More about Karla's music career at KarlaDavisMusic.com
by Lanita Withers Goins, UNCG UR staff
Photography and video by Chris English, UR photography editor
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Many singers grow up with dreams of making it in Nashville, the city of promise and possibility. A place where your name can shine in lights before thousands and your voice can be projected to the world. They come to Music City nursing hopes of stardom, with guitars strapped to their backs and songs in their hearts.
Many leave heartbroken; dreams unfulfilled, songs unsung.
But others get a breakthrough, a perfect shot at the goal that so often can seem just beyond reach. It takes a mix of talent, moxie and serendipity. Karla Davis '08 has them all.
From soccer field to center stage
Karla, 24, knows about elusive goals, but for most of her life they involved a ball and a net, not a stage and a song. Growing up she starred on the soccer field, where her speed and skill got her name inked in newspapers in her hometown of Monroe and captured the attention of collegiate coaches who wooed her to play for their teams.
UNCG won that battle, and Karla enrolled in the fall of 2004 as the reigning Gatorade North Carolina High School Player of the Year. By the end of her first year, she had earned Southern Conference Freshman of the Year honors.
In her downtime the media management major wrote poetry about the life she saw taking place around her. She was inspired by simple things, like a couple walking down the street. By her senior year, she'd taught herself to play guitar and started strumming the melodies she heard in her head. She recorded a few of her original songs on her laptop, just so she'd know what she sounded like. They weren't anything she was going to brag about. She would have preferred that no one knew about the songs she hid in her soul.
She didn't sing for the public. She didn't sing for her teammates. Not even for family.
She sang for herself.
But her secret was leaking out. Curious friends using her laptop clicked on the songs in her iTunes collection by an artist named "Karla Davis" and had a listen. Others heard her singing in passing and craned their heads to hear more. Everyone thought she had a special talent.
Everyone except Karla. She had to be convinced. "A friend of mine asked if I'd play at her sister's wedding," Karla says. "This was before I was doing any music. She'd heard me sing at church. I was like, 'I really want to, but I'm not sure I can.'"
The friend urged Karla to start a YouTube channel, post a video of herself singing and see what kind of response she received.
Karla Davis signing her song "Carolina"
"I started to get a lot of positive feedback," Karla remembers. "Once you realize that somebody likes what you're doing, you're like 'Hmm… maybe I'll see what happens.' I started putting up more and more (videos)."
In real life — where people could put a name with her face and voice — friends continued to ask, coax, plead: "Karla, will you sing? No one is here." Slowly, she started to come out of her shell, singing a few lines here, a song there, growing more comfortable singing in front of others.
"She kept progressing," says Gabrielle "Gabby" DiMora '08, Karla's current roommate, manager and a former member of the UNCG women's golf team. "Finally, after we graduated, me and her teammate Heather wrote her a card, got her a bottle of wine and told her, 'Karla, you're going to open mic night at the Blind Tiger.'"
The butterflies Karla expected to set up residence when she stepped inside the Greensboro venue never came. "For some reason, I wasn't nervous," Karla says. She played two songs. "I remember coming off the stage saying, 'I thought it was going to be harder than that.'"
Others put her initial success more succinctly: "She got up there and blew it out of the water," Gabby says. "(The folks) at the Blind Tiger started to book her for gigs."
They weren't the only ones. Word spread and Karla's calendar began to fill with more engagements across the state.
Living with no regrets
But her music was solely a nighttime endeavor. She had a day job — a good one, with solid benefits and advancement potential — working as an executive in the loss prevention department at the High Point Target.
Yet while she was physically on the job, her mind was often elsewhere. "There were a lot of days in my office at Target where I was writing and singing. I'd think about it every day. I'd think, 'What if? What if?'"
She entered a local country music talent show hosted by WRHI-FM in Rock Hill, S.C., and won the top prize. "I thought it was the greatest thing ever," Karla says. "Wow! I won $100!" She moved on in the competition against other amateur talent.
Music grew in importance to her, and a piece of advice an early supporter offered reverberated in her mind. "He told me if I wanted to do music, I needed to get into an environment that was more likely to be successful," Karla remembers.
That place wasn't the rolling hills of the Piedmont Triad that Karla loved and had always called home. "I figured if I was going to go for it, I needed to do it now. I might as well take a chance. If not, I was going to regret it."
She put in her notice at Target last June, choosing instead to chase her dream. She spent the summer playing shows in New York and North Carolina and hanging out with her family. Then when the tree leaves started to turn a golden hue, the self-professed homebody left her heart in Carolina and steered her midnight blue Corolla west toward Music City.
Karla Davis talks about her music and her hopes for her
future in Nashville.
Music City magic
Success is often part skill, part serendipity. Karla had the talent and the work ethic to make it.
What she lacked was connections.
"The hardest thing is you're coming to a new town and you don't know anybody," Karla says. "In Nashville, when you don't know any of the writers, you don't know any singers, you don't know any musicians, you kinda feel like you're out there for yourself."
She was — until she met established Nashville singer/songwriter Georgia Middleman at the iconic Bluebird Cafe. "She checked out my music. She came to one of my gigs," Karla says. "From meeting her, I met the circle of friends she has. You meet one person, meet their friends and surround yourself with those friends. That made it much easier for me. I got really lucky being at the right place at the right time."
On Middleman's advice, Karla made a list of goals, broken down into one year, three years and five years. "I had a goal when I moved to Nashville to have my debut album done in a year," she says. "But in the back of my mind, I was like 'That really won't happen.' Most people move to Nashville and say in a year they'd like to have their album done, then five years pass and no album."
