HomeThinking Outside the Box For Repertoire (or how I learned to stop parroting Top 40 music and start innovating)

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If you listen to a fair amount of a cappella music (and if you’re reading this, you likely qualify), you probably know that the “mainstream” of most American a cappella is often a “lamestream” of repetition. In other words, you probably have heard 10 or more versions of “Africa” (Toto), “Fireflies” (Owl City), and a dozen other songs which cycle through the a cappella world incessantly, like the Nigerian prince email scams and that Korean YouTube video which has over 120 million views and probably over a billion email forwards.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Setting aside the obvious need for more original a cappella music, there are other repertoire options. For one thing, there are artists and bands out there other than Coldplay, Lady Gaga, and Adele. I know this because I occasionally listen to music with instruments (heresy! sacrilege!) on sources other than Top 40 radio.  When I do, I often think about whether it would translate well as an a cappella tune.  Over the past few years, I have noted dozens of songs which have elements which seem natural for all vocal treatment, and few if any have ever received it. Tired of this neglect, I set out into the cybersphere to survey a collection of experienced a cappella people to find out their thoughts on which artists or songs don’t get enough a cappella coverage and why.

The results were generally split into two camps. The first group was focused on a slight variant of my original question.  To them, the answer is not necessarily new artists, but new ideas for the existing artists. For example, Mark Torres from Sin3g talked about “reimagining” songs such as turning a slow ballad into an upbeat rock tune.  In his view, the key is for groups to identify their own style, and then rework a song to fit that style. Ryan Chappelle, bass from Ball in the House, agreed, noting that they consider themselves to be an R&B group and enjoy taking a song from another genre and converting it into their comfort zone.  Michael Marcus, from RARB, suggested that “transcriptive covers of Top 40 songs are just plain lazy,” and argued that perhaps covers of a cappella originals (suggesting m-pact’s “Without Your Love”) would be a welcome addition to most groups’ repertoire. Jonathan Minkoff echoed the first point, saying “Be original. Don’t do any covers that even vaguely sound like the originals. And if you write your own songs, that’s even better.”  He added that no matter what songs you choose, you must credit the actual composers, not the performers.[1]

There is undoubtedly merit to this approach, and we all know that some songs which have been covered many times over the years have been successfully reimagined (see Sonos’ “I Want You Back” and the Stanford Harmonics cover of “The Sound of Silence”).  I agree with Mark, Ryan, Michael, and Jonathan that this is a great way to go, if you do it right. I also know that transforming or re-imagining a song can be difficult, and does not always go over well with the audience (see Sonos on “The Sing-Off” Season 3). 

The second group of answers were a little more specific about artists whose music might translate well to all-vocal music.  I will include a few of the specific choices at the bottom of this article in order to provide some examples for groups out there looking to think outside the box a bit.  I’m not telling groups what to do, but suggesting how to expand their creative choices for song selection a little, and the songs or artists below were offered by people who listen to a LOT of a cappella music, so they are probably pretty aware of what is already being done out there. Tom Anderson, who has gone so far as to offer discounts on arrangements of songs he wants to arrange which are off the beaten path of mainstream a cappella, offered some insight on his choice (see below).  The artists he mentioned write “well-structured material from any angle - melodically, harmonically, lyrically, rhythmically, the whole thing.” He went on, “It’s really good writing and at the same time completely accessible.”  James Cannon noted the dearth of a cappella groups covering hip hop, and also (surprising but true) the relative lack of Donny Hathaway covers out there.  Heather Newkirk noted that female groups often neglect a wealth of source material by failing to consider music originally performed by a male soloist. She also suggested that there is a great deal of “hesitation to do music dating past the ‘60’s, but there are so many gems from the ‘20’s, ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s. . . which could be breathtaking.”  John Colton, also from RARB, pointed out that many of the songs he wishes to hear more of in the a cappella world have a “well defined melody for the solo, at least one voice of vocal harmony that participates in a fair amount of the song, and an instrumental accompaniment” that he could envision being converted to voices.

The truth is, obviously, there’s no right answer and no limitation to what music could and should be covered a cappella. In one of my first blog posts I talked about a theory which was once explained to me by a record producer who had several very high profile credits to his name. His theory was this in a nutshell: any true pop music hit from the past 40 years has at least 4 “hooks.” He defined the hook as something in the music, an element, which could stay in your head for hours or days, call you back to the song again and again. It could be something as obvious as the vocals in the chorus, or as tiny as the snare hit on the upbeat of 4 before the bridge. In the post, I noted that a cappella is full of hooks too, whether it be the arrangement (or a portion thereof), the VP, the solo, etc.

