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Interview: Carol Hahn Talks Dancefloor Business

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Connecticut-based singer-songwriter Carol Hahn became an independent, international disco sensation in the 1980s with club staples like “Do Your Best” and “Into the Night.” After becoming disillusioned with bleak realities of the business, the enterprising artist found new inspiration in recording and producing her own music. She recently informed me on how it all came together.

Carol Hahn main2011 marks the 25th anniversary of your hi-NRG hit, “Your Love (Is All I Need).” You’ve released a batch of new dance remixes. How did the song originally come about?

I didn’t even realize it’s been that long! Well, let’s see. My co-writer, Jeff Sullivan—who’s now known as Tristan Avery—and I started to write it while I was still with Nickel Records. I had released a couple of singles with them which did well in dance clubs, like “Do Your Best” and “Into the Night.” We collaborated on the words, and Tristan contributed the chorus. But it didn’t work for me, so I came up with a different one. We argued, then finally came up with one we agreed on. After we laid down the track at my home studio (an eight-track at that point), I ended up presenting it to Jerry Silvers at Wide Angle Records in Minneapolis. He transferred it and added more tracks.

How did the song perform for you commercially? What gave you the impetus to come out with these new remixes?

It reached the top 40 of Billboard’s club chart in the U.S. A number of labels in other territories—Brasil and Belgium, I believe—also licensed it. I’ve gotten requests from people over the years to revisit it. I had doubts if it would work, since it was originally done at 135 beats-per-minute (BPM). Nowadays, the standard is more around 128. So, I hesitated a bit.

What was the process of remixing it like?

Actually, all the original tapes from my Nickel and Wide Angle recordings were lost; so we redid everything. I was somewhat limited budget-wise, so I called on a few friends in the dance community whom I’ve worked with before. Sphank has a really good handle on hi-NRG. Tristan, who produced for me in the past, did his first remix with this one. Then Bonzai Jones contributed a more mellow take.

Carol Hahn close up

How do you establish a rapport with remixers and DJ’s?

With my first self-released single, “I Can Stop the Rain,” I had been out of the loop for quite awhile. I did a basic remix and sent it to a Billboard promoter. I asked him if it was worthy of release, and he said yes. I had no idea whom to use, so he gave me a bunch of names. I listened to some of their mixes online and called the ones whose styles I liked. From there it grew, and other people would make suggestions. Since then, I’ve also gone to Indaba and researched hundreds of snippets in the styles I look for. It’s great, because the big-name remixers can be so expensive!

You had some high-profile remixers on “I Can Stop the Rain”—Klubjumpers, Twisted Dee, and Lenny Bertoldo—as well as your own remix that you alluded to. How did you learn the art of remixing?

I just tried and listened to other people. It was a real learning process. I find recording to not be that hard, but mixing so difficult; so, I read articles on how to get the kick and the bass to sound just right together, and this many db and frequency. You’ve gotta put in the work.

How would you describe the difference between producing and remixing?

Producing is getting the feel down—working on maybe the melody and sequence of the song, getting in what you want to say and how you want to present it, genre-wise. It comes down to getting the best performance out of the singer and musicians. Remixing is taking the vocals and turning it into what your specialty is for that remixer, or what the artist is looking for—be it techno, retro, or electro. Each remix usually sounds totally different.

As a producer, do you program your own music?

When I’m writing a song, I put together the chord structure, as well as programming. Once you give it to a remixer, who knows what’s gonna happen? Some are very knowledgeable musically. I try to stay with those. I don’t want to hear a mix with just one chord. I want it to sound melodic.

You’ve been involved in dance music for the better part of three decades. The genre has undoubtedly gone through some changes and cycles during that time. What are some patterns you’ve noticed?

It’s gotten much less melodic. A lot of stuff that comes out today wouldn’t have been allowed back in the ’80s. There’s no subtlety left in lyrics. I really don’t want to hear somebody moaning, or using the f-word constantly. And does every singer have to sound like they’re 16 years old? You can’t tell one from the other. Gladys Knight: you knew who she was; same with Donna Summer. We’re not getting that quality now. They’re feeding us this stuff that they think we want.

What do you think about auto-tune?

You mean the T-Pain effect? In sparsity, it’s okay. But to have it cover up an awful vocal, that’s kind of silly. I guess we’ve gotten used to it, though.

