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The Sing-Off Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

The Sing-Off

This is an interview with casting director Ben Folds and Sara Bareilles on September 12, 2011 about the show The Sing-Off.

Question:
When it was first brought up to you that you could be part of this show what turned you on about the premise of the show?

Sara Bareilles:
For me, the decision was a totally easy one. I have an a cappella background and I was also a fan of the show as well as performed on the finale of the Season 2 finale. So when management brought this up to me that this was even a possibility to listen to something I was interested in it was kind of a no brainer for me. And it's a really special show with a lot of heart and I love the other judges and so it seemed like a really good thing to be a part of.

Ben Folds:
I'll tell you the truth. When they first asked me I think I told my manager no. But it hadn't run yet, so I didn't know much about the show. I just thought I don't know if I want to be a judge. But what convinced me to do it was that it was a cappella and that it could that it was unique and could be very musical. And I just worked with some a cappella groups. I've never been in an a cappella group myself but, yes, I thought, oh, well, this is something I regularly do anyway. I listen to music and I have an opinion about it and I know the inside of music, so I can talk about it a little bit. It turned out to be a really good decision. I've really enjoyed it.

Question:
There's one group in particular, Pentatonix, which is from Arlington, Texas. Your thoughts about them?

Ben Folds:
They're great. They're a joy to listen to and they're interesting because they have connected with two of their members and auditioned them through the Internet. So three of them are from the Dallas area, I guess and then the other two are Internet discoveries and we thought that was interesting.

Question:
Sara, how have you found connecting with the judges? They've already been together some time. Have you found your footing with them and connected with them?

Sara Bareilles:
As much as you can when you're working with a couple of assholes. You know what? I can't say enough good things. You know one of them is listening. I can't say enough good things about Ben and Shawn. They are both, I mean, at the heart of all things, they're both really kind people and have made it really, really comfortable for me to join up with them in the panel of judges. We had kind of a natural chemistry that started just from Day 1. Ben and I have known each other for a while now and have become friends. But I really met Shawn on the set of the show and we had a really natural chemistry, the three of us.

We kind of make each other laugh and we really respect each others' opinions, so I think it's a really nice dynamic that if you're unsure about something or if you have a question or want clarification, I have no qualms in going to either Ben or Shawn to get their opinions to sort of shout what's going on in my mind or just to get another perspective on what's happening in front of us.

And I think that's what makes for a good judging panel. I'm one of the people that's not as interested in the conflict between the judges because I think it takes away from what the show is supposed to be about, which is the contestants singing their heart out. And just for us it's been a really nice thing to be able to have some solidarity behind the judging panel and really get to focus on the music.

Question:
Ben, what is it about the show that you think continues to make it such a success?

Ben Folds:
I think the show is successful, one, because there is a lot of talent on it. I mean, the singers, even the ones that go home early in the seasons they're really talented and they're really dedicated and they're all singing together really well. I think it makes people feel really good to see people working together. That's been my main theory about this show is that you can tune into television everywhere else and see people not getting along or people not working together well or something that's really not that artfully put together.

The show doesn't have to be artfully put together. As soon as those kids walk on the stage and sometimes not kids and sing together. Sara will know how much work that is but it's not just a lot of work. There's really a lot of art and craft in that and it's sort of counter to what we're told about our culture now, that everything is dumbed down, that everything is it's all reality shows and off the cuff and just dumb. I think people feel about the way things are going. If you look at groups sometimes high school kids and they're doing this amazing thing and you think, oh, it's going to be okay. And that's what you get for a couple hours of Sing-Off. Then you can go back to kicking each others' asses and that's fine too. I like to see some ass kicking myself. But for a couple hours it's nice to see some harmony and I think that's what this show provides.

Question:
It seems like the groups this year are so incredibly diverse. So how difficult is it as a judge to sort of compare apples to oranges when you have such a huge range of talent?

Ben Folds:
It is more of a range this year than the last two years and that does make it hard because if you have an amazing German Polka group and they're up against like an amazing industrial noise group, what might make one work more than the other and I think you should take personal preferences aside, which I think we've done, and just really try to hone in on what they're attempting to do, how effective it is to the people that would like what it is that they do and could this make a record. And I don't like all records but a record is a record. And so I think it is really hard because you try not to make it personal. You try to make it about how they're working together, how well they're doing and how effective it might be for their audience and leave the preference to the apple or the orange out of it. But I think it's difficult to do. But I feel like we're doing it.

