A Cappella group Pentatonix started making headlines when they won season three of The Sing-Off. With an EP released over the summer and a Christmas record coming next week, the group’s made it pretty clear that their time in the spotlight didn’t end when the show wrapped that season. We were lucky enough to speak with Pentatonix’s Scott Hoying, who gave some insight into how the group approaches their arrangements, why they’re determined to break a cappella into the mainstream, and the differences between recording original work and cover songs.
Let’s start with the basics. How’d the group come together?
The group started as a trio: Kirstie, Mitch, and I. We formed a trio in high school, arranged an a cappella version of “Telephone,” and used it to compete in a radio contest to meet the cast of Glee. We didn’t win, but we got a lot of YouTube attention, so we decided to try out for Season 3 of The Sing-Off. A friend of mine from USC suggested I find a beatboxer and a bass for the group to add some depth to our sound. We found our beatboxer on YouTube; he had a viral video of him playing cello and beatboxing to a song called “Julie-O.” We called him up and he was down to fly out and try out with us. My friend also knew Avi because he was a powerhouse bass in the a cappella community around LA, so we asked him to join as well and he agreed! And voila! The rest is history!
How do you put together the arrangements? Does everyone contribute?
We have 2 methods. Generally, the five of us just sit in a circle and start coming up with basic ideas and an outline for the song. We figure out the beats and grooves we want, then Avi learns the chord progression and puts his own spin on it, then we all sit down and figure out background parts. After we finish that, we go back and add “moments” to the song that make it special. A moment would include the breakdown section of “Your Love is My Drug,” or the measure-long silence in “Born To Be Wild,” etc.
Our second method (for more complicated arrangements such as “Aha!”) is where we sit down at a computer with our producer/arranger Ben Bram, and write it all out on paper.
There are 2 original songs on your debut EP. Did everyone participate in writing those?
“The Baddest Girl” I wrote by myself, and “Show You How To Love” Avi and Kevin co-wrote. We all helped with arrangements though.
Did you find a difference in the recording/performing of your original work versus your arrangements of cover songs?
Regarding recording, it is SO fun to record originals because you literally have complete creative reign, and you can change lyrics/melodies/rhythms at any time without having to reference another work. As for performing, we initially didn’t enjoy performing our originals as much as our covers, because people didn’t know them as well as the covers, but since the release of our EP, fans have become much more familiar with them, and now at our shows everyone is singing along to lyrics we wrote, which is an incredible feeling.
How do you choose which cover songs to arrange?
Whenever one of us really wants to cover a song, we bring it to the group and “pitch” it. When pitching, we explain our idea for the song and why we think it would be awesome for the group. If everyone is down, then we try to arrange it. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. We also like the fans to pick our next covers too so we have polls on our Facebook page.
Congrats on winning the third season of The Sing-Off! The show has shined a bright light on a cappella. What kind of growth have you seen in that genre?
Thank you! The show was incredible not only because it highlighted a very underrated style of music, but it also focused more on authentic musicianship than flash or glamour, which I personally found very refreshing. The past 5 years have been a big time for a cappella! Shows such as Glee and The Sing-Off and motion-picture Pitch Perfect have found their way into the mainstream and become popular, boding well for the future of a cappella. I think the mainstream public is entering a phase where we desire true, authentic, and organic music rather than the formulaic computer-enhanced pop stuff that is prevalent in Top 40; thus, a cappella music is on the rise!
Were there any lessons you learned or takeaways from being on the show?
We all learned so much, it will be hard to tell you in a concise answer, but overall, I think the biggest thing we learned was that the only way we were going to be successful was if we worked together and thought outside the box. We went into the show being one of the smallest and most inexperienced groups, and we were BEYOND intimidated; however, after weeks of being on the show, our group started becoming a family, and as a result, we found that we creatively and musically we were always “on the same page.” We always started every arrangement with “How can we make this different from the original, but not lose the essence of the song?” That strategy really worked for us.
What are your goals as a group, and what are you doing to work toward those goals?
We have many goals and dreams, but our biggest one would have to be that we want to break a cappella music into the mainstream. We want to prove that intriguing and radio-playable music can be made with only 5 human voices. This sounds laughable to many, but we’re ready to prove the doubters wrong!
I can see that you’re very active on your social media channels. What are some specific ways you use these channels to engage with fans?
We LOVE social media and we attribute it to much of our success thus far. Twitter is a really good way to constantly promote material. Facebook is an organized way for fans to interact with us and with each other. For instance, we do polls on our Facebook to let the fans decide what we will arrange next.
YouTube is not only how we keep current fans engaged and excited about our music, but it is the perfect tool for gaining new fans as well. YouTube users are growing exponentially every day, so we are constantly trying to upload viral material that will expand our fanbase. We’ve even dipped our toes in other social media sites such as tumblr, instagram, and even the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo. Be sure to follow us on everything
What kind of team do you think an artist/band needs behind them in order to find success in the industry?
I think there are a million ways to find success in the industry and a team can consist of just a single artist or can be an entire business. What is most important is that everyone on the team is truly passionate and believes in the music being created.
What advice would you give to other young artists or bands working to get their name out there?
I would say take a lot of time to really brainstorm on how you can be unique in an industry with thousands of artists. How can you stand out? What are things that make your music/talents special, and how can you capitalize on that? Also, try to upload well-made videos on YouTube and see peoples’ reactions.
It’s a cut-throat industry, so it’s important not to get down. I personally have received thousands of NOs in my lifetime. I’ve been rejected from multiple shows and have been rejected from TONS of auditions, but I stuck to it because it was my passion and in the end it really paid off.
What can we look forward to next from Pentatonix?
I don’t want to give away too much, but we have a lot of REALLY fun stuff coming up. Our first-ever Christmas record will be released on November 13, touring for the rest of 2012 and a huge North American tour in 2013 as well as more albums! 2013 is going to be a big year!
More on Pentatonix @ Pentatonix.org