SoJam Spotlight: Janet Turner and Jo3 Oliva of Eh440

Janet Turner and Jo3 Oliva co-founded Eh440 in 2012. Both are coincidentally from the same hometown of London, Canada, but met in Toronto while pursuing their musical careers, where they both now live. Janet shares Eh440’s leads and background parts while Jo3 exclusively sings bass.

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You can learn more about them and on the group’s website here, and don’t forget to Like them on Facebook and Follow them on Twitter.

 

 

 

So, how did you guys find out about SoJam?

Jo3: We’ve known about the legendary SoJam for years but thought it was a myth, like Bigfoot. Then, it was Amanda Cornaglia who convinced us SoJam was real and kinda steered our path down to North Carolina. All hail Amanda!

Canada is a considerably far distance from North Carolina. Did you have any prior knowledge about CASA before you got involved with SoJam, or is it a whole new world?

Janet: We were both in another a cappella group that disbanded in 2011. I wrote a song called Reality that was CASA’s Sing 7 Lucky compilation. Jo3 started that group years before I joined. He’s played the East Coast A cappella Summit in New Jersey and was a RARB reviewer years before I met him. So, even though Eh440 is only a year old, we know CASA well! And our new bandmates are amazed at how well CASA represents and promotes all aspects of a cappella globally.

You were on a TV show together, CBS’s Dragons’ Den.  This show, which does not air in the United States, seems to involve you pitching a product or service for the “dragons” to back. How exactly did you market yourselves for that? How did it go?

Jo3: Dragons’ Den is a Canadian show similar to the U.S. show Shark Tank, featuring Mark Cuban. People go on and pitch their product or service and look for some dough from wealthy investors. We initially were looking for an investor to fund production of our debut CD but between the time we auditioned for the show and actually got on it, we were able to build up enough funds for production. But we still went on anyway looking for marketing & tour support. It went better than expected!

Janet: We thought that an indie a cappella group might get laughed out of the television studio by these serious business “suits.” Who jumps to invest in the music biz these days anyway?! But, we were pleasantly surprised that they were fighting to hand over their dollars to us!

Okay, who came up with the band’s name?

Jo3: The name was pretty much Janet’s doing. For those who don’t know what A440 means, it’s the frequency (440 hertz) that the note “A” is usually tuned to, and tuning is an important thing in our space, right? But we felt we needed to give it a little Canadian flare. Although we sometimes deny it, we Canadians are always caught by our American friends saying “eh?” in conversation. So we decided to embrace our home country roots and call our band Eh440, still pronounced “A-four-forty.”

Do you all still gig outside of Eh440, or is this your main group?

Janet: Eh440 is a huge focus for us, but we all have other things that we do musically outside of the group. Mike Celia has a folk-centric solo career and is about to release his second CD. Stacey Kay just released her first EP. Luke Stapleton is a pretty in-demand beatboxer in Canada and always seems to have side projects on the go. And Jo3 and I also keep busy in the studio. One of our projects is singing character voices in a cartoon called “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” which airs on PBS in the U.S..

Who are your inspirations musically?

Janet: Everyone in Eh440 would answer this question differently as our inspirations are pretty eclectic and spread across many genres. We were actually formed on the theory that as long as people are musical, having different influences & inspirations is a good thing. So, if we were to narrow the focus to vocal groups that we are vaguely similar to, our current inspirations would include SONOS/ARORA, Pentatonix, & The Bobby McFerrin Trio (this doesn’t exist yet, it’s just in our fantasy world…it’s a group with just Bobby and the two of us).  😉

Jo3: There are some other groups that we love to listen to but are nothing like stylistically. We think that the Swingle Singers are so incredible and we are happy to be able to hear them again at SoJam. It will be our third Swingle Singers concert this year and we’re not even from the same continent as them. Does that make us Swingle Groupies? Is there a word for that? Swoupies, maybe?

When it comes to arranging, do you look at any other a cappella groups, or do you look to non-a cappella performers?

Janet: We just enjoy other a cappella groups like everyone does but we don’t look to anyone else for anything musical. We create Eh440’s sound from within the 5 of us.

Jo3: We have been asked before if Pentatonix inspired us to start our group, but we actually started forming Eh440 before Pentatonix won The Sing Off. We do love them as fans, and were all present and cheering loudly when they performed in Toronto, but that’s it. As a side note, and this statement may create an uproar with Pentatonix fans, but we’re quite certain that Mike Celia has a better beard than Avi Kaplan. Mike’s beard is smoother than silk, softer than butter, and water beads off it like it does from a duck’s back. This is why Mike’s nickname is “The Bearded Wonder.”

