JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "E.T.")
PENTATONIX: (Singing) Oh, you're an alien, your touch so foreign, it's supernatural, extraterrestrial. You're...
LYDEN: That's the group Pentatonix, winners of NBC's hit reality show competition "The Sing-Off," singing their a cappella version of Katy Perry's "E.T." The days of doo-wops and barbershop may be gone, but a cappella is cool again. And it's all thanks to the father of contemporary a cappella, Deke Sharon. Sharon is vocal producer for "The Sing-Off" and the movie that brought a cappella to the big screen, "Pitch Perfect."
A cappella may mean performing without instruments, but in my conversation with Deke Sharon, he played a few.
DEKE SHARON: (Imitates trumpet sound) A little old muted trumpet.
SHARON: (Imitates muted trumpet sound) Little electric guitar. (Imitates electric guitar sound)
LYDEN: You are phenomenal. I mean...
SHARON: Thank you.
LYDEN: ...I have this vision of you as a kid in the pageant with this stuff, and I just want to say where does it all come from?
SHARON: Well, it is easy to say I was the kid in the back of the class making funny noises like Robin Williams, but I was actually the kid sitting in the front row snotty and sucking up to the teacher. So these - all of these sounds were developed slowly over time. I think all people who sing a cappella sing along with the radio. But they don't sing the melody. They sing the harmony, and then they start singing the guitar part, they start making up drum sounds, and before you know it, it's - I mean, there's no turning back.
LYDEN: With the success of your movie "Pitch Perfect," and the a cappella reality show "The Sing-Off" coming back for the fourth season, these kinds of groups have really found a whole new audience in recent years, haven't they?
SHARON: Oh, there's no question. I mean, a cappella is the oldest music. And back 100 years ago, barbershop, that was just guys getting together singing current pop music. Fifty years ago, doo-wop, the street corner thing, they were just singing current pop tunes. So what we're doing now is no different.
The real difference is that we're able to use our voices in a number of new ways that are able to fill out the sound and really replicate the strong, pounding rhythms and the full sonic spectrum replicating instruments, sometimes. Back in the day when the Whiffenpoofs were started at Yale, collegiate a cappella was four-part singing.
Now, if you've got 14 guys, you're going to have 14 different parts sometimes, and you can really replicate a current pop song, which is electrifying for an audience.
LYDEN: What about for you? Where did it catch fire?
SHARON: For me, it was experiential. Some of it came from singing around the campfire and hearing one of the counselors improvise harmonies. When the Tufts Beelzebubs came and sang at my high school, I was captivated. I just loved the energy and the excitement of the sound that came from them on stage.
But when I was in college, and I started directing the Tufts Beelzebubs, I wanted to sing the current pop songs on the radio, and it just didn't work with shoo be doo wop and ooh and aah and lyrics. So we needed to add vocal percussion, and we needed to create different instrumental sounds to make that come alive and work for the audiences, and then we were off to the races.
LYDEN: You know what I was thinking, in your movie "Pitch Perfect," I'm looking at the riff-off.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "S&M")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as The Barden Bellas) (Singing) 'Cause I may be bad but I'm perfectly good at it...
LYDEN: And I'm thinking, as the women are singing, that it's - maybe this is quite the - sort of a female, updated version of The Sharks and The Jets. I mean, I see- I hear in my brain...
LYDEN: ...something that links back to "West Side Story" only this time, everybody's singing. And it kicks.
SHARON: Absolutely. Absolutely. And the excitement of that scene, although frankly, it's almost impossible to do live, I'll let you know that you shouldn't be expecting collegiate a cappella groups to be doing that in empty swimming pools around the nation spontaneously. But the drama of that scene comes from the fact that you don't expect women to be singing this kind of full, rich, powerful a cappella. That's one of the things that contemporary a cappella has really brought to the forefront, having women be every bit the counterpart of men.
LYDEN: You were the vocal producer for "Pitch Perfect," and you helped arrange this song. Let's listen to the Bellas sing here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T YOU FORGET ABOUT ME")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (as The Barden Bellas) (Singing) Won't you come see about me, I'll be alone dancing, you know it, baby, tell me your troubles and doubts, giving me everything inside and out. Don't you forget about me, as you walk on by.
LYDEN: I've been singing this all day now.
SHARON: You and 13-year-old girls around the world.
LYDEN: Oh, there's a lot of 13-year-old (unintelligible).
LYDEN: I understand you had nine - something like nine actresses for this performance, and some of them had never sung a cappella before. Tell me how you rehearsed them for this movie.
SHARON: That's correct. Well, we had set aside - Jason Moore, the fantastic director of this movie, set aside a month of a cappella boot camp, he called it. And so I got together on that first day, we had one singer, Kelley Jakle, who was in two seasons of "The Sing-Off" as our kind of ringer, and then nine actresses, most of whom had maybe had a little bit of, oh, I sang in chorus in middle school.
Let me tell you, after that first day, I went home, and I didn't sleep too much. I thought: Can we do this? Is this going to be possible? But they really stepped up. I mean, Shelly, who did vocal percussion, there was nobody who had done any, and I just had to ask. So who wants to learn how to beat box?
And she kind of sheepishly raised her hand. I was like, OK, let's do this. Let's go. And we just put them all on a crash course, and they really rose to the occasion.
LYDEN: So this is the percussion we're hearing because people might be thinking, oh, they've added some drums or something like that. No.
SHARON: Mm-mm. Mm-mm.
LYDEN: This is absolutely things you're doing with your mouth. Can you teach me how to beat box?
SHARON: Well, yeah, I'll give you a little bit. The easiest one is a high hat. It's just a T sound. Just say t-t-t-t-t like that.
SHARON: Perfect. Keep doing it.
SHARON: So you can use an open high hat sound (unintelligible) but breathe in (unintelligible).
SHARON: Do you hear the difference?
LYDEN: Yeah, like a little - like a little high hat...
SHARON: It's out and (unintelligible).
SHARON: Right, so you can go t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t.
SHARON: Exactly, and then kick drums underneath that, you could say boots and cats and boots and cats, but then turn that into...
LYDEN: Boots and cats and boots and then it turns into...
SHARON: Right. And go...
LYDEN: Boots and cats...
SHARON: There you go. There you go.
LYDEN: Can I join your band?
SHARON: Day one, you're ready for a cappella boot camp.
LYDEN: Wow, it's - this is so much fun. You know, this - there had to be a time, though, when if you told your friends that this is what you wanted to do, I can just imagine it landing just with a huge thud, you know, and...
SHARON: A huge thud. In fact, my high school choral director wouldn't say this to my face, but I learned afterwards. He said, basically, you graduated college, and it says, though, you said, I love tiddlywinks, so I want to create a professional tiddlywink circuit and tiddlywink competitions, tiddlywink nonprofit. And then 10 years later, he said: I guess it worked out for you in the tiddlywink thing. So it's - yes, it was, I'd bet my life, a huge risk, and it has paid off handsomely and been a wonderful journey.
SHARON: You got it. Done.
LYDEN: Just think about that, OK?
SHARON: Done. Just get a couple of your friends together, and I'll see you in New York this weekend for casting.
LYDEN: The ALL THINGS CONSIDERED WEEKEND a cappella group. I think we can work on that. Deke Sharon, it has been so much fun to talk to you. Thank you.
SHARON: A pleasure. Thank you.