An Interview with Karen Willough:
DK: Good day Karen, thanks so much for your time today in answering some questions, I really appreciate it! How are you?
KW: Great, thanks. I just finished debuting second solo cabaret show, “So This Is Love?” here in Chicago. I’ll be doing some choral performances over the next few weeks before I start touring my cabaret show.
DK: You have quite the musical background Karen, so, let’s start from the beginning shall we? You were born in Central America, how long were you in Central America before coming to live in NY?
KW: I was just an infant when we moved to New York–Brooklyn. That’s where I grew up. But I went to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. Later on I went to the College of New Rochelle, an all-women’s Catholic college in upstate New York; but retuned to the city and attended NYU grad school.
DK: Do you have a big family/small family and is anyone else in your family musically inclined?
KW: I’m an only child but I have quite a large number of cousins. Sadly, I’m the only one with artistic leanings.
DK: Was it in New York where you started to sing and perform? What type of music were you exposed to and did you find yourself singing to the most?
KW: From the time I was little I was a bit of a ham. My mother’s friends will tell stories of how I would put on Christmas shows when they would visit. I’d make programs detailing the evening’s entertainment, and hand it out to the guests as I’d seat them in the living room. Then I would sing and play the piano (a toy one a first), and act out a play, doing all the parts myself.
In college, I was part of “Props and Paint”–the drama club–and performed in the musicals. I think that’s where I first developed my love of the genre. I also sang with choir, but I don’t think I had an appreciation for it at the time. After college, I worked with several theater groups but primarily with Actors Conservatory Theater (ACT), headed by Arlene Wendt. I learned so much about musical theater from that amazing group of people.
DK: Where did you go to and live in while in Europe?
KW: I lived in the Netherlands but traveled quite a bit while I was there–to about 30 countries. I was singing in a really great a cappella choir, my first high level choir, and that’s when I really developed an appreciation for the music. The choir performed in a number of places, for example, at the 125 anniversary of the cathedral in Shewsbury, England. It was very surreal sometimes singing in churches almost older than the country I grew up in, and practically in the birthplace of people who wrote the masses I sang.
DK: How many languages are you fluent in and when did you learn them?
KW: I’m fluent in Dutch, and can manage, badly, in German. However, I can sing in those languages as well as Latin, Italian, Spanish, Slovonic (Russian-ish), French, and English, of course.
I was forced to learn Dutch when I moved to The Netherlands. Because we lived very close to the German border a lot of the products in the supermarket were German, menus at local restaurants were in German, we got German radio and tv stations. I would shop at malls in Germany. No one spoke English where I lived so it was either Dutch or German. The choir also sang in Dutch, German, or Latin. I was very excited when we had a concert in England.
DK: How influential was the music of the countries you lived in to you and what you are doing in music now?
KW: I really liked Dutch radio. It may be different now, but at the time they would mix genres as well as time periods and languages. So you might hear an Italian song from the 1970s followed by an American pop song from the 1980s followed by a French song from 1960. I heard so much music I’d never heard before. What I liked specifically about Dutch music, was that it didn’t follow the standard “verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse, chorus” that American music has. It was…all over the place…unpredictable. I loved that. I did translate one Dutch song and record it–“World without You.” It’s my most popular video.
DK: Do you have a favorite language that you love singing in?
KW: Believe it or not, Latin. All those broad vowels. So much fun to sing.
DK: Let’s talk about your training, where have you studied music and what have been some of the biggest takeaways that helped you in your career?
KW: Interestingly enough, I hadn’t really started training to be a singer until fairly recently. I initially intended to be a songwriter. Although I’ve been singing in choirs since I was five, I never had any training until just a few years ago. First with a professional classical singer, and now presently with Davin Youngs and Hilary Feldman.
Davin has been just wonderful in helping to first, get rid of bad singing habits, and then help me “relax” into my voice–to sing freely, and with confidence. But also be able find my physical weaknesses and develop them.
Hilary focuses on the song elements and how I can use my voice, and the physical elements that make up my voice, to bring out the meaning. A song is never just a song.
DK: In your biography, it states you won an LASC award in the Rock category, how did that come about for you?
KW: Living in New York, in my 20s, I was a member of the Songwriters Guild of America. We were encouraged to enter as many songwriting competitions as possible. At the same time I was taking songwriting classes where we had to write songs in all genres, not just genres we liked or were comfortable with. We also learned a song could be produced in just about any genre. So I’d just re-produced one of my songs called “Alice Angel” into a hard rock format and it happened to place that year in the LASC competition. The following year, 1996, one of my other songs, “You Know I Have Angels” received an Honorable Mention in the Billboard Songwriting competition. That song went on to be included in a Canadian film in a country format. I released it in 2017 in a Latin-pop format. Both were produced by my friend michéal Castaldo.
