Beneath the slick surface of their a cappella performances is a discipline that has demanded every last ounce of their energy. Basix member and musical director John Kjøller reveals the challenges facing 6 voices in a quest for stirring performance and vocal perfection.
It started as a hobby for a group of vocalists with other career plans. This changed with an unforgettable television appearance in 2001. Now Basix has an international following for their unique brand of a cappella music. Wherever they go they evoke laughter, tears and awestruck silence. VoiceCouncil has asked John Kjøller to take us behind the scenes to share the most important lessons learned along the way.
First we have to talk about those “wow” moments Basix creates in every performance. Vocally, what is going on?
Well, we spend hours and hours reviewing tapes of our performances and trying to understand this phenomenon. I’d say there are many different things falling into place at the same time. It may not have anything to do with our vocal tightness. Sometimes it is connected to the lighting. In other words, it may be that the musical groove that suddenly is complemented with a presentational groove.
I am sure you understand some of the forces at work—our readers will want to know…
We have this moment in many of our concerts where three of us lay down our mikes on the floor, pull out our earplugs, walk to the front of the stage and sing a weird and slow version of “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica. There’s always a gasp from the audience. At first they really can’t hear us because there has been so much going on. Then all that “stuff” disappears and everything gets quiet. The audience seems to respond well to being forced to go into an entirely different mode.
Has your relationship with the audience always been this powerful?
There was an occasion when we lost this connection. It was a show we had about a year and half ago—this was a turning point for us. On stage we all simultaneously realized that we were losing the contact that we usually have. But it wasn’t clear to us until we reviewed the tape. We had been focusing on looking great, acting great, dressing great and dancing great; somehow this all got a little out of hand. The audience was still clapping in all the right places, but we knew we were over the top—we had overstepped the special boundary we are trying to create.
How would you describe the type of connection you are seeking with the audience?
There’s a Danish term “Hygge” which is hard to translate into English—but “familial” and “cozy” come close. It’s like you’re with friends and family in an intimate setting. Of course it is harder to create this feeling in a larger venue, especially when the music is louder and we are doing more movement, but this is always what we are aiming for. The original music we are now writing and performing is a part of this feeling. Each of our new songs attempts to share a personal narrative in a way that leaves the audience free to make their own associations and feel their own feelings.
Do you have to be classically trained to pull off the vocal tightness that is woven into the fabric of every song?
No, I am the only classically trained vocalist in the group.
Thinking of groups that may want to include some a cappella work in their repertoire, what tips might you have?
Groups can take one of two paths with a cappella sections. First, they can make up a vocal arrangement around the melody of the section. You don’t have to duplicate all of the harmonies going on instrumentally—only the tones you feel cool about. The other alternative is for your group’s voices to mimic the instrument sound and style. That is, you ask what a particular instrument would do in that section of the song and distill that idea into as few sounds as you can. Do this with all of the instruments, one person in your group emulating each instrument. This is a really creative process that can engage all of the members of a group.
You guys demand a lot from your voices and you are on the road and singing in all kinds of environments. What’s your advice on caring for your voice?
This is an individual thing and everyone has their own ways; some people wear a scarf when it’s cold, or drink a certain kind of tea. But I have to confess that none of us have ever done any of these things. I think the most important thing is knowing your voice and knowing the little signals it’s giving like ‘maybe today, I shouldn’t do this or that in this or that way’. You need to follow your intuition with your singing technique on a daily basis and that’s why we sing right through having a cold. However, I’ve got to talk about this carefully. There is a difference between the voice and the mind. If your mind is convinced you can’t sing, then you can’t. But is this a real barrier? The voice is resilient—if we listen to its signals. If you ignore all of this then, yes, you can do damage by singing with a cold. I think it’s important for singers to keep singing but to stay within the boundaries of the messages that you are getting.
There are other kinds of stresses than vocal ones. You’re on the road constantly together. You not only spend all of the time that most groups do rehearsing and performing but you also spend a great deal of time analyzing performances, practicing choreography and socializing together. Do you ever drive each other crazy?
I have to say it’s worked really well with us. The chemistry has been lucky. We spend an enormous amount of time talking things through— sometimes at least half of our rehearsal time is spent talking about what kinds of styles and arrangements we like. I mean, after all, we are six different guys with six different tastes. Twice a year we devote a session to the big questions of “How is it going for you in the group? What do you need changed for you to feel good about staying in Basix?” We’ve never had a fight; we certainly disagree but we never have had a fight.
[This sounds so super-human that I have asked all of the members of Basix if this is true. I’m relieved when Peter says that he was really mad and yelled at John and a couple of other members a few years ago when the new bass’s solo got dropped off the album. Peter adds: “We often disagree but weseldom fight; talking things through is the key—we invest a lot of time in talk”.]
What is your advise for groups getting along together?
You’ve got to identify what a member is good at and let them go with it. For instance, I’m the “pitch person”, Niels an excellent song-writer-arranger and Peter is the choreographer. We each have an area where we excel—we are allowed to “fly” in that area. But this principle doesn’t only apply to the musical side of things—it applies to the business side as well. Christopher is in charge of all the text stuff on our website; he’s our publicist. Toke is our tour-manager and bus driver and Anders is working at being the main link to our manager. One word of advice I have about business: get as much as you can outside of the group so you can focus on your musical work. It’s good for us to have, for example, our accountant outside of the group.
What’s the most challenging question you’ve been asked at your many workshops?
How do you tell a fellow member of the group that they are out of pitch?
And the answer is…?
Well, groups have to be able to do this—and do it well. It all comes down to respect. There are 2 sides to this: if you are the one doing the correcting, then remember to respect the other person and know that even though they should be able to not take it personally, we are only human beings with feelings. You have to point it out, but if you value that person you are correcting in your mind, this makes it go better. The other side of this is the person who is being corrected. This person has to remember that they are more than their voice; you are not your abilities—you’re you. If I say that you are out of pitch, I am not saying that you are stupid or I don’t like you; I’m not saying anything except that you are out of pitch.
If you want to get into the vocal business and to keep improving, then you have to deal with things that aren’t right. You only get better if you are told when there is something wrong. So, instead of looking at correction as a bad thing, look at it as a good thing: you are getting help.
The press has raved about the group’s “erotic hip movements”—have you always had sexy hip movements John?
No. I’m actually no good at this—Peter is the skilled one. But he makes it look like I’m good at it. I’m not a dancer and this has been an awkward journey for me but now I appreciate how movement can really accent what we are conveying in the music—even my hips.
† Basix’ latest album “Star People” is now available worldwide at all major online outlets including iTunes. The Basix Christmas album, “Christmastime”, has just gone gold in Denmark. This popular work features energetic new arrangements of traditional favorites as well as highly acclaimed original work.
Find out more about Basix at www.basix.dk
© Gregory A. Barker November 2008