Like many new artists, Karla worked to get the attention of major record labels. "I'd walk up and down Music Row and pass out CDs," she says. "We had this thing called the Walk the Lobby Tour. I'd get out, literally, on the front lawn of labels and publishers. I'd plug in my guitar and plug in my mic and I'd sing until they told me to leave.
"It was scary and, looking back on it, I was like 'What was I doing?!' You have to be bold to show people that you're serious and work hard for what you want to do."
A dose of luck also helps, like the kind that struck again when Karla met John Eden, a British music producer who'd decided to leave retirement and re-enter the business.
"After being in music your whole life, trying to put it aside… it just doesn't work," John explains.
The night he heard Karla sing, he knew he'd heard a rare talent. "I saw other artists. They were good but," he pauses to pat his chest, "it wasn't getting me. Then I heard Karla. My whole body was energized."
John approached Karla after the show. "I think you're absolutely brilliant," he told her and said he'd like to produce an album with her. He told the singer to Google his name when she got home to verify his experience. She did — and found that he had decades of experience producing British rock bands and had even worked with Sting.
"I've met a few people since I've been here," Karla says, "but that night, I thought 'He's really going to be my producer.'"
Karla continued to gain momentum in Nashville, but her biggest breakthrough was set in motion before she ever set foot on Tennessee soil. She'd advanced through the state and regional rounds of the country music talent contest she'd originally entered through WRHI-FM in Rock Hill, earning her an invitation to the national finals of the Colgate Country Showdown.
Regarded as one of the premier talent showcases in country music, the Colgate Country Showdown awards the grand prize winner $100,000 to help launch the artist's career. The finals are held in the historic Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry. Former Showdown contestants include country stars Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Sara Evans and Brad Paisley.
The finals were held in January, with five acts vying for the grand prize. Karla was the last artist to take the stage.
"When she walked out on stage at the Ryman, there was this composure," says Gabby, Karla's manager. "It was like she wasn't even nervous." Years of performing under pressure on the soccer field had prepared her for this moment. "All of a sudden, that athletic mindset just set in. The concentration she has on stage — it's just awesome."
Karla sang two songs that had her creative fingerprints on them — "Whiskey's Got a Job to Do" and "Keep Movin' On." "I was a little nervous," Karla later wrote on her blog, "but once I started singing I was juuuuust fine."
Once her last note hung suspended in the air, the audience jumped to their feet. "People were crying, cheering, and yes, my dad jumped up on his seat and screamed for his 'baby girrrrl!!'" Karla wrote.
The judges, many record label executives, deliberated and came back with their final decision: Karla Davis was named the 2010 Colgate Country Showdown grand prize winner, complete with a fancy trophy, a check for $100,000 and the title of "Best New Act in Country Music."
Charting her own course
Karla's win grabbed the attention of record labels and her manager soon had appointments for the artist to visit their offices. One by one, Karla sat down with executives interested in her look and sound.
"I could tell they were thinking of ways they could change me," Karla says. "I'd probably only be able to put one original song on my album with a major label. I'd sound like everyone else and my songs would sound like everyone else."
But as a solo artist, Karla craves more than the spotlight. She's drawn by authenticity. Her brand of country music is inspired by the life she's lived growing up in a tight-knit community: The blare of the freight train rolling by her childhood home, the relaxed pause of time spent on the front porch rocking chair, the comfort of a slice of pecan pie or a cool glass of sweet tea. "If nothing else, I know the country and how people from the country live," she says. She weaves that life into her lyrics, painting pictures to accompany her honeyed voice.
"My sound isn't honky-tonk," she explains. "People today define country music too much with a twangy voice or over-exaggerated lyrics. I want to sing about things that really happen.
"People told me, 'Country needs something different.' It's gotten country-poppy. But it's not really soulful. That's where I'm different… People want something real."
Her winnings from the Showdown gave her the financial flexibility to chart her own path in Nashville, not just become another cookie-cutter artist whose creative works were owned by a label. She created 3 Chord Entertainment, a partnership with her, John and Gabby. Karla retains majority ownership of the label, and with it, the ability to navigate the course of her career — and manage her growing song portfolio — on her own terms.
Her vision. Her sound. Her music.
John, who also serves as Karla's co-manager, likens the singer's talent to that of singer-songwriter icons like James Taylor and Carole King. "Back when lyrics had conviction," he says. "She's brilliantly both. She's a brilliant singer and she's a brilliant writer. Connect that with what she's playing and it's really special."
"I know we're taking a chance," Karla explains. "I'm going off of the reaction of people in Nashville who have heard me play. They say it's a breath of fresh air. I'd rather be different and have something that sounds different than sound like the mainstream."
Since the spring, her full-time job has been in the professional studio in John's home, finishing up her debut album. She arrives around 9 a.m. for a meeting with her managers and a "spot of tea," a tradition her British producer has added to Karla's country roots. By 10:30 a.m., she's donned headphones and stepped into the recording booth, her tall body bending with the rhythm of the song as she throws her soul into the music, her fingers strumming and tapping the chords of her studio acoustic. They'll break for lunch around 1 p.m., giving her time to run home and let the dogs — Karla's mini Daschund and Gabby's golden Lab — roam a bit. Then it's back to the studio until quitting time at 5 p.m.
The work is painstaking and intense, but she's well aware of her good fortune: the ability to pursue her dream on her own terms. "When you think about what you get to do all day long, it's not a job," Karla says.
There's still plenty more to do. Promotional tours. Concerts. Hustling to get radio interested in her first single. Putting the final touches on her debut album. But Karla is confident that things will fall into place, the right connections will be made, and her music will be heard.
"I want it to be where one person tells their friend (about my music)," she says. "I'd rather it be viral. I'd rather it be personal, because when you hear it from someone like that, you trust it."