Layering Voices To Bring 'Good Cheer'

The a cappella group Groove For Thought has been electrifying classics and pop songs for 10 years. Tenor and baritone Kelly Kunz and soprano Amanda Taylor speak with host Scott Simon about their new holiday album, Songs of Good Cheer.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Seven jazz singers make up the band Groove for Thought. They've been electrifying classics and pop songs together for more than 10 years. Here they are performing a version of Mike Posner's pop hit, "Cooler Than Me" - with jazz hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COOER THAN ME")

GROOVE FOR THOUGHT: (Singing) You've got designer shades just to hide his face, you wear them around like you're cooler than me. And you never say hey or remember my name, it's probably 'cause you think you're cooler me. Cooler than me. Oh no, you got your highbrow...

SIMON: You might remember Groove for Thought from Season 2 of NBC's "The Sing Off" - don't pretend you've never watched it. They've also played Vegas - don't pretend you've never been there - opening for Jay Leno. Groove for Thought's new holiday album is called "Songs of Good Cheer." And we're joined from member station KPLU in Seattle by Amanda Taylor, their lead soprano. Thank you very much for being with us.

AMANDA TAYLOR: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And Kelly Kunz, a tenor and baritone. Thank you very much for being with us.

KELLY KUNZ: Thank you too.

SIMON: Amanda Taylor, how did Groove for Thought get together? I mean, when did you and Kelly Kunz meet, for example?

TAYLOR: I actually met Kelly Kunz when I was born, 'cause he is my dad.

SIMON: No. You're kidding me.

TAYLOR: I am not.

SIMON: No, I knew that. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: You sneaky.

SIMON: So, the band's been together since you were in swaddling clothes, or what happened?

TAYLOR: A little bit, yeah. I think the group has been together since I was maybe 7. Does that sound right, dad?

KUNZ: That sounds right. We started as an all-guys group all those years ago, just for fun, in my living room. And, you know, they wouldn't really sit around while we practiced or anything but they couldn't help but hear every week. And one thing led to another and over the years we had a few personnel changes and Amanda grew up and she started singing with us when she was, what, 16 maybe, I guess?

TAYLOR: Um-hum.

KUNZ: And now we have three girls and we're just a completely different group in some ways but it's a fun group to be in.

SIMON: Let's hear your version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." There's a slight island feel to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING")

THOUGHT: (Singing) Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled...

SIMON: Amanda, how do you make an arrangement like this work?

TAYLOR: Well, that arrangement in particular is actually one of the hardest ones on our album, I would say. There's not very much breathing space and there's a lot of harder rhythms than we typically do, I think. So, a lot of it is, you know, being mentally prepared, I would say, before you actually start singing the song and, you know, putting in the practice time. That really, really counts towards success.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARK! THE HERALD ANGELS SING")

THOUGHT: (Singing) Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king, the newborn king.

SIMON: What puts a song on this album?

KUNZ: Well, you know, that is a very scientific process. If we like the song and we have an idea on how we might approach it in a different way than would be considered traditional and it kind of fits our makeup and such, then that's pretty much all there is to it. It's pretty basic and instinctual and the creative part kind of follows after that.

SIMON: Let's hear your version, if we could, of "O Holy Night."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "O HOLY NIGHT")

THOUGHT: (Singing) Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared the Soul felt its worth. The thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn...

SIMON: That's a very nice version.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

SIMON: And it's a cappella, right?

TAYLOR: It is, yes.

SIMON: But you are not an a cappella group.

TAYLOR: We are not. We are sometimes. Like...

KUNZ: Yeah, we go back and forth. We just don't like to be king of pigeonholed as one thing or another, 'cause that's not really how we started. Many of us are instrumentalists, and so we like working with rhythm sections. And so sometimes we do a cappella, 'cause we like all the vocal music, and sometimes we use a band. And we just do that 'cause that's kind of who we are.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE THREE KINGS")

THOUGHT: (Singing) We three kings of Orient are, bearing we traverse so far, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star...

SIMON: How do you layer your voices like that?

KUNZ: I think that's a secret, a family secret.

(LAUGHTER)

TAYLOR: It really depends on the track and the album, actually. On our last album, we experimented with tracking multiple people at a time. Sometimes, we would have two girls sing at the same time. Actually, I think we ever tried five of us at one point. On this Christmas album, though, we actually tracked one person at a time all the time.

KUNZ: Yeah, 'cause in my house we have a closet that functions as our sound booth. And I have one microphone.

TAYLOR: Right. I didn't think we would want multiple people in that booth at the same time 'cause it can get...

KUNZ: No, it gets a little smelly...

TAYLOR: ...kind of smelly in there, especially since it was during summer that we were tracking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

THOUGHT: (Singing) Hey, I'm walking a daydream, all that (unintelligible) but (unintelligible). You make my dreams come true.

(APPLAUSE)

SIMON: As we noted, you were on NBC's "The Sing-Off." You didn't win the top prize but you had a good run and obviously attracted a lot of attention. So, what was it like to go from singing in your family house and then, I guess, local appearances to Las Vegas?

TAYLOR: It was little bit scary because, obviously, Vegas is a very showy place. I wouldn't necessarily describe us as a very showy group. We tend to be more introverted than Vegas performing acts usually are. But I think it was good for us. It forced us to kind of come out of our shells a little bit and I think affected our future performances for the better.

KUNZ: Groups like ours, they typically stand in a certain formation and they'll sing on a microphone. And that's pretty much what we did as well. And then we got on "The Sing-Off" and everything changed, 'cause that was not allowed on "The Sing-Off." You had to move around and change positions.

TAYLOR: All this work.

KUNZ: Oh my Lord, it was a lot of work. But it was actually good 'cause it really did open us up to the visual aspects of performing. And we were, like Amanda said, fairly introverted folks in many ways. Just kind of music nerds really who sing. So, yes, it was really helpful, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

THOUGHT: (Singing) Christmastime, happiness and (unintelligible).

SIMON: Kelly Kunz and Amanda Taylor. Groove for Thought's new album is called "Songs of Good Cheer." Thanks so much for being with us.

TAYLOR: Yes.

KUNZ: Thank you.

TAYLOR: Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

THOUGHT: (Singing) (unintelligible) in the air. Oh, in the air. Carols, carols, carols everywhere...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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