None of you really started in a cappella music, so what brought you into the fold? What made you guys decide, “Hey, let’s get rid of our instruments and sing everything?”

Janet: Jo3 actually did start in a cappella. He sucked me into the world about 4 years ago and we both sucked Luke into the world 3 years ago. Maybe the a cappella world is like the mafia, once you’re in, you’re in for life? 😉

Jo3: Mike and Stacey were the more “mainstream music” types prior to joining but they are both very open-minded musically. When we approached them about banding together to form Eh440 and they both heard how far the style had progressed both musically and technologically, I think they both saw it as a unique way of sharing their songwriting and voices with the world.

Right now you’re doing a lot of covers of popular songs. Is that just to gain traction? I read on your website that you guys really want to focus on original music, which is awesome. Do you think that you’re at a point where you could perform some original pieces in the mix of your repertoire, or do you think you need more exposure first? Is there an album in your future?

Janet: Gaining traction by performing covers is one reason for sure. The other main reason is because singing covers is a great way for a new act to focus their sound and style both live and in the studio. So, we’ve performed a ton of live shows and recorded some unreleased tracks, 4 covers and 2 originals, just to figure out what Eh440’s recorded sound will be. We have performed our originals at live shows already but won’t at SoJam so they’ll have a reason to bring us back. 😉

Jo3: Our debut album will be released in April 2014. It might have 1 or 2 covers at most, so the focus will be on original music. We have written most of the songs already and like what’s happening in the writing room. We hope everyone else likes them too.

I grew up in Buffalo, New York, so we’re basically neighbors. However, I’m curious: what is the weirdest American custom/food that you’ve encountered so far?

Jo3: It’s not really a custom or food, but I love the variety of cool American accents. We just did a show in Kentucky and I was chatting with the custodian sweeping up after the show. I think he was a little weirded out because I was following him around the stage as he swept, asking him questions. I just wanted him to keep talking while I absorbed every nuance of his accent.

Janet: Well, I’m a big fan of buffalo wings, so I thank your city for that! And before this ends, thanks for interviewing us Heather!

Jo3: Yes, thank you and we’ll see you at SoJam!

Janet and Jo3, thank you guys for taking the time and sharing a little about yourselves and the group. We’re looking forward to meeting you and seeing you perform at SoJam, less than a week from now!

 


SoJam Spotlight: Sara Brimer from The Swingle Singers

Sara Brimer is a soprano and the token American with the world-renowned Swingle Singers.  The first and only Tennessean to sing with the long-established group, she studied music education at East Tennessee University, where she performed leading roles in operas such as Le Nozze di Figaro, Pirates of Penzance, and La Divina, and supporting roles in Carmen, Dido, and Aeneas. Sara has also performed leading roles in multiple musical theater productions, and she joined The Swingle Singers in 2009.

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You can learn more about her and The Swingle Singers on their website, and don’t forget to Like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter.

Sara, I know you guys are busy right now and we really appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions. Now, you guys made the ambitious decision to release two full-length albums in the span of a year as part of the celebration for the group’s 50th anniversary. What different things were you looking to achieve with each album?

The first album, “Weather to Fly,” started off as a collection of recent music we’ve been doing that people kept asking for. It’s turned into something of a stepping stone for the album coming up in 2014. We are so proud of “Weather to Fly” and Bill [Hare] and Erik [Bosio] did such a phenomenal job, we really view it as a perfect set up for the next album.

For “Weather to Fly,” the group worked with well-known a cappella producers like Bill and Erik, but for the upcoming anniversary album you’re working with someone more experienced in pop music and less so in a cappella music. How different is the process, and how do you think it is affecting the group’s decisions for the album and perhaps even in concert (if at all)?

A cappella music is so brilliantly niche and focused yet for those exact reasons it does present some drawbacks sometimes. The process has been really enlightening for us, just working with someone new is eye-opening but when their expertise is not in your genre it’s even more so. We’ve had to decide what works best for us as a team of people trying to produce something groundbreaking. Groundbreaking not just in the a cappella world and that is a daunting task some days. It’s made us consider as a real possibility what we as creative people want to hear, not just what is expected of us.

In the past few months, you guys have been in Sweden, the United States, the Philippines, Poland, Belgium, Italy, and of course the UK. Where have you not been yet that you’d like to perform?

