AcaFolk Interview: Mike Scalise

In the first of this brand new blog category, focusing on the people behind the a cappella scenes both in the UK and the US, we spoke to co-founder of The A Cappella Blog, Mike Scalise, about his a cappella beginnings, his favourite memories and his opinion on a cappella in the UK.

UACUK: Hi Mike

MS: Hi Mark, thanks for inviting me to be a part of this new category.

UACUK: No problem! Clearly you’ve been involved in a cappella for a long time now. Tell us how it all began.

MS: I’ve been involved in a cappella, in earnest, since 2005. I was a junior in college, dating a girl that was in our school’s only a cappella group. I would attend her shows and listen from a layman’s perspective, siphoning out parts of the performance that I believed were either exceptional or poorly-executed. Around the same time, a good friend of mine, Mike Chin, was also dating a girl from a collegiate a cappella group, and it wasn’t long before we started to discuss the shows we attended. We began traveling to a cappella shows, and during one of our trips to see his girlfriend’s group perform at an ICCA event in Rhode Island, Mike pitched the idea of starting an a cappella blog whose purpose would be to make this great form accessible to all people – a cappella group members, non-musical folk, boyfriends/girlfriends of people in a cappella groups, etc. In 2006, during a fourteen-hour train ride to Chicago, Mike and I brainstormed ideas for the blog, ranging from site content to its vision statement, and, in January 2007, we launched The A Cappella Blog.

UACUK: In your time on the blog, you’ve been to loads of a cappella events, showcases and competitions. Tell us about your favourite a cappella memory.

MS: Actually my favourite memory was from before the blog had event been thought of. Approximately ten years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I was passing through my alma mater’s auditorium. I heard what I thought to be a typical band that the school brought in to entertain students on a Saturday night. Much to my surprise, Ball in the House was anything but typical. I wasn’t listening to drums or a bass guitar, but rather all sounds produced by human voices. I was actually shocked. This was my first exposure to a cappella, and, from that point on, my interest only grew.

UACUK: Who is the most inspirational a cappella person you have met or performed with so far?

MS: Although there are several luminaries in the a cappella realm, I have to say Deke Sharon is the most inspirational to me. I am thoroughly impressed with his depth of knowledge in a cappella, but as the production manager of The A Cappella Blog, I am even more inspired by what he has brought to the musical form – founding the Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA), co-founding the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) tournament and Best of College A Cappella (BOCA) compilation CDs. Not to mention he worked as a vocal producer on The Sing Off which really helped popularize a cappella by making it available to the masses. Very admirable.

UACUK: What do you think makes a cappella so popular in the US? Why do you think it has taken so long to spread across the rest of the world?

MS: The US is made up of several diverse cultures and backgrounds, and, as a result, many of its citizens are willing to embrace the unique and varied musical form that is a cappella. I think this is a contributing factor as to why it has taken a bit longer to spread across the rest of the world. Fortunately, as a cappella rises in popularity, this gap gets smaller each day.

UACUK: What are your experiences of a cappella in the UK?

MS: Unfortunately, I have not yet experienced a cappella in the UK, though an international trip that incorporates an a cappella event, like the London A Cappella Festival, is very high on my list of intended travels.

UACUK: Which groups in the UK have you heard of, if any?

MS: This past November, at SoJam, I had the pleasure of hearing The Boxettes. All I have to say is WOW! Their vocal percussion was out of this world and the ladies’ energy was unparalleled. Prior to SoJam, I heard Out of the Blue and The Gargoyles, both from Oxford University, both at ICCA finals. I’ve always enjoyed how they add an international flavor to the competition, oftentimes selecting songs that I haven’t heard during the year in any of the quarter- or semi-finals, and always performing them well. One such performance was Out of the Blue’s set in the 2009 ICCAs – not only thrilling to watch, but also landed the group 2nd place in the competition.

UACUK: Yes – clearly there is scope for UK groups to really make an impact on competitions such as the ICCAs. But do you think a cappella in the UK will ever become as big as it is in the US?

MS: It’s really hard to say. I think it depends on how willing society is to embrace the introduction of this form, but I do believe it’s heading in the right direction.

UACUK: Now a topic that has been quite intensely debated here over the past few weeks – all-female a cappella. It seems to be struggling a little, both competitively and album-wise, with Julia Hoffmann (on Mouth Off a few weeks ago) mentioning the lack of really good all-female arrangements submitted to the CASA awards, and no all-female groups in the final of the Voice Festival UK. What do think all-female groups need to do to raise the standard?

MS: I think all-female groups need to solicit feedback from an unbiased audience and carefully study scoring criteria prior to competing in events and submitting to contests. These measures will help the groups to not only identify weaknesses but also hone the skills most important in achieving their goals.

UACUK: What do you think the future holds for a cappella?

MS: A cappella has an element of purity associated with it, and I think that’s appealing to society – the raw talent of people. In five years, I expect a cappella to have grown even more in popularity, to the extent that many of our favorite artists will be releasing albums in full a cappella. The ball has begun rolling to some degree, with Ben Folds’s University A Cappella, which is a compilation of the United States’ best a cappella groups performing his songs.

A point I want to make is that I don’t think there are a finite number of pieces to the pie. A cappella won’t overtake traditional music, but rather supplement it. Artists can, and in my opinion, will continue to write and perform music as they always have, but offer their fans new and unique versions of their songs, enabling them to reach a broader audience. This has other implications as well. I predict that there will be even more mainstream television shows focused around a cappella by 2015.

I’m very excited to see what the future has to offer for a cappella music. There are many directions it could go in, but as long as it remains in the minds of the masses, I believe it will continue to attract new fans, and ultimately create a market for the music, movie, and entertainment industries.

UACUK: Do you think a show like The Sing Off would work anywhere outside of the US, specifically the UK?

MS: Yes. At its core, The Sing Off is a show about talent and entertainment, and therefore is appealing to many audiences, regardless of their geographic location, ethnicity, and musical background.

UACUK: And finally, a few favourites. Favourite Band?

MS: Coldplay

UACUK: Favourite Song?

MS: Love and Addiction by Counting Crows

UACUK: Favourite A Cappella Cover?

MS: I Believe In A Thing Called Love, originally by The Darkness of course, but covered by University of Rochester Midnight Ramblers.

UACUK: Favourite Foreign Country?

MS: Canada

UACUK: Favourite Food?

MS: General Tso’s Chicken

UACUK: And finally, if you could change one thing about a cappella in your country, what would it be?

MS: I would like to see a wider presence of high school a cappella groups across the U.S. I think it would help bring together students who would otherwise not interact, and, at the same time, increase the popularity of the musical form.

UACUK: Thanks so much for your time.

MS: Pleasure