CoLab INC’s Executive Director, Ryan Dye, talks with Kevin Olusola, singer, producer and beatboxer for the Grammy-award winning a cappella group Pentatonix.
Kevin shares his journey as a young musician who was discovered on YouTube with his “celloboxing” cover of Mark Summer’s “Julie-O" and, after completing pre-med studies and a degree in East Asian Studies at Yale University, joined Pentatonix,who went on to win the 3rd season of NBC’sThe Sing Off. Kevin shares his passion for supporting other young musicians and the role his faith plays in inspiring all that he does.
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From CoLab INC, it's There to Here, a show about entrepreneurs, innovators, and investors, and the impact they seek to make on the world. I'm Ryan Dye, executive director of CoLab. And on today's show we talked with Kevin Olusola. Cellist, wrapper record producer, singer, songwriter, and along with Kirstin Maldonado, Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi and Matt Sallee is the beatboxer for the Grammy winning acapella group Pentatonix. So Kevin, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. It's crazy to hear all that because I'm just like, I'm just a musician. I just making music. So that's just a crazy thing to hear.
It was hard to narrow it down, so that was the best I could come up with. But you've got an incredible background. As a professional musician myself, I have a great appreciation for your background having started your musical training at an early age. I did as well. And you started with piano, cello, alto saxophone, and were heavily involved in music throughout your education. Winning competitions, touring with wind ensembles, marching bands, jazz bands, orchestras, and even performed at Carnegie hall more than once. As the saying goes, how did you get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice?
You must have practiced a lot. However, once you got to Yale university, music was not your intended career path. What were your initial plans?
My initial plans was to be a doctor. I was an East Asian studies major, so I was studying Chinese, and I was also premed, so my whole thought was that I was going to be a doctor that lived in China, did cultural diplomacy work because of the music side of me, but then also did a lot of missionary work there too.
That's awesome. Yeah. They have an incredible program at Yale. I have a friend who did medical school at Yale and really, really liked it a lot. You've been credited with developing the art of beatboxing. Or celloboxing, I should say, playing cello and beat boxing simultaneously. And your celloboxing version of Mark Summer's Julie-O went viral on YouTube in 2011. How did that connect you to Pentatonix?
Oh my gosh. Well, I love that piece so much. It was the first piece as I was starting to develop this art that made me figure out how to play my cello musically, in addition to add a beat that had to also be musical at the same time. Previous to that I was just doing beats with the beatboxing and just some sort of simple groove on the cello. So it was really hard. And what people don't know about that, a lot of people say, "Oh, he just put it up and then all of a sudden you had all the success." I worked on that piece for about a year to really get it down. So the video went on up sometime in April of 2011, and lo and behold, I got a text the next day from a friend that said, "Do you know that your video is number four on Reddit?" And I was like, "What are you talking about?" So it was getting hundreds of thousands of views and at that time that was pretty viral for YouTube since it was in its early days.
And what happened was I got two messages. One from a guy named Ben Bram who is our producer as the band, but he was also a producer on the TV show The Sing Off. And he had called me while I was doing work as a practice monitor at the Yale school of music. He called me randomly said, "Hey, I'm part of this group called the Sing Off. We want to actually have you be part of one of the teams on this TV show." And I said, "Okay, thanks, bye." Hung up. Because I was like, "This is not real." And then he called me again and I was like, "How do you have my number?" And he said he got it from one of the guys on The Sing Off previously because The Whiffenpoofs, which is the Yale group, was on the show. So he said, "Yeah, we'd really love for you to do it." And I was like, "Okay, whatever, maybe. Let me think about it."
And then I got a message from Scott Hoying, who's one of the band members. And he said, "I would love for you to be part of it. I don't have any money but I can pay for half your ticket to go to meet us." And so I said, "You know what? Why not?" I was about to go to music school for a couple of years before I started to try to do medical school stuff. So I said, "You know what, this will be a good fun thing to do. Why not?" And so I graduated. And then immediately after I graduated from college, I met them maybe two weeks later, the day before the audition of the TV show.
