Article by: Brittany Joy Cooper | Posted: 09/20/2011
Millions of viewers across the country tuned in last night to the season three premiere of NBC’s hit show The Sing-Off.
If you didn’t catch the a cappella faceoff or aren’t familiar with the show, it follows the traditional pattern of predecessors like American Idol or America’s Got Talent but with one colossal catch: no instruments.
Last season, Nashville singer-songwriter Jeremy Lister earned runner-up with his Street Corner Symphony. And though Lister opted out of appearing on this season of the show, he assembled a group of nine of Nashville’s most beloved independent singer-songwriters to bring it on his behalf.
Isaac Hayden, Kaleb Jones (The Young International), Daniel Ellsworth, Rachael Lampa, Sam Brooker, Ruby Amanfu, Jonathan Lister, Perrin Lamb and David Jennings form the Nashville wondergroup The Collective. They’ve temporarily dropped their guitars, stepped away from their pianos, left their backup bands and come to the musical table with just their voices.
The Collective wasn’t among the eight groups who sang their hearts out last night, but they’ll be debuting their sound next Monday night in the second wave of voices.
After spending more than a month together between an LA hotel and studio filming the show, this bunch interacts like siblings without the remnants of childhood melodrama. Huddling around a table outside Nashville’s Edgehill Cafe, they crack jokes in a constant stream of chatter and laughs. Isaac Hayden is out of town, but the rest talk effortlessly about their time on The Sing-Off.
“Jeremy had such a cool experience last year that when he had the idea of putting some Nashville singer-songwriters together for a group, he thought of us and gave us a call,” explains Perrin.
“I think that the first time that we sang together, we could all tell that there was something special, even though it was rough and we were still trying to feel it out.”
Each member of The Collective has a career in his or her own musical right, but David and Jonathan were the only members who had ever dabbled in the realm of a cappella. David sang a cappella in choirs and Jonathan picked up beatboxing when he joined his brother’s Street Corner Symphony on a Ben Folds tour.
“(Jeremy) was like, ‘Hey, um, you wanna learn how to beatbox?’” Jonathan remembers. “And I was like, ‘I’ll try, see what I can do.’ ... I sort of got my feet wet with it there and kept messing with it and got asked to do it for The Collective.”
Kaleb says the fact that most of the group’s members hadn’t done a cappella before was what made the challenge so enticing.
“It was exciting for all of us. I mean ... we’ve all been in the songwriting circles and then the kind of scene in Nashville, and this was such a new challenge to us that we couldn’t help but be excited because we didn’t know what to expect.”
For those of us who have never pieced together an a cappella group out of thin air, I ask the members of The Collective to explain the bones of this thing – where exactly do you start?
“Well we did approach it like a band,” explains Perrin. “We started with the bassline and a rhythm section. We have one of the best beatboxers around in Jonathan Lister, so we tried to start it with a solid rhythm section and just build it from there.” Then, they assigned people to cover the horns and others to be the keys and the rest to sing lead or backup.
“We tried to arrange it like we would a record or one of our bands – because that’s what we know how to do,” Perrin adds. “We don’t know how to do a cappella group. We know how to do bands.”
Though we can expect to see Ruby singing lead next week, she says she’s not always taking the reins, adding that Rachael and Isaac get their chance in the spotlight as well.
“We want people to know that we’ve got a group of amazing vocalists here. I think a lot of the other groups, you know, they have one lead singer, but I think it’s important for everyone to understand that this is what we all do for a living, so no one’s filler in this group.”
One question I always have for musicians on reality shows is how they occupy their time, in this case, more than a month holed up in an LA hotel with only the slim pickings of a mall and a recording studio. The question sparks an onset of knowing laughter.
“How did we occupy our time?” Ruby asks before Daniel picks up the question.
“We had like 10- to 14-hour days every day pretty much. I mean, any spare time we did have, we were hanging out at the hot tub or sleeping or ...”
“Hanging out at the hot tub and rehearsing or sleeping and rehearsing or dreaming and rehearsing,” Rachael lists.
