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The Professional Bathroom Singer

The Professional Bathroom Singer
Recording a solo album on a "Trading Spaces" budget does not sound like a Broadway star's groundbreaking personal project. Yet when Donna Lynne Champlin fractured her ankle in "Billy Elliott," that is exactly what she did. The result—"Old Friends," which dropped Dec. 1—challenges the traditional recording system and makes Champlin almost as happy as the hours spent singing in her bathroom and agonizingly mastering tracks did. She set out to prove that it she could accomplish a professional-sounding labor of love one a budget of $1000. But the experience also served as a lesson in making a profit by making herself happy.

When Champlin decided to record, mix, and master her own solo CD, she had no idea what she was in for. "I started this because I wanted to prove that it could be done and I wanted to lay out the groundwork for anyone who wanted to do it themselves," she said. "I figured, stocking stuffers for my family and a CD [to sell] to stop looking like a jackass at those Town Hall things. I figured that basically anyone could scrape that budget together over the course of, say, a year, like I did."

In her budget, $1000 is sufficient for the project if only 150 physical copies are ordered. Though, with digital, she learned, only about five are really needed. "You can send it to CD Baby and they sell it all digitally. And then with Amazon and iTunes, you're set. You don't need the company anymore."

When Champlin, best known as Pirelli from the Broadway revival of "Sweeny Todd," got the idea, her brother suggested she push her effort with an accompanying blog. She was shocked when readership quickly grew beyond her brother and mother. But she stayed honest with everyone.

"In marketing, you're supposed to point to the good stuff," she said. "And the blog was very antithetical to that. But that's the whole point. For other people to not do what I did and make my mistakes and to know how hard it is. I think that's why people are so willing to help me—it's clear how helpless I am!"

Help poured in from friends, fans, and absolute strangers. After repeated inquiries, Champlin accepted donations for a publicity fund. She also got offers of production assistance, from graphic design to technological equipment to professional mixing—by Terrence Darby, who mixes Moby and Beyonce, no less.

You would never know the vocals were recorded in her bathroom. "I recorded there because it's the only room I have with a door," she says, laughing. "Mastering songs, there were times where it was so bad that my notes were literally, 'Good luck.'"

While her self-taught mixing and mastering skills paid off in the final product, that last technical process drove her the craziest—and made her appreciate the professionals. "This is where they deserve the big bucks," she said. "I did it, and it's doable, and I showed it could be done, but to make the experience perfect, I probably wouldn't. That was where, if I could have given someone $1 million to just do it for me, I would have, and it would have been worth every cent."

Technical difficulties did not wreck the experience, though. In fact, Champlin describes the whole project as an exercise in making herself happy at every step.

"I decided to make a CD that I would enjoy listening to," she explained. "So I would finish a song and sit there, and I would say, 'What song, of all the songs I know, would I like to work on now? What song would make me happy?' And that's how I picked the songs. I can't tell you how many times in this whole thing people said, 'Well, that's not how people do it.' And you know what? I don't care. I don't owe anybody any money; I don't have to meet anybody's bottom line."

Financial and artistic freedom made the experience. As a veteran of the stage, Champlin asserts that actors get too conditioned to accept direction. She loved making the creative calls that made her happy, and she relished the ability to go against conventions just as much.

"I've broken a lot of rules with this," she said. "Happily, because I can."

Picking happiness has paid off for the star. With 200 preorders, she not only recouped all of her money, but made a profit even before the official release.

At the end, Champlin offered advice to artists considering making a solo CD—either with the DIY approach or more conventionally. With her new insight she said, "You need to do this for artistic reasons only, because if you do it for commercial reasons you're not going to make it—you'll go crazy and it'll be miserable.

"It really was incredibly fun, the whole thing," she added. "It was maddening. But I haven't been this artistically happy in years."

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