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A cappella group Pentatonix goes back to basics on new album

A cappella group Pentatonix burst onto the music scene on NBC’s reality competition “The Sing-Off,” eventually scoring a Grammy and a number one record. With their new album, they are going in a new direction with original songs and trying to express more artistry. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    A capella music long ago hit the mainstream, but this week, it’s even blasted to the top of the Billboard 200 pop charts. How did that happen?

    Jeffrey Brown has the story of Pentatonix.

  • KIRSTIN MALDONADO, Pentatonix:

    I’m Kirstin.

  • SCOTT HOYING, Pentatonix:

    I’m Scott.

  • MITCH GRASSI, Pentatonix:

    I’m Mitch.

  • KEVIN OLUSOLA, Pentatonix:

    I’m Kevin.

  • AVI KAPLAN, Pentatonix:

    I’m Avi.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Together, they are Pentatonix, a group aiming to ride the a cappella wave into pop stardom.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    We never thought, like how can we be the best a cappella group? We have always thought, like, how can we compete with Taylor Swift and Rihanna? Like, how we can we…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Oh, really, that kind of ambition?

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    Exactly, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    They first gained notice in 2011 with an appearance on NBC’s competition show “The Sing-Off,” then, with music videos of covers of top 40 hits, found their way to a large, loyal audience through YouTube.

    Next, they turned to a more traditional pop route, making albums and selling more than two million.

    And their Christmas album at one point overtook megastar Taylor Swift’s for number one in 2014. Along the way, they won a Grammy Award for best arrangement and appeared in the movie “Pitch Perfect 2.”

  • KIRSTIN MALDONADO:

    I think it’s interesting too to see people’s perspectives on this type of music change. Like, with “Glee” coming out initially — I remember, “Glee” came out when we were seniors in high school. And we were like in show choir and seniors. We were like, oh, yes, this is awesome. It’s finally cool. We did it. And so that…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Did you say, this is us? We could do this right away?

  • KIRSTIN MALDONADO:

    No. Literally, when the pilot came out for “Glee,” I think we had a watching party or something. We were all seniors, and everyone all of a sudden in the show choir were so excited. We were like, this show is awesome. It’s so cool. This is exactly us.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    It was essentially what we were already doing.

  • KIRSTIN MALDONADO:

    Yes.

    So I think that really opened up kind of this like different chapter of music.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Kirstin Maldonado, Scott Hoying, and Mitch Grassi first met as high school students in Arlington, Texas.

  • MITCH GRASSI:

    We originally joined together for an a cappella trio for a radio competition in Texas that we lost. But…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the rest is history.

  • MITCH GRASSI:

    And the rest is history. But I remember one instance where we were singing and rehearsing and we called a couple friends into the room. And we were like, OK, you guys, we need to like — we need your opinion. Like, is this good? Should we even enter?

    And they were like — after we sang, they were like, oh, my gosh, this is amazing. Like, you guys have truly something special.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Group members, all of whom came to this with music lessons or theater experience as kids, believe a big part of a cappella’s appeal is it back-to-basics approach, very different from most of today’s pop music.

    Kevin Olusola and Avi Kaplan, who joined the three original friends later on, explain.

  • KEVIN OLUSOLA:

    We live in a society where music is very, very overproduced.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Overproduced?

  • KEVIN OLUSOLA:

    In a sense. There’s a lot of electronics. I mean, obviously, I love the electronics sound, as we do too. But I think there’s there’s a lot of people that kind of want a more organic sound.

    And so we think that we can provide that in this kind of music industry that we’re in. We can kind of be that solace for people that say, oh, I don’t want to listen to that sort of electronic, overproduced sound. I want to listen to something a little bit more raw and pure. And that is kind of how we fill that void in this industry.

  • AVI KAPLAN:

    People just that want something that is just kind of a little more humble. And we…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Humble?

  • AVI KAPLAN:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I mean, you are out there. You’re sort of — and I have seen the videos. And it’s like — it’s fun and it’s kind of — it’s loud, in a sense.

  • AVI KAPLAN:

    Yes, it is loud in a sense. And we do, do the flashy type of thing, but, at the end of the day, we’re just 20-somethings singing choir music. You know what I mean? And we just made it a different thing.

    So, it’s really just kind of taking it back to the most organic form of music. And it’s coming straight from us. We are our instruments, you know? And we see ourselves as really just a band. We just happen to use our voices.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You can travel more lightly.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    You’re right.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • KIRSTIN MALDONADO:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    How does it work? Well, we got a demonstration.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    We’re most inspired by like the groove, the beat, or at least that is what inspires me. And so we will start with Kevin. And then we will add the baseline. So we will have core progression. And then we have two background parts. And then we just lay the solo on top.

    (SINGING)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    With their newly released album, the group is trying something new, writing and performing their own songs.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    We wanted to show our artistry. We, like, all have very different tastes in music. Like, we’re so eclectic in what we do. And we wanted to show that.

    Before, we did covers, and — but that’s someone else’s song and that’s someone else’s words. And now we’re telling stories about our relationships and about what we love to do and who we are as a band. And that’s really cool.

    I feel like, especially in our live shows, it’s going to be so fun singing these songs and seeing people sing our words.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I’m thinking that every day there’s like another YouTube sensation. Right?

  • KIRSTIN MALDONADO:

    Oh, yes.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    Oh, yes, totally.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes. Yes. Everything — this went viral, this went viral, this went viral. How do you avoid just being a YouTube sensation? How do you sustain that?

  • MITCH GRASSI:

    I feel like we’re working on that right now.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    We’re in that transitional period right now.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Are you all in this for the long haul?

  • MITCH GRASSI:

    Yes.

  • KEVIN OLUSOLA:

    Absolutely.

  • SCOTT HOYING:

    Absolutely.

  • KEVIN OLUSOLA:

    Yes, we want to make our mark in the music industry.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    They plan to continue making that mark when they release their next Christmas album later this year.

    In New York City with Pentatonix, I’m Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.

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