Karyn Rochelle was another Nashville hopeful in search of a recording career who, unlike most who don’t get that break, ended up becoming a highly successful songwriter. Rochelle, who worked as a demo singer and as a background vocalist with Martina McBride while she honed her writing chops and built a catalog, found success by penning hits for such country acts as Trisha Yearwood, LeAnn Rimes, Ronnie Milsap and Big Machine artist Sunny Sweeney, and even had a hit R&B single by Kenny G with Chante Moore (“One More Time”). Rochelle may not have gotten exactly what she came to town for, but she’s succeeded on a completely different level and isn’t done yet.
Today Rochelle has a deal as a writer with Nashville’s Big Yellow Dog Music. American Songwriter caught up with her for a few questions between writing sessions and live performances.
You came to Nashville to sing and you succeeded on at least one level, becoming a pretty successful demo singer. Did singing demos that became cuts, like “I Hope You Dance,” help you with your own writing?
Yes, of course. I fell into demo singing on the recommendation of a fellow co-writer. Word of mouth brought me more work and before I knew it I was singing songs by some of our industry’s most incredible songwriters. I don’t think I ever thought of it as a way to advance my career. I just knew these songs were great and there was nothing more I loved to do than sing. Being in the studio is where I am most comfortable. To me, nothing touches the creative energy of recording and hearing a song come to life. I just loved it and I believe that must have translated. When these writers began to ask me to get together for co-writes I was honored and a bit nervous because they’d never really heard anything I’d written on my own. Looking back on my demo years, I believe that time was pivotal because not only did these writers help me learn the craft of songwriting better, but they also helped me see the value in what I brought on my own. The more I began to trust that, the more I grew as a writer.
You’re a writer with Big Yellow Dog and you also were with Famous Music. What is the advantage for you of being a staff writer as opposed to just doing it yourself?
There have been many advantages. For me, personally, I have hard time pitching my own songs because it’s a real letdown to be told to your face that your song is terrible or “not what we’re looking for” (laughs). As much as I am self-assured in what I do, I am glad to be able to assign that responsibility to someone else so that I can focus on the creative side more. However, in today’s climate, it takes both the writer and publisher to hit the street with the songs. I have had to grow in this area and grow some tougher skin. My partnership with Big Yellow Dog has afforded me many opportunities that I may not have had on my own. Aside from the financial aspect, having a publisher that is well connected is a huge asset to any writer.
You seem to lean towards writing for more traditional country artists, ala Kellie Pickler and Reba, though you’ve also delved into the R&B world a little. What did you listen to as a kid, and when the business side of writing is stripped away, who are you really?
Growing up I listened to a wide variety of music. I loved country music because it was just always present in my home. My mom sang country music and often invited me to sing songs with her in her band. We sang songs by the Judds together. I listened to their music all the time. I can still hear their influence in some of my songs today. In my pre-teen years, I was really into Debbie Gibson because she was 15 and she wrote all of her own songs, a la today’s Taylor Swift. In high school I was drawn to artists such as Suzy Bogguss, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis and Mary Chapin Carpenter. It was a magical time in country music when there were so many versatile artists to discover. Albums were like storybooks that took you on a journey. I will never buy into this whole theory about marketing music to age groups because at 15 I had records ranging from young pop artists to women who were more mature than me in years and loved them all equally. At age 18 I discovered, by accident, the record that would change my life. I was working part-time as a DJ for a country line dance club and teaching line dance lessons in Myrtle Beach, SC when I discovered a promo CD by a new artist out of Nashville by the name of Matraca Berg. I took the CD home and must have played it hundreds of times. Matraca has a magic way of pulling you into her world when you listen to her. This record alone inspired me to write so many songs and helped me to trust myself to be more vulnerable in my writing. Who am I when the business side of writing is stripped away? For me, it’s never been about the business. I have never approached writing a song with the thought “Who can I write for” in mind. I have always just wanted to write a melody I love and words that are honest. When I co-write with other artists I encourage them to say what they have to say and together we make something we can be proud of. If they get cut, they get cut. If they don’t, the joy they bring me just in their creation is enough for me.
So many artists and writers – Eric Church, Ben Folds, Ryan Adams, all the way to Gospel queen Shirley Caesar and jazz legend John Coltrane – are from North Carolina. Any thoughts on why the Tar Heel State seems to turn out so many creative people?
Maybe there’s something in the water? (laughs) I’m not sure how much being from North Carolina has to do with it but I can definitely agree that a lot of talent comes from our state. I just remember music being such a part of my everyday world from the time I could walk or form words. My mom sang and wrote songs. Both my brother, Chris, and I are musically inclined. I’m a little bit country and he’s a lot rock n’ roll. I gravitated more to piano and then later guitar. He can play any instrument you put in his hands. Looking back, I’m so thankful for the place I grew up. Being so close to the ocean, I took it for granted. I miss the smell of the salt air and the leisurely pace of small-town living. I miss sitting around the kitchen singing songs with my mom. North Carolina was a beautiful place for a kid to grow up. I get back home to visit as often as I can.
You’ve been in Nashville quite a while now and have had a good bit of success, but it gets tougher every day for the aspiring writer and/or artist. What would you tell someone just pulling into town to concentrate on during his or her first six months in Nashville?
There’s just no magic formula. It’s very easy to become discouraged in the music industry. I have become discouraged many times. I’ve learned that comparing yourself to others is a waste of time. Learning from them never is. Our music industry is always evolving. What is hot now won’t be tomorrow. It takes a lot of resilience to really stick it out. I would say that being true to yourself is most important. However, being so stubborn that you won’t grow or evolve can really do a lot of harm. When I begin to lose perspective I ask myself two questions. Is what I am writing true to who I am? Can I grow from here? I never want to get so comfortable that I miss the chance to be better than I knew I could be.
You may be the only Nashville writer who’s had something cut with Kenny G’s name on it, and you’ve even been recorded by the legendary George Jones. Before it’s over, though, who do you want to have a cut by more than any other artist?
I was lucky enough to have this dream come true for me a few years back. I can remember sitting on the living room floor in North Carolina with my mom watching the CMA awards the year that Trisha Yearwood won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year. It’s cheesy, but I cried. I just loved her music so much and had a great respect for her as an artist. Years later, after writing “Georgia Rain” with Ed Hill, I looked at him and said, “This song has to be sent to Trisha Yearwood.” I really can’t explain it, I just knew it was meant for her. Ed agreed and my publisher sent the song over to her producer. Trisha had taken a few years off at that time but was making a new record. Her producer, Garth Fundis, invited me over to the studio to hear it after they had finished recording it. I sat down at the control board and listened with tears in my eyes. To me, Trisha has the most incredible female voice Nashville has ever heard. To hear her sing the words and melody that I wrote was the most surreal experience ever. Afterward, Garth Fundis said to me, “Do you hear who is singing backup harmony on the song? It’s Garth Brooks!” I just shook my head. I hadn’t heard him at all. Sorry, Garth. I was so moved by Trisha’s performance that everything else just fell away. A few months later, I watched Trisha stand on the ACM stage and sing my song. It took me right back to that night watching her on the CMA’s with my mom. It was a full-circle moment. That song went on to be my first hit. There is nothing that could top that for me.