Amy Heidemann and Nick Noonan met at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. She was a hotshot singer with an unusual gift for rapid-fire rapping; he was a trombone player turned beatmaker. They got engaged, took the name Karmin, and started posting cover songs on YouTube. The one that went viral was "Look At Me Now," where Amy flowed through the verses of Chris Brown, Busta Rhymes and Lil Wayne while somehow making it appropriate for all ages. It got them on Ellen and gave them their pick of record labels - they went with Epic after hearing L.A. Reid's pitch. He teamed them with the hottest producers, and in 2012, Karmin had their first hit: "Brokenhearted," a delightful, unabashed pop song that got them on the cover of Rolling Stone and on SNL. "Hello" and "Acapella" followed, with Amy rapping the verses and singing the hooks. Karmin sponged up skills and wisdom, learning how to craft a chorus, how to market a single, how to make a video. By the time they left the label, they were ready to take complete creative control.
Karmin's first post-Epic release was Leo Rising in 2016, a cathartic album with each song representing a zodiac sign. But instead of touring to support it, they reconfigured, with Amy transforming into Qveen Herby and Nick focusing on production and operations.
The Qveen (pronounced Queen), is an emboldened, fashion-forward rapper who slays her haters and uplifts her fans. It's strictly hip-hop, with a lot more fast-paced flows. The releases are 5-song EPs, posted to YouTube, Spotify and other streaming services whenever they're ready, and titled sequentially (EP 1, EP 2...). The first, released in June 2017, includes "Busta Rhymes," a song where Qveen Herby pays tribute to her speed-rap idol by redlining at 11 syllables-per-second. It's quite a departure from the clean-cut Karmin, but it's working. Every time Qveen drops a new video or EP, it gets devoured by her million+ followers.
In this interview, we learn how she writes those machine-gun raps, how she navigates the YouTube comments section, and the way she and Nick communicate through the songs. The Qveen holds court.
Qveen Herby: Actually, Pat used to teach us through Eminem verses because Eminem really puts the sylLABles on the right emPHAsis. It was Pat's teachings that got me to really dig deeper into my lyric writing. He explained that people won't understand what you're trying to say if you don't say it the way it's said in conversation.
Songfacts: So, you can teach the structure of hip-hop?
Qveen: You can to an extent. In my case, if I'm spitting a lot of lyrics out quickly, to have the words placed correctly was the best thing I learned from Pat.
But hip-hop is basically the new jazz, where there are always rules being broken on purpose. Pat would explain how Alanis Morissette would put the syllables on the wrong emphasis to emphasize them further. So rules are always being broken.
Songfacts: As you developed your flow, was there something you did to break these rules and create your unique persona?
Qveen: It's been more of a liberation of speaking more freely because I was really afraid to speak honestly in my songs. I was saying a lot of generic stuff early on because it was safe. I was raised in a church town in Nebraska, so I was scared to say something like "big dick energy." That wasn't something I would've said before hip-hop came into my life.
Songfacts: So, that's not something you would have done with Karmin?
Qveen: No. Absolutely not. I paid my karma with Karmin, though. I have no regrets. But looking back, it's always 20/20: Wait, why wasn't I speaking my mind?
Songfacts: Tell me what you were getting across on "Big Dick Energy"?
A lot of my friends told me, "I feel like I just have big dick energy," and I was like, "Let me explain that in song, but with the most smooth and feminine melody I can come up with."
Songfacts: I read somewhere where you said something like, "I need the hate." Can you elaborate on that?
Qveen: Ooh. Haters are the best motivator if you can think of them that way. It's really like gasoline for the fire. Because if somebody doesn't believe in you, you have two options: You can give up, or you can just get better at what you do. It's been a driver for me my whole life. If somebody doesn't believe I can do something, that makes me want to do it more.
Songfacts: Where did you first encounter these haters?
Qveen: My parents were always very protective of me and being naughty was really scary growing up in a church town. My first manager sent me the Busta Rhymes song that we ended up covering on YouTube, and he said, "I don't think it's humanly possible to rap this fast, but if you can just sing it or try to do a cover of this, I think it would do really well." And I was like, "Oh, fuck you. I can do it."
