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Sonos sextet brings a new twist to a cappella

By MEG McCONAHEY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Published: Thursday, November 5, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 4, 2009 at 3:51 p.m.

They aren’t your average barbershop quartet. Neither are they your nostalgic doo-woppers, your familiar church madrigal choir or your typical fresh-faced collegiate chorus.
IN CONCERT
What: Sonos, with the Maria Carrillo High School Jazz Choir
When: 4 p.m. Sunday Nov. 8
Where: Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park
Cost: $20, $12 students and children
Information and tickets: 588-3400, rpcity.org, srconcert.org

The six-voice Sonos elevates a cappella to a new level of musical sophistication, reinterpreting contemporary artists from Bjork to Radiohead with a sound that is bold, fresh, richly textured and subtly sensual.

And they do it all without instruments or synthesized backup, although they make judicious use of electronic effects pedals that can split their vocal notes into two tones an octave apart.

Their own agile voices provide a tapestry of sounds so finespun they blur the lines between vocals and instrumental/percussive back-up. They are their own band.

The sextet, which plays the Spreckels Performing Arts Center on Sunday, has been touring the country in rented minivans. They recently collaborated with renowned writer Margaret Atwood, providing choral back-up to a dramatic reading in New York of her post-apocalyptic new novel “The Year of the Flood.”

And to think that Sonos first premiered live onstage a mere 20 months ago right here at Maria Carrillo High School.

Three of the group’s 20-something members are proteges of Carrillo award-winning music coach Gail Bowers. Ben McLain, Paul Peglar and Jessica Freedman first honed their vocal chops under Bowers with the Carrillo High School Jazz Choir, which will open their show at Spreckels. So it was fitting that they did their test run in Santa Rosa before stepping back from the stage for six months to invent and polish their sleek performance style.

But Carrillo and the Santa Rosa music scene was their entry point.

“The skills I learned there, I use every day — site reading and professionalism,” said McLain, 26, who went on to study opera and drama at UC Irvine.

Firm foundation

Freedman, 22, who sang with the campus Awaken A Cappella group while studying jazz vocals at UCLA, credits Bowers and the quality of her program at Carrillo with inspiring her interest in group singing and with giving all three a firm foundation from which to innovate.

“A lot of the group has had a lot of experience with unaccompanied singing in general,” she explains, talking by cell phone from a Maryland turnpike. “Barbershop, choral singing, vocal jazz. We’ve had a lot of experience to bring to the table. But doing something more modern and new like this is taking it to a whole new place.”

From their repertoire to their arrangements, the group, which also includes Chris Harrison, Katharine Hoye and Rachel Bearer, aims not only to “defy stereotypes,” as Freedman puts it, but to distance themselves from “kitsch,” as McLain explains.

Live onstage, they’re comfortable performing acoustically. In the studio, they make electronic vocal music, with their collection of pedals and loops serving as the seventh member of the ensemble, according to Hoye, who also attended UCLA.

McLain, in addition to singing leads and harmonies, is the resident beatboxer, a form of vocal percussion.

“I’m literally not singing or phonating through my chords. I’m flapping around my tongue and lips and clicking,” he says.

Grew up in Kenwood

He honed his skill as a kid growing up in Kenwood. He recorded his first tracks on his dad’s little mini tape recorder.

“My first cassette was Salt-N-Pepa and my first album was Dr. Dre. I was in fourth or fifth grade,” he says with a laugh.

He emphasized that while the group does try to evoke sounds, they aren’t overtly trying to imitate guitars and other musical instruments, as some collegiate a capella groups do.

Sonos fuses a classic choral sensibility with a modern repertoire of music, performing covers of Fleet Foxes’ “White Winter Hymnal,” Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What a World” and Imogen Heap’s “Come Here Boy.”

While Harrison takes the lead on much of the arranging and produced and mixed the new CD with manager and group organizer Hugo Vereker, Sonos’s strength, members say, is in the group. Although they switch off taking the lead, each voice is essential.

“If one of us goes down, we don’t perform,” says Peglar, who calls the skillful synthesis of a capella both “organic” and “intangible.”

“It could’ve been centuries earlier with a piece of classical music, but we’re taking something from last year and making it just as haunting and interesting. I think that’s what’s most captivating about us,” says Peglar, who studied musical theater at UCLA.

He and McLain ha - Santa Rosa Press Democrat


Sonos reinvents the modern indie rock songbook, acappella–style

By Gabe Meline

Ben McLain is in a van in Kentucky, and he's in a wonderful mood. His genre-bending a cappella group Sonos is on tour in support of their brilliant debut Verve release, SonoSings, featuring all-vocal versions not of musical theater or jazz standards, but of modern, indie rock songs by Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Bjork and The Bird and the Bee. Anyone tired of the cast from the television series Glee and their cover of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" will find welcome fresh air with Sonos, although the two share a love of spontaneity. "We're singing all the time, in bathrooms, everywhere," McLain says. "That's one of the joys of being on the road."