DK: What have been some of the biggest hurdles in your career and how have you overcome them?
KW: Probably my own insecurities. It took a long time to trust my voice and know that when I opened my mouth the sound that I wanted would come out.
There’s also so many aspects to putting on a solo show or putting together a CD–it can be overwhelming. Everyone will give you different advice. At some point you have to trust your own instinct because it’s your face and your name that’s out there, not theirs. You’re going to have to stand by the choices you make.
DK: It looks like ‘Scrumptious’ is your only full album to date and that came out last year, correct?
KW: Yes, and I was insane to do it. Just kidding. I had done a few singles at that point and thought I could handle managing a CD. You’ve probably heard about the stage fright that Adele gets before a performance. I got a little bit of that the first day of recording in the studio. I wasn’t even singing the first day–we doing rhythm and brass. But I remember waking up and thinking: “If anything happens to me, 10 people don’t get paid today. Or tomorrow.” That’s a lot of responsibility. And I though about people like Beyoncé or Ed Sheeran–hundreds of people depend on their voice. I can’t even imagine living with that pressure on a daily basis.
Then you’re in the studio, and there’s a balance between perfection and cost. Being a musician, you know how it feels to want to do it “one more time” to get it just right. But as a project manager, you know you have schedule and you have to keep an eye on the clock. You’re paying all the musicians for their time, the studio, the engineer, the next group about to come in. Do we have enough takes to get a good recording? Should we do it one more time? You have to make decisions on the fly. It’s the kind of thing you don’t know you’re ready for until you do it.
DK: How was the album received by your fans and how do you feel it did for you as an artist?
KW: The download and streaming have been primarily of selected songs and not the full album, so unfortunately, most people haven’t gotten the story arc. The songs that HAVE been streamed, have been A LOT, so for that I’m grateful. Huge difference between the US and Europe. “All Around My Hat” gets streamed a lot in Europe; “Shall We Dance” is popular here in the US.
DK: The collection of songs on the EP is most unique and impressive, from the popular song, ‘Dance With Me’ by Orleans to ‘All Around My Hat’, a song with an unknown origin from approximately the 1820s. How did you come to piece these songs together in a collection like this? What do they mean to you personally?
KW: Although AOR no longer really exists, there is a story arc to the songs. It’s about a relationship. It starts with “Dance with Me”–two people meeting; “Whispering”–they get to know each other; “Truly Scrumptious”–they fall in love; “All Around My Hat”–they are separated; “Shall We Dance”–they are reunited, and like when they first met, they dance.
It’s like cabaret, and why I love performing cabaret–the songs tell a story. I love finding the right songs to tell the story.
DK: How long did you spend putting the album together and recording it?
KW: The thought process began about a year before the album was physically completed. Picking the songs, hiring the arrangers, reserving the studio, rehearsing the music–that took about six months. The actual recording was just a few days. Mixing and production took about two months. My producer, michéal Castaldo and I met when were both at the Songwriters Guild back in New York. It’s wonderful working with someone so talented, that I’ve know for so long.
DK: Were there additional (guest) musicians on the recording?
KW: Yes, one very special person–Michael Jones. He is the person responsible for encouraging me to have a solo career and none of this would have happened without him. We’ve done a couple singles together and if we’re ever in the same city at the same time, I hope we can do a live performance together.
DK: Do you have plans on a follow up album as yet?
KW: Possibly. I just need to find the right story. Especially now that I’ve had the experience, I expect it to go a bit easier the second time around. (Knock on wood.)
DK: You also have a video for ‘Shall We Dance’, which is wonderful. Do you plan on putting any more videos together in the future?
KW: Absolutely! That video was done by Scrappers Film Group and I’d love to work with them again. First I need to find the right song.
DK: In 2011, what ended up bringing you to Chicago?
KW: It was actually my ex-husband’s work. He was transferred here, but I always wanted to live in Chicago. I first visited the city back in 2000 and though it was spectacular.
DK: In all the cities you’ve lived and performed in, how does Chicago compare as a music scene and how does Chicago compare for you personally?
KW: I think it’s much easier for musicians to get work here than in New York. And talking to musicians from the west coast, they say the same thing. There are many more smaller venues that are willing to let you step on their stage. Craigslist always has gig postings. Facebook groups have many gig listings. If you’ve got the guts, the gigs are there.
DK: Tell me about your involvement with Beckie Menzie and cabaret music.
