The University of Exeter is fast becoming the newest hotbed of collegiate a cappella in the United Kingdom. Despite the a cappella scene having existed for over five years, it has only recently come into the spotlight, with the A Cappella Society doubling in size over the past year alone.
Sharing these exciting developments with me were Catherine Hayes, member of the University of Exeter A Cappella Society, and Ed Henley, the Business Manager of Semi-Toned, one of the newest groups at the university.
UACUK: Hi guys. Thanks for joining me. Tell us a little bit about the history of the society as a whole, firstly.
CH: The University of Exeter A Cappella Society has been going around 5 years now. There were originally two groups at the start, The Sweet Nothings, an all-female group who sing a mixture of pop and jazz, and Perfect Fourth, who are now no longer in existence, but they were a barbershop group. Until last year, there were three groups that were part of the society – The Sweet Nothings, the oldest group in the society, Hoi Rhapsodoi, a mixed group who perform pretty much anything, and the Madrigals, meaning the society was already pretty diverse.
EH: Yeah, when I arrived at the university in the Autumn of 2010, I was really excited about forming my own group, but I didn’t realise a cappella already existed in Exeter until I saw some videos of The Sweet Nothings on YouTube, and it came to my attention that a cappella had quite a sizeable following in Exeter. We weren’t the only new group last year though.
CH: That’s right – the society has doubled the number of groups under its umbrella in the past year alone. Not only do we now have Semi-Toned, but the Illuminations, who focus mainly on musicals and operas, and Take Note, which is the only unauditioned a cappella group at the university for anyone and everyone who wants to be involved.
UACUK: Ed, you mentioned quite a sizeable a cappella following at the university – how big is it, exactly?
EH: I think it definitely could be better – it’s definitely not at the same level as Oxford or St Andrews. But we think that’s partly because not enough people on campus know about it – there’s not enough exposure. One of our aims as a new group was to try and make a cappella more accessible around the city, and we’ve done a lot of busking towards that aim. Also, we’ve been trying to remove the ‘choirboy’ stereotype that often comes from those less a cappella-savvy, despite most of us hailing from that kind of background.
CH: Over the last couple of years I think the society has really upped its game when it comes to being known around campus. The Sweet Nothings have had a big following for a number of years as the most established group, but the other groups are definitely hot on their heels! Recently, the groups have been able to perform at some of Exeter’s most popular venues, including Mama Stones and The Olde Firehouse. So it’s really coming on in leaps and bounds.
UACUK: Tell us a little bit about Semi-Toned was formed.
EH: As I mentioned before, I came to Exeter really excited about forming my own group, and eventually in the Autumn of 2010, myself, Jon [Minter] and Simon [Eaton] met after a choir rehearsal. We got together to do some singing and Semi-Toned was born! That first year it was just five of us, singing mainly repertoire from The Beach Boys, Billy Joel and the Beatles, but after getting a bit more involved, and listening to some other groups like Out of the Blue and All The King’s Men, in which a few of our members have friends, and decided to expand, doubling our membership to ten at the start of this academic year.
UACUK: How has it been this year?
EH: Great. We generally have about a concert a week now, maybe more, and regularly go busking in Exeter. Our repertoire now has developed to include Katy Perry, Damien Rice, and much more. Our main ethos is to make a cappella more accessible and we’re hoping that Semi-Toned has the fresh talent to make it so. We arrange the majority of our repertoire ourselves, and want to do a few club classics in the coming months.
UACUK: How do the six groups relate to each other? Are there A Cappella Society gigs from time to time?
CH: I guess the answer to your first question is that we all relate to each other in that we all sing a cappella! Apart from that, though, we’re very diverse. We do have regular meetings, and there is a certain amount of overlap in that several people are members of more than one group. We have socials for the whole society and are hoping to work together in workshops next term. As for society performances, at the end of the Spring Term, we have a big end of year concert where all the groups perform – last year, the University Singers also performed at the event.
EH: As you know, we teamed up with the Sweet Nothings for our Christmas concert this year, and it went down really well – that even involved a collaboration between the two groups, which really allowed us to feel what it would be like to sing in a mixed group. It was a great experience.
UACUK: What are the plans for the immediate future then – any groups applying for the Voice Festival?
CH: The Sweet Nothings are competing. They first competed in 2009, but have taken a couple of years out, mainly due to the long travelling distances, but because of the new Bristol Regional, they’ve decided to apply again. For the rest of the groups, more gigs, more rehearsals, and preparing for the end-of-year showcase.
EH: We’re competing too! We discussed it at length and decided to participate, we’re really going to enjoy the opportunity to sing alongside our friends, to make our mark as a new group, and to promote Exeter as an up-and-coming a cappella hub.
UACUK: Any big plans for the future?
EH: We’ve just ordered our first batch of group t-shirts! (laughs) We’ll be wearing them regularly around campus, no doubt. We’re hoping to tour at the end of the year, and possible venues include Dublin and Edinburgh. Most excitingly, though, is that we’re hoping to be in the recording studio in early 2012 to record our debut album.
CH: Yeah, I know a lot of the groups want to make the most of the university’s brand new recording facilities, which will be greatfor the reputation of a cappella here. Hopefully there will be opportunities for our groups to perform with other groups from across the country – the country is our oyster at the moment!
For more information on the groups, contact details and official websites, check out our Group Directory or the Exeter University A Cappella Society Facebook page.