I personally would really like to perform in Australia. I’d also like to do more in South America, places like Argentina and Mexico.

You guys have performed at a number of a cappella festivals around the world. How do you find the audiences at these festivals to be different from your typical audiences?

They get it. You walk on that stage and you are so nervous because everything you do is under Super-scrutiny but at the same time you feel that this audience is holding you up, supporting you no matter what. It’s a fantastic feeling of family and community. A typical audience can be wonderful and so attentive but there will still be some people who walk away not understanding what happened.

With such a long and storied history, does the current group have any relationship with some of the earliest members?

We are still in regular contact with our founder, Ward Swingle. We are great friends with many of the past members, we find ourselves surrounded quite often in the session singing world. You are almost guaranteed to have an ex-Swingle or two or 15 doing music for films and advertisements. It’s pretty cool to be pals with people who have done your job in the past. 

As part of this 50th anniversary, have you guys gone back to look at some of the old performances, albums, photos, etc.? If so, did anything surprise or impress you?

Yes, we’ve actually been pretty nostalgic during this whole process, while still looking forward and moving on. Because it is the 50th, people seem to be coming out of the woodwork with old albums and records to show us old photos of the group. It’s really incredible to linked to this kind of magnitude of a history.

You are a classically trained vocalist. What was it like for you being on the stage performing at La Scala?

I will say that I bragged quite heavily to my sister who is actually becoming a successful opera singer. I made it to La Scala first!! I know she will be there one day and in quite a more appropriate role for La Scala. It was a chance of a lifetime and I was totally dumbstruck to be honest. You can sense the people who have sung there previously and the weight of their professional careers. I felt really out of place but also right where I belonged in a funny way.

With such a broad range of styles, the Swingle Singers are probably the most versatile group performing a cappella music today. How do you as a group (or you individually) choose new songs?

We try it out. If something has potential, if the majority of the group like an idea or a song, then we’ll give it a go. There have been songs we’ve arranged or written that filled a purpose for that time and place and then directly afterwards we chucked it in the bin! Sometimes it only takes on person to dislike performing a song and that is enough for us to get rid of it. The important thing I think is that we tried it. How do you know you like a certain type of food or not unless you try it? Music can surprise you, if you don’t try new stuff you don’t allow yourself much room for surprises. If someone has an idea or a song they’d like to try we listen to it and the ideas behind it, decide if it might have a place alongside our other songs and if it might then we try it. What is it about a piece that draws you to it, that makes you listen to it over and over again, can you create that too? What’s keeping you from trying?

This is just a small fraction of the questions I’d love to ask you, but we have to leave something for the workshops at SoJam. :-) Thank you for taking the time, and we look forward to seeing you guys in North Carolina next week!

SoJam Spotlight: Peter Huang from MICappella

#isitnovemberyet is the hashtag being used in association with the lead-in to the upcoming SoJam festival, which most of us at Acatribe will be attending. As we did with the Boston Sings (BOSS) festival earlier this year, we’re interviewing a member from each headlining professional group, starting with MICappella. Enjoy!

 

Peter Huang is the resident vocal percussionist and co-founder of Singapore’s vocal rock band MICappella. He has attended Berklee College of Music, is a producer with The Right Frequency, and has performed with MICappella on The Sing Off China (where the group was runner-up to winners Freeman). He also co-produced and wrote songs for their recent full-length album “Here We Go,” which achieved nearly perfect scores from the Recorded A cappella Review Board (RARB).  MICappella recently won CASA’s A cappella Community Award for Favorite Asian A cappella Group and was also nominated for Favorite World/Folk Group and for some recent Singapore Hit Awards.

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You can learn more about MICappella on their website, and don’t forget to like them on Facebook and follow them on Twitter!

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Peter, thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. You guys are getting ready to head over to the States for SoJam and a few other gigs. Has the group performed in America before?

First of all, thank you so much for featuring me and my group in this interview! :)

Some of our members have previously lived in and performed in the USA before. Eugene, our baritone, went to college in Michigan and sang with the G-men while he was there. When I was in Berklee, I sang with a local group Integration by Parts for a while. But as MICappella, this is our first ever trip to the USA. For more than half the group, this is their first time stepping foot on the continent! So we are very very excited to visit the USA!

Does the group have any other plans while you’re here?

