Photo: Jiro Schneider
First Listen: Pentatonix
A cappella sensations Pentatonix emerged as winners of the third season of reality singing competition series "The Sing-Off" in 2011 to become major players in the pop world. Their first three EPs — PTX, Volume 1; PTXmas (2012) and PTX, Vol. II (2013) — all charted on the Billboard 200, with the latter two peaking in the Top 10.
Their latest release, PTX, Vol. III, is set to release in the United States on Sept. 23. The seven-song EP features three new songs — "On My Way Home," "Standing By" and "See Through," — and a passionate cover of Belgian singer Stromae's international hit "Papaoutai" featuring violinist Lindsey Stirling. Ahead of the album's release, GRAMMY.com has your exclusive first listen of "Papaoutai."
Comprising lead vocalists Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado and Mitch Grassi, vocal bass Avi Kaplan, and beatboxer Kevin "K.O." Olusola, Pentatonix are currently in the midst of a U.S. tour with dates scheduled through Oct. 4, and will also release a second holiday album, That's Christmas To Me, on Oct. 21. In an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview, Hoying discussed their new music, artistic aspirations and life lessons.
What inspired your string-laden cover of the Stromae hit "Papaoutai"?
We did a European tour, and one of our friends in France played us this song by a Belgian artist. We loved it so much but never thought to cover it because it was French. Then Mitch and I saw Stromae performing "Papaoutai" on ["Late Night With] Seth Meyers." I was just completely inspired. If we covered this it would be such a risk for us and would be so challenging and exciting, and we're always trying to push ourselves. So I hired a French teacher to teach Kirstie, Mitch and I how to sing the song. I didn't even need to know what it means. … I just needed to know how to say it correctly. Musically, we were going to have a cello solo with Kevin, and then for some reason I thought Lindsey Stirling would be an amazing person to [collaborate] with on this one, so we brought her in. It just turned out so great. I really love that.
What is "Papaoutai" actually about?
"Papaoutai" is a son singing to his father about not being there for him. It means, "Where are you, Dad?"
"On My Way Home" definitely has a melancholy vibe, too. It features some very rich vocal harmonies.
We wanted to make it very full-sounding; one, because the song warrants that, and two, because if we're going to get it played on radio we want it to [be] a very full sound. That song is a bit melancholy, but there's a feeling of hope in it. It's pretty much sending the message: Don't take things for granted and live your life to the fullest. We always have heart-to-hearts where we talk about that, so the song means a lot to the group.
Were there any particular musical influences you were channeling for that track?
We wanted it to have a big, epic world music vibe, so the chorus sounds almost African. But we didn't want to be too much in that vein, so we scaled it back for the verses, which makes the song a journey.
People got to know Pentatnoix through "The Sing-Off" and through your pop mashups, but the group also records original material. How tricky is it to balance commercial considerations with what the group wants to record?
That's a great question. We struggle with that every day. We have to keep our strictly a cappella fans happy, but we're trying to gain a mainstream audience as well and trying to stay true to ourselves. So balancing all of those things is really tough, and we have to make certain sacrifices and change certain things, and at the same time keep our integrity. We struggle with that every day and have constant [discussions like]: "What are we going to do with this song? Should we do that? Should we scale back on this? Do we need to do more of this? It would be more commercial to go with these lyrics instead of these lyrics, but these lyrics inspire us more." We have those conversations every day.
What motivated you to record a second holiday album, and how is the flavor going to be different this time?
Two years ago we did PTXmas. We loved it and were so proud of it, and it sold well. The next year we just added a couple of tracks to it and released the deluxe version and everyone responded to it really well. So when we signed with RCA, they wanted to do a quintessential Christmas album and make it a really, really big deal and have an original song on it. We loved that idea and got a bigger budget for this album. We're getting a little more artistic with it. We're doing really complicated arrangements. It's going to be a very different holiday album that no one has ever heard before, that's for sure.
I heard the original song is very different.
That one is very unique, but it is still staying very classic to the whole Christmas vibe. The song is just a big feeling of nostalgia, talking about being a kid and how you're waiting for Santa Claus to wake you up. It's really cute, and we all sing it together. There are no main soloists. It's a beautiful song reflecting on the holidays. That's the one I think we're all most excited about. It's called "That's Christmas To Me," which is the title of the album.
What have been the biggest changes for you since winning "The Sing-Off" in 2011, and the biggest life lessons you've learned so far?
There are so many changes. I think one of the big first changes is that we all moved to [Los Angeles] together. Our schedule has progressively gotten busier as we've grown. When we tour, our venues are bigger and we do a lot more one-off gigs. Our albums are selling better. It's cool to go out in public and get recognized constantly. That's always surreal. It's amazing having so many supporters of our music. I think that's been the biggest change. Growing up I always wanted to be a musician, but when I would [play] shows eight people would be there, like my mom and the rest of my family just cheering me on. It's crazy to think that now we can go and sell out a 7,000-seat venue and people want to be there and want to hear our music. I think that is a really unique opportunity that we do not take for granted.
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)