Top Demo Singer Balances Fast Sessions, Songwriting

Karyn Rochelle Sang "I Hope You Dance," Wrote "Georgia Rain"

Country artists listen to hundreds, if not thousands, of songs to get ready to make an album. When they go through the stacks of possible material, what they first hear is a demo — a lightly produced version of the song recorded quickly and burned onto a CD. Songwriters often sing their own demos unless they want to pitch a more polished product. In that case, the writer seeks out someone like Karyn Rochelle.

Right now, Rochelle is among Nashville’s first-call demo singers. A few minutes after 11 a.m. in County Q studio, a few miles from Music Row, she’s about to record the vocal tracks for “Love’s Not Blind.” Rochelle and engineer Rod Matson have recorded hundreds of demos together. Songwriters Lisa Carver and Candy Cameron are on hand to give insight to the vocal inflections and phrasings they hear in their heads but can’t match with their throats.

“Love’s Not Blind” is not a new song. For about a year, a new artist had it “on hold,” meaning no other artist could cut it. But when the song came back on the market, Cameron craved “something older and warmer,” replacing a somewhat thinner vocal already on the demo. (The instrumental parts of a demo are almost always laid down first, then the songwriter will record scratch vocals for the demo singer to use as a blueprint.)

As Matson plays the original demo, all eyes are on the lyric sheets. Though she’s listened to the original demo for a few days, Rochelle asks to hear the song’s bridge one more time. Sitting on a couch in the back of the control room, she quietly practices the high note, trying to convince herself she can hit it. The writers insist that she’ll have no problem.

After slipping the studio headphones on, Rochelle cruises through a first take and gets it about 95 percent right. Her phrasing is slightly off in a few places, and she tries to find the right note once or twice. She sounds like a really, really good karaoke singer, and her country inflections are evident in the way she clips some syllables, yet draws out others.

To the untrained ear, the second pass sounds like a wrap. But the writers remind her to go up on the word “perfect” in the third chorus, not the word “broken.” They suggest emphasizing the “v” in “love” in the first verse. Without prompting, the engineer cues up the song a few seconds before each part to be fixed, then drops out her past vocal just in time to capture the new one. Along with some other minor tweaks, the new version is tracked in about 10 minutes.

Coming back into the control room, Rochelle sits and listens to her own vocals. Although they are extremely satisfied with the progress, the writers ask her to bring out the word “cause” at the first part of a line, maybe stretch out “blind” at the end of another. They’d also like the four lines of lyrics after the bridge to be sung more quietly. Essentially, these are minor issues of enunciation. One by one, Matson efficiently cues each trouble spot. Like a quick-draw Jeopardy! contestant, Rochelle knows exactly how to respond.

The two songwriters ask her for harmonies, so she sings them — high and low — until they are deemed too much of a distraction. Rochelle hangs up the headset. Everyone applauds when she once again enters the control room. Carver says she loves “the tear” in Rochelle’s voice. Cameron is thankful to hear “a real singer.” Deflecting the praise, Rochelle jokes around for a bit, then hugs everybody goodbye. All in an hour’s work.

“I like singing for those writers,” Rochelle says later. “I wanted them to be happy. I mean, they’re the ones paying you.” It’s a good living, usually earning around $125 per session.

Rochelle moved to Nashville in April 1996 at age 19. She skipped college to write songs and work odd jobs. Her roommate was waiting tables, and he talked her up to a producer he recognized in the restaurant. Discovering that Rochelle was also a songwriter, the producer asked to hear her tape. After just a year in town, it looked her big break had arrived early.

Then … nothing. She was working at a T.J. Maxx department store but longed for home in Wilmington, N.C. Frustrated, she called her mother — who had lived in Nashville in the mid-1980s trying to make it as a singer — to say she was coming back for a few months. Not quitting, mind you, just catching her breath. However, within a matter of days of leaving, barely unpacked, the producer’s daughter called her to work a session. It didn’t take long to turn the car around.

Her demos helped her secure a publishing deal with Crutchfield Music for four years. After that, a fruitless deal with Famous Music lasted two years. In the meantime, her country voice — as well as the economy of nailing a vocal track in a relatively short amount of time — got her noticed around town. Out of the blue one day, songwriter Tia Sillers called her, on the hunt for a new female voice for her demos. When they met in a studio, Rochelle says they “immediately attached,” leading Rochelle to sing the demo for “I Hope You Dance.” When Lee Ann Womack’s version exploded, Sillers showered some of the love on Rochelle, bragging on her talent to her friends in the industry. “My phone was blowing up,” Rochelle says.

Now in her second year of writing for Big Yellow Dog Music, a Nashville publishing company, she recently scored a major cut as a songwriter when Trisha Yearwood recorded “Georgia Rain.” She also wrote another potential single, Terri Clark’s “I Wish He’d Been Drinkin’ Whiskey.” Her songwriting collaborators include Suzy Bogguss, whom Rochelle praises for her pristine vocals and precise phrasing — for example, singing “did you,” not “didju.”

Yet, proving how up-and-down the biz can be, Rochelle recently lost her own record deal when a small, independent label closed, taking away hopes of her own single and radio tour. Undeterred, she’s still pursuing the elusive artist deal. When that day comes, gathering the material will be the easy part, whether she’s written the songs herself or sang the demo sometime in the last eight years.

“If it hadn’t been for demo singing, I wouldn’t have met half of the writers I’ve met,” she says. “It’s opened a lot of doors for me. It’s a very small town.”

Hear Karyn Rochelle’s demo for “I Wish He’d Been Drinkin’ Whiskey.”

Craig Shelburne has been writing for since 2002. He is also a producer for CMT Edge, Concrete Country and Live @ CMT.