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While The Sing-Off has been off the air since Pentatonix won season three in 2011, the electronic-infused a cappella group has been writing original music, performing nationwide and dominating the Internet with viral YouTube covers — all without actually playing instruments. Besides covering pop hits like Lorde‘s “Royals” and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” with violinist Lindsey Stirling (which is nominated for a YouTube Music Award), the group released “Evolution of Beyonce” over the weekend, a 28-song medley arcing the singer’s career that has collected nearly three million hits within days.
“It’s due to Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off, but more than that, I think the world is getting sick of hearing the same thing over and over,” Mitch Grassi tells The Hollywood Reporter of the public’s rising fascination with a cappella (NBC is reviving The Sing-Off in December). “Radio play can be a little monotonous; people want something more original, musical and creative, something that takes more time.”
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The six-minute Beyonce tribute was a strategic marketing move, as the group is releasing its third studio album, PTX, Vol. 2 on Nov. 5, featuring original songs among covers of Ryan Lewis and Macklemore‘s “Can’t Hold Us,” an anthemic Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding’s “I Need Your Love,” a Daft Punk medley and a Swedish House Mafia mashup bonus track.
Pentatonix — consisting of harmonic trio Scott Hoying, Grassi and Kirstin Maldonado, bass Avi Kaplan and beatboxer Kevin Olusola — spoke with THR about their arrangement strategies, evolution aspirations and advice for competitors on NBC’s a cappella competition.
How did the group pick and arrange songs for PTX, Vol. 2?
Kirstin Maldonado: We’ll either collectively pick something — like the Daft Punk medley — or someone will get inspired and pitch a song, but we try to pick things that play to our strengths. For example, “Valentine” by Jessie Ware — I never heard the song before, but Mitch was really inspired and brought it to us, and we could really see ourselves doing that song.
Kevin Olusola: We all co-wrote the original songs — [for beatboxing,] we decide on the vibe we’re going for, and then I research that music style. For “Natural Disaster,” I watched a lot of Delta Rae because they do a lot of stomping and clapping; for “Love Again,” I listened to so much dance music and tried to emulate that feel.
Avi Kaplan: The majority of our arrangements, we just stand in a group and do it by ear. We always record one at a time, but for the original “Run to You,” we recorded all at once because it really had to be together — it doesn’t have a beat, just a lot of flow and subtle things, and we just wanted to capture the emotion and what it’s like when we sing together. There’s something so special about that, which you can’t get when you don’t go in all at once.
Where did the idea for the “Evolution of Beyonce” video come from?
Scott Hoying: People just like evolution videos — “Evolution of Dance” was one of the biggest YouTube videos in history, and “Evolution of Music” ended up being our biggest YouTube video. Everyone has been asking for another evolution-type video, and I’m the biggest Beyonce fan of life, so I said, “No one will even have to work, I will handle this entire arrangement!” The next day, we had the song outline with every transition — I was ready.
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Also, if something becomes a big hit on my Vine, I always think, “That might be good for Pentatonix.” One of my first successful vines was the Destiny’s Child scatting part, and it did so well, so I knew we had to put it in. There were songs I love — “Party” did well on the R&B charts but it’s not that well-known, so it got cut. We were thinking about cutting more, but I was like, “No we can’t cut ‘Naughty Girl!’ That was a turning point in her career!”
Maldonado: I personally thought it took a very long time — it was one of our hardest arrangements — but we knew the songs and had a clear direction because we appreciate and love her so much. We arranged it in a few days and did four takes total — the initial take is when you’re nervous, and then you ease into it. And we were geeking out because she reposted it on her Facebook Page three hours after we posted it on YouTube.
Mitch Grassi: We were just doing covers before — they were getting hits, but the evolution concept is much more captivating. It is really vocally taxing, but I think we can do it for a few shows.
What advice do you have for those competing on the upcoming Sing-Off season?
Grassi: Don’t worry about what anybody else is doing; just create your own niche in the a cappella world and just be original. And don’t be afraid to push the envelope a little bit, because that ultimately is what gets you noticed.
Maldonado: A lot of people nowadays try to be other people that are well-known — an exact carbon copy of someone famous is impressive and great, but it’s not going to go as far. You individually have something to give. Incorporate their style, but be your own person and showcase that.
Olusola: Keep it interesting — we always try to change things up in the arrangement so that you’re never hearing the same thing twice exactly. And beatboxing for a cappella is very nuanced; I’ve seen so many who are amazing solo beatboxers, but when they come into a group and make music, it doesn’t make sense with what the band is doing.
Kaplan: [If you’re added to an existing group,] you can’t be good until you know and care about each other. It’s important to get the music down, but it’s just as important to be a cohesive group.
Hoying: People like hearing stuff they’ve heard a million times in a new way, and that ended up leading us to victory, but don’t lose the essence of a song. When we did Ke$ha‘s “Your Love Is My Drug,” we put her cute, fun rap on an R&B melody. We thought it made the song way cooler, but all the judges said that silly rap made the original so fun, and that we lost the silliness. As long as you keep what makes a song so good, you can add whatever you want to it.
Pentatonix’ new album PTX, Vol. 2 is available Nov. 5.
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
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