BOSS Spotlight: Austin Willacy of The House Jacks

In our continuing excitement for the upcoming Boston Sings festival, we’ve been interviewing a member of each professional group that will be performing in Boston next week. First, we talked to Tine Fris of Postyr Project. You can find that interview here.  Now, to stoke your excitement for the festival, here’s our interview with Austin Willacy of The House Jacks.

Austin Willacy is a longstanding member of The House Jacks.  He has written (or co-written) more than three dozen of the group’s songs. He is also an acclaimed singer/songwriter apart from the group, having released three solo albums and performed with Bonnie Raitt, Rachael Yamagata, Jem, and Amos Lee, among others.

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His compositions have been featured on television (“The Sing-Off” and MTV’s “Road Rules”) and on the soundtrack for three documentaries, “Thrive,” “Word Wars,” and “A Lawyer Walks Into a Bar…”.  Austin has contributed dozens of sound-alike vocals to video games including Guitar Hero, Karaoke Revolution, and Just Dance Kids.  He is the director of ‘Til Dawn, Youth in Arts’ award-winning teen a cappella group and served on the board of Rainforest Action Network. You can learn a lot more about him at his website http://www.austinwillacy.com.

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INTERVIEW

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Austin, thanks for taking a few minutes to answer some questions an anticipation of the Boston Sings festival.

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My pleasure!

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You’ve been with The House Jacks for most of the group’s 21-year history. What is it about the group that allows it to sustain creativity and popularity in the a cappella community over such a long period of time?

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I think that the main reason The House Jacks have continued to thrive is that we evolve. If you identify the primary characteristics that distinguish one contemporary a cappella group from another, they break down into the following categories (in no particular order): Arranging, Songwriting, VP, Live Performance, Soloists, Engineering. We have, and have had, many incredible people in the group who have excelled in one, or more, of the aforementioned areas. We do our best to highlight the strengths of the individual members of the group in a way that showcases the strength of the group, as a whole. We embrace change and understand and know that through it, we find new strengths we are able to emphasize.

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What you do is pretty specialized. If you were looking for a new House Jack, what would you be looking for?

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We look for someone who’s exceptional in their own right. In addition to exceptional ability in any/all of the above categories (Arranging, Songwriting, VP, Live Performance, Soloist, Engineering), we look for a man who: is a self-starter; really understands how to be part of a team; is a grownup; has a flexible lifestyle; writes great music; is truthful and communicative; and is willing to make mistakes with a smile on his face.

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The House Jacks have been intimately involved with many of the recent a cappella events which crossed over into mainstream pop culture such as The Sing-Off, the Monday Night Football theme, and Pitch Perfect. Does the group have the desire or intention to produce an album which could hit the Billboard charts? What would it take to achieve this?

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Yes. We had the desire to produce an album that would hit the Billboard charts when we were signed to Warner Brothers/Tommy Boy from 1994-97 and we still have the desire. :-) However, we aren’t trying to write, arrange, and produce an album to chart on Billboard. We write, arrange, and produce our songs to the best of our ability. We are aware of, and influenced by, all sorts of music; the good and the bad, the famous and the infamous, but at the end of the day, there’s no formula that guarantees anything will chart on Billboard.

In order for us to hit the Billboard charts, I think we’d either need a viral video to blow up, a la “Gangnam Style” or “Thrift Shop” or receive a large-scale push from a corporate media entity.

On a related front, part of the challenge with a cappella charting is that though there is a new awareness of what a cappella is and isn’t, the general public does not expect a cappella to chart because the vast majority of it involves performing music that was popularized by other artists, and cover bands are not something that most people care about…until they’re planning a wedding. “Gangnam Style” and “Thrift Shop” were popularized by the artists who wrote them. So, I think another thing that would pave the way for more a cappella to chart on Billboard is a sea change wherein a cappella developed a reputation for leading, not following, for writing, not reworking.

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[Editor: Totally agree on this last point, and if you the reader didn’t already know this, The House Jacks have been writing tremendous original material for nearly their entire existence, and their original music has been at a consistently high level for years. Sadly, they are one of the only American vocal groups to write really good original music.]

You guys are known for your audience request improvisation section at your shows. What one song was either the worst disaster or the most impressive and surprising success for you?

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The first one. “I Got You (I Feel Good),” by James Brown, was the most surprising success for us because it was a total accident. We ad-libbed the whole song without any parts being doubled or dropped. When we finished, we looked at each other like “What the FU*K?! Did that just happen?!”

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Rumor has it you guys are working on a new album. When can we expect to hear it?

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We’re working on a new album which has a target release date of Fall, 2013.

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You are different from many professional a cappella performers in that you have also released 3 (soon to be 4!) solo albums of original music that include instruments. When you have ideas for songs, how do you decide whether something would be more appropriate for your solo career or for The House Jacks?

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Usually, when I write songs, I write without thinking about whether or not the song would be better for me as a solo artist or as a House Jack. A handful of songs have worked well in both iterations. As a singer/songwriter, I write what I write. But sometimes in recent years, if The House Jacks have a need for a certain type of song, I write a song with that in mind and work out a 5-part arrangement in tandem.

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When you perform with The House Jacks, you are extremely expressive both vocally and physically. Who are some of your performing influences? 

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Thanks! I cast a pretty wide net. I’m influenced by anyone I see who I think is good, from Macklemore at SXSW to U2 at a stadium show to a singer/songwriter at a cafe. Connecting with an audience and getting a message across is a gift. I’m influenced by anyone who does that well…I’m also influenced by anyone I see who’s not so good.  :-)  That said, I’m vocally influenced by Stevie Wonder, Sting, Marvin Gaye, Peter Gabriel, Aretha Franklin, Prince, Michael Jackson, Mark Kibble, and Robert Plant. As a performer, I’m influenced by Wayne Brady, Christopher Guest, Dave Chappelle, and many others.

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Music is clearly a huge part of your life. What are some of the most meaningful musical experiences of your career?

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I did a trio performance (upright bass, lead guitar, & me) at a launch party/fundraiser for a non-profit organization that was marrying social justice and music. Bonnie Raitt was on the bill too. After my set, she said “Man! You can really f*cking SING!” That floored me! I’ll never forget it.

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What musical projects to you and/or the group have coming up after BOSS?

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I have a solo show at Emmanuel College in Boston on Sunday, April 7. I have a show at The Freight & Salvage April 12 with The House Jacks. 5 days later, we leave for China. I’ll be mastering my 4th solo CD in April and releasing it sometime in Fall, 2013. We’ll be heading to Camp A Cappella in June and I’ll be flying from there to Alaska to teach at a Fine Arts camp for two weeks! The next few months are gonna be busy!

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Austin, thank you so much for your time. We are all looking forward to seeing The House Jacks both onstage and in the workshops at BOSS, and to hearing both new recordings (your solo album and a new House Jacks album) this Fall.

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