I posted it on his Facebook page, and that was the day it went viral - 100 million views or something - and it was so funny because I remember thinking, I'm going to show him I can do this. I don't even have any negative feelings towards haters at all, but it does drive me to surprise people and just keep giving people things they don't expect.
Songfacts: How long did it take you to work out the "Look At Me Now" cover?
Qveen: That was two or three days of sitting with the lyrics and just practicing for like an hour at a time.
Songfacts: Could you fit it all in your head, or did you need cue cards?
Qveen: I had cue cards for that for sure. Of course, by the time we did TV appearances, I had it memorized because I had watched it 100 times and been like, Oh my God, a million people are watching this right now.
Songfacts: Well, that's the thing about hip-hop: it's so lyrically dense, especially when you do it. Are you able to remember every word you write of every song?
Qveen: I am. I thought everyone could do that, but my husband Nick is always telling me he can't remember words to anything. He can remember words to movies that I would never remember, but I think everybody has a different talent for that. It's probably all the Bible verses I had to memorize growing up.
But I also was a wedding singer for seven years, so I had to learn four to six hours of music that was constantly changing and memorize it on a weekly basis. So, it is something I had to work at, but I also just have a knack for remembering words.
Songfacts: When you were a wedding singer, were you also an MC? Did you have to call for the first dance and all that kind of stuff?
Qveen: Oh God, yes.
Songfacts: Tell me one story about being a wedding singer.
Qveen: Okay, one week we did a big Russian wedding - it was like a million-dollar wedding or something. This is in Boston, where the wedding business is very lucrative. Our band [Kahootz] was one of the premier bands in Boston at the time, and we took the gig. I was like, Shit, I have to learn their first dance in Russian - like I don't even know how to speak this language, I don't know anything about Russia.
I studied it just like I studied the Busta Rhymes thing and I remember the father of the bride came up to me with tears in his eyes. He was like, "Are you Russian?" He was so impressed.
I was like, Wow, I can learn anything if I put my mind to it. Because I had to sing the song in Russian. And then later I took a DNA test and found out that I'm like 70% Russian, so that's kinda creepy.
Songfacts: That's why you're the Qveen! ["Qveen" was a college nickname assigned to Amy because she looked Russian. "Herby" is the Nebraska Cornhuskers mascot.]
Qveen: That's why I'm the Qveen!
Songfacts: What is the Karmin song you're most proud of?
Qveen: The Karmin song I'm most proud of would probably be "Acapella."
Songfacts: How did you come up with the lyric for that?
At the time, Pitch Perfect was really popular. They were talking about a capella groups, and I was like, "Wait, being a capella is kind of dope because you're saying I can do this without a backup band or without music. I can sing this on my own."
So there is a very empowering message in it, and it was sort of the birth of that side of me, where I could say almost comedic wordplay stuff in the verses and then have this empowering chorus.
Songfacts: So, you sing out the melodies phonetically before you come up with lyrics to your songs?
Qveen: Yeah. I remember John Mayer saying he is pro-gibberish. Like, you can sing things that don't make sense at all - you can string a bunch of nonsense words together and the way that a vowel hits a note is really precious. You have to find a word and a concept that will fit that, otherwise you'll lose the magic. If you switch it from an "O" vowel to an "I," that's a very different way to hit a note.
I will gibberish demo my raps too. Like, in the verse holes, I'll put down rhythms that I feel jump out, almost the way you think about a pop melody. When you're writing rap, you're also writing rhythmic cadences that have pop sensibility or memorable cadences - it's super challenging to be good at that actually.
I've had a lot of mentors and people who are actual rappers that grew up freestyling on the street come in and teach me how they do it because it's really its own art form. I find a lot of pop writers are confused about how to write a rap. It seems so difficult, but it's really just like writing a pop melody, but you're doing it rhythmically and with the vocal tone.
Songfacts: You also have to get your mouth around all the words, which seems really hard when you're doing it so quickly.