And it was like magic happened. We sang and we just had the sound from the beginning that all of us were so confused by just the first time we sang. And it just led to us being on the TV show and then winning the TV show.
Wow, that's incredible. Talk about how stars align had a moment.
I mean, at the last minute, I guess you could say.
Yeah, it was nuts. It's something that I still can't believe happened, but I would say it's Providence because so many things had to happen for this to be even possible, so I'm thankful.
For sure. Yeah, that's incredible. So Pentatonix do a good deal of cover versions of pop music. And I'm going to be honest, and this is no disrespect to the original artists, but I think your versions are often better than the original.
Oh, that's very kind. Thank you.
And it's just my opinion, of course. But I think what's amazing is there's quite a process obviously that has to go into deconstructing a piece of music and go, "Okay, now we're going to put this into four or five voices acapella," and still get that energy and vibe of the music without the instrumentation. I would imagine that's a process. Where do you start in that?
Well, you know what, that's a very good question. Normally we sit together in a circle and literally just start throwing ideas. Almost like if there was a white board for music that we just throw our ideas out and see what hits, and from there we just discuss the outline. We get a very basic outline, but the cool thing is that we're five very, very different people. So as we're talking about these things, what's nice is that if we all an idea, we believe that a lot of other people are going to it too, because we all have very different musical backgrounds. So we'll just throw ideas out. But it usually starts with me adding some sort of beat and they'll be inspired by that. The bass singer starts to add his part to see if it actually works with my beat.
And then we usually figure out who's going to do the melody. Depending on if there's a song for a girl, then maybe Kristy will do it. Or if it has really, really, really high parts, maybe Mitch'll that do that part. So we just figure out who does the melody, and then usually figuring out the background parts is a little bit easier because there's only two other harmonies you have to add. So we just follow that process and then we go back and just try to see how we can add moments to the piece. Moments where people go, "Oh my gosh, did you see them do that?" Or "Whoa, I can't believe that just happened."
So something that's a little unique or different.
Yeah, exactly. Something that only voices could do that makes it super different from what you'll get from the original.
Yeah. I would imagine you might have the experience where you're working on a song and maybe you get partway into it and realize, "You know, this one just may not work to do acapella," or "We're not quite finding the right pieces here." Is that something you encountered?
That's very fair to say. We've definitely encountered that. There are two songs I think about. We tried Madness by Muse.
I mean, it's a wonderful song.
It's just that for acapella it just didn't work very well because there was a repetitiveness that we felt didn't work for our personal style, that we couldn't figure out the interesting contours that would make this song for us be re-imagined in a way that people would like it. So we stopped doing that one. And then I think I Knew You Were Trouble by Taylor Swift.
That's one we tried that we tried every which way, but we just could not figure out how we could put our unique spin on it. So we were like, "It's time to give that one up."
We'll just leave it to Taylor.
Yeah, exactly. We'll just let Taylor take the original. It works great for her, so...
Have you had artists who hear you do one of their songs and say, "Oh man, I really love your version," or "Oh, man, I'm irritated Pentatonix did one of my songs?"
It's cool. It's actually been really positive. Pharrell's reached out before. Who else? Gotye reached out. Actually it's funny, our arranger and producer, Ben Bram, he was at a bar, and Gotye came up to him and said, "Hey, I'm Gotye. I just heard y'alls cover version of my song Somebody That I Used to Know, and I love it. And so that was really cool. Yeah, we've had a few people reach out, which has been super, super exciting for us.
Yeah, that would be neat. And some songs I think lend themselves to taking it and being really creative. That particular song, Someone That I Used to Know, I think I've heard a few different versions of that by different groups, and they're all different and unique, and yeah, that's a great take on that song.
So I think that's a Testament to good songwriting, honestly.
And my hat's off to the songwriters for that, for sure.
How did you get interested in beatboxing, of all things? Having this musical training and upbringing and all these different instruments, that's a pivot.
