While it often takes a fleet of musicians, producers, instruments, computer effects and other tools to perfect a song, Pentatonix easily accomplishes that goal with only five outstanding voices. And all it took to bring their unique blend of pop, soul, R&B, dubstep and electronica to the masses was a win on NBC’s a cappella singing competition The Sing-Off.
Last November, the dynamic quintet—lead vocalists Scott Hoying, 20, Kirstie Maldonado, 20, and Mitch Grassi, 19; vocal bassist Avi Kaplan, 23; and beatboxer Kevin Olusola, 23—beat out 15 other groups to win the show’s third season and the grand prize: $200,000 and a recording contract with Sony Music. During 10 intensive weeks on The Sing-Off, Pentatonix wowed America with their captivating a cappella interpretations of hit songs. “I can’t express enough how incredible that was,” said Shawn Stockman of the R&B group Boyz II Men and one of The Sing-Off’s three judges after Pentatonix performed a super-sexy version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” And, after a rousing rendition of Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild,” singer/judge Sara Bareilles said, “You blow my mind consistently! That was incredible!”
Fast-forward to June 26 when Madison Gate Records released Pentatonix’s soulful debut, PTX Volume 1. The 6-song digital EP features four cleverly arranged cover songs (Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” Imogen Heap’s “Aha!” and Jazmine Sullivan’s “Love You Long Time”) and two originals (“The Baddest Girl” and “Show You How To Love”). Fans who purchase the album on iTunes will also get an exclusive track—Pentatonix’s take on the Fun tune “We Are Young.” The album debuted at No. 14 on Billboard’s Top 200 album chart and No. 5 on its digital album chart.
Now it’s time for Pentatonix—named after the pentatonic scale, the world’s most recognized five-note musical scale—to launch a U.S. tour. The fivesome’s gig at New York City’s B.B. King Blues Club on Sept. 12 was sold out weeks ahead of time!
Over the summer, Aspire phoned the now Los Angeles-based Pentatonix’s beatboxer, Kevin, to get the scoop on the amazing a cappella group…
Scott, Kirstie and Mitch were high school pals who had performed together in Arlington, Texas, and a friend recommended Avi to them. They found you, Kevin, on YouTube. When did you sing together for the first time?
KEVIN OLUSOLA: We didn’t sing together until the day before the auditions for The Sing-Off. Scott wrote a rough draft of a couple of the songs he wanted to try. He gave everybody his or her parts, and I listened to all the singing. So, when we came together we had a rough idea, but didn’t really know what we were going to do. We hashed out the two songs in about four hours and the next day went to the audition.
What were you thinking going into the audition? Did you ever imagine you would get this far?
KO: No, not at all. It was weird. I went to Yale and was an East Asian Studies major and also focused on pre-med and always thought I was going to go into medicine. After I graduated, I was going to go to music school for a year and then apply to medical school. I wanted to do music, but my dad’s Nigerian and my mom’s from Grenada and were like, “You should still think about medicine.” So I wanted to keep a path open. I had a video that went viral on the Internet of me playing cello and beatboxing [simultaneously] that had over a million views. So the group saw that and said, “Hey, would you like to try out?” I was like, “Eh. Sure. I don’t know if anything’s going to come from it. Maybe it’s a little bit of TV exposure and then I’ll go about my merry way and go back to what I was doing.” But the first time we ever sang together, I was literally dumbfounded. I could not believe the sound we created in such a short amount of time. It was different from all a cappella I’d ever heard. We all had an understanding of what we wanted to do—we all said we wanted to do something innovative and change the antiquated notions people associate with a cappella.
Had you heard of The Sing-Off before?
KO: I had never heard of The Sing-Off until Mitch e-mailed me. I didn’t realize that The Whiffenpoofs [from Yale University] were on the second season. So I started looking at the second season more and I saw Committed [who were the second season winners] and was really excited because they are all Seventh-day Adventists and so am I. I was like, “That’s really cool! They all did a TV show. This might be fun!”
There are two original Pentatonix songs on the new EP. How did they come about?
KO: That was a process—we tried so many different ways of writing and ended up with each person writing songs and bringing them to the group and we gave our opinions and critiques. It worked out pretty well. Scott wrote an amazing song [with producer Ben Bram, “The Baddest Girl”] that is really, really beautiful and showcases the soulfulness of Pentatonix and Scott’s ridiculous voice. Avi and I wrote “Show You How To Love,” which is so dance-y and that’s kind of the music I like. That electronic and dance vibe is something we really want to keep doing because it’s challenging for us. How do you make dance music with only five voices? I don’t know, but we’re still trying to explore.
Do you think you’ll ever get to the point where Pentatonix will mainly be doing original music?
KO: We definitely want to get to the point where we’re known for our original music. It would be so cool—like with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”—to have a song that blows up and it’s all a cappella. People don’t realize it until somebody says, “That was actually all a cappella.” Then everybody’s like, “Oh, my goodness! What in the world!?!” So that’s something that we’re aspiring to. Right now, we love doing covers because it teaches us things about ourselves, which is really good for right now just to explore things we would never explore. It helps us get comfortable with different styles so that if we want to write in that certain style we can start experimenting in it because we’ve done a cover song that was like that.
Will you ever introduce instruments to the group?
KO: We haven’t talked about that. Right now, we have something good going and we don’t want to change that—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. People really enjoy this a cappella music that we have. We want to stick to that rawness of pure vocals right now.
How hard is it to do your own part of a song when everyone else is doing a totally different part? Do you ever get thrown off or confused?
KO: I think it’s something you get used to. Definitely when you’re starting out, it takes time figuring out something completely new and different. Thankfully, all of us had extensive music backgrounds and had collaborated with other people. We had a keen ear to what needed to happen to make the music that we wanted to do. We were thankful that, eventually, we figured that out and we want to continue showcasing that to the world.
Since there are three vocalists in Pentatonix, how do you guys decide who will sing lead on which song?
KO: Most of the time, it depends on just the song, who’s feeling it and who will do a great job of bringing out what we want to bring out in the song. If we’re doing certain dance songs, Mitch sounds so good on it because he listens to that music religiously—he has an idea about how much breathiness he needs, how much he needs to pull back, how much he needs to give…he just knows that stuff very well. When we did Jazmine Sullivan on our album, we just knew that was a Scott thing because he’s absolutely in love with her.
What’s it like having only one girl, Kirstie, in the group?
KO: She is the dopest girl I know. I love being around her! She is like one of the guys. She hangs with us and chills with us. It’s good that she already has such a great rapport with Mitch and Scott—those three are absolute best friends. We just operate so well as a unit musically. It doesn’t bother me that there are no other girls.
Pentatonix will next release a Christmas album, correct?
KO: Right now, we’re arranging songs for it. We’re really excited because we definitely want to showcase sides of us that are very, very different. For the first EP, we didn’t have any really pretty songs. So, for the Christmas album, we definitely want to have very pretty songs—just sit and listen to voices sing. Also, we would love to do an original Christmas song.
Your voices are your only instruments—what do you do to keep them in shape?
KO: I use a lot of ChapStick, actually, before and after I beatbox because my lips get very dry. We drink a lot of water onstage and they drink a lot of tea with honey and lemon.
Visit PTXOfficial.com for more details on Pentatonix