Qveen: Totally. For the speed rap, it's crazy. If you break it down in musical terminology, it's 16th notes or triplets that are the fastest you can go, and there are certain tempos that you have to stick to. You can't go impossibly fast - you have to find the sweet spot, so those are definitely the hardest to write. Those are most tedious and time-consuming because it's more of a math equation than when you're just flowing on a trap beat and it's a little bit more flexible.
Songfacts: Yeah, it's almost like a drummer where you can nest a triplet but nobody can play it.
Qveen: Exactly. With the speed rap, you want to start the verse kind of slow and build into it so it's a real performance.
Songfacts: What's the Qveen Herby song where you really felt like you found your voice?
Qveen: It's been in different tiers for me. That's why we love dropping these EPs, because I get to evolve myself as an artist every few months as opposed to doing an album every year, which is what a lot of artists' release schedules are.
My first song ever was called "Gucci," and I remember sonically and concept-wise it was my birth. I remember thinking, This is not Karmin, who is this? I love her. This is a version of me that I've always wanted to become and to be brave enough to express myself this way. So, that was EP 1, and from there I feel like I've been liberated a little bit on each EP, but EP 7 was definitely the biggest jump sonically and then lyrically. And then EP 8 is about to be so fucking crazy.
Songfacts: So you've already gotten that in the works?
Qveen: Yeah. The rest of my year is basically prepping the next round, and then we're going to try to tour. I keep saying "we" because it's a whole team of us at this point. Independent artists! Woohoo! We're going to be touring in the spring, so I've got to have this music ready because I won't be home in March and April.
Songfacts: What can you do as an independent that you couldn't do with Epic?
Qveen: I could not have done any of this without the experience I got being on Epic. No way. I would have done something cool, but it would not have been this exact equation.
I learned so much. I got to work with some of the best songwriters in the industry - they put me in sessions with the best people. Then, I got to perform in these amazing venues and have opportunities artists dream of, so maybe that's why my confidence is so high. But it's also terrifying being independent and knowing that if you fuck up, it's all on you.
Ironically, when you're signed, if it doesn't go well they blame the artist anyway, so it doesn't really matter. But being independent, you get to call every shot. I'm literally finding my outfits for videos and choosing the photoshoot selects, and at this point I'm even editing my own music videos, which has been a long journey of working with different editors and realizing they're picking footage of me they think is my brand or my persona, but that's almost like letting somebody else write your lyrics for you - it's never going to be completely you. So if you want to be independent, you've got to know what your limits are and what you're willing to do and what you're not, and then make sure you find people that can do those things for you to the caliber you expect.
Songfacts: At what point do you develop the video concepts?
Qveen: The video concept comes from the whole team of us, which is right now eight or ten people. We send it out to people we trust and we figure out which of the five songs is the single or the focus song, and then from there we dream up the wackiest setting for that to be. So, we'll say, "This one needs to be in front of some Victorian wallpaper and we need to be dressed in 1920s outfits, and the dancers are possessed and doing weird things."
We found, over time, that simplicity is actually the best for us. For some artists it's better to spend a million dollars on a video and go to Paris and jump off the Eiffel Tower and do all the special effects, but for me, sitting on a couch and rapping is the most engaging thing I can make. So where do you go from there? I think dancers was a big step in this last release ["Vitamins"], but it's also giving people a taste of what my tour is going to look like.
Songfacts: Because you're going to need people up there supporting you on the tour.
Qveen: Yes, and maybe some rose bushes. And maybe the water I'm drinking out of my water bottle has activated charcoal so it's black. All these little weird visual cues that are important for my fans to come and get lost in my world for that hour or two.
Songfacts: And you're going to need backup singers too.
Qveen: For sure. My catalog is 35 songs already, so I've got to pick and arrange the music and figure out the best way to do it. I have so many talented friends I could call. I could have an orchestra on stage with me at this point, but again, simplicity usually wins, especially because I'll probably be doing smaller, intimate venues for the first go-around, which is honestly the best way to do it.
Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Vitamins."
I never used to work out - I hated it. I've been getting a lot of sleep, which I didn't get when I was in Karmin. We were just really busy for about five years, like, I can sleep when I'm dead. But then eventually you are killing yourself - you do have to sleep. So, I've been working out, sleeping in and taking vitamins. I'm on vitamin D supplements, I've got all these herbs, and I take lavender baths. I was like, "Wow, this song is really speaking to my current state of mind."