Yeah. I mean, listen, there's so many people that thought that I thought I was going to be doing beatboxing for my life and I'm like, "Absolutely not." This is the furthest thing I could have ever thought to do. I just always was making sounds with my mouth. I didn't necessarily know it was beatboxing. I just was making sounds all the time experimenting. And my parents would be... They'd be driving, and I'm in the backseat doing this, and my dad would just always often look at me and be like, "Shut up. Oh my gosh, I'm driving." He'd be so ticked.
But then I actually went to boarding school at a place called Phillips Academy in Andover Mass. And while I was there, I was making these sounds just for fun because I normally do it. And a guy came to me and said, "You know what you're doing is called beatboxing, right." And I'm like, "I don't know what that is." And then he showed me some beat boxers and I was like, "That's cool. I didn't know there was something more concrete." And he said, "I'm actually part of an acapella group on campus. I'd actually love for you to come and maybe use some of your sounds for what we're doing." So I recorded their album for them using my beatboxing, and I was like, "That's really, really cool," but then I never did acapella again because I was like, "I don't know. It's not for me. Kind of cheesy. I'm not going to..."
And that's even when they asked me to be part of the TV show because I had seen four years of Yale acapella. And I mean, kudos to that and I love it. But for me, I was like, "Ah, just don't think I want to do this." Who knew that it was going to be my profession? It still confuses me today, but it's awesome. I love it.
Well somewhere that group from Phillips Academy is probably saying, "How did we let that guy go? And Pentatonix picked him up."
That's so funny.
So I saw an interview you did on NBC news where you were asked to do some short beat boxes based on a scenario. I thought that was incredibly creative.
Oh my god, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.
So I'm wondering if you'd be willing to oblige us with something similar just for a moment.
Yeah, that would be super fun.
Because I thought it was a great way to show what you do and just a snippet, you know?
So here's the list that she came up with. So here's the scenario. Waiting in long line for coffee.
Running to catch the bus. You're late for work.
Oh shoot. Like, (beatboxing).
Excellent. You want to chat up a cute girl in class.
Oh, I remember this. This was like, (beatboxing.)
I remember that one. That was like... Yeah.
And then lastly, things didn't go well with this girl. You've had heartbreak and you just went through a breakup.
Oh, I remember this, was like, (sad beatboxing).
Perfect. Well thanks for sharing that with us. It gave us a great snippet of what you can do.
Of course. That's so funny. I love that.
So you're part of this acapella super group. You've won the Sing Off recording contract several albums later. You've done world tours, and you've experienced success. It's a wonderful thing. Well, with that success comes a great deal of responsibility.
There are countless stories of musicians who get that big contract and experience fame and it destroys their life because they don't understand small print on a contract, or how to handle money, and the fame. Did those thoughts go through your mind, that "Hey, we've made it now, now what?"
Well, let me approach it this way. So when we won the TV show, I think a lot of people think that the ascent immediately after that is going to be super quick. Just because now you have this fan base from this TV show, all the stars have aligned. I think the thing that we realized is that this is definitely not going to be an easy road. Just by the fact that 30 days after we won the TV show, we got dropped immediately. Yeah. People don't know that we got dropped. We had a contract with a Sony record label, and they said, "Listen, we've never seen any precedent of an acapella group making it in the mainstream. So we just rather would get y'all off the contract, and we'll see how you guys do on your own."
Thanks but no thanks.
So for us, thankfully that was great because the contract was terrible. It was really bad towards us. We didn't see it as a blessing at the time because we were new, very green into the industry, but our manager said, "You guys have no idea what blessing this is. Now you guys get to figure out what you are, and you can utilize that fan base to start to grow something of yourself and make it really truly authentic to you without some sort of label or group telling you how to do things."
So that's when we just moved into certain apartments, I mean we all lived in one apartment complex in LA, and just started to get together every single day, arranging songs, we were working on our first album, you know what I mean?