We’re landing in NYC first, and checking out this awesome city we have heard and seen so much about. Doing all the tourist type stuff; Times Square, Central Park, Yankee Stadium, etc…Hopefully, we’ll get to meet a few New York-based groups while we’re there! If there are groups in NYC out there who would like to hang out a bit, we’d love to know more about the local scene! Apart from this upcoming trip to SoJam, we have a quick stop in DC just before SoJam for a showcase with the Capital Hearings (November 3). After SoJam, we are flying up to Boston for a concert with Ball in the House (November 12) and also for a few events in Berklee College of Music (Nov. 13-14).

You guys have had a lot of success with media exposure like The Sing Off China, various radio stations, and newspapers in Singapore and neighboring nations. What is it about MICappella that has captured the public interest over there?

With Singapore being such a small country (27 miles east to west, less than 18 miles north to south) and less than 6 million people, the fact that we did as well as we did in Sing Off China was a pretty awesome deal, and maybe audiences are intrigued by the storyline of a foreign group competing in China. That plus the fact that Chinese language a cappella is very, very new in the region, and most groups in Singapore have always sung primarily in English. So even within a local context here, being comfortably bilingual is probably helpful in attracting a wider range of audiences.

Although, we would hope that the main reason that folks like us is because our sound, image, and energy level are something that the general music fan would enjoy and relate to. If they don’t realize at first that we’re an a cappella band, that’s totally okay. So long as they enjoy what we do, we hope that their later realization that we do everything with just vocals would keep them attracted even more.

Do you think that the exposure you guys are getting will open doors for other vocal groups in the region?

That’s certainly something we hope will start to happen more. We have a few good vocal bands in the Chinese language scene in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China. Not all these bands have had the good fortune to have had the support we’ve been given, to be able to train, record, perform as much as we have had. Having a label here (www.s2s.com.sg) that believes in what we do has been a huge blessing, and their network of distribution, marketing, and media reach has been vital in getting the word out there. So we definitely treasure the resources we have, and also want to share our experiences with those with the desire to step beyond their college groups or convert their amateur group to something more serious. That would hopefully create a bigger a cappella movement in Asia, and we want to do our part to help the scene grow.

Hopefully, in time, more groups will emerge to join us in creating more good a cappella music in Chinese and English in Asia.

A few months back, MICappella released an authentic, artistic music video. What was that experience like, and do you have any plans to do that for other songs off “Here We Go”?

The shoot was really fun! We’re not trained actors or anything, but it was a different way of being creative. It was a cool thing to learn about and hopefully we’ll do more of these videos in the future. 

There is a possibility of doing some additional videos for other tracks from the album. It’s still being discussed and planned at the moment, so for now I don’t have anything firm to report…but we’re definitely debating and discussing ideas every day. Fingers crossed that something will happen soon!

You guys met Pentatonix when they appeared on The Sing Off China. Do you guys ever compare yourselves to them in any way?

Pentatonix has been a huge boost to the scene not just in the USA, but all over Asia here too. The random person on the street might not know much about a cappella, but they would have heard of Pentatonix and think they are cool. Such is the level of their fame in Asia.

We definitely look up to them in that respect, in terms of their impact on public perception of a cappella. We’re trying all the time to provide a similar impact here, and the different region and culture means that the methods and approaches will definitely be different, but the similar drive and enthusiasm is definitely there. Obviously, PTX has been extremely successful, and we’re hoping that eventually we can reach similar levels of success within Asia.

I think in terms of musical choice and development there are certain obvious similarities. Like The Sing Off background, the mixed gender group format, certain song choices of similar styles, etc. But a cappella being the way it is, each group has a unique set of voices, and we’re in distinctly different parts of the world. Our hope is to best discover our own vocal instruments and put forth our Singaporean identity out there.

I know that Weijin [bass] just left the group. How long was the group together with the same members prior to this change? How has the transition been with YK?

Weijin was with the group since mid-2010, so a total of almost 3 years. The group in that format was unchanged for about 2.5 years. For me personally, Weijin and I have been in 3 different groups as the same rhythm section, starting from 1999 with Skritch (which once appeared at the 2004 East Coast A Cappella Summit). So personally, losing Jin meant losing a comfort zone and learning to work with a different rhythm section partner from scratch.

YK was a timely find after a rather short and intense hunt within the small but tight-knit Singaporean music scene. He doesn’t have an a cappella or choral background prior to MICappella, however, his rate of learning is very, very high and he is one of the most driven and observant basses I’ve encountered. We’re very glad that YK has adapted to us the way he has in this relatively short time.