Sara Bareilles:
I think it is hard to do and I didn't have anything to compare it to in terms of previous seasons of contestants. But I think it does help clarify things and you do keep in the back of your mind this is a competition for who's going to be able to make a great record and hopefully connect to a mass audience and has a lot of depth and complexity to what they're capable of. And it makes it a little easier when you see groups that do it really, really well because you kind of know what's possible. But I agree with Ben. I think the most important thing is to sort of keep your personal preference out of it. It may not be the record you would run out and buy but if the group has got it, it's easy to see.

Question:
I always like to know about family working relationships and I understand there's a family group on the show. Can you tell me a little bit about them and their dynamic?

Sara Bareilles:
The Fannin family. They're really sweet, really, really sweet. I think the youngest contestant on the show is one of the lead singers of the Fannin family.

Ben Folds:
Yes, she's 13 I think. I think she's 13. Yes, she's good.

Sara Bareilles:
She shows a lot of potential and a lot of heart. There's something really, really sweet and innocent about seeing a family singing together and it doesn't seem to really come across really hokey and all. It's just one of the things I like about the show is that you can do something that is sort of earnest and innocent and it still makes for something really entertaining.

Question:
What do you think the biggest challenge for an a cappella group is when they're looking for a piece for the show or they're looking to perform live on the stage?

Ben Folds:
I think it's different for every group. I think that's what's interesting about it is the story behind every group. If you have an obvious one, which is being surmounted like really effectively, is an all female group. You don't have a base. So if you're an all female group, you've got to find ways of making it work and there are plenty of ways but you have to find them. They're off the beaten path. And if you're a group of 18 guys then you might have intimacy issues. It might be difficult to find like a star, a one-person that can act in the middle of essentially a football team. Some people might be technically challenged but have just total star power.

So I think for each group it's how they surmount their challenge and their difficulties. It's their Achilles heel is always there. It's interesting for us to watch. Sometimes you keep a group in because you can see that they're on the verge of a revelation. And they may not have done their best show but we make the judgment that if they stay on another show we're going to see something that's going to develop and it's going to surprise us and that is what I think is most exciting about the show.

Sara Bareilles:
I think that was perfectly said, Ben. I agree.

Question:
Ben, what makes this season different than the seasons before it?

Ben Folds:
I think this is the season of innovation. And as it evolves I think everyone will see the innovation be second nature. In other words, you begin to take it for granted and everyone will look for heart. But I think that's what marks this season and my theory is because these groups watched this television show and they thought what can I do to stand out? And so we have a lot of standout groups. For instance, the first season was much more sort of conventional a cappella and they were very good. You know, second season, more of that and now all of a sudden it's sort of more about how they can stand out and be different and that's a nice thing to see.

Question:
Sara, you performed last year with the Back Seats. How does it feel for you to return this year as a judge?

Sara Bareilles:
It's really exciting. I've spoken about my experience. At the finale I was a total nerd, giddy like bouncing off the walls backstage. I was so excited to be on the show. And then I had to really put on my facade that I'm totally cool about this. But on a lot of levels I'm still sort of freaking out. I love this show. I love that it highlights the genre of music I feel very passionate about and feel like it's sort of under appreciated.

And I've got the best seat in the house. I sit in front row and I'm getting to impart my experience and level of wisdom on these people and I feel like I'm learning a lot as well from all of the groups as well as the judges. So it's been a really exciting choice. I'm really happy I'm a part of the show.

Question:
Ben, do you rehearse for this gig and how do you prepare? Do you drink or something?

Ben Folds:
Yes, I look in the mirror and I tell myself you can. What do I do? I drink three protein shakes and I run around the block. I try to get my endorphins up. Really what I do is before the show we have we have our little sit down and kind of listen to the songs that the groups are going to be singing. Now, we don't listen to their versions. We listen to the original versions. And we know who is going to be singing what. And then I think we all probably take some mental notes of what we might expect to happen and that provides some sort of framework.

