From The Sing-Off to the Paradise City: An interview with Kevin Olusola and Kirstie Maldonado of Pentatonix
In recent years, a capella singing has seen a significant rise in popularity. Thanks to television shows like FOX's Glee and NBC’s The Sing-Off, numerous singers are discovering the possibilities presented by combining their voices with others to create impressive walls of sound. And perhaps the biggest a capella group of the moment is Pentatonix.
As the season three winners of NBC’s a capella group singing competition The Sing-Off, the five-piece band – featuring members Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola – came to fame by utilizing diverse musical genres like hip-hop, dubstep, and electro to create re-imagined covers of popular songs. Now, after recording and releasing two successful EP’s, Pentatonix is hitting the road for its second headlining tour. And on February 23rd, the group is rolling into the Calvin Theatre in Northampton.
During a recent phone interview, the Northeast Underground had the chance to chat with Pentatonix members Olusola and Maldonado (pictured above, second and third from right), who were checking in from Los Angeles, and asked them their thoughts on performing a capella music live, how they protect their voices on tour, and what fans can expect during Pentatonix’s stop in Western Massachusetts.
Underground: Obviously your group is most well known for its appearance on NBC’s The Sing-Off. What was your first impression upon learning you had won the competition, and how has the show shaped the course of your career since that moment?
Maldonado: I think we were all really excited initially. Going into the show, we just thought, “Why not? Let’s do this for fun. We love what we’re doing.” [And] I think steadily along in the competition, we formulated our own sound and gained a confidence in ourselves, where we [thought,] “Oh man, we really want to take this, we really want to win. It would be amazing. This would be a dream come true.” And fortunately it happened.
Now we’re just doing what we love. [Winning the show] definitely shaped all of our careers for the better. We all wanted to do something in music, or in the business. I think it’s been amazing for all of us. And I think it’s gone, not better than we expected, but the feedback we’ve received from all our fans, who are amazing, has been incredible. We definitely wouldn’t be where we are without them today. It’s been awesome.
How would characterize the experience of going from performing on television to touring the country and playing live 90-minute concerts?
Olusola: It’s been absolutely incredible. This entire experience, from winning The Sing-Off to where we are now, has been a dream come true. After we won The Sing-Off, we went straight into recording a record, which did extremely well. It was PTX Volume One, and we got to number 14 on the Billboard charts. And after that we started our first tour, which wasn’t really what it is today.
Our first tour was very minimal. We kind of just got on stage and sang, but it was still a sold-out tour and it was great to connect with our fans and figure out what our performance style was like. I think we take a very Mumford & Sons approach. It’s very chill. We kind of want everyone to feel like family, and have a good time getting to know us on stage. We get to feel the audience’s energy.
On this tour, we still maintain that. But it’s definitely a bigger show. We have lights. We have staging. We have choreography. We have an amazing sound guy. I think the show has just been an upward trajectory of learning who we are as artists. I think our first album shows that. I think the second EP will show that. Eventually we’re going to put out an original record, hopefully in 2014. It’s going to be fun. It’s been a great trajectory. It’s been a lot of fun.
Watch Pentatonix perform a cover of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” available on PTX Volume One here:
What is the hardest part of performing vocal music for such an extended period of time on stage? Do either of you follow a special regimen to keep your voice in shape?
Maldonado: I think in general the best thing you can do for your body is go to bed early, drink a lot of water. You don’t stay up late, you eat right. All those things really help out. And now we have a tour bus. Before when we moved to different cities we had to get up in the morning and drive there, but now [our drivers] drive there in the nighttime. We can just sleep as long as we want, and I think that’s really helped.
We all just take care of each other, and remind each other to eat better or not stay out too late or anything. It’s been a learning process, but now we’re all a lot better at it. It’s not as stressful as it was before.
So we’re not going to be hearing about Pentatonix as one of those hard-partying bands that is always in the headlines for the wrong reasons?
Maldonado: [laughs] No, never.
Olusola: Never. Not once in our entire careers [laughs].
Kevin, you mentioned earlier that the environment at your concerts is very “chill.” What has the reaction from crowds been like during this tour? Have you noticed anything specifically?
Olusola: When I say chill, I don’t mean the performance is chill. Our interaction with the fans is what’s chill. We really try to be very calm and conversational on stage. And I think the audience really likes that. They really get to know us. They get to see that we have personalities, we’re not just some sort of pop machine that comes out and performs and is very robotic. The sounds we might make might be like very electronic, robotic sounds, but we have personalities behind all the music that we make.