You are a producer, which means you’re obviously comfortable in the studio, but does that interest affect your (or the group’s) performance style in any way?

Sometimes I prefer to think of myself as a guy who likes to perform, who also happens to know some stuff about production. So I try to strike a balance between the two…in fact, I was nudged into forming MICappella and getting back into performing after realizing that I missed performing live a bit too much to stay in the studio 100%. I try to use my experience as a producer to the group’s advantage in terms of pushing the group to create more new recordings and also in terms of trying to get them to feel comfortable in the studio as they do onstage by trying to act as their familiar face and also to bridge the live and studio experiences. From time to time, Calin (my co-music director and co-founder of MICappella) would act as my thermostat to yank me back into normal rehearsal or live performance mindset if she notices my brain starting to drift too much towards the studio. If not for her I’d be geeking out way too much about everything.

What other plans does MICappella have in the works for the rest of 2013 and for 2014?

After coming back to Asia, we’re going back to Shenzhen (where The Sing Off China was filmed) in late November for the Shenzhen Fringe Festival.

The big plan for 2014 right now is to release another album at some point, and if it all goes to plan, also participate in a slasher flick! Not really anything to do with music per se, but it’s a fun project that we all wanted to do so we could run around and scream at each other on the film set with weird makeup on. Hmm…sounds like many of our rehearsals…haaaa…

Finally, the hope is that we’ll get to travel to more new cities and festivals over the course of 2014 and beyond. Definitely would love to get to see more of the USA!

The number one thing about MICappella is that we try our best to create good music both live and recorded and share it with as many people in as many places as possible! :-)

It’s an awesome experience thus far, and we thank you guys so much for letting us have this opportunity to share our experiences with you too!

Peter, thank you for offering us a peek inside MICappella’s recent successes and future plans. We wish you a lot of success at SoJam and elsewhere here in the U.S., and with all of the other exciting things coming up for the group!

BOSS Spotlight: Caleb Whelden of Five O’Clock Shadow

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 this weekend. First, we talked to Tine Fris of Postyr Project. You can find that interview here.  Next, we spoke with Austin Willacy of The House Jacks.  The last interview before BOSS is with Caleb Whelden of Five O’Clock Shadow. Read, enjoy, and hopefully we’ll see many of you in Boston this weekend!

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Caleb Whelden sings with a lot of a cappella groups. After graduating from Ithaca College, where he performed with the renowned male group Ithacappella, he joined Five O’Clock Shadow in Boston and later played a role in founding Slapdash Graduate and Blueprint.

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He is also a member of Overboard, who recently completed an international tour across the United States and the UK (and will be performing Sunday afternoon after BOSS officially ends at 3:00 in Somerville, MA). He will be teaching a workshop at BOSS on “Building Group Sound” and of course performing with Five O’Clock Shadow on Saturday night. You can learn more about the group at www.focs.com.

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First, the news. Rumor has it Five O’Clock Shadow [“FOCS”] has completed a new EP which might just be released very soon. Anything you can tell me about that?

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The rumors are true. We just received 1000 copies of our new EP, “Six.” It’s been 13 years since FOCS has released a new recording and we are very excited about this one. We produced and recorded the album ourselves. This EP is the first step towards recording a full-length album.

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The biggest albums from FOCS (“So There,” “Wonders of the World”) generally featured original songs. Will the new EP follow this tradition, or feature more cover tunes?

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The EP is comprised of five songs; four originals and one cover. Some songs will be familiar to fans who have come to see us recently, but there’s one original song on the EP that has never been heard before. We wrote it specifically for the EP.

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Now, the history. FOCS has been around for a long time. In fact, the group celebrated its 20th anniversary with a concert back in 2011. Did any former members show up or participate in any way?

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We had all but a handful of the former members come back for the show. We had all of them perform, beginning with the first iteration of Five O’Clock Shadow. In fact, I think the anniversary show was the first time the original five members had sung together since 1991. It was pretty amazing to see and hear. We had members leave the stage in the order they left the group and the “new” members went up to perform…all the way up until the current membership. This is the third time the group has done a reunion show of that type and we’re all looking forward to the next one (25th anniversary show, anyone?)

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Late last year, one of the longest tenured (original?) members, “Stack” (David Stackhouse) left the group. How difficult a transition was it for you guys to lose someone whow as so clearly a part of the group’s fabric?

