With a new year inevitably comes a desire to top the year that just ended. One person whose 2018 set the bar quite high is Karen Waldrup, country singer-songwriter and online personality.
Waldrup dropped her first full-length album, Justified, in July. The album was produced by award-winning, renowned producer Garth Fundis (Trish Yearwood, Alabama, Travis Tritt). The preceding “I Hope You Dance” (Lee Ann Womack) cover she posted on YouTube went viral, propelling the Indiegogo campaign made to fund Justified.
What’s more, surpassing her 2017 record of three Nashville Industry Music Awards (NIMA), Waldrup won four NIMA awards in 2018: Artist of the Year, Song of the Year for "Warm in Your Sunshine," Best Live Country Performer and Best Country Solo Artist Female.
A New Orleans native turned Nashville resident, Waldrup began her career in 2008, and built it up by deftly using social media platforms, sharing her music online for free, and engaging fans through YouTube and other mediums. She now has 15 videos that have been viewed a collective 220 million times in the last year, and her official fanbase, the Waldrup Worldwide Family, is creeping toward 1 million people.
For the second consecutive year, she capped off her year online with a Cyber Monday signing; fans from across the world could purchase varying merchandise packages and watch her autograph the items via Facebook Live.
Just after the Cyber Monday session, ahead of the holidays – and December performances that included singing the National Anthem at a New Orleans Saints game, and a show for returning military troops in Dallas – I spoke with Waldrup for StarsandCelebs.com. She reflected on her busy year, her unconventional career, and more.
Here’s what she had to say:
This interview has been edited for length and conciseness.
Amanda Ostuni: Your first release was an EP, With Love, Karen. Was that self-funded?
Karen Waldrup: Yeah, I've always been independent, and I still am funded by the people that love and support the music.
Amanda Ostuni: In 2011 you were on Bravo’s songwriting competition show Platinum Hit, and that sort of kickstarted things for you. Tell me about that experience.
Karen Waldrup: It really was that first step on my ladder, that first step that was like, "Okay, this opportunity, this feather in my hat sets me apart from just every other singer or songwriter in this world.” So, I was able to really use it and leverage it to book shows and do touring. It allowed me to quit my day job and tour [instead].
Amanda Ostuni: How did it help you grow as a songwriter?
Karen Waldrup: It really did a lot because they gave us lots of advice about writing… Jewel and Kara DioGuardi and Donna Summer and all these great writers were giving us advice.
One of the things was, when you go into a songwriting session with other writers, just start by saying, “What are you good at? What is your strength?” And then that person can go, “I'm really good at melody.” Or, “I'm really good at lyrics, I'm really good at guitar,” or whatever. It helped me understand all the different levels of writing, and then [if something is someone’s strength], then stay out of their way.
There was a lot of stuff like that that I learned that I keep in mind. They just gave us so much. So that was a really special time and a really great little first thing.
Amanda Ostuni: So, what exactly came next? How’d you go from the show to having such online-driven success as a singer?
Karen Waldrup: Well, I quit my day job. And then I started touring. We would just play bars, and clubs, and anywhere that was willing to have us. Recently, I just went through my system and found this old notebook, it was our “tour bible” – it has what time we were supposed to load in, all of the hotel stuff, all the details – from our very first run. And man, I had to really love music because we had some really low guarantees these clubs were paying us. In hindsight, I don't even know how we did it, but we lived really cheap and we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the road. And we just got out there and saw America from the stage and from the highway and we just met people.
So then I started growing my fanbase on Facebook one at a time. I’d be like, “ooo let me see your phone, let me like my page.” Or I’d give away stuff on stage, and I'd say, "Follow me on Facebook." So, when I first started it, it really was like a very organic, one person at a time, playing clubs to—[laughs] literally 40 people.
We did that for a while and then I think there was a Key West summer festival, I met the guys from [clothing brand] Country Rebel, in 2015 or 2016. They [gave me] really helpful advice about video content… They were like, "Your music career will grow as exponential as your video content.”
I didn't know how much that would change my life, but I started just live-streaming. I started when Facebook launched the live-stream app, which was like super cutting edge. It was the same exact weekend that I met those guys.
I started live-streaming private events or gigs, or rehearsals, just really anything, I just started kind of going crazy with the live-streaming. And that's really when it all changed, because people were in real-time. It allowed my fans to not only become more connected with me, but also with each other. It started to create this community. Then I started live-streaming from my living room. That was crazy because I would be able to play music for four times the Bridgestone Arena [in Nashville] online. There are more people watching online than would ever be able to fit in an arena. That's a game-changer.