People have really enjoyed it. We see it on our Facebook a lot. A lot of people have said, “Wow, that’s one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to in my entire life.” So that’s the kind of standard I think we’ve created for ourselves, and we’re going to continue that standard as we go forward.
Maldonado: I think another thing that’s really cool about our fan base is that we have a wide variety of everyone because on the show we did a wide variety of music, and it’s just pulled in a lot of different crowds. But I think the majority of them are all music lovers, and [they] are all really talented.
We do this thing in our show, where Kevin and Avi have the audience sing with them, and it’s always so amazing that the crowd becomes this amazing big choir and they’re all music nerds. I think that’s the coolest part because we were all just like them. So to have everyone sing together, it just feels really awesome. I think that’s another thing that’s really special about our fans.
What can fans expect or not expect at your show in Northampton, Massachusetts on February 23? Are there certain songs you will sing that will be familiar to the audience?
Maldonado: They better start warming up [laughs]. We definitely address some of our old songs that we know people still want to hear, but we are sprinkling in some new ones. We’ve been writing originals.
I think with all the added stuff we’ve put in, we have choreography now, we have lights. Before we just kind of stood on stage and just jammed. It was really casual. Now it’s more of a production. Visually and audibly people will be wowed hopefully. Kevin anything else?
Olusola: That’s pretty much it. I think just expect some old songs, some new songs, the same Pentatonix sound, which I think is really the most important thing of all. And people will really get to know who we are on stage.
How familiar are either of you with Western Massachusetts? Have either of you been through the area before?
Maldonado: No I actually haven’t. I’ve only been to Boston and that area. I’m excited though.
Olusola: I wish I had been there. I used to live in Andover, Massachusetts. I went to boarding school at a place called Phillips Academy. I went there the last few years of high school, so I know Boston kind of well. I know Andover pretty well and some of the surrounding cities like Lawrence, but not Northampton. Forgive me [laughs].
What are some future projects/ recordings you have planned? I understand a second album has been in the works.
Olusola: Sure, I want to say it like this. I think 2012 was us getting our feet wet in terms of figuring out what our sound was going to be like on a recording. We really didn’t know. And I think we started figuring that out with our first album, which did pretty well. We’ve also continuously tried to build our fan base with YouTube. I think 2013 is us now trying to figure out what our original sound is.
We are putting out a new album, a new EP with a lot more originals. There are some covers, but we’re going to try and hone in on the originals. We are writing with a lot of different people. The songs have been great. I think that the first record we did because it did so well on the Billboard charts, a lot of co-writers have been interested in working with us. They’ve been like, “Wow, I’ve never heard an a cappella sound like this, be so edgy. But it works, and we’re really interested in working with you guys.”
There’s also going to be a lot more touring this year. This tour right now is kind of us upping our game in how we tour. That’s pretty much it. Those are the two main projects this year working on a second record, etc. Working on an original album, that’s what we are going to be mainly doing all fall, a lot of writing. So yeah, we’re doing an album and touring. I’m pretty proud of our live show.
Maldonado: He pretty much summed it up [laughs].
Watch Pentatonix perform a cover Ryan Lewis and Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” here:
What is your songwriting process like?
Olusola: Kirstie you want to tackle that one?
Maldonado: I think last year we saved writing the songs for the end of our album. It was more of a stressful procedure because we had never written together as a group before. We all have our individual styles of writing, and I don’t think they fit well for the sound of our group, which just didn’t make sense. But now I think we’ve just been steadily writing throughout the year even when we weren’t consciously working on PTX Volume Two. So I think our writing styles in general have just gotten better. We’ve already presented a couple originals, and already they’re miles ahead of where the last ones were when we presented last year.
I don’t know if there is necessarily a certain procedure that we go to. I feel that as people get inspired they just write, and in general everyone knows what our sound is now because we’ve been together longer. I think it just immediately goes better with what we want. Does that make sense? [laughs]
Is there any question or topic I should have asked about but didn’t? If so, what would you like to talk about or maybe elaborate on?
Olusola: Gosh, I can’t really think of anything else. That was a pretty thorough interview.
Maldonado: Come to our show [laughs].
Olusola: Yeah, come to our show everybody please [laughs]. We want to see your beautiful faces.
Maldonado: I think if people had come to our shows previously, it’ll still be very new just because of all the elements we’ve added to it. I really think it’s a show that everyone can enjoy. It’ll be a good time.