Songfacts: What's on your vision board? [From "Vitamins": Self-care, good livin
Vision board and a mission.]
Qveen: My vision board is just a mess of Pinterest references. I use Pinterest for all of my visual ideas because it's the easiest way to put together a mood, a color scheme, or whatever you're trying to create visually. For me it's everything from a painting of swans to haunted mansions and Morticia Addams. I have five people at the top that I call my "masterminds group," which is Oprah, Kanye, Walt Disney, Rihanna and Cate Blanchett. It changes every once in a while. Steve Jobs was there for a while.
But those are the people I look at and try to emulate characteristics of that I respect. So that's my mood board. It's like this collage of colors and images that inspire me. And then I have my nine words that embody my brand. They change frequently as well.
Songfacts: What are some of those words right now?
Qveen: The top two are "devious" and "Chanel." I don't know if you know the story of Coco Chanel, but she was revolutionary in the way she dressed, and she inspired women to wear pants. She was like the jump-off for women to stop wearing dresses all the time.
Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Sade In The 90s."
Qveen: "Sade" was one of my first co-writes I ever did. I didn't bring any other songwriters in the room for the first two EPs, so by EP 3 I was like, "Alright, I'm getting tired here." Especially when you start writing so honestly and openly, you're like, "OK, I need to bring in somebody to give me new perspective." And Zak Waters, who is known as Pretty Sister, I met him at a writing camp at Alex Da Kid's studio. There are some songwriters you meet and you're like, "You're going to be in my life forever. Also, we're going to be best friends." Turns out he is roommates with Betty Who, who is a big pop star. So now we spend birthdays and Christmases together and it's a whole thing, but he came in one day and I had this melody but needed a concept and a lyric. We sat there for like two hours and hammered it out. He came up with "Deepak Chopra orange soda," which I thought was the most brilliant lyric I've ever heard, and the rest of the song just wrote itself. "Deepak Chopra orange soda" was like a movie - I saw the video in that moment.
Songfacts: Musical couples sometimes communicate with each other through their songs. Do you and Nick ever do that?
Qveen: Absolutely. Oh my God, that's so embarrassing, but it's so true. He actually presented me with the song from EP 7 that's called "Before." He had played me a phone memo of this track he made...
One night I was out partying with my girlfriends or something and I came back and he played this track and it was so beautiful. He said the lyrics were like, "I don't love you like I did before" - and I was like, Oh God, this is going to be a really sad song - "I don't love you like I did before, now I love you much more." So there was this payoff at the end when it became this super sappy love song. I make sure to line the verses with expletives so it's not too soft, but it's very sincere. He definitely helps me on melodies and concepts at times.
Songfacts: That is a very sweet song. I'm glad he did that.
Qveen: That's the way we communicate to each other. We don't look each other in the eyes and hold hands and tell each other romantic things. We're very ambitious, hardworking people, but we do enjoy little moments like that where we can write songs for each other or just explain what it's like to be in a relationship for damn near 15 years. We've lived together and worked together, so it's almost like we've been together longer. Most couples only see each other after work.
Qveen: I remember a time when a negative comment would bother me for days. Days would go by and I would fantasize about how to get back at a person I don't even know on the other side of the computer screen. There's actually an unforgettable one: We did a cover of a Janelle Monae song called "Tightrope," and the lyrics are like, "Some people talk about you like they know all about you and when you're down they doubt you." And I was like, "That's exactly how I'm going to respond. I'm going to respond to comments on this video with lyrics from the song." And I remember his apology was so sincere, it's almost like I surprised him - or her, I don't know who it was - and I'm pretty sure that they converted to a fan.
That negative comment on YouTube was an opportunity to turn someone into a fan. I realized that a compassionate response is always the best way to go.
I've evolved quite a bit from there. Now we hope for a negative comment because that means we've reached a new group of people that don't know about us yet. Think about that: If you have all positive comments, it's just your people - you're only reaching the same group of people. If you've got negative comments it usually means you're growing - you're reaching a new audience, and they don't know what to think. And that's amazing - you can show them.