Karen Waldrup: It was actually my friend Kevin at Country Rebel's idea…
People can find a video every single Wednesday. Like their church service every Sunday, every Wednesday at five, they know there is going to be a fresh video. Sometimes it's about the holiday we're having, or my birthday, or whatever it could be, a new song or a new record release. It's really turned into this thing where [fans] can count on it.
What I didn't expect is that those people became promoters. Because rather than just watching the video every week, they share it every week. So, then it gets into the inter-webs of Facebook and it never stops.
When you think about all the work that went into building the first 7,000 fans, how many thousands of miles I drove and late-night gigs we played and… then by doing this regular scheduled programming, we've been able to build 500,000 fans across the globe because they're interested and then they're sharing… that's why Waldrup Wednesdays are so important to me.
Amanda Ostuni: But given where you are now, what makes you want to continue that particular video series?
Karen Waldrup: It’s what got me here, and it's growing my business and my fanbase so rapidly, so easily, and so affordably. You’ve got artists out there… paying money to Facebook for their posts to be seen. I've never given Facebook a penny. I just put the content up and my fans share it. People are seeing it… I don’t need to pay. Because people are partnering with me and sharing it. So, I think it's important to keep it up in 2019 because it's my targeted projection to reach a million fans.
After 2019, if I have a million fans, I may change that in some way… but I do anticipate doing Waldrup Wednesday throughout 2019. Just because it's really so easy… you make a fun little video, you put it out there, it gets a frickin’ million views every frickin’ time, it's amazing. We've got about 225 million views from this sort of approach.
You have this power to give and to engage and to create in a way that has never been able to be done in history.
Amanda Ostuni: But why give so much up for free? How does that pay off?
Karen Waldrup: That's a great question. First of all, streaming in general has changed the entire game. In my opinion–I’m not saying it’s the Bible–I believe that the more a person streams, the more a person spends… they're going to be 500,000 times more likely to come out, and come to my show, buy a shirt, tip the band, or whatever, when I'm in their town, because they've been engaged, they feel like they know me.
And some people might think, "Oh, why would you put it out there when someone has to pay a dollar to hear your song.” And I'm in the opinion of, they're not going to pay a dollar. That's not where we are anymore. We're in 2018. No one pays a dollar. So why fight it?... God has provided new revenue streams that are so weird and has never been done before [i.e. Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Patreon]. I don’t have to do anything, I know that money’s going to hit my account.
[And] it allows me to give this content freely on the Internet, and then that content reaches people all across the globe. Then all of a sudden, some guy in Liechtenstein, Europe is booking a show, and somebody in Jamaica is booking a show, and Virgin Islands, and LA. So, it is definitely a testimony of giving and receiving. When you give, you do receive.
Amanda Ostuni: Will your approach take over or continue to coexist with traditional models?
Karen Waldrup: I would say they would coexist, like they are now. Some people are independent, some people have a partner, and some have a small boutique label and some people have a major label. I think there's just a lot more space, flexibility for creators than there ever has been.
Amanda Ostuni: Could you ever have predicted your trajectory?
Karen Waldrup: Absolutely not. And how could I? Because I didn't know Facebook Live was going to happen.
I remember the first time I ever saw Facebook Live. I was in Key West sharing a room with another female artist, and she came home from her gig. She's like, "Oh my God, I went live on Facebook and 558 people watched."
And when she said that, I was like, "Wait a minute. So, you're playing a gig… you're already on stage… why not add 558 more people to the room, just by propping your phone up? Why not? It's free. So then, okay, I'm going to start doing that."
And then I've never had a live stream that ever didn't get 1,000 views, from the first time I ever went live… I didn't know that I was going to be able to connect through people's hearts on their iPhone the way I've been able to.
Amanda Ostuni: Back to your music, you’ve called your recent album Justified your “dream album.” Why?
Karen Waldrup: I always wanted to make a full-length record and I was never able to because I was playing bars and scrubbing pennies together. And, I didn't get a record deal. That wasn't what God had for me. I was bummed about not having a record. I had these little EPs, but I moved to Nashville with a dream and that was to make a record. My dream was not to be famous, not to have a record deal, my dream was to have a record. And I have a record, now.
Even my producer, he's like, "You don't need a record, Karen. Unless you're signed to a label, no one’s making records." And I'm like, "I don't care what anybody else is doing. I'm making a record [laughs]." And that's for me and my legacy and my life. I just wanted that.
Amanda Ostuni: You’ve gushed about one song on the record, your cover of Lori McKenna’s “Sometimes He Does.” What about that song made you so excited?
Karen Waldrup: For me… I was literally blown away by the craftsmanship of the songwriting. The entire song she literally has you sitting on the edge of your seat going, “What is she talking about?” And then she doesn't reveal it until the bridge.