The group's concept of taking the oldest tool of music-making—the human voice—and applying it to new, hipster-radar bands has brought them wide acclaim. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver said he was "honored" by the Sonos version of "Re: Stacks." Sara Bareilles joined the group in the studio for their version of "Gravity." And in perhaps the group's strangest and proudest moment, they even once sang their lush, multilayered version of the Fleet Foxes' "White Winter Hymnal" with Dennis Haskins, the actor who played Mr. Beldings on Saved by the Bell.

Sonos began as a postcollegiate group. While performing an Imogen Heap song on the taste-making Los Angeles radio station KCRW, they immediately lit up the phone lines. "And then our manager heard it," McLain says, "and said, 'Wait! Do a whole album of songs like this! Cutting-edge, kind of cool! It's such a different sound than what a cappella usually portrays!'" The result is an album—released on CD and indie-friendly vinyl—with innovative arrangements and subtle sensuality. Using sparse effects pedals, the group's version of Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place" makes a natural fit, and a drastic reworking of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" showcases the group's arranging prowess.

McLain, along with band mates Jessica Freedman and Paul Peglar, grew up in Sonoma County, attending Maria Carrillo High School and studying with choir teacher Gail Bowers. Bowers was a huge inspiration: "We got to do progressive stuff," McLain says, "and she gave us a head start on everything." With a groundbreaking new album and reams of positive reviews, Sonos return for a hometown concert with the Maria Carrillo jazz choir opening on Sunday, Nov. 8, at the Spreckels Performing Arts Center. 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. 4pm. $12–$20. 707.588.3434. - The Bohemian


A cappella groups aren’t really the norm, obviously. They live off in a rarefied world, not venturing into the mainstream very often. But if anyone can change that pattern, it’s this Los Angeles sextet. The first reason, of course, is just what great singers they are. The voices of Paul Peglar, Ben McLain, Jessica Freedman, Katherine Anne Haye, Rachel Bearer and Chrostopher Given Harrison soar into the upper realm, and have no trouble taking us with them. But another added delight is their knocked-out repertoire. Check this action after their raiding the song cabinet: Bon Iver, Radiohead, Jackson 5 (!), Bird and the Bee, Jazzzanova, Imogen Heap, Lewis Taylor, Rufus Wainwright, Bjork and Fleet Foxes. And they are also joined by singer Sara Bareilles on “Gravity,” as if that had any hold on them. Seriously, Sonos are off in their own galaxy, and sometimes it feels like their vocal blend has one foot in the cathedral and the other in the street. The sound of the singers is downright dizzying at times, and spins into different directions at once. Clearly, the members are having big fun, and with only a minimal use of effects pedals and tape loops have created a majestic album that will live a long, long time. There isn’t much to musically equal six voices taking something like Radiohead’s “Everything in Its Right Place” and making it into a near-religious experience. It’s uncanny how Sonos can do that over and over again so effortlessly, whether it’s on “Oh What a World” or “I Want You Back.” There is nothing more natural than the human voice. And, to hear SonoSings, more exciting. The spheres are alive with the sound of music.
— Bill Bentley 09/17/2009 - Sonic Boomers


“CONTEMPORARY MAKEOVER… PREPARE TO BE STUNNED” - The Guardian


“They were fantastic … This is an act that will go down a storm at festivals and on TV… The six voices blend together seamlessly.” -- Paul Kramer, The Hit Sheet - The Hit Sheet


“A capella poised for a serious makeover” --Jim Farber of the NY Daily News - NY Daily News


Discography

Their debut album "Sonosings" was released on Verve Records September 15, 2009, Sonos Live on KCRW - EP, "Everything In Its Right Place" - Single, their "I Want You Back" single was released on iTunes July 14th, 2009

Airplay: Multiple shows on LA's KCRW, NPR's Studio 360, Sirius/XM, WFPK, WRNR, WNKU, BBC Radio 4

Photos

Bio

Sonos is a young all-vocal group formed from the best of Southern California's thriving college a cappella community. The collective -- comprised of Jessica Freedman, Katharine Anne Hoye, Rachel Bearer, Ben McLain, Paul Peglar and Christopher Given Harrison -- reinvent a 21st century songbook with bold reinterpretations of indie artists - Rufus Wainwright, Fleet Foxes, the bird and the bee, Imogen Heap, Lewis Taylor, Magnet, Bjork.