It’s a good thing the VoCals had a quiet summer because they were about to work their tails off rehearsing like crazy while continuing to earn money for recording. Fall dues were $150, but that was a drop in the bucket.
They returned early to perform for Campus move-in and promoted auditions with dorm storming, the Involvement Fair and a special welcome back concert at Bovard with all five of USC’s a cappella groups: the Sirens, Reverse Osmosis, Trojan Men, Troy Tones, and the SoCal VoCals.
Previous welcome back concerts had been held at the VKC arches with poor acoustics, bad lighting and sound, no real seating and unpredictable weather. This, thought the board, was a terrible way to welcome freshmen and showcase USC’s a cappella groups. To promote the groups well and to keep a cappella strong at USC, they needed a grand venue like Bovard. And if the show were free, every new student would want to attend. So, over the summer of 2007, Business Manager Joe Sofranko and President Lucy Jackson worked like mad to convince the USC USG Discretionary Board to allocate nearly $3,000 to help the VoCals put on a huge concert featuring all 5 of USC’s a cappella groups. It was tricky because the Discretionary Board members were all out of Los Angeles, attending to their summer jobs and travels. In the end, funding was secured and Dan Payson-Lewis came up with a name. “All Hail A Cappella” was born. A few minutes before curtain, the VoCals wondered aloud, “will anyone come to this thing?” They were relieved to see a surge of people piling directly from the Pardee/ Birnkrant/ New/ North area to Bovard Auditorium. The freshmen looked like a train of ants traveling from their dorms to Bovard. The plan had worked and the VoCals were thrilled.
To this day, All Hail A Cappella is still the first concert of the year, still features all campus a cappella groups, is still free, and most importantly, is still filled to the brim with eager, curious freshmen.
As usual, the VoCals held auditions in Taper Hall of Humanities (THH) followed by callbacks at the house the next week. But, with five a cappella groups now on campus, the timing of acceptance notifications was getting messy. Like many Eastern universities have done for years, the group presidents decided to organize a system for placing accepted members in their most highly-ranked groups. Lucy returned from the meeting with the names of three new members: Rachel Saltzman, Adam Hutchison and Kelley Jakle. The three were promptly welcomed, whisked off to a retreat involving more hot tub adventures, and subjected to a 15-hour photo shoot that resulted in some of the most beautiful VoCal photos you’ve ever seen.
The WebBoard was buzzing with the new nicknames, first-post competitions, major snaps to everything and “happy fun” everything. MySpace was the cool place to learn about the group and hear their tunes, but individual members were hanging out on facebook.
While most groups go on tour in the Spring, the VoCals were willing to go to Alaska in October…for the right price. Yes, seriously. Alaska. They were hired to sing at the University of Alaska at Anchorage for their 14th Annual A Cappella Festival. The rest of the trip was a kitsch-filled party. Since Will and Joe were in The Crucible, and Scott couldn’t go, David Patton was called back for the mini-tour to Alaska.
For their VKC Arches Halloween concert with the Sirens, the VoCals donned “psych ward” costumes and, two days later, hosted the now famous VoCalloween party at the VoCal House, which looked as though it were built just for this event.
Fall brings SCAMfest, of course, and the VoCals performed by the USC bookstore for Homecoming. Since the MacPhails were there, Matt sat in and sang Hooked on a Feeling.
Late fall consisted of recording, rehearsing, recording, recording, and preparing for the Christmas, er, “SoCal HO-HO-HO-Cal Concert” and party.
For the second time, the VoCals sang for announcer Pat Haden’s Christmas party, establishing a tradition. Then, they headed directly to Room 5 to celebrate the 30th birthday of founding member Stacy Burcham. The musical guest for the evening was Gabriel Mann, and of course, the VoCals swayed together and chimed in on their parts during “Got To Go Up To Go Down” – a song that featured the VoCals on Gabriel Mann’s album.
The best the VoCals had ever done at ICCAs was getting runner-up at Semifinals. This year would be different. It had to be. Donald Webber, Jr., had spent months locked in his room studying past ICCA-winning performances on YouTube. Other group members were obsessing over the details of Vocal Point’s stellar 2006 performance and Noteworthy’s noteworthy 2007 performance, both of which took home the crown. This year, it just had to be the VoCals. The group was ready. It’d be nice to say something just clicked! But no, the series of events in the last few pages of this book are the reason it finally clicked. “The Gut Check of Fall 2006” refocused the group and forced the VoCals back into having discipline with their music. The win at Absolut A Cappella in 2007 gave the group the confidence and the choreographer. The East Coast Tour of 2007 brought the group together in a way that only spending every single night with one another can do. The group had bonded in a new way since that Gut Check—both socially and musically.