And I'm so happy for that because then once we finally built up the success that we had and showed growth potential through YouTube and then eventually showed product market fit, if you will, through having a Christmas single do really well, which was Little Drummer Boy, when record labels came to us, we already had all the success thankfully to back up our claim saying that you're going to have to give us a great contract. And we have an amazing one. I'm thankful. And our record label is really, really wonderful. They've done so much great work with us. And so I'm so thankful for the ups and downs that we've had because it definitely gave us thicker skin, tougher armor, and we know how to conduct ourselves better in business.
Yeah, I could see that being beneficial because sometimes you get excited and think, "Oh, we've made it here. We're going to get a contract." And like you said, it may not be a good one.
Yeah, it may not be a good one.
But you don't understand that at the time.
No, 100%. It may not be a good one or just the fact that you don't realize that this is going to be a much... You getting the contract is just the beginning. Right? It's the beginning. It's only the beginning. Now you have to put in the work to still make the success and I think sometimes people feel like, "Oh, I'm just going to let the record label take over." You still have to make sure that this is authentically you and that you're steering the ship.
Absolutely. Yeah, you've got to hold some cards. Yeah. In that process for sure. So you've done some independent projects. I understand an album is coming out or has come out here, real quick.
Oh, yeah. I've been working on original music for a long time, but I'm putting out a project of cover songs that have just always influenced me throughout time. And I think it was a really great way to showcase first and foremost my voice, because I don't usually sing in Pentatonix because I'm beatboxing and there's nobody else that can beatbox. So it would be a great way to showcase that. But also how I think of arranging, how I think about music productions, the sonics that really influence me, utilizing my cello and my instrumentation in different ways, and it's been super fun. So yeah, I'm really, really excited for that project to come out.
Yeah. And what's it called?
It's called the Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood EP.
Awesome. By the way, I love your solo cover of Michael Jackson's Human Nature. That's one of my favorites.
Thanks, man. I appreciate that.
You've done several of these where you're a one man band, you're doing keyboard, percussion, vocals, back, vocals, cello. I mean it's the whole gamut. And it's so incredible because you can see these on YouTube and watch you do it, which I think is part of the excitement of the song. And I definitely encourage listeners to check it out because it's just an amazing thing. And again, as a musician, I'm so impressed by all the different things you're doing and how you're utilizing technology. And so I hear that song and I'm like, "Man, that is an incredible cover of that song. It's just fantastic." So way to go. We're looking forward to a hearing your album as well.
Another project that you've done recently is a YouTube series called Where Music Lives with Kevin Olusola. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yeah, so there's this incredible nonprofit organization that I have the pleasure of working with called From The Top. And they're an organization that takes the best young classical musicians in the country and showcases them on NPR. I did the program whenever I was a high school student. And I loved them so much, and I loved the opportunity that they gave to allow students to think broadly about what a music career could look like.
Because there's so many talented students, but there's some that might not be thinking about what music should be in their life in terms of a career. So they at least open that up. And so I loved it, and I wanted to be a part of what they do as Pentatonix has had the success, and so we talked about a project that we could work with, it was the series that we did together. And for us, instead of bringing kids to Boston where they showcase them on NPR, we wanted to go to where they are. See their authentic backgrounds, see where they grew up, and how they think about music, where they are, and tell their story a little bit. Which has been super fun, super nice that it really is that classical music or really any type of music can come from anywhere. Especially because we have technology to allow us to showcase that musical gift that so many people have now.
Absolutely. Have there been a couple seasons of that? It's a new series, correct?
It's just a new series that we started. We're still figuring out the next steps for it, but it was just a pilot, if you will. Something that we just wanted to try and see how people would react. And it's been nice to see that the reaction's been so overwhelmingly positive.
Absolutely. Well, and again, you highlight some incredibly talented young musicians, and one in particular that I enjoyed watching was... I'm not going to remember his name unfortunately, but the concert pianist and concert violinist wrapped into one.
Oh, Ray Ushikubo.
Yes. That floored me because it takes so much talent and skill to develop doing concertos with orchestras as a soloist on any instrument, let alone two. And that blew me away because that's a whole other level.
