I spend a lot of time with a cappella people. That means I spend a lot of time talking about a cappella. And for the past two weeks, from Sri Lanka to Chicago, from Boston to Brazil, that means I’ve spent a lot of time talking about The List.
First, full-disclosure: I’m on The List at #31. And I’m not going to pretend that being included didn’t mean something to me. Three years ago, I would hazard a guess that none of you had ever heard of me. And that’s okay, because I hadn’t heard of you either. Before Help!, Overboard’s fifth – that’s right, fifth – album came out, I had met exactly two people on the list: Dave Brown, who happened to be in the audience when Overboard opened for the Nor’easters in the spring of 2009, and Ed Boyer, who auditioned for Hyannis Sound right after me. It’s that second one that is especially significant for me because, after getting rejected from The Sound, I quit a cappella entirely for four years. No singing, no arranging, nothing. Since 2006, I’ve clawed my way through the ranks, and having someone, anyone, recognize that effort feels pretty good.
That having been said, my thoughts about The List have evolved over the past two weeks. My first reaction was resigned acceptance. Hell, we live in a world where celebrity children are being pitted against each other on Who Wore it Best? lists. This was bound to happen to our little corner of the music industry. Being mad that the ACB exploited our vanity/morbid curiosity to their advantage is a waste of time. As a media outlet, developing content that engages, and perhaps even enrages, readers is their job. And it’s our job as artists to create music without caring about awards, accolades and recognition.
The trouble is, we do care. Like it or not, competition is one of the cornerstones of our community: ICHSAs, ICCAs, Harmony Sweepstakes, BOCA, BOHSA, CARAs, ACAs, Sing, Voices Only. Competition for RARB reviews, YouTube views, Facebook fans, Twitter followers, coaching/arranging/production clients is fiercer than ever. Even with the increased number of opportunities, trust me when I say that the fight for high-profile, high-paying gigs has become vicious. And if you’re hoping to make money from a cappella – not because you’re a depraved, greedy lunatic who isn’t true to his/her art, but because music is your calling and what you’re meant to do, but, truth be told, you’re also meant to eat and live in a house and wear decent clothes and drive a car and put gas in that car and pay off your student loans for a degree in math that turns out to be a lot less profitable than you were lead to believe – well, if you want money from this, you’d better compete and you’d better do it well.
This battle between art and commerce is inevitable. And, if we want a cappella to be recognized as a legitimate genre/instrumentation (I’m not stepping on that landmine today, thank you very much), we're going to have to make peace with our world being commercialized and celebrified. But we don’t have to forget where we come from and who around us has helped move a cappella forward.
As The List went on, I found myself making my own mental list. Of the people who inspire me. Who make me want to be a better musician. A better performer. And as each day went by, I realized that while my list included many people who were on The List, it also included almost as many who weren’t. Probably because my definition of cool isn’t the same as the ACB’s. Then again, my definition of cool isn’t the same as a lot of people’s. Let’s be honest, if I really gave a shit about what people thought was cool, I probably wouldn’t be a professional a cappella singer.
Below is my list. It is the consequence of my experience and ignorance, my biases and my preferences. Feel free to get upset about it. Better yet, make your own list.
It goes without saying that percussion is a huge part of what makes contemporary a cappella cool. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the list of cool percussionists is deep. Let’s just start with alums of The House Jacks (I told you, I’m biased). Andrew Chaikin (a.k.a. Kid Beyond), the original VP for the Jacks, is everything I wish I were as a percussionist. He can do things you can’t even imagine. After Andrew came Wes Carroll, whose kit is out of this world. His high hats alone are a revelation. Arguably even cooler than Wes’s skills are his instructional videos, which have enabled him to teach a generation of students about the craft. Jake Moulton, formerly of The House Jacks and currently in Mo5aic, is coolness personified. He’s a true beatboxing badass and is single-handedly the counterargument to any ignorant asshole who tells you that a cappella singers are faggots. (Yes, people do still say this. Perform at a middle school or on a street corner sometime, you’ll see what I mean.).
There’s Jeff Thacher from Rockapella, whose unique sound was many people’s first introduction to vocal percussion. And David Stackhouse, from Five O’Clock Shadow, whose beatbass does double-duty with mindblowing complexity and effectiveness. There’s Sonos’s Ben McClain, whose technique is uniquely his own and defines the group’s sound more than you may realize. And Duwende’s Ed Chung, whose sounds, particularly his snare, are phenomenal. And Freddie Feldman, who invented the Thumper and, in doing so, changed for many the way percussion and technology interact. And although I haven’t met them, I’m willing to bet that percussionists from Naturally 7, m-pact and Basix are all pretty cool. I do know they’re all incredible musicians whose skills have helped move beatboxing and vocal percussion forward.
And then there’s John Pointer, the House Jacks’ current beatboxer, who, with his cowboy boots and Austin music scene roots, is a force of nature. His solo act, which incorporates instrumental music with vocal percussion elements, is incredible and speaks to a larger trend of soloists performing a cappella or a cappella-inspired music. Mr. Tim, Julia Easterlin, June Caravel - they are all driving this new trend.
Arrangers are cool too, but often in a different way. Start with Samrat Chakrabarti. Simply stated, Samrat changed the way we arrange contemporary a cappella by helping open up the world of syllables. What’s more, his position in Hyannis Sound allowed him to influence not only every collegiate a cappella kid who listened to Cape Standard Time on repeat, but also the next generation of Sound members, like Nate Altimari, who built upon what Samrat developed, and brought the world Firedrill!, which is especially cool to me since it’s the group that inspired me to get back into a cappella after my aforementioned hiatus and so without whom there would be no Overboard and I would probably still be a carpenter. From where I’m sitting, that’s a whole lot of cool in one sentence.
