A cappella idols | News | Palo Alto Online |


A cappella idols

Pentatonix, Kelly Clarkson come to Shoreline

In 2002, 10-year-old Kirstin Maldonado watched a fellow Texan named Kelly Clarkson make reality-television history as the first winner of the singing competition, "American Idol."

"I grew up 15 minutes away from her," Maldonado said of the woman who would become a pop superstar and one of Maldonado's childhood role models. Nearly a decade later, as part of the a cappella group Pentatonix, Maldonado herself was crowned the winner of "The Sing-Off," another TV vocal contest. This summer, Clarkson and Pentatonix, along with singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, have teamed up on a national tour that includes a stop at Mountain View's Shoreline Amphitheatre on Sunday, Aug. 23.

Though the group gained fame from TV exposure, Pentatonix is no manufactured act. Maldonado grew up with bandmates Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi; they all sang together at Martin High School in Arlington, Texas. They went their separate ways in college, with Maldonado earning a full scholarship to study musical theater at the University of Oklahoma. But Hoying called upon Maldonado and Grassi to reform the group in 2011, along with two new members to round out the low-end sound: bass vocalist Avi Kaplan and beat boxer/cellist Kevin Olusola. They named their quintet after the pentatonic scale -- a five-note scale common in western music -- and quickly developed a worldwide following, thanks not only to their "Sing-Off" win but also to their YouTube covers of popular songs by artists including Beyoncé , Katy Perry and many others.

Social media and fan interaction have been crucial to their success, as well as personally important, Maldonado said.

"Once you come off a reality show it's easy to fade out, so it's important to stay connected with our fan base," she said. "It's really fun, too. We're really close to our fans."

Now signed, like Clarkson, to RCA Records, Pentatonix has gained millions of YouTube video subscribers, released several records (including a best-selling Christmas album) and a tour documentary, and even won a Grammy for its a cappella tribute to French electronic music duo, Daft Punk.

Developing their intricate vocal arrangements is a collaborative effort, Maldonado said.

"We sit in a circle and it's just a really organic process," she said, adding that their compositional process is similar to that of an instrumental band in that the rhythm parts -- in their case the beat boxing and bass lines -- usually come first. She described it as a trial-and-error method of perfecting the complex vocal harmonies and counterpoints, often with the help of longtime producer Ben Bram, who's been with them since the "Sing-Off" days.

Though most famous for its cover versions of popular songs, the group is currently working on an album of original music. Maldonado said all five members of Pentatonix contribute to the songwriting.

"It's totally been a learning process of what we wanted our sound to be like," she said. "We're all very active in the process." The songs and styles on the new album, which is due out later this year, will reflect the diversity in taste of the band members.

"I think it's pretty eclectic," Maldonado said. "We have our signature sound, but there's definitely a song in there for everyone."

That variety is what makes Pentatonix work so well, both musically and socially, Maldonado said, explaining that each member brings something special to the group.

"Kevin is the 'smart' one, the most organized, the 'dad,'" she said of Yale-educated Olusola. "He was pre-med, and he can speak Chinese fluently. He's incredible, and he works the hardest." Deep-voiced Kaplan is "the most passionate. He's so dedicated and goes full out for everything to make sure it can be the best it can be." Her band co-founders and childhood friends, Grassi and Hoying, are two peas in a pod, serving as court jesters, motivators and spirit lifters. "They're so funny," she said. "Anytime anyone has a bad day they make us laugh." Maldonado said she sees her bandmates as beloved -- and only occasionally exasperating -- brothers. "We're all very different and relate in different ways. It's a big family," she said.

When not performing and recording as Pentatonix, the members branch out into other projects. Maldonado said she'd like to get back into musical theater eventually.

"I would absolutely love it. My dream was always to be on Broadway someday," she said, naming the titular part in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita" as a "dream role." Describing herself as bookish and introverted growing up, Maldonado said she still loves to read and write and has recently started a blog on her personal website, kirstinmaldonado.com, where she shares some of her anxieties, hopes and dreams with her fans.

A month into the two-and-a half-month tour, Maldonado said she's looking forward to her first trip to Silicon Valley. Fans in the audience at Shoreline can expect many familiar tunes as well as a handful of songs from the new work in progress.

"We're throwing in new songs as we release them and gauging the audience's reaction," she said. She and her crew are hoping their live success translates to their upcoming original record. "It's something we're really proud of," she said.

As for what it's like to tour alongside her childhood idol, Maldonado said Clarkson remains a role model.

"She's so inspiring," Maldonado said, adding, "She's just normal and genuine. She proves you can be yourself and stand up for yourself" -- and be a success in the music industry.

What: Kelly Clarkson, Pentatonix and Eric Hutchinson

Where: Shoreline Amphitheatre, 1 Amphitheatre Parkway, Mountain View

When: Sunday, Aug. 23, 7 p.m.

Cost: Tickets start at $24

Info: Go to theshorelineamphitheatre.com.

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