The only thing the group had yet to learn was this: winning isn’t everything. But not so fast. In the Quarterfinal round at Bovard, winning was everything. Pride was on the line. Two years of heartache, stress, and work were on the line. If the VoCals didn’t win, we would fail in the hearts of many of the seniors like Dan Payson-Lewis, Matt Pollard, David Rakita, Lucy Jackson, Allie Feder, Janel Healy, and Donald Webber, Jr.—an especially talented group that knew that this was their last chance to win. “Feeling Good” was on the set list. It was the best song Dan Payson-Lewis had arranged in over a year, featuring the best singer that we had, David Rakita. No-brainer. It was our opener. The next two songs we struggled and researched and argued over for days. “Movin’ On” was a solid hit at the 2007 Halloween concert, and also featuring one of our best soloists, Allie Feder. It wasn’t a breathtakingly challenging song, but it was solid, and Allie sounded great. Thinking that only a girl could possibly sing the notes of Freddie Mercury, “Somebody to Love” was pitched last. Dan Payson-Lewis surprised everyone, possibly even himself, when he nailed an audition for the solo just a week before the Quarterfinals round.
Lili Fuller, the new choroeographer from Absolut 2007, gladly joined forces with the VoCals, and taught choreography for the whole set that flowed together yet still had varied tones. “Feeling Good” was smooth and cool, “Movin’ On” was hip-hop funk, and “Somebody to Love” was rocking out inside of a prison cell.
Joe Sofranko, then President of the VoCals, needed to motivate the group to work hard, and that began with convincing them that winning was actually possible. Here is a transcript of an email that he sent on January 14, 2008, two weeks before the Quarterfinal round of ICCAs:
To the current group of USC’s SoCal VoCals:
We can and will win the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.
Believe it. Really believe it. I believe we can. And if you believe too, then we WILL.
Our group is very strong right now. There is no better time for us to enter such a big competition. This is the year the VoCals will win ICCAs.
We have some of the best singers in this university in our group. We’ve only lost a few members in the last year, so we are strong and experienced. Our soloists rock. Our part-singers solid. Our seniors are amazing, and our newbies are quick and excited.
For the seniors: Let this competition be the lasting mark you make on this group, a final hurrah, one last effort for this group into which you’ve put so much energy for the last however-many years. You can be the group that wins the VoCals the national ICCA title.
For the underclassmen: Excluding the Senior Send-Off Concert, this is arguably the best way for you to honor your uppers, the best way for you to give back to the people who fought for you to get into this group in the first place.
And for everyone: Let us honor ourselves by working hard. By focusing. By seeing the goal and going for it with everything we’ve got.
When was the last time you really, really wanted something and you fought for it? I mean really fought hard, with tooth and nail? Let’s rekindle that spirit and bring it to this competition. Let this competition fuel you. Ignite the fire within yourself.
We are going for the national title here, only in our case it’s not a sport. But the idea is the same. In a way, being in the VoCals IS like being on a sports team. Let’s get that national title.
And the way we can do that is by working together. We are a team. And we are going up against other teams first from Southern California, then from the West Coast, and finally from the whole United States. Being on a team take patience, courage, compromise, and cooperation. It takes mutual respect for other teammates. It takes dedication and hard work.
We have the talent, we have the skill, and we have the dream. So let’s reach that dream by bringing positive energy to practice. By supporting each other. By uplifting the spirit and by eliminating the congenital naysaying.
Think back to what made you want to join this group. Remember that excitement and passion. And show up to these rehearsals being the VoCal that you know you can be.
Let us support each other on this journey. We’ve got two weeks. We can fucking do this. We’re the VoCals.
