the master and these artists can barely eat.
you think now it is easier for artists to sustain a career? Or is it harder
It is better in many ways. There was a time when you had to have a record label to get you into a recording studio, and you had to pay all these hourly fees. But now, for $400 if you already have a laptop, you can have a pretty legit home studio up and running.
Yes, there’s a learning curve, and a lot you have to learn about recording your own voice. It really depends on your level of experience, but YouTube has a billion free videos, tutorials, education is now free. We call it YouTube University.
I agree. But sometimes It seems because there is such a glut of information on the internet at all times, much of which is false or misleading, that for many it can be more confusing than helpful.
You’re right. If you go down the right street it can be helpful. But it is true that a lot of people have all that information at their fingertips and are squandering it, or spending all their time on stupid stuff. But there’s so much valuable stuff you can get, as you are doing.
I’m always learning. I use Masterclass, which is only $15 a month, but has so much valuable information. Now I’m learning about fashion. This morning I was watching a class on advertising, which is so interesting and directly applicable to the music world. Because you got to get on Instagram and see your artistry now. It’s not just a process of `Sit back and drop music for everyone.’ Some people have to really push it and build a community that’s engaged, and you have to have something of value to offer.
Your song “Vitamins” is one of my favorites, and is a perfect example of telling a story with just enough details, without giving too much.
For sure. I want people to understand it, but also to feel it. To feel the mood, like I’m the soundtrack to their life while they’re in the car on the way to work in the morning, I want them to feel powerful. I want them to think, “I am so valuable.” Their self-worth and their confidence needs to be strong, to be through the roof, because then they’re going to have the confidence to make decisions all day long that are leading them to their purpose in life.
If everybody’s on purpose and everybody’s following their soul’s mission in life and using their talents, then we’re improving the world.
Now when I write music my goal is to reassure everybody that they’re immaculate beings. That’s really the whole vibe. So for that reason, I do try to keep it a little bit vague.
you remember how you wrote “Vitamins”?
Yes. That was a lucky one. Sometimes it’ll start with a melody and we have to follow up with the melody and just a vowel. I remember John Mayer always said he writes with gibberish, so it will just be like criminal, zevadel, menalineala. It will have the same vowel shapes, so sometimes you’re lucky enough to marry some words to the melody, or to the rhythm. Then you look at it and think ”Oh, wait. What if it was about this?” And then you can expand upon that and finish the verses.
“Vitamins” was really interesting, how it came together. There was even a point in time, believe it or not, where Nick and I are wondered, “Is it good? Is this too weird? Is this too crazy?” And I’m so really happy that we put it out. It was sort of an accident that it became a single. It wasn’t even supposed to get a video, because at the time we were trying to clear my new song, “Check,” which includes an interpolation of Missy Elliott and Timbaland songs. So we had to buy a few more months time before we could drop that one, which is why “Vitamins” got its spotlight.
It is good to keep it light-hearted and not too serious, and “Vitamins” was so fun that it just kind of came out quickly. The chords came first and it was almost like a job to finish it up. I always hear this from the Bruno Mars camp; when they did the song “Grenade,” it was a bunch of jokes like, “Girl, I would catch a grenade for you. I would jump out a window.” They were just making silly phrases and then they ended up making it a really serious song.
But then other times we’ll have just a lyric and a concept and we try to marry it to a rhythm. I feel like that’s a harder one to grasp, but most of the time it’s melody first, and then we try to come up with something. Sometimes I’ll to sit for hours. And then, boom! It worked.
Your lyrics are always vivid. Do you write more than you need and cull the best lines?
Yes. Most of the time. Sometimes I’ll even write a whole chorus of lyrics and then I’ll sing it and Nick will say, “You can beat it.” Which is infuriating, because when your husband tells you that, you just want to slap him. Because you already spent three hours on it.
But the thing is, he’s always right. And it’s always worth it in the end to go back and rewrite. Sometimes they just get abandoned. Sometimes you got to leave it alone. You have a couple of songs that will come back two years later and it will just happen, like boom! There it is. There’s the idea.
I love this book by Elizabeth Gilbert called Big Magic. I love recommending this book to songwriters because she’s a writer, she writes short stories, and essays and books. She wrote Eat, Pray, Love, but I love how she described this part of the job. Songwriting is so tricky. I love the way she explains how she lives her creative life without expectation, only with joy and appreciation.
It’s important, if you’re ever stuck on something like that, to just put it down and go to a museum and clear your head and get inspired by other stuff.
Just getting out is important. Because you never know. You might be walking down the street and see something that inspires a new concept for a lyric.
Yes. Especially if you’re in that responsive, open frame of mind, where you’re observing everything and taking it all in.
Yes. I’m a big believer in that God, or the universe, is always talking to me. You just have to listen. Sometimes you really get what you look for, what you focus on. I’ve heard that fashion designers like Marc Jacobs does the same thing. He said, “I don’t know what the fashion line is going to look like every season until I start, and I happen to stumble on a certain shade of green velvet. Then it becomes pants and then we have jackets and there you go.” It’s weird.
So Big Magic. Check it out. It’s an easy read.