So if the group comes up and completely surprises you, then you had what you expected and then what they did and that sort of gives me a range of what to do and also reminds me where the group has come since the week before, which is really important to me. Like last week they did this. Are they going to be stagnant every week and give you more of the same or is there something going to happen because, as I've been saying, there's nothing better on the show than seeing a group develop? From a personal point of view to think that you might have helped them in their learning and their development is a great feeling, probably like what it feels like to be a good teacher. And then as an audience member, it's just a wonderful surprise to see someone grow. So that's kind of I think what the preparation is.

Question:
I've noticed that a lot of times you have repeat contestants from the earlier seasons. I was just going to ask about sort of having second chances and like is that like intentional to have this like emphasis on giving people second chances because I know on a lot of other reality shows they wouldn't let someone like compete?

Sara Bareilles:
There's another group this seasons. There's an all girl group that is made up of some super stars of previous seasons. You're right.

Ben Folds:
They slip by putting mustaches on and we only figured it out after they got in. They were strangely attractive with the mustaches. We do encourage it. We do encourage it because it's about groups working together and it encourage the whole development and this show has become sort of a hub of talent. Now you see these people getting together and making bands, rising together, doing things. It's incredible amount of talent. A lot of them -- like one fellow you'll see on this season in the Dartmouth Aires, he said he never thought about being a musician. Now, we've completely corrupted the poor young man. He's going to be a musician. Now he's going to starve.

Question:
Would you ever like open the auditions to Canadian a cappella groups do you think?

Ben Folds:
I don't think that there's any reason that a group can't compete from another country. I don't know. We'd have to find out about that. I assumed that it was sort of just that was just situational that the show aired more in the states.

Sara Bareilles:
This is just my opinion is that it might be a Visa issue, which would be the only reason that it may or may not work. I don't know that for a fact but to get the Visa or to have the contracts be applicable. You know what I'm saying? Like maybe there's some complications there and that's why. But I would love to open it up. The more the merrier, to me.

Question:
Sara, right after the Indiana State Fair you played in Tulsa and Hanson supplied the equipment for you. How did that come about? Did you know them? Had you played with them before?

Sara Bareilles:
One of their stage technicians had worked with us for a brief period of time and we had to leave the Indianapolis area without any of our gear because it was all on lock down under the investigation. So I felt really strongly that it was important to continue on with the tour and play the show in order to sort of honor the people that had been affected by the stage collapse and so we kind of just put the word out pretty much to anybody and everybody we knew and that stage technician being one of them. And he asked the boys from Hanson if we could have a few pieces of gear. We had rented some things but they pretty much opened their studio to us and said take whatever you want. They were incredibly generous and really, really sweet guys. So I'm grateful.

Question:
What do you look at when you're looking at an a cappella singer, are you looking at just tone?

Sara Bareilles:
The short answer to that is there is nothing to hide behind. And I don't think that I would answer that I'm always looking for the purity of the music. I think there's a combination, someone being a great performer and having an ability to connect with the audience can sometimes transcend minor technical issues or maybe they're not the most perfect singer in the world. So I think it's a combination. It's about being moved by an expression of art and what I love about a cappella is there isn't anything to hide behind. It's all voices and sometimes your jaw is on the floor just with the amazing talent of these people on the stage.

I can't even imagine how they're making the sounds that they do make. They've gotten into the levels of people really manipulating tone, as you say, and having some incredible bass singers on the show that make it sound like an electric synthesizer and then an upright bass and there's been a lot of diversity up there which I think is one of the things I look for. I look for depth and range and diversity on stage.

Ben Folds:
Yes, I think it's like any other kind of music in some ways in that you just go, well, is this moving me or is it not moving me? Then the next question is if it is or if it isn't, why. Then it's our job because we supposedly know music is why would that be. It could be so many things but there are kind of rules. I mean, you start with pitch and time and then you can move into things about their arrangement or is their whole stack of parallel thirds? Is the bass one thin? Is it well arranged, the voice leading working, all that kind of stuff that I'm sure they think about on all the other reality music TV shows.

