Pentatonix are back with a new offering for the holiday season. Their new album, A Pentatonix Christmas released in time to help build the holiday spirit is currently sitting as the number one album on the iTunes download chart. Their cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, taken from the album, has hit almost 50 million plays on YouTube since it was released on October 21. And the new album appears set to outsell each of their previous Christmas releases.
It’s been a heck of a year for the quintet of Mitch Grassi, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado, Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola. They’ve been out on the road, with a tour that took them all around the world, they’ve been playing to some of the biggest crowds of their lives, and still found time to record the new album.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Kevin Olusola to discuss the momentum behind the band, how best to preserve voices when out on the road, and what may be the best Christmas gift of all…
Christopher Friedmann: We’re speaking ahead of the release of your Christmas album – A Pentatonix Christmas. So there’s a two-edged question – How is the mood in the camp? And what’s more exciting – Christmas, or a Christmas release?
Kevin Olusola: I would say as a band, I think Christmas time itself is more exciting, only in the sense that, this year especially, we’ve been on the road practically all year long, and in addition to touring we were creating the Christmas album. It was an incredible year, so many things happened, but I think we are already to go home and take a real break because it’s been an eventful year, and I think with eventful years you need some time to decompress and just chill, and that’s why it’s kind of an exciting time for us to be able to do that, during Christmas.
Also with the Christmas album, we’re so thankful for how well it’s doing. We did not expect “Hallelujah” to have such a response. I mean it’s probably our most viral video to date to be completely honest. And it’s so nice to know that people really love what we do as a band because in the beginning we heard a lot of no’s, so to know it’s all culminating to something like this where this is a hugely viral video, and so far a successful album.
When we put it out on October 21st, or late October, we didn’t expect the album to debut number three on the Billboard charts, for a Christmas album that was out before Halloween. It’s an exciting time for all of. A very, very exciting time.
CF: This isn’t your first Christmas album. Can you talk a little about what makes the holiday so special to you, as a band?
KO: I think for us, acapella and Christmas go so well together. It’s something that we noticed on our first Christmas EP, that people really loved our Christmas stuff and that also gives us creative leeway to do thing arrangement-wise that we would not normally do throughout the year.
We don’t usually do jazz arrangements, but we had jazz arrangements on this album. Trying things that we would never normally try I think is just such a fun thing to be able to do during Christmas, and we’re just so excited that people are reacting positively to that..
CF: Given the huge number of classic Christmas music, and the diversity of sources, from classical to more modern tunes, how did you go about choosing the tracklist this time around?
KO: Usually what we do is just pick our favorite Christmas songs and pitch them as a group. If there’s something we think we can do interesting with it, we try it out. We have 11 songs on this Christmas album, nine covers and two originals, and we had a list of 15, 16, and as we started to arrange the songs, we started to realize what would work for the album and what would not. And it was kind of just a process like that…
CF: Do you view this collection as more of a seasonal record than ‘just a Christmas record’?
KO: I would say it’s broader than that because, for example, this past Christmas album we had songs like “Coldest Winter”, which is not even necessarily a holiday song at all. I mean it’s a Kanye West song, so we just took songs that we thought might be interesting, especially less common ideas, we kind of just like that for Christmas because it kind of turns people’s heads and say, “Woah, I would never expect that.”
On our version of “That’s Christmas to Me”, we added “Just for Now”, which is once again not really a Christmas song. I think it’s more of a winter song. We like do that for the Christmas albums we do. We just kind of do things where people say, “Huh? I wouldn’t necessarily expect that.” But it really fits within the context of the album.
CF: You recorded the album outside of the Christmas period – so can you tell us something about the spirit of those sessions, and if you did anything to create the appropriate festive atmosphere?
KO: Well you know what, I don’t think we have to manually create that because it’s something that we’ve done practically every year. We always put out something Christmas related. It’s something that I think is just inherently part of what we do as a band and it’s funny because as we were pre producing the album, we were in Europe. It was just funny being in Europe talking about Christmas, but it’s something that we do every single year, regardless. We all love Christmas so much as well, so it just makes it very easy for us to get into that spirit.