KW: Beckie Menzie is probably the most talented, big-hearted person on the planet. A friend had been bugging me to see one of her cabaret shows for years. When I finally did, I was in awe. It was the first cabaret show I’d ever seen. I accosted her after the show and begged her to teach me. I’m surprised she didn’t get a restraining order. She began coaching me and after a few months she told me she thought I didn’t have what it took to be a cabaret singer. She said, “You have a lovely voice, and you’re pretty but you have be honest when you sing cabaret. You have to leave your heart on the stage. You’re not being honest.” Somehow I convinced her to continue and after a “breakthrough” session, I got where she where she wanted me to go.
If you haven’t seen one of her shows, you need to. She’s phenomenal, and kind, and I am grateful for every moment of time that she gives me. To quote Wayne and Garth: “I’m not worthy!”
DK: How much time do you personally spend managing your career? (per week/month)
KW: Geez. When am I NOT doing that? It can range from three to five hours per day. That includes weekends.
DK: What have the best (most effective) online tools you’ve found in promoting your works?
KW: Instagram/Facebook, and my website have been really great tools.
DK: Tell me about ‘So This is Love?’ How long have you been doing this and how have audience responses been?
KW: This is a new show for me, which just debuted at Uncommon Ground (Edgewater) in May. I’m getting ready to tour it now. It took about six month from soup to nuts, as the saying goes. It was really well received. Most people who’ve seen me perform previously were surprised to know that I could be funny. It’s a funny show, and I’ve really enjoyed combining singing with getting laughs. I haven’t done any of that since my ACT theatre days.
DK: Do you have any music tips that you feel would be useful to other musicians?
KW: I belong to several music groups on Facebook and it upsets me when some young singer posts a video or SoundCloud link and says they’ve never had a lesson. Inevitably, someone will say he or she is very good but would benefit from having lessons. There’s always someone that then attacks that person and says, “Don’t listen to him/her! You don’t need lessons!” And that is the worst advice to give.
EVERYONE THAT WANTS TO SING SHOULD HAVE LESSONS. Even if you don’t want to be a professional, if you’re going to sing on a regular basis, you should have lessons. Just so you don’t damage your voice; and also if you want to improve it. If you love something that much, why wouldn’t you want to get better at it?
DK: What do you have planned for the remainder of 2019?
KW: Lots, actually. Along with touring “So This Is Love?” I’m planning on launching a YouTube show with all kinds of tips for women. Readers should subscribe to my YouTube channel so they’ll be notified when it starts.
I’m also planning on recording a new song and, fingers crossed, writing another new show.
DK: What are some long term goals you have personally and professionally that you’d like to see yourself accomplish?
KW: I’d like to have four more cabaret shows written in the next three years and be able to tour them as well as continue with other singing gigs. I’d also love to perform some of them back east and possibly in Europe.
DK: Where are the best online places for people to connect with you?
KW: Following me on Facebook, and Instagram; and they should subscribe to my YouTube channel so they know when my show starts. My website will have info about my upcoming performances, as well as things my friends in the industry are doing.
Biography: Karen Willough, songwriter and longtime choral singer grew up in New York and graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. After completing undergraduate education at the College of New Rochelle, she went to New York University for graduate studies in Psychology.
She quickly discovered that the field was not for her and bounced around in an assortment of jobs while continuing to study music and pursue a songwriting career. Karen met michéal Castaldo when they were both members the Songwriter’s Guild of America, at offices located in New York. He produced several of her original compositions.
After living on another continent and traveling to over 25 countries, Karen finally returned to where she belongs–the world of music.
Karen sang with Capella Sint Jan in The Netherlands for several years, before returning to the U.S. Since 2012, Karen has been singing with Chicago’s prestigious Mount Carmel Morning Choir under the direction of Paul French. She also studies and works with the incomparable Beckie Menzie, who introduced Karen to the world of cabaret.
Karen made her solo debut with “Tra le tue Braccia” It was followed by the duet “World without You” with Chicago jazz musician Michael Jones, who also plays trumpet in the song.
“Scrumptious,” Karen’s first CD/EP includes a swing version of “Whispering,” most famously recorded by Paul Whiteman in 1920, as well as a sultry rendition of the 1975 Orleans song “Dance with Me.” The title track, “Truly Scrumptious” comes from the enchanting film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The song also features a flugelhorn solo by Caleb Mitchell, graduate of the prestigious music program at DePaul University and trumpeter for the group “The Right Now.”
The video for “World without You,” starred Paul Walter Hauser, who appears in the Oscar-nominated film “I, Tonya.”
“Shall We Dance,” another duet with Michael Jones, reached #4 on South Africa’s indie chart and stayed there for over a month.