I've heard a lot of talk about the voice leading on other shows. But when it comes to why a cappella works as an art form, one thing that occurs to me is that if I were sitting through two hours a night of different instrumental groups, I would be tired. I don't know if I would listen to two hours of different groups and really feel moved the whole time. There's something about all voices that's almost hits kind of a primal chord. I'm sure they could have electrodes to the audience's head and there would be something that lights up uniquely for people singing together. And I think cameramen who have been sort of annoyed that while they're rehearsing that they get chills. Like, man every time they start singing I kind of get a chill. There's something about that kind of music, about singing that's just really I think essential and so it just works

Question:
Ben, you said that you've actually never seen Glee and those type of shows. Have you now seen them and what are your thoughts on them?

Ben Folds:
I haven't seen Glee yet. I saw about a five-minute clip of American Idol because people kept on asking about Simon Cowell, so I wanted to see what he did. And I will watch Glee. I'm not proud of being ignorant. Stopping to watch TV is not something I normally do. But I'll get to it.

Question:
What are your thoughts on Simon?

Ben Folds:
Oh, I think he's great. Think when you look at 21st Century popular music history, he'll be a very important part of how the music industry, how the filters of the music industry, how people hear music and how it's kind of integrated into the rest of the popular culture, he's got a whole chapter. But I also think that this world that he's created is not what we really do. We live in the form. But that form has probably gone back to the gong show and Star Search and Euro Vision. It's been done before but the form that we do, the current form, I think he partially invested that.

But we're really very different because the show itself, the heart of the show is about harmony. And I think that's really what lights up when you see we might have a lot in common with Glee. I don't know. I haven't seen it yet. I know that people singing together has become more and more popular over the 20th Century until now it's really reaching a boil. There were a cappella groups in universities and small numbers at the turn of the century, the 20th Century.

And by the end, there is six, eight groups in every university. That's a lot of students singing all of their own motivation. And so I think some of these shows are just springing out of a cultural sort of versioning of vocal music. And if you think about it it's very timely because we're not going to be able to afford instruments pretty soon if the economy keeps going that way and you can always afford your voice.

Question:
Now that you two are spending so much time together at the judging table is there any potential for you to collaborate together on a song in the near future?

Sara Bareilles:
What do you say, Ben? Should we do it?

Ben Folds:
Let's do it. Are we going to do this in unison? Or you take the third. I'll take the bottom. Are you ready?

Sara Bareilles:
Yes, Ben is actually producing an EP for me and I've hired him. He's producing an EP in November. So I'm going to go to Nashville and we're going to collaborate.

Ben Folds:
We were going to do that anyway. We were going to do that anyway before Sara got the call for Sing-Off.

Sara Bareilles:
Yes, that is the truth.

Question:
So when should we expect that to actually come out to be something we could hear?

Sara Bareilles:
I'll check the time. I'll probably say early next year, maybe January. If we get our shit together it should be quicker.

Ben Folds:
We're shooting for a first quarter release.

Question:
Sara, with a background in having performed in a cappella groups before how has that shaped your role as a judge on the show?

Sara Bareilles:
I think I come with a lot of empathy for what they're going through and, for me, it's flat up a lot of nostalgia for a time in my life that I really, really loved and I think from my judge's perspective I'm really one of the more emotional ones in terms of the judges that are out there. I get sucked into the story and into their journey and I think that's part of the fact that I've been in those shoes, not in this exact format before but, I feel very connected that there's an all girl group and I felt like I wanted to jump up on stage and be a part of it for a second there. Luckily security held me down before I could actually make it on stage.

Question:
With the success of this show have you heard anything as a veteran judge of something like this which focuses so highly on the talent of a cappella groups, which a lot of high schools have but it can sometimes be the first program cut in high schools?

Ben Folds:
I can tell you from my point of view it's one of the main reasons that I got into the show because if you're a professional musician or if you're a musician especially the era that I group up in, we were lucky enough to have music programs. And I've got kids now and I can see that it's been slashed. The way I got into this show was doing an a cappella record with university a cappella groups and the money went to music education charities.

I can't tell you about a specific affect it might have had but what you're seeing is that despite the cut, the de-emphasis of music in schools, you're seeing an increased number of kids getting together on their own dime, on their own time with absolutely no class credit in universities. It's becoming a big social thing but it's easier to just get together and drink. It's more than just a social occasion. They're having to learn harmony and voice leading and they have various levels of education understanding.