But there are more. There are the high school students learning about arranging under forward-thinking directors like Amanda Roeder, J.D. Frizzell, Brody McDonald, Matt Woodward and Alex Grover. There’s Dylan Bell, formerly of Cadence, who (with Deke) literally wrote the book on arranging. Or Aaron Jensen, another Cadence alum, whose talent with implied harmonies is so well-developed that he can make four people sound like seven. Or Chris Rishel, whose arrangements for University of Chicago’s Voices in Your Head took 2012 BOSS and ICCA finals by storm. And what about the arrangers from Groove for Thought, Vox One and Toxic Audio? I’ve never met them personally, but I’ve heard their stuff and it’s pretty cool, don’t you think?
Let’s not forget the songwriters. We keep hearing that a cappella originals are the future, after all. Back to The House Jacks. Austin Willacy has probably written more a cappella originals than anyone I can think of. Doesn’t hurt that he’s also one of the best singers (and for my money one of the most underappreciated singers), currently working in American a cappella. But there’s a whole new generation of a cappella songwriters as well. There’s Adam Levine, from Brandeis VoiceMale, whose original, “Phoenix,” blew my mind and many other peoples’. And don’t forget the high schoolers from Forte, who just completed an album entirely of originals and, in doing so, threw down a gauntlet for future generations. Now that’s cool.
But you can’t talk about the future without talking about producers. (NOTE: This was where The List really started to lose me, not only for those missed, but also for those misplaced. Ed and Bill were featured, of course, but not nearly as high as I’d expect given their accomplishments. Grammys and gold records are pretty hard to beat. Even more so, the placement of Dave Sperandio was shocking. Dio has a hand in nearly every a cappella project that is released. But I digress…) Let’s start with the excluded gentlemen from VocalSource. There’s Tat Tong, whose work with major labels will undoubtedly be featured heavily in years to come. And James Cannon, whose ability to produce incredible performances from his clients is nothing short of legendary. John Clark, who mixed “Phoenix” with the precision and perfection he is known for. And James Gammon, whose work wins awards all over the place, in large part for his ability to manipulate space while keeping his sounds crisp and clean. Then there are the men of Plaid (Productions), Alex Green and Alex Koutzoukis, who, in addition to being from baller college groups (Tufts ‘Mates and Bubs, respectively), produce/engineer for big-name groups (not to mention “Glee”) and brought collaborative recording to CASA festivals. And let’s not forget about Emerald City Productions’ Danny Ozment and The Vocal Company’s Nick Lyons, who remind us that there is more to life than a cappella production by managing to balance the pressures of work and fatherhood with inspiring grace.
More and more over the past couple of years I myself have been reminded that there’s a great big world out there. I have, for example, learned a lot recently about what’s going on in South American a cappella. And the people I met last week at FestRio Vocal, including those from host group BR6 and Argentinean guest groups VoxPop and Cabernet, are insanely cool. They emote with the kind of passion and guts singers dream of embodying and they do so effortlessly. Oh, and VoxPop has a comedic bit in their show that is hands-down the best I’ve ever seen. Seriously, it’s worth flying to Buenos Aires for. It’s that cool.
And who can forget the Europeans? FORK. The Real Group. Rajaton. Cluster. Postyr. Basix. The King’s Singers. The members of these groups are cultured, well-traveled, multi-lingual and perform shows that are so well-orchestrated that they leave audiences breathless. And my personal favorites, The Swingle Singers. Every single member of the Swingle Singers is cooler than I could ever hope to be. Not just because they’re (mostly) British and sing freakishly in tune and wear clothes with the kind of European ease that white boys from Maine can’t pull off. All of those things are great, but what makes them truly cool is that, despite their superior talent, they are some of the nicest, most gracious, humble people you’ll ever meet. So, it should be no surprise that the Swingles’ Facebook and Twitter presence, led by Jo Goldsmith Eteson and Clare Wheeler, has arguably done more to unify the global a cappella community than anything else over the last two years. And if that’s not enough to convince you, sit in the audience sometime when Sara Brimer performs the Diva Aria. If you don’t leave 100% certain that she’s one of the coolest people you’ve ever seen in real life, there’s something wrong with you.
There are the fans. Their dedication and support is incredibly cool, not to mention a huge part of what’s propelling a cappella forward. The Chasers. The Pentaholics. The friends and family who come to our shows, buy our albums and endure our incessant singing/percing at all hours. With their rich, rewarding lives that go beyond a cappella lists and awards and TV shows, all of these people are instrumental in helping us stay sane. What’s more, they remind us that we are communicating through our music and that the messages we are spreading matter in very real ways we may never fully understand.
Then there are the people I’ve forgotten. And the ones I haven’t heard of yet. To all of them, I apologize for my omissions. But, what I’m most concerned about is the cool person who is working in obscurity right now on some totally crazy project that may change what we do forever, but that may never be finished because he/she is too discouraged to continue because he/she wasn’t on The List. To that person I say this: For four years I missed out on doing something I love because I didn’t think I was good enough to continue, so don’t let what some blogger did or didn’t say about you result in you making that same mistake.
About the writer:
A native of Maine and an alum of The University of Vermont Top Cats, Nick Girard is the founder of Overboard. Through Overboard's recording projects grew the not-at-all-creatively-named Overboard Productions, which offers arranging, coaching, producing and recording services to vocal ensembles of all types. Nick worked as a coach/arranger for Season 3 of NBC's "The Sing-Off" and producer/arranger/engineer for the show's holiday album, "The Songs of the Season." In 2011, Nick joined The House Jacks as a vocal percussionist /tenor. Earlier this year, Nick founded The PickUps, a pick up group that allows anyone interested, regardless of experience or group affiliation, to perform at a cappella festivals.