When it comes to choosing songs to arrange, I think both camps of my respondents are right. You need elements, or hooks, which are going to reach out and grab the listener, make them pay attention. If you re-imagine a song which was originally very popular, your reinvention itself may be the biggest hook. If you choose a band who nobody has ever heard of, but whose music features numerous hooks, the novelty of the song may be a hook.  I believe that it is a great and worthwhile accomplishment to find a song that few or no other groups are singing and perhaps few people have heard of, and turn it into a song where the listener wants to go seek out the original.

Catherine Lewis noted “I think that the goal of most musicians (a cappella groups or regular bands-with-instruments) is to create music that is memorable.  That can be done several ways: by writing something original (that's catchy or touching or moves the listener in some way), or by bringing your own spin to someone else's song.”  She noted, and I want to be clear that I completely agree, that simply choosing good unknown music is not enough. You need to do something with that music other than simply transcribing it, by finding a way to make it compelling and memorable.

So, how do you find lesser known music? Yes, I’m going to list a few example suggestions below from the folks who were kind enough to respond to my article. As John Colton also pointed out, there was a thread on the RARB/CASA forums last year, which you can check out here. I encourage you to listen to music outside your typical habits, or listen to music you already own but broaden your consideration of what could be done a cappella (The House Jacks version of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” did this for me when I was in college). Perhaps the best way to find new music, though, was suggested by Heather Newkirk and should seem somewhat obvious in our technology age. It’s the internet, dummy. Newkirk uses Spotify, which allows her to create playlists of songs she hopes to arrange someday. There are numerous other sites which stream, legally, free music around the clock. Check them out when you’re trying to find something new, exciting, and innovative in selecting a song, and then do something exciting and innovative with it.

Remember: if you sing a cappella, you already enjoy being creative. Take it up another notch, look past the Gotye and Fun. songs which are saturating the marketplace, and find something unique for yourself, for your group, and for your audience who may just be exhausted with the same old tunes.

Please keep in mind that the following suggestions undoubtedly reflect the individual’s personal preferences. However, if you listen to a track or even an album by some of these artists, you may well find (a) you like the artist too; or (b) you too think the music would be good for an a cappella group to cover. Or, you might just hate it. Either way, listening to new music, broadening your ear horizons, can never be a bad thing.

Tom Anderson

Alice in Chains

Amos Lee

Antje Duvekot

James Taylor

The New Pornographers

Robin Thicke

Ryan Shaw

The Tallest Man on Earth

Tom Waits

Turnpike Troubadours

James Cannon

Amos Lee

Raphael Saadiq

Robin Thicke

Donny Hathaway

Chris Brown

Sara Bareilles- “Sweet as Whole”

Heather Newkirk

Cher Lloyd

Ed Sheeran

The Wanted

The Saturdays

Agnes Obel

Allen Stone

Mayer Hawthorne

Joss Stone

Alice Russell

Fitz & the Tantrums

Amanda Blank

Karmin

John Colton (in addition to those listed at the RARB/CASA forum link)

Barenaked Ladies- “Maybe You’re Right”

Statler Bros.- “Daddy Sang Bass”

Thomas “TeKay” King

Prince (other than the favorites)

Gregory Douglass

Remy Shand

Robin Thicke

Trio (Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, & Linda Ronstadt)

Melissa Van Der Schyff

Dave Bernstein (just a few of many artists I would love to hear more of)

Elbow

Spoon

The Black Keys (getting more recognition lately)

Cold War Kids

The Walkmen

Dan Bern

Elliott Smith

Badly Drawn Boy

Marvin Gaye (deeper cuts)

Stevie Wonder (deeper cuts)


[1] “If you sing "Hard Day's Night," you are NOT performing the Beatles. Do not credit them. Do not pay them. You are interpreting the music and lyrics of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. That's who you credit and that's who you pay.”  He knows that of which he speaks. (http://www.jonathanminkoff.com/)

About the writer:
Dave Bernstein is the founder of NYU's all-male group Mass Transit, a former music director of the Potsdam Pointercounts, and (sadly) current member of no a cappella group. After studying music business in college, Dave co-founded Liquid Productions, a small recording studio in Long Island, New York, which produced a handful of collegiate recordings, demos, and commercial projects before going under. Eventually, he went back to law school where he worked for the famed Innocence Project. He currently works as a public defender in New York. In October 2011, he started acatribe.com, a blog devoted to news, analysis, and general love for all things a cappella.  In summer 2012, he joined The Recorded A Cappella Review Board as a reviewer.  He continues to sing in various classical choirs in the New York metropolitan area, and hopes to someday rejoin the active ranks of the post-collegiate a cappella community.