Songfacts: You have a song with Karmin called "Didn't Know You" where you're talking about betrayal and dealing with someone who is two-faced. What was going on that led you to write a song like that?
Qveen: It was some unnecessary drama around the label thing. We signed that record deal with Epic and it felt like they believed in everything we were doing, and like we had the same vision for Karmin. The words we kept saying at the time were "the hip-hop Adele." Like, really great songwriting but with a good dose of hip-hop and that soulfulness that I love so much. Then it turned into this pop career, and we got this pressure to do things that weren't about our music anymore. It was disappointing and I had to point fingers at somebody, but I never would have become Qveen Herby if I hadn't experienced those things. So it was processing that intense feeling when they didn't see eye-to-eye with me at all, which was disappointing.
Songfacts: Well, it sounds like it was a very good growth opportunity, but then you knew when to get out.
Qveen: Yes! I'm so grateful for that. It took a lot of courage, and even when we killed Karmin and started Qveen Herby my team at the time was like, "This is career suicide. No one is going to give you another chance." That's hard to hear from the people that had been helping you run your career. So, you just have to be prepared to compassionately say "thank you for everything" and move on and trust that someone else will come in that can fill those positions. But now that I've done that stuff, I'm like, Watch out! I can do anything! I'm never going to feel tied down to anything.
I think what makes a great artist is that willingness to transform and just being unafraid, and that's become the message of my music and my purpose. It's no longer, "Let's get big hits. Let's be on the charts." It's, "I'm going to actually help people follow their wildest dreams." It's terrifying to do it, but I'm going to be their hype man.
Songfacts: Almost like a musical Pinterest with a positive attitude.
Qveen: Like Oprah on her mood board, yeah. It's like what Oprah said: Eventually in your life you find out that you have to be of service to others, or else you're not fulfilled, you're not happy. And how do you do that in the music business, which is kind of a scary place and can be kind of a shallow place? I was like, Oh, I can be a bad bitch and then make everybody else feel like a bad bitch too. Imagine your entire fan base is just successful, happy people - there's nothing better than that.
Songfacts: Who is the legendary teacher that you rap about on "Busta Rhymes"? [My teacher is a legend; ain't nobody on his radar...]
Qveen: Oh, that's Busta Rhymes.
Songfacts: So he is the teacher who you learned from?
Qveen: Yeah. I have studied Busta's work through and through, his dexterity and his skill to rap fast especially, and even the way he shot his visuals. I have learned so much from him and I did get to meet him once and tell him thank you.
Songfacts: How did it go when you met him?
Qveen: I don't think he expected a little white girl from Nebraska to be so inspired by him, but he came up to me and he recognized me right away. He said, "How did you do it? how did you rap like that?" I was like, "Dude, I learned it from you." That was an incredible moment.
Songfacts: What is your favorite part of your job?
Qveen: The reaction to the music and seeing people live the music and enjoy the music. I haven't toured yet [as Qveen Herby], but I love touring. I did one show in LA at the Peppermint Club, and it was one of those shows where I could just hold the microphone out and the crowd would sing along. The most fulfilling thing is when people really connect with the music.
The Karmin shows were wonderful shows with great production value, and it was a different energy every night. That's how I found out I was really an artist: I love meet and greets. I love seeing my people. That never gets old for me. Sometimes I don't want to write a song - I might get really lazy because I'm a tourist, but Nick never stops making beats, making music. We've both found something that we really enjoy, and it works together in synergy so well.
Songfacts: But you have to stop making music sometimes in order to reset your brain and take in the world, don't you?
Qveen: You do. And that's why we go to Disneyland sometimes. That's the ultimate reset - we get so many ideas when we go to Disneyland and go on some roller coasters. That's important for a songwriter: You do have to take a break. You have to recharge. Writer's block to me is songwriters resisting that need. Get out of the house, go do something else. You will come back inspired.
Songfacts: Well Qveen it's been wonderful - I've enjoyed this immensely and I thank you very much for doing this and for being so generous with your time and input.
November 18, 2019
Links to the socials are at qveenherby.com
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