[And a beauty of the song] is that… It's one of those things where I think the [listener] can interpret it however they want.
Amanda Ostuni: When you're writing your own songs, what inspires you?
Karen Waldrup: One of my inspirations come from my traveling, seeing the world, meeting people, what they say. Usually I'll have an idea and then I'll jot it down in a songwriting app. And I'll usually come back to it later.
Amanda Ostuni: Is your sound influenced by any particular singer?
Karen Waldrup: I would say more than an artist, I think it’s really South Louisiana. Just being from a place where music is so free. You get to make whatever music you want [there]. And growing up around blues, around soul, and the French Quarter, and how music is so important to South Louisiana. People that live in South Louisiana love music. As far as artists, I'm really inspired by Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin. Primarily females that are just rocking.
Amanda Ostuni: Speaking of rocking women, you mentioned in an interview that industry leaders are still reluctant to back female country artists. Why is this still an issue?
Karen Waldrup: I think it's because they think that women can't sell tickets. I don't know if there's data that backs it up or not. But I'll see festival ads and there’ll literally be like 10 white solo male artists. I'm like, "Does no one see this? Am I the only person that sees that this is weird?” …I don't understand that, but it's definitely happening in country music, for sure.
Amanda Ostuni: How does that get fixed?
Karen Waldrup: Honestly, I think it gets changed by females making great frickin’ music. Stop singing stupid shit and people will listen to your music. I think there are some female artists that will just make stupid music…
Amanda Ostuni: Ok, I guess since you covered “I Hope You Dance” and it was so well-received, you don’t think that’s a stupid song?
Karen Waldrup: Not stupid. That song has some sort of angelic quality – it’s indescribable. I'll ask God when I get to heaven.
Amanda Ostuni: Why do you think your version of the song resonated so strongly with people?
Karen Waldrup: I think it was that I just didn't really try. I think I was singing it from such a genuine, authentic place. And it was so not produced, that people felt like they were sitting in front of me… It’s kind of trendy right now for music to be authentic. I think people really connect when it's not too overproduced.
Amanda Ostuni: So, what would you say is the secret to a song being good?
Karen Waldrup: I think it's how it makes people feel. If you can make people feel hope or happiness or remembrance, if you can evoke a feeling out of someone, I think it makes it a good song. Even if that feeling is funny, humor, perspective or thought, anything. If you can get someone to think or to laugh or to smile or whatever, I think that's what music's about.
Amanda Ostuni: So, with Justified and everything, 2018 was a big year. How do you feel?
Karen Waldrup: Well, 2018 was a really big year, but it was also a really challenging year for me in my personal life. Because we had some security issues, I had to move twice this year. It's just been one of those years that God put me through the fire.
But I was writing a book during this year. So now all of that is in my book. And it changed me as a woman, it made me super aware of my security and my surroundings, and now I'm a gun owner. And so, it definitely helped me a lot, that God showed me the light. I was the kind of girl who would—I was just so dumb and naïve. Now I'm like… super alert, aware, and probably too much. I'm kind of over the top about it now. but that was a huge challenge to be going through the same year my record was dropping.
Amanda Ostuni: So, were those troubles related to your growing fame?
Karen Waldrup: What happens is, you don't know when your career is going to explode, you have no idea when that moment is going to happen. So here you are, living this life and giving people your address, and now your address is on the Internet and you just don't even think about it, and then your career frickin’ explodes and all of a sudden, your address is on the Internet… The career exploded into the level of, okay, “we've got motion detectors, we've got frickin’ cameras all around my house.” It was not always like this, it was not always a concern. There weren't always 500,000 people who knew I existed.
Amanda Ostuni: So that story is in your book. Is that coming out soon?
Karen Waldrup: Yes. In fact, I'm working with a publisher right now. [The book is] called “Good Old-Fashioned Persistence.” It's a 12-month memoir of the year, and it's all of it. It's all the nasty stuff that happened, which in some ways, is kind of a drama. I think it'll be a page-turner.
Amanda Ostuni: So, looking ahead, besides the book, what else is in store for 2019?
Karen Waldrup: [We’ll be doing shows] in Jamaica, the Virgin Islands, Germany, lots of shows in Texas. I am writing a lot right now, so I'm thinking the next [thing] will probably be a single. But Justified just came out, so I don't really want to step on it. I want to write, write, write. And then maybe do a Spring single or something.
You can learn more about Waldrup, and catch her music and videos, at her website or by following her on Twitter (@karenwaldrup), Instagram (@karenwaldrupmusic) or Facebook. You can also check out her YouTube channel Karen Waldrup Music.