But by the time they put themselves through this they really know the insides of harmony. Like, in some ways it's like studying Bach Fugues because every person has to be really aware of what their specific voice leading is. So it's a lot of music education. Almost the privatization of everything, if what this means is people aren't going to learn music in school, therefore we're going to pick up the slack and NBC will be playing music that inspires people to sing together and then kids will be singing together and learning music without the structure of school.

I think that's heartening but I also think that that's depressing that we can't pick up the ball and run with it. So it's hard to know. I haven' heard anything specifically. But I feel like it's part of a movement that it's basically our culture saying, actually, music is very important and we're going to do it even if it's not in the school system and I think that's all we really know at this moment.

Question:
Ben, I wanted to know how will the expanded competition between 16 acts of this year change the format or change things on the show?

Ben Folds:
You've got that many groups, it's harder for everybody. It's more of a challenge, more of a challenge from our point of view because the competition's tighter, heavier because there's more talent, so you've got to really hone your ear in a lot more. For the groups, the same challenge, there's more there. Also, finding creative ways to take 16 groups and have them all sing together in one big opening number, which is our sort of opening variety show celebration part.

It's like a Muppet show. It's awesome. There's probably 120 people on stage for the first show all singing together and pretty amazing stuff. I mean, I think it's nothing but better. It's just more difficult is all and a lot of times when you improve something it hurts and I think that's what's going on.

Question:
Sara, since this is your first year joining Ben and Shawn as a judge, what will you look for in the singers to move them forward?

Sara Bareilles:
I'm looking for, first of all, technical skills, someone that's a great singer that's listening to their cohorts and group members, someone who blends well. I'm looking for a great lead singer, sometimes it's just the particular tambour of the voice, how easy somebody makes it look. And then in addition to that, I really like seeing diversity from the contestants. I like seeing someone that can sing jazz and then flip over and sing a pop song and then sing a rock song. I mean, sometimes it might be a lot to task from someone but it's nice to see people up there giving it their all. I really like to see people not holding anything back. And that sort of particular nature goes a long way for me.

Question:
Ben, you say that this is the season of innovation. Are you referring to that some of the groups have never sang a cappella before but they're musicians and they bring sort of a new sort of, I guess, technique to the show? Was that intentional for the show to try something new this season?

Ben Folds:
I think it was just natural and natural selection. You just had groups that were observing the first two seasons and thinking, hey, I could jump into this and maybe that means it's a group of musicians who are finding it difficult for their ideas in music to be heard traditionally. And they're thinking this is another avenue. And sometimes it's an a cappella group who is encouraged to do it because they could do something different, you know. But they may have a secret weapon and someone can make the kind of sounds that you've never heard before or they may just arrange it in a way.

A cappella music, as it's grown, especially in universities, has hit a very conventional method, you know. There's a typical sound to a lot of them but that doesn't mean that there's not room to really move forward. And so what's happened this season is it just took a light year step. It just suddenly all of these groups were coming out and they were being very different and I suppose that's just because they watched and they were they were encouraged to do that.

The musician groups have a challenge in that they haven't done it before. It's not just something you just walk up and do. I had to sit in with one of the groups last year in the finale. Sara has done this a lot but I thought it was surprisingly difficult. And I'm glad I did that. They'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to do that shit again but I was glad that I had the opportunity. It made me understand it even more because I'm like, wow, this is not easy.

Question:
I was fascinated that some groups were put together by a sound engineer who sort of matched their voices from what he had heard.

Ben Folds:
This people thinking he probably watched the show and thought, aha, I know what some of these groups are missing and I can do something that's different. But that's what happens in pop music. That's what's exciting. Everyone sends out their postcard or their post, you know. But, yes, what he's done is really effective because it's bringing to the stage now vocals that have the sounds that you'd often hear in a record. You know, and then the other groups hear that stuff and they go, oh, we've got to step it up in terms of sound, you know. And it's very cool.

Question:
Do you think there's a specific audience that the show appeals to?

Ben Folds:
I don't know. I really don't know.

Sara Bareilles:
I could make an educated guess. I think a lot of this show will appeal to sort of a younger demographic but, honestly, I'm kind of talking out of my ass because I don't really know anything about that kind of stuff, which I think is kind of good. We don't have to worry about tailoring who we are or what we're trying to accomplish here. You know, we can sort of stay focused on the task at hand which is being who we are and being authentic and let the suits worry about that stuff.

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