Yeah, no, that guy is absolutely insane.
I just kept thinking to myself, how do you do all that practicing? And he told me in the interview, he goes, "Yeah, if I have a full day to myself, I'll practice eight hours a day, four on one instrument, four on the other." And I'm like, "Who? Who has the time?." Even me as a musician, I'm still working always to make sure I have time to practice just an hour every single day. And I make sure I have that time just to have that and continue my skills. But he's doing four hours on two instruments. I was like, "My gosh, man." It's incredible. I'm so inspired by that.
Yeah. Well, the dedication and focus is evident for sure.
Yeah. So, as a Christian, your faith is very important part of who you are and has a profound impact on what inspires you as a musician. You've started a ministry called Imagine LA Community that you described as for dreamers, entrepreneurs, young professionals, about how faith is relevant in their lives. Can you share a bit more about that ministry?
Yeah, 100%. A few years ago, me and some friends had this thought that being in Los Angeles... It's an amazing place. It's the social creative capital of the world. It's this place where dreamers and entrepreneurs, creatives, they come here because they have this dream, they have these gifts. But what if they realize that that gift and that dream had a deeper purpose to their life, right? That we're more than what we do, right? There's a deeper purpose to that. An may be faith is a part of that conversation for them. And so we just wanted to create a safe space for people to learn how faith and that biblical context might be relevant in their lives as dreamers.
Because I think sometimes church I've seen or other communities, they'll look at these people and think they're weird or outliers because they're thinking about things in a very gray area, and not everything's black and white. Well, my thing is God was never a black and white God. He thought in the gray, he thought within the context of contextualizing things for other people so that they can understand who he is. And I think a lot of creators want to do that, and they need to say space to think how can they do that safely, but make sure that their faith is intact, right? So that's why we do that. It's been super fun. We've been meeting on Friday nights over Zoom, and they've been really, really good. I mean, it's usually 60 plus people from all these different countries where we come together and talk about these kinds of ideas.
That's fantastic. So it allows for a great space to share thoughts and connect and communicate, especially in with we're in a pandemic period and we're not able to get together. We're adjusting to that reality at the moment. But do you get together in the LA area in a particular place or just generally connect online?
So normally we would do it every other Friday in LA, in Culver City. But when the pandemic happened, we had to quickly switch and pivot to Zoom, as a lot of places have. And so it's been funny. That's where we've been starting to see our boom. Normally we would have 15 to 20 people being able to talk about things, and now it's consistently been over 60 people. The first time we had four different countries. The last one we had, it was six or seven different countries that were represented as we're talking about these kinds of issues and faith.
And it's been cool. It's, been great to see these people being like, "I never knew that faith or God or Jesus could even be a part of this conversation in my life." And it's been really wonderful to see people's ideas of faith break down a little bit so they can be maybe more open to what God has for them.
That's wonderful. Sounds a great opportunity to share authenticity.
Yeah, exactly. It's been really wonderful.
Yeah. That's excellent. So, Kevin, there's no doubt in my mind that you were put on this earth to do what you're doing and that's bring joy and inspiration to people through music. I believe the spirit of entrepreneurship calls us to be bold, try new things, take chances, and be passionate about what you do regardless of the discipline. That said, what advice would you give to a young entrepreneur in the early days of their journey?
Wow, that's a very good question. I mean, we talk about this at Imagine LA Community, that the first thing that we have to do is understand the unique things that we personally can do that's only to us, right? Those things that just come naturally to us. The way we think about stuff, cultivating those idiosyncrasies that we have. Because some people say, "Oh that's weird." Maybe that's the thing that God has called you to use to do such incredible things that open people's mind to what creativity actually looks like. So I would say that's the very first thing. Just cultivate those idiosyncrasies, those nuanced things that you could do, those unique gifts and talents that only you can do.
