The popularity of shows like Glee and movies like Pitch Perfect created a perfect pop culture ecosystem for an a cappella group to thrive. After winning The Sing-Off (hosted by native son Nick Lachey) in 2011, Pentatonix has become the face of a reborn genre.
In 2014, their Christmas album That’s Christmas to Me sold 1.14 million copies, the fourth most that year behind juggernauts Taylor Swift, Princess Elsa and Co., and Sam Smith. That same year they took home their first Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella for their Daft Punk medley. This month, they kicked off a 33-city tour headlined by Kelly Clarkson that arrives at Riverbend on July 28. We sat down with Scott Hoying (pictured, center) to talk about the group’s rise, process, and next steps.
I suppose if you had to pick a lead singer for Pentatonix it would be you. But in reality, the lead singer changes all the time. Was that dynamic something the group consciously tried to cultivate?
It was kind of a special thing for us that we can have everyone do leads and everyone do solo type stuff because everyone in the group is super, super talented, and can carry a lead. I think what makes our group so special is what we can do as a group. A lot of times in other groups, the soloist is what makes a group so special. What’s so awesome about Pentatonix is that every single member contributes to every song, so Pentatonix becomes the star instead of the lead singer.
Looking back to The Sing-Off, it’s pretty clear that Pentatonix was significantly better than the other groups on that show. Be honest, did you have any doubt that you were going to win?
We definitely had gained a lot of confidence throughout the season because we had been getting such a good response. But I don’t think any of us really felt like we had it in the bag. We knew we would be definitely a contender, but not until they announced our names did we think we were going to win. You can tell by our reaction, it was super, super exciting.
What’s the idea generation for a song and what’s the arrangement process like?
It’s kind of different every time. If I had to put a process to it, someone will come to the group with a song and be like Hey, I love this song, I can just picture Kirstie’s voice in it, and Avi there’s this cool bass line stuff he can do. Someone comes with the idea, and everyone is inspired and we start fleshing it out. The first thing we do is pick the right key for the soloist that’s going to do it. What’s really cool is that Mitch, Kirstie, and I have very different voices. We all fit different songs, so usually we already know who the soloist is going to be based on the song or what we want to do with it. We arrange it in an improv sort of manner, where we loop it over and over and sing it by ear. By the time we’re done arranging it, we have it learned and ready to perform. It’s a really fun, organic process just making stuff up on the spot with your friends.
You came to prominence through covers, but the last few albums have featured more original music. What sort of challenge does that present?
A lot of people had heard of the songs that we sung before on YouTube, so they already liked the song. So we kind of already had a head start in keeping the subscriber’s attention because they can sing along with the song since it’s so familiar. And with YouTube, you’re seeing it as it’s being done. When you see what we’re doing, it’s a million times more impressive than when you just hear it. You have to see it to believe it. What’s hard about original music is that we’re trying to get it to radio, where you don’t see the music happening. You only hear it. And also, it’s songs that no one’s ever heard before, so you have to win people over.
I didn’t even think about that. You almost can’t always tell what you’re doing just by hearing it.
Right. We want it to sound vocal because we want people to know it’s a cappella, but they’re not going to know unless they see it. It’s a tricky dynamic. So what we’ve learned is, let’s just make a really good song that plays to our strengths that sounds amazing and the people can find out later when they watch the video or something that it’s a cappella.
Was original music always part of the plan for Pentatonix?
I think it was always talked about. We never even knew we would get this far, we just take everything one step at a time. We were on The Sing- Off, our goal was to win. After we won, well because we got dropped right after, our goal was to find a label and get a bunch of subscribers. As it developed, we started doing some original stuff here and there. Then finally, we were like Wait, this is the moment. We’ve won a Grammy, we’ve had a platinum, we’ve done a hundred covers. Now it’s time to become a true artist and write our own music.
You mentioned getting dropped shortly after winning The Sing-Off. That must have been quite a roller coaster ride, going from winning, to getting a record deal, to getting dropped, to getting another record deal.
It was pretty crazy. After we won the show, the label and we knew that everyone would have to live in L.A. so that we could get a lot of content out fast. Then, when we ended up getting dropped, it was really, really, really sad. But we kept a really positive attitude about it. Reality show contracts are pretty rough. You don’t get a whole lot after the fact. We got out of that reality contract, which was amazing for us. Then we started a YouTube channel and we were like, We have a little core fan base right now. Let’s just grow it on YouTube. It’s free and anyone can access it. That ended up being humongous for us. We grew to 8 million subscribers and got signed to a bigger, better label. We had leverage too, so we had a much better deal than we had from winning a reality show. Honestly, it was the best possible scenario.
When you’re relying just on your voice, what kind of tricks do you use to keep your vocal chords in shape?
This is going sound cliché, but we all try to get as much rest as possible. Being healthy is the number one thing. Also, we all drink insane amounts of water. The number one reason your voice is lost is because of dehydration. You should see our rider. We have like, 88 bottles of water on our rider. I’ll drink up to eight or nine bottles of water a day. We kill water every day. Also, if someone is starting to get fatigued, we change around the set. Let’s cut their biggest solo and add this in. Let’s extend the little cello moment so they have a longer break. We figure it out to make sure everyone is comfortable.
You came along right as a cappella became mainstream with things like Glee and Pitch Perfect. Were you influenced by the culture of a cappella that had emerged?
We were definitely influenced by it but we had been doing choir and show choir and stuff similar to it our whole lives. We were very familiar with it. It was just sort of brought to the forefront by Glee and Pitch Perfect. It’s funny, the three of us, the original trio video that went kind of viral when we were in high school and started Pentatonix, that was for a contest to meet the cast of Glee. So that’s how we originally came together. Then we saw we had success with that, when I saw The Sing-Off, I thought Oh, Wow. I should try out with the trio. That’s when my friend was like No, you need to add a bass and a beat boxer, that’s where Avi and Kevin came in.
So did you win the contest?
Actually, we didn’t win. We never even heard back. I think there was a conflict of interests. I don’t think we were eligible for the contest. That’s what I think happened, or we just completely lost and never heard from them. [Laughs]
I read in an interview that you have idolized Kelly Clarkson since you were a kid. What’s it like then to be going on tour with her?
It is, seriously, a dream come true. I have been a very huge fan of all her songs, all her albums. She’s one of my very favorite pop stars ever. To be on tour with her is surreal. It just doesn’t feel real. For her to be tweeting me back casually, it’s so weird. The other day, we were rehearsing her and just hearing her start to sing. Her voice, hearing it in person, just like casually, she’s just rehearsing. I just couldn’t believe it. I was having a moment. I went over to Mitch and was like “Can you believe that’s Kelly Clarkson, right there, 10 feet from us, singing here heart out?” It felt not real.
Kelly Clarkson with Pentatonix, July 28, Riverbend Music Center, livenation.com