Your faithful President,
Too early to predict winning the whole thing? Maybe. When the VoCals won Quarterfinals, the seniors, and everyone, felt relieved. They were good enough to do this. But winning Semifinals would require a different level of determination. After careful discussion, the group decided it would be best to drop “Movin On’” from the set. Allie sounded great, but it wasn’t doing for what they needed that middle song to do. It needed to move people, to be something that was inherently unique, and it needed to be more challenging and more musically interesting. The song was almost never found, but David Rakita finally pitched a version of “All the Things You Are.” When the group agreed, Rakita worked quickly to transcribe the original and tweak the ending so it created something more powerful for us. With less than two weeks to go before the Semifinals in Marin, the group learned one of the most challenging songs the VoCals have ever sung. And Lili Fuller guided the group in some of the simplest, most beautiful choreography the VoCals had ever performed. Everyone knew it: this song was magical.
In Marin, nerves flared again upon seeing the likes of their biggest rivals, an all-star lineup of groups–Vocal Point, Noteworthy, Divisi, Scattertones, These Guys, Fermata Nowhere, and Golden Overtones. Just performing among these talented groups was an honor. But then, the VoCals who had previously been so obsessed with nothing but winning did one simple thing—they released themselves of the pressure of winning. It happened in some side room of the Marin Center that they weren’t supposed to be in. They nabbed the room to run the set once through with full singing and choreography. It was hard to find a place, but this room seemed tucked away so that no one would find it. And it was in this room that the energy of the VoCals changed. They suddenly felt that they had earned their place and no longer needed to prove to anyone else or any other group that they deserved to be there or that maybe they deserved to win. No, they realized…they loved singing…and they loved each other. And that was about it. They decided in this room that Semifinals was no longer about winning, but about giving music and story to the audience. If they could move one person out there, they’d consider this a success. And in their final run-through in that room, there was not a dry eye, as the group suddenly felt the passion all coming to a head, the hard working paying off, and the pure, joyous release in making music with your best friends. Winning didn’t matter after this run-through, because they knew they had something special.
Needless to say, the VoCals brought the energy to the stage. “Feeling Good” was as dreamy as ever. “All the Things You Are” was followed by audible incredulous gasps from the audience. “Somebody to Love” brought down the house. Lili texted the group “you just won.” The audience agreed, there was no doubt. The VoCals walked away from Semifinals that night with the highest score in ICCA history. Dan Payson-Lewis won Best Soloist for “Somebody to Love”, Lili won Best Choreography, and for the first time, the VoCals were going to New York to compete in the Finals at Lincoln Center.
The group considered winning Semifinals a complete victory, and going to Finals at all was just icing on the cake. Joe Sofranko and Ben Bram spent their spring breaks securing hotels, arranging flights and all travel arrangements. Joe insisted upon not making group members pay for anything on the trip other than their food. So he went on an ambitious fundraising campaign that raised an impressive $13,000 for in less than a month. This money paid for everything on the New York trip, and the bonus amount went to securing the first ever Senior Send-Off Concert in the Bing Theater and also some checks to Asylum to cover recording costs for the album, “Unanimous.”
The group made it to New York, stayed at the Blakeley Hotel, rented a rehearsal space in midtown, and ultimately performed on that glorious Lincoln Center stage in Avery Fischer Hall. The pressure on the group felt low, surprisingly, considering it was the Finals. You’d think this would be the climax of the story, but rather it was more of a denouement. They did some interviews and some videos for podcasts. They went onstage, they did well, and then they won. Not as thrilling as Marin emotionally, but it certainly was a landmark in the SoCal VoCals’ history. For the first time, the group had won the ICCAs, something that had seemed impossible for years. It was surreal, not only for the group members, but for the alumni all over the country and those who had flown in for the occasion. As an encore, the group sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” featuring Janel Healy, and then at the “official” Varsity Vocals after-party the group sang “Dirt Road,” featuring newbie Mike Coverley.
But there was an even better party that happened after the “official” party. It occupied Abbocato, a restaurant filling the entire bottom floor of the Blakeley, which was rented out by Ann and Matt MacPhail for the sole purpose of throwing a huge celebration for the VoCals, no matter what the outcome. Fortunately the VoCals won, because it made the party that much sweeter! Tons of alumni and family members came out that night, many songs were sung, and many crazy things happened. The group was proud.
The next morning (which felt more like the middle of the night) began around 6 am when the VoCals forced themselves out of their comas and taxied on over to Rockefeller Center to tape a segment on “The Today Show.” The group was struggling, but you couldn’t tell, as they managed to rock “Somebody to Love” with adapted, condensed choreography for TV. Dan “cords of steel” Payson-Lewis impressively pulled out some of Freddie’s notes early in the morning despite the night’s heavy drinking. David Rakita didn’t make it out of the dressing room. But at least he had fun the night before. Or maybe it was the calamari. We’ll never know.