“Or beatboxing in your sleep,” someone adds, though I can’t tell where it came from.
“We did have kind of a reputation for our hot tub rehearsals,” Rachael clarifies. “Throughout time you start to realize, you know, we can pick our locations for rehearsals. Because a lot of times they put us in ballrooms and stuff in the hotel, and we saw that the hot tub was open.”
“I tell people that this was a strange mixture of tour and summer camp,” Kaleb asserts.
“And prison,” Rachael offers almost inaudibly, causing Ruby to shout “Rachael!” and everyone else to chuckle at the all-too-true and perhaps still slightly raw irony.
“We had really long days, but the camaraderie you build with your group and the other groups ... in your spare time, you just want to hang out with them,” Kaleb says on a more serious note. “It was a blast – I mean, every part.”
Whenever a group from Nashville presents themselves to a national audience, and whenever that group’s entire image is in the hands of a team of editors and producers, it begs the question of just how country said group will end up appearing.
“You know, there were a lot of team members that put this show together,” says Ruby, “and you’ll find, whether it’s musical directors or producers, that it comes up often – ‘Do it country!’ or, “Add your country influence.’ Instead of saying, ‘Let’s put some rootsiness into this,’ they’ll say, ‘Let’s put some country into this.’ And it obviously is educating others as to what else goes on in this great town that we live in, and instead of them saying ...”
“Take it to church!” someone offers.
“Well, that’s better than the hoedown.” Ruby finishes. “We finally settled on, OK if you guys want to say it’s southern soul that’s fine. It’s southern because it’s Nashville, Tennessee – in the South – and it’s soul because we all put so much of that into what we do. So, hey, go for it.”
I ask if they felt like the show tried to spin them in a honky-tonk light from what they could tell, and Sam says they probably attempted.
“Like, on the behind-the-scenes they shot before the show started,” he explains with a laugh. “They put us downtown Nashville on a carriage ride like this is what we do every day. I think that was our first carriage ride.” But they all agree that every group underwent similar growing pains while trying to assert their true character, and in the end, they were able to define themselves as they saw fit.
“I think we’ve got kind of a haunting soul sound, I guess,” David suggests. “We’ve got like a real warmth in our music, and it’s natural. ... We really just embraced what we had and, instead of trying to change it, we just got it a little more tight.”
“The neat thing is that we cover so many different styles during this show – pop music, rock music, hip hop music, whatever,” Ruby adds. “So I think at the end of the day, what David Jennings was just saying is really what we did in everything. That’s our red thread is having that soul thing in there.”
Aside from the challenge of defining their style and stepping into the shoes of an a cappella group, The Collective also had to think about how to get the celebrity judges – Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles and Boyz II Men's Shawn Stockman – to identify with their music.
“You work so hard all week, you don’t even think about that part of it,” Daniel suggests. “It’s weird – it never even really felt ever like a competition because all the other groups you’re friends with. You want to see everybody do well. There’s no feeling of like, ‘Man, I hope this group leaves and this group stays.’ It’s so weird. All of a sudden, you go up there, you do your song and then you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, now we’re going to be judged on this.’ You forget about that part.”
I ask if they felt any special bond with Ben Folds, being from Nashville and all.
“I think the first thing he said to us after we finished the first song of our first episode, he just looked up and he said, ‘Nashville is just so solid,’” remembers Kaleb. “And I think there’s definitely a camaraderie in this town that everyone just has this mutual respect and awe for each other. ... He’s seen what this town is about, and I think we immediately connected on that level.”
Before we finish our interview, the subject turns to Jonathan’s mad beatboxing skills, and Perrin turns to him and urges, “Why don’t you give us a little taste?”
Reluctant at first, Jonathan says, “Aww man,” but then launches into some pretty incredible beatboxing before David chimes in:
“He did that in his sleep one night, and there are witnesses. He was just snoring real loudly and then just a moment of a break and then that happened and then just right back to snoring. It was unbelievable.”
Tune into The Sing-Off at 8/7 Central on NBC next Monday to see The Collective’s national television debut.
An Introduction - The Collective