People often tell us that they appreciate what we do because it must be so hard to do. I guess we take it for granted because, singing a cappella isn't that hard to do, as long as you can sing a melody line next to someone else singing something completely different from you. That's the magic of harmony singing. In our case, four people singing four different notes at any given time to make four-part harmony.
Some of the more difficult aspects of a cappella are the things that people don't immediately see. One thing that I find difficult is choosing the right songs. I know people will come back to me years after suggesting a song to us and saying "hey, how come you never tried singing that song I mentioned three years ago?". Truth is, we probably did and for whatever reason, it didn't work out.
Part of my job as the principle arranger in After Hours is knowing I may spend an entire day or two arranging a song that may never see the light of day. I would say 2/3 of the songs I have prepared for After Hours have been shelved, either for now or for good. And sometimes they are personal favourites but unfortunately that's not always enough and it is crucial to be able to look at a song and say, "well this isn't working out" and toss it. The last thing you want to do is perform a show and have people say afterwards "that song didn't really fit, kind of filler if you asked me".
So how does a song make the cut? Well since we are the ambassadors of "Doo-Wop" in Toronto it's pretty easy to do anything from that genre. That said, you still want to pick something either a) fun, b) well known, or both. There's literally thousands of "Doo-Wop" songs from the 50's and 60's but if it's not fun and people don't recognize it, no matter how much WE may love it personally, we need to move on from it.
People tend to enjoy songs that evoke an emotion in themselves. So if the song is something they recognize, that usually helps. If the song is fun or tear-jerking, they can forgive the fact that they may not know it. Audience participation songs can be anything but again, the level of "participation" depends on how much they know or enjoy what you are doing. Overall people tend to enjoy the high energy tunes and respond better to those, which is kind of funny as After Hours always ends up with way more ballads than we should and they are also much harder to sing! I often put on "ballad bans" (in fact, there's one on right now) which means guys can't suggest new ballads until we up our up tunes.
So you're likely thinking, "well that doesn't sound too hard, just pick songs that are fun, upbeat and well known". Well, it's not that easy. Now you need to pick songs that match the personality of the group, the personality of the guy who will sing it and make sure it works as a four part a cappella harmony song. That last thing is tough.
For example, from 2002 to 2008, After Hours was a quintet, we had five guys. In 2004 we introduced a little known throwaway track from an "inspired by" The Lion King soundtrack CD called "He Lives In You". The song later gained popularity as it was a centrepiece in the onstage musical of The Lion King but people would come to our shows, to hear that song, even before it was popular. With the specific voices we had in After Hours, that song was our strongest and people loved it. However, in 2009 when After Hours became a quartet with very different voices, the song lost its lustre. Even though we've tried doing it a few times as a quartet, the song always fell flat. Even when we tried to do it as a quintet again last summer at our anniversary show, the song once again, fell flat. So one possible conclusion to be made there is that the voices in the group decide whether the song will be successful or not; not always the song itself.
For example, right now one of our best received songs is Let It Be by The Beatles. The arrangement is actually quite simple and quite repetitive. But I will admit, with the voicing we have, it's hands down one of our best sounding songs. That was not the case when we first sang it in 2003 as a quintet.
So it's important then, to recognize the voices and the personalities behind the voices, as you choose your songs.
Our new guy Glenn has a very powerful, soulful sound. He can sing ballads and up tunes. He also knows a ton of music so it's very easy to pick songs for him. That said, you wouldn't want to get him to sing anything silly. He also has a true baritone sound so nothing super high either.
Yee Kuang has a unique lead voice. His leads are chosen carefully and tend to be higher in melody. But again, you wouldn't want to saddle him with anything tacky or over the top. Nothing too low either.
Jon, being the bass, his leads are few and far between.
And then there's me. It seems my leads are either very epic ballads or silly up tunes. I have the personality to pull them off. I also seem to handle most of the Doo-Wop leads as well. I'm sort of the comic relief of the group.
Overall though, the current personality of the group is a little more serious, a little more soulful and R&B, rather than Doo-Wop.
Then of course there's the songs that people expect and associate with After Hours; Stand By Me, Up On The Roof, The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Come Go With Me, In The Still Of The Night, etc. Thankfully those songs seem universal in their ability to be sung a cappella by anyone but for example, we've made tons of changes to Stand By Me to make it work with the new voices we have and also the quality of the arrangements of the other songs around it... which is another thing you have to consider! If you have nine really tight arrangements and then one kind of loosey-goosey lazy arrangement, it sticks out. Sometimes songs lose out simply because they are too simple compared to the songs around them.
People ask why we don't perform more originals and the answer is simple... people don't respond to them. Polite applause seems to be about the most you can expect from an original composition, mostly because they don't know it, so they have a harder time connecting to it. It's kind of our fault in a way, most of our originals are ballads (surprise, surprise). Perhaps if we wrote something upbeat and kitschy, we'd get a better response?
We and specifically I pay very close attention to the reaction songs get in our shows. You may come to a show and think "wow, that song X was my favourite!" but then you never hear it again. That is likely because the reaction to it was poor overall so we pull the plug on it. The songs mentioned above, the ones people expect to hear, time and time again, get the strong reactions. Yee Kuang and I have probably sung those songs over a thousand times but we continue to sing them because people love them and respond to them.
The best compliment we can get and still do (especially to Up On The Roof) is "I went home and listened to the original version of that song you did, but yours was way better." If we can take a song and make you love our version the best, then we really did it right. We try very hard to bring you fun, interesting and mostly familiar songs and arrange them to make you hear them just slightly differently, to help you recognize how much harmony is inside some of your favourite songs.
So next time you come to a show, when the person next to you says "I wonder how they picked this song?" you'll know why.