CF: Do you have a particular formative memory of when a piece of Christmas music resonated and struck you as being especially magical?
KO: Oh my goodness, the N’SYNC Christmas album! My goodness, I love “Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays”, which I’m so excited we decided to do on this past album because I love that song. Every single time I hear that song, I’m instantaneously in the Christmas mood.
CF: As we’re talking about before, you’ve been on a very successful tour – aside from filling venues and the aspects of commerce that record labels enjoy, what makes a tour successful to you as a performer?
KO: I think a couple of things. One, I think being able to have people come out to the show, and I think for us there’s a lot of putting out music constantly because I want to make sure we are staying relevant, and think that keeps us in people’s eyes that helps us pull a good amount of numbers, which is so crazy still because what we do is acapella, but people really love what we do, and we’re really thankful for that.
I think catering the show to what you do and what you know the fans will like, for what you do, because I think there are different models of success when it comes to a tour. A Kanye West show is not what a Pentatonix show is going to look like because we have a certain type of demographic. We make sure we do what works best for us, but also still make it a show that everybody is going to enjoy, especially multi-generationally because that’s the kind of fan base that we have.
It’s so awesome to know that we have people that are grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and all three generations come to our shows, so we always keep that in mind. I feel like those are the kind of things that we think about. I think having an amazing setlist, really, of just songs that we people just really love to hear us sing.
CF: How do you care for your voice when out on the road and performing every night?
KO: That’s a very specific question, especially for us because we are an all vocal group, and we aren’t just singing or a little bit of time and then dancing or letting there being instrumental breaks and we sing for an hour and 30 minutes straight, so it’s very very important to us.
Number one, we drink tons of water. I drink excessively; more water than you would probably like to drink in a day. I drink a bottle maybe every hour, hour 15. That’s how much water we drink every single day.
I would say every band member sleeps 10+ hours, honestly, because that’s really what keeps your voice agile, so everyone kind of sleeps until the afternoon because we have to. If we don’t our voices won’t be in tip-top shape. And then we drink tea.
If we are feeling some agitation then we chill out, we don’t speak very much. We’re all very cognizant about how our voices are feeling, and if there is a song we feel like we just can’t do tonight, we cut it or we’ll change it so something else that we think is a little easier on our voices. We’ve also learned that we can not sing full out every single night, because if you sing full out every single night, you’re going to blow out your voice. You have to learn how to conserve yourself while you’re on stage.
CF: Whose idea from the band was that first Christmas album – how did the decision to commit to the project come around?
KO: The first Christmas album was our manager’s idea. He always just thought that it might be a good idea for us to a lot of stuff during Christmas time, especially after the response that we had from The Sing-Off because The Sing-Off has a Christmas special and it did really really well, so I guess he just kind of thought, “Oh, let’s see if we can continually do Christmas.” and ever since then we’ve just always done it and it’s been really amazing to see the kind of response that it’s received over the years.
CF: To really dive into the Holiday spirits: If Santa Claus is real, what are his motives?
KO: Oh my gosh, it’s so funny. I feel like Santa Claus just wants to make people happy. There are so many people around the world who don’t get the opportunity to get gifts, or received things that they need in life, so he’s kind of like Robin Hood. He doesn’t steal obviously, but he just wants to give to the people who need it.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far, a moment that reminds you why you do all this?
KO: For me personally, I have realized that performing is not ever about you. It will never be about you. Yes, you might be talented. Yes, you might have built this business that people like, but at the end of the day this is never going to be about you. This is going to be about the people. It’s kind of like politics. It’s about the people you represent and the people that confide in you because of the kind of person that you are. The kind of music that you are putting out into the world.
I think I keep that in my mind every single day, right before I go out and perform, even in the morning it’s the first thing that I think about. I really think, “This day is not about me. This day is about the thousands of people that are going to come and want to see us do what we do, but also be inspired.” So I just make sure I put on the best show that I possibly can, and I know every other band members does the same.