And that’s the story of ICCAs 2008.
Spring Auditions in 2008 were more dramatic than usual because both of the guys the VoCals accepted just happened to be previous members of the Troy Tones. Kenton Chen had dropped out of the Troy Tones nearly a year prior to auditioning for the VoCals, but Mike Coverley was technically still in the Troy Tones when he auditioned for the SoCal VoCals. Needless to say, this caused some bad blood between the Troy Tones and the VoCals, but ultimately, the choice was entirely in the hands of the individuals who wanted to be in different groups. They joined in the midst of a thrilling semester.
As Kenton recalls, the tradition of welcoming new members freaked him out a bit. The group surprised each of them in their rooms. In Kenton’s case, they actually snuck inside his balcony and banged on his door. He was sound asleep and assumed they were crazy drunks, but eventually he went along to kidnap Coverley. In the end, they got Doughboy’s cakes, so it was all worth it!
The group took its first ever Spring Retreat to Ben Bram’s parents’ house in Brentwood. It proved to be a nice physical escape from USC’s bounds as well as a way to bond and prepare musically for ICCAs. Oh, and it was a big party. Duh.
About this time, The SoCal VoCals created a musician/band page so people could “like” them and become fans. While “The SoCal VoCals and Friends” already existed as a group page (since Jan 2007) this one allowed them to display a discography, videos and samples of their songs. Still, the scvocals.com WebBoard was extremely busy. There was a lot to talk about, publicly and privately.
A Cappella Olympics happened again, but with less success than 2007 due to rain and conflicts of certain groups. Still, much debauchery was had at the VoCal House, and the 2008 Games brought a little bit more mixing of the groups than the year before.
Lisa Barkett and the Trojan League of San Diego began a strong history of supporting the VoCals. The group took a trip down to San Diego, did a full-length concert, and received donations from many, many, supportive USC alumni in the area.
In a heartwarming experience, The VoCals were honored to open for the Young@Heart Chorus, at the Wilshire Theater. This was also the last run-through before heading to New York for the ICCA Finals.
March 2008 saw the group’s first ever VoCommedus Show. This was the brain child of Joe Sofranko who thought that it would be cool to team up with Commedus Interruptus, USC’s premiere improv troupe, and collaborate on a show together that combined improvisation and a cappella. Games for the show included: VoCals singing a song without a soloist and a Commedus member made up a solo based on a suggestion from the audience; VoCals providing soundtrack for a longer-form improv scenes that fed off of the music; freeze tag improv where two Commedus members would do a scene and then get tapped out by two VoCals who would go on and sing a portion of the scene; sound effects, and more… The show was a success, and the tradition carried on.
With last-second preparation, The VoCals decided to compete in Absolut A Cappella, though it did seem rather trivial after returning from Lincoln Center in New York. Thinking it would feel kind of cheap to just do the ICCA set again, the VoCals challenged themselves to do different material, with the exception of “All the Things You Are,” which they had yet to perform on USC’s campus. Without really trying (much unlike 2007), the VoCals took home the bottle of Absolut and the USC glory. The ICCA discipline made the group better musicians for all of their songs—not just the three that were performed over and over.
May 2008 saw the group’s first Senior Send-Off Concert in the Bing Theatre. Previous Send-Offs had been at Ground Zero and the Village Gate Theatre. The seniors agreed that the Bing was a classier, more intimate choice than Bovard. For this sendoff, all of the seniors had solos arranged especially for them. The YouTube video of Allie singing Katie Perry’s song, “Thinking of You” earned her some high praise from Katie Perry, herself. The group said farewell to a large group of incredible talent: Matt Pollard, Dan Payson-Lewis, Lucy Jackson, Allie Feder, Janel Healy, Donald Webber, Jr., and David Rakita, who was the subject of the longest sendoff speech to date. It was fitting: Rakita had spent five full years in the group.
The VoCals and friends retreated to the house to savor a few more moments together. As if it were planned, Gabriel Mann sat at the piano and performed a few songs while all reflected on the talent in the room, the incredible year, and these friends that were leaving — but not just yet.
Because the rest of the semester was so jam-packed, during the week after Senior Send-Off, the group (including the just-graduated seniors) settled down to record a number of tracks that would eventually find their way onto “Unanimous” months later.