Kitchens are marvellous places. Whether you’re partial to paté or have a hankering for a hamburger, it’s the room where meals – and, for some, dreams – are created.
That was the case when a double-booking forced a capella group Pentatonix – composed of singers Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado and Mitch Grassi, vocal bass Avi Kaplan and beatboxer Kevin ‘K.O’ Olusola – out of their music studio and into the next biggest space they had access to: a kitchen.
“We just put up a black curtain from Target,” laughs Scott of the group’s iconic five-minute Daft Punk medley. “It was the most makeshift thing ever.”
The resulting YouTube video has been viewed more than 175 million times. Oh, and earned them a Grammy.
“It’s all really blurry to me because it was so intense,” says Scott. “We each got one engraved. The Grammys are not stingy,” he laughs. “My mum wanted to keep it because she never thinks I can take care of things. But I had recently moved… and I was like, ‘No Mum, I have a great place for it.’ But she still wants it!”
It’s been an incredible ride for Pentatonix. Their 9.9 million YouTube subscribers helped make their 2014 Christmas album, That’s Christmas To Me, the fourth most popular album of the year (pipped only by Taylor Swift, the Frozen soundtrack and Sam Smith). They’ve starred in Pitch Perfect 2, opened for Kelly Clarkson and their latest album, Pentatonix, topped the Billboard charts despite all predictions.
“I found out in the middle of Crimson Peak. It was 20 minutes in and I got a text so I had to leave. Then I was too excited to go back in, so I ditched it. It was iMax so it cost like a million dollars.”
It’s a long way from Pentatonix’s early days. Scott, who was studying pop music at USC, decided to form an a capella group and enter reality show The Sing-Off. The initial members were high school singing buddies Kirsten and Mitch. Fellow singer Ben Bram (now the group’s producer), suggested opera student Avi Kaplan, who could sing overtones – two notes at the same time. Then Ben spotted a video of Yale pre-med student Kevin Olusola ‘celloboxing’ – beatboxing while playing the cello – that was going viral.
“So I immediately call my mum,” laughs Scott, “‘Mum, we have to fly this guy out.’ I had auditions for every single reality show on TV so she was like, ‘No.’ So Ben and I split buying him a ticket. Honestly, it was the best investment of my entire life.”
The vocalists met the day before their audition for The Sing-Off, going on to win and land a record deal. The euphoria lasted only three weeks before the label, Epic Records, dropped them.
“Obviously we were bummed because when you win a show you think, ‘Wow I’m going to… have a hit song on the radio.’
“[But] to be honest, it’s the best thing that ever happened,” says Scott. “I don’t think we were devastated… we were getting out of a pretty bad reality TV contract.”
The group focused on producing intricately arranged covers (once even hiring a tutor to learn Stromae’s ‘Papaoutai’ in French) for their YouTube channel, which boasts 1.3 billion views.
The covers take anywhere from two hours to three weeks to arrange.
“We sit in a circle. One person will be like, ‘I’m feeling this to the base line,’ the next person will be like, ‘I’m hearing this for a back-up part,’ and I’ll be like, ‘How about this instead.’ There are a million conversations. We all put our egos aside … and no one gets upset. We keep everything very chill.”
They released their first three albums under a small label then their first Christmas album got attention and, in 2014, they were picked up by Sony’s RCA Records.
A second Christmas album and a 2015 album followed, their first with original songs.
“It was a huge goal to have a song on the radio,” says Scott. “If you think of any artist you think of their big songs. So that’s what we wanted, we wanted a huge hit. I wouldn’t say we’ve had a hit song yet; I think it’s on its way.
“But we do have songs playing on the radio and that is so cool. When I’m driving and I hear ‘Can’t Sleep Love’ come on, I’ve freaked out every time. I’ll be in an Uber and be like, ‘Turn it up!’”
Scott channels Aretha Franklin in his parting words.
“Oh man, what I’ve learned is you have to really respect each other,” he says. “Creative teams fall apart when there’s someone who is so overly passionate that they’re correct and even if they’re wrong, disagreeing. That’s when it gets kind of wonky. It’s people getting on the same page that creates the best product.”
Find the full story in Issue 29 of Collective Hub, on stands now.