How Pentatonix are making a capella cool

2018-04-18 07:15
A capella group The Pentatonix talk about their ne

Rozanne Els attended the 20th Anniversary Festival of TimesTalks, a live conversation and performance series presented by The New York Times. This past weekend the Times’ music writer, Ben Sisario, spoke to the Grammy Award-winning a cappella group Pentatonix only two days after the release of their new album, PTX Presents: Top Pop, Vol. I.

New York - The beauty of a cappella is that you have to really listen to one another, says Kevin Olusola of how he, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado and Matt Sallee recreate songs like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and Nicki Minaj’s Starships.

Listening is the key to figuring out tuning, beats, and “how this unit works.” But it’s also important to be in tune emotionally and spiritually, he says, because “music is kind of like that.” 

Singing a cappella is an intricate balancing act, and as Hoying rightly points out, it only takes one person to be out of tune for it all to fall apart. “And there’s no panic like the panic of falling out of tune!” he says, laughing. “But I feel like in the last year, two years, we’ve really locked into a good place where we tune well most of the time.”

In July, the group embarks on a 39-city tour across the US. Formed in 2011, Pentatonix has since won three Grammy Awards and sold some 10 million albums after their pop-style a cappella rearrangements of music’s biggest hits made them YouTube stars. They have received more than three billion views of their music videos with badass beats, riffs, and vocal arrangements on full display. Yes, they’re big in the song covers game, but they frequently mix in their own original music. 

One of their recent mashups, a combo of Dua Lipa’s New Rules and Aaliya’s Are You That Somebody, racked up millions of views. Olusola says he wanted to something with New Rules and pairing it with Aaliya’s “iconic bassline” in Are You That Somebody, made for a perfect fit. 


Pentatonix have been credited in the past as having single-handedly, and irrevocably, changed the perception of a cappella groups from “lame,” to, well, cool. 

Grassi says it wasn’t something they consciously tried to do. “We just wanted to make music with our voices. That’s just the music we ended up making.” 


The group’s origins trace back to the NBC a cappella singing competition, The Sing-Offs. And amazingly enough, the original five-piece (Avi Kaplan was replaced by Matt Sallee last year) only formed a day before the audition. They didn’t need to worry though.

“Thank goodness it worked because when we all sang together it was just magical and we were really excited about it,” says Grassi. They ended up winning that season of The Sing-Off, but not long after they were dropped by their record label. But they rallied and kept making music on their own, started making videos, constantly interacted with their fans and finally signed with their current label. 

Hoying says getting dropped made it possible for them build their own fame and fan base.

YouTube, says Olusola, gives unique artists an opportunity to showcase who they are. YouTube was and is instrumental in their success because “the coolest thing about a cappella is that you have to see us doing what we do to believe it. You have to hear and see the bass singer singing crazy notes, you have to hear and see me doing the beatboxing, you have to hear their three-part harmonies. And that’s kind of what the magic is. YouTube is the perfect platform to [showcase] a cappella.”

A capella group The Pentatonix talk about their ne


In January, Sallee was announced as the newest member of the group, and says “it’s been a dream!” It’s like walking into a family, he describes the feeling. 

“I was singing in a wedding band before...yeah, I was a wedding singer!” he says, laughing. It wasn’t hard to settle into a new rhythm with Sallee, says Maldonado. “It’s just been amazing.”

Kaplan decided to break from the group because it became too difficult to be away from his family for months on end – that’s something they all struggle with, Maldonado concedes. Even though they have become tremendously successful, it’s still a grind. 

“For the first five years, I just never made plans,” says Hoying. And yes, they were initially worried after Kaplan told them he wanted to bow out. 

“I had a lot of anxiety about it because when we came together it was just so magical and it worked so naturally. It feels like such a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And I felt like if we lost a member it was all gonna fall apart.” But now they’re all #TeamMatt. Thankfully, he fits. 

The last album consisted of mainly originals, but the new album is all covers and mashups. “There were so many pop songs over the last year that we were just so obsessed with,” says Grassi. And the return to a cover album is also a nod to their origins and what put them on the map, as they introduce Sallee into the fold. 

The one artist they haven’t covered, but wish they could, is ballad queen, Celine Dion, says Maldonado. “But I would be so stressed out!” 

A capella group The Pentatonix talk about their ne

(Photos by Griffin Lipson/BFA. Courtesy of TimesTalks)

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