Let’s talk about your first hit: “Do Your Best” from 1982. It’s a soulful dance tune; but the album it’s from, Portraits, was much more of a bluesy R&B album than a dance LP. How did the song end up being such a big disco tune?

I originally went into Nickel’s studios with my band to record a demo. Jack Stang, the label owner, had very nice facilities. He had bands in all the time. One gentleman who was there at the same time was Rahni Harris from the group Dayton. Jack liked what I recorded. I didn’t even realize it was turning into an album. But Rahni wrote some songs, and some of the guys from his band came in and did the sessions with us. Jack hired a promoter, and after we got the records mastered and pressed, we’d send out boxes of them to the record pools. We got really good responses. That was a whole learning process, because I didn’t know anything about record pools. They could make you or break you back then.

sizzle picHad you been pursuing music as your career of choice prior to cutting the demos?

I started singing professionally as a sophomore in high school. It was my passion and what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

After the success of “Do Your Best,” you released “Into the Night,” which signaled a change in musical style and was clearly dance-driven. Was that a conscious transition?

It never really occured to me to be this type of artist or that type of artist. The bands I was part of did so many styles of music, from country to jazz. Whatever feels good, I want to sing it. I think that Tristan’s tendency to be more hi-NRG-oriented impacted what we wrote together. It really doesn’t matter, though, as long as it’s good music.

After putting out a few more singles in the ’80s, you took a hiatus from the music business for awhile. I read in an interview you did with Barbara Sobel that this was because you let the industry “get to you.” What made you want to stop?

I never stopped singing with the band; but it got to be so hard trying to break through on the records end. It’s such a tough industry. You can’t let what somebody says affect how you feel about yourself. I let that happen when I was younger. If someone didn’t like the music, I took it as a reflection on who I was as a person. When really, it was just that they didn’t like it. Not everybody likes everything. I let that wear me down, but I won’t anymore. That’s a really nice space to be in. But of course, now the industry is even tougher!

beagle boy logo

Tell me how you started your own label, Beagle Boy Music.

Actually, a guy who had done promotion for “Do Your Best” back in the day heard a remake I did of one of my older hits, “Reach Out,” on a CD I put out called Into the Light in 2001. He had started a record company called Harlequin and wanted to put out a new set of remixes. He got a good response from that, which kind of encouraged me to get back into the game. So, when I decided to start putting out some new singles myself, I was told that legally, the smart thing to do was start a label.

Where did you get the name from?

I have a lot of beagles. I’ve done rescue for years. They’re the coolest dogs!

Is there a rhyme or reason to how and when you release a certain single? It seems that there used to be a pattern to album and single releases—what time of year they came out; the gap between follow-ups. With the evolution of the digital world, is there still a need to strategize, or are things done on a whim?

You don’t want to release a new single when people won’t be around, like on a holiday weekend. Then, there’s a big flux of new product around Christmas and the beginning of summer. So, those might not be the best times. If you’re a small label, the beginning of July works well, because big labels aren’t putting out much then. You have more chance of getting heard.

I also read that when you first started releasing your own music, you spent too much money. How so?

On remixers. I didn’t know you could dicker on price. If somebody said, “I charge $1,500 for a remix,” I said, “OK!” That’s not terrible; but it’s a lot when you consider how many sales you need in order to recoup it. You’ve got eight remixers to pay, and you still have to pay the Billboard dance-chart promoter a huge chunk. For the first four releases, I also had 1,000 copies pressed on CD, and I did all of the mailings to promoters and radio guys. It really adds up quickly!

What are your advertising costs now?

I don’t buy any now. I don’t know that it would even help. I try get out there individually to each DJ and say, “Here’s my new release.” I give them links to it and get back to them to see how they like it. Even in the old days, I always tried to call people playing my records to thank them, or send a note and ask how the songs were doing. I got on a first-name basis with most of the guys at the record pools.

What’s in store in the near future for you?

I just started to collaborate with a company called Section 9 out of the U.K. By accident, I contacted one of the owners, Rob Z. He’s a great musical programmer. He liked my stuff, and we’re looking to do some techno stuff pretty soon. I’d like to collaborate with other artists, too.

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About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via krystolfan@gmail.com.