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Actually, Stack was not an original member. Stack didn’t join the group until 1998, when the group was already 6 years old. When Stack announced to us that he was leaving, it was extremely difficult for all of us. That iteration of the band had been performing together for just about 10 years, which is the longest any iteration of the group had been together. Additionally, Stack had been the primary songwriter and arranger for the group during that time, as well as the business manager. To say he was the “driving force” of the group would be an understatement. Most importantly, Stack is like a brother to us and to not have him as part of the group was a difficult thing to swallow.

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Having said that, when Stack announced his departure, none of us wanted the group to end. We found two very talented musicians to replace him (Stack did bass and percussion at the same time…difficult to find someone who can do both) and picked up the pieces. We are all very excited about the current membership and have had a blast performing together.

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For awhile, back in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s, FOCS was at the forefront of a cappella with recording techniques and performing techniques. The group then seemed to disappear a bit, at least from the larger a cappella community (outside of the Boston area). What happened? Is the group, with the performance at BOSS and the new EP, gearing up to reclaim its reputation in the national (or international) a cappella community?

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To be honest, Five O’Clock Shadow disbanded in December of 2003. We were a full time act at the time and I think the road just got to be too much for us, especially two of the guys who were preparing to start families with their wives. We had our “FOCS Farewell tour” in the Fall/Winter of ’03 and our “last performance” was on December 21, 2003. Less than a year after the show, we were getting tons of calls to do shows. We decided to get together over Thai food and discuss the possibility of getting back together as a part-time band. We all missed it and decided that if the gigs were there, we’d keep going. We never announced anything to either our fans or the a cappella community and to some extent, were forgotten.

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We all see BOSS as an opportunity to re-introduce Five O’Clock Shadow to the a cappella community. Some of our own fans will be there, but for the most part, much of the younger crowd has no idea who we are. I’m not sure about “reclaiming our reputation,” but with two new members and a brand new EP, we’re excited to get the group’s name out there once again.

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Speaking of Boston, there are obviously quite a few a cappella groups out there, a few of which include some guy named Caleb Whelden. Do all of these groups (your various groups, Ball in the House, Redline, etc.) support each other or is it very competitive (or both)?

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There was a time when there was competition among the local a cappella groups. That was well before I joined the band, and I’ve only heard stories about it. To be honest, there seems to be nothing but respect for other groups these days. Contemporary a cappella music has grown so much over the years. Back when the group first started, it was very difficult to catch people’s interest in what we do. At this point, with shows such as “The Sing Off” and movies like “Pitch Perfect,” it’s obvious that a cappella is making a giant splash. No one appreciates that more than groups such as ours, or Ball in the House, who have been struggling for years to make a living doing this. It’s still not easy to make this kind of a living, but with a larger audience base, there is much less competition.

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Let’s follow up with some smack talk: what do you think Five O’Clock Shadow does that no (or few) other groups out there can do?

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Five O’Clock Shadow has always been able to rock, and have a lot of fun doing it. I don’t know a log of groups out there (except of course, Fork) who can sell rock tunes convincingly. We use guitar effects pedals to bolster our sound and we bring a ton of energy and experience to the stage. More importantly, we don’t take ourselves too seriously, which helps the audience relax and really enjoy the show.

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Five O’Clock Shadow has a history of performing clinics or workshops, other various types of educational outreach. You were a music education major in college. What do you think a cappella music, or Five O’Clock Shadow, can do for young musicians?

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What I like about our art form is that it is extremely accessible to everyone. For years, we’ve been touring the country, teaching about what we do to all ages (elementary-college). We teach the same techniques any choir teacher teaches, and do it in a way that is a ton of fun. We help reinforce what teachers are already saying, and at the same time, we are proof that music can continue after school is finished. Inspiring young artists is truly one of the most rewarding things we do.

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You guys have performed on television, at sporting events, at corporate events, etc. What’s next for Five O’Clock Shadow after BOSS?

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We are finally getting settled into this new membership and we haven’t had a ton of time in the past few months to develop repertoire that is “ours.” I think we’re going to continue developing our set with both new originals and covers and perhaps start talking about recording a full length album. We are also talking about putting together a fall tour for this new EP.

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Caleb, thank you for taking the time to provide a little more insight into the history of the group and the changes taking place in recent months. We’re all looking forward to getting our hands on the new EP (streaming now at focs.com) and seeing you guys on Saturday night. Best of luck at the festival and in all of the new exciting things to come for Five O’Clock Shadow!

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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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