And then the second thing is always strive to do it excellently. I think sometimes in this YouTube age or this internet age, people feel fame is something that anybody can get with Instagram, with Twitter, right? But you still have to make sure that it's done excellently, that you're not just doing something for the video, but you're cultivating a talent so that when people ask you to do it in concert you can actually still reproduce that, right? Just make sure that you're doing it very excellently, that the product is really, really wonderful so that people are really inspired by what you're doing.
And then also I would just always say, this is just me, get enough rest. Because sometimes they feel in this, in this industry, you're supposed to be staying up late every single night, working hard, blah, blah, blah. It's like, sleep. Just sleep well. You'll be able to be more creative in the morning. I promise. Your head will work better when you got that creative juice firing. So just sleep.
Good advice regardless. Everyone should do that.
Exactly. 100%. Exactly.
Yeah. Well I appreciate that insight. Again, thinking as a musician, when I was younger I taught privately and taught several different piano students, and I know often I would talk to my students and their parents because I would have people come up to me after I'd played for something and they would often say, "I used to study music." Well they'd say, "I quit," and they would say, "I sure wish I hadn't." I've never heard someone say, "I quit, and I sure am glad I did." Never had anyone tell me that. And the reason I share that story is because I think that whether it's being a musician or you're trying to be an expert in golf or whatever it may be that's a skill for example, that takes practice and time and dedication, I think that's so applicable in whatever someone might do in life because it teaches you perseverance.
And that when something's challenging, it takes time to get there, to a point where you feel like, "Wow, I feel good about what I'm producing here because it's of high quality." I mean, you talked about that. And I think that again, if someone's pursuing business or a career in a particular field find, find something that maybe isn't in that field, that's a skillset that requires you to practice or to dedicate some time to getting better at it. Because I think that can cross over to anything else you're doing. I know this will take me time to get better and I'm going to use that tenacity in everything I do in life and that perseverance. So that's my 2 cents on that.
No, I completely agree. I mean I think you've touched on two things. It was find something that somebody else isn't doing. Find your niche and hone in on that niche in a way that people say, "Oh that's the only person that can do... That's crazy. I love what they're doing. That's amazing." I think that's the story of Pentatonix. And it took a lot of practice. I mean the times that we were practicing so much for the TV show, because we were doing weekly episodes. So we had to figure out the arrangement, practice the arrangement, practice the choreography with the arrangement, and then practice just the TV show aesthetics as well that was important to them.
The clock is working against you the whole time.
Oh, yeah. But as you get better, you're going to get faster in certain things.
And so it takes a lot of work, but if you love it, you'll dedicate yourself to it.
Well, it's rewarding. It's worth it.
Yeah. 100%. In any type of entrepreneurship.
Well, just to touch on... As it says on some information about you that you've pioneered celloboxing. I would imagine you're probably the only person who does that. Do you know anyone else who does tell them that?
You know what? There were people that actually celloboxed before me, but I think I just took it and tried to make it even more solidified in a way. Because what I would see were people doing beats and grooves and stuff. And that's how I started. But I really wanted to make it feel more an art piece. Something where you say, "Oh well I can listen to a full song just like this without anything else." So that's what I was trying to do. And I did that a couple of times. I wrote original music for it. I just did an original song with the looping for our last tour. It's been fun to just explore how do you make this something? And there are fluteboxers also like Greg Patillo, who is amazing.
Yeah. So it's been cool to see other people come up and try to do that with maybe their instrument, piano or violin. So it's cool to see those people do what they're doing and if I could have any influence on that, I'm happy about that.
Well, you've paved the way inspiring folks to do it. I think that's fantastic.
Kevin, thanks so much for taking time to talk with us today. We wish you well, and we'll check in on how things are going in the weeks to come. Thank you. Kevin is out there on all the various platforms, so honestly folks, just Google him. You'll find all kinds of great content and hours of awesome music, interviews, information, just fascinating and we certainly look forward to keeping track of all that you're doing personally, and what Pentatonix are up to. And I know that as we're in this challenging time of a pandemic and you're not touring, hopefully those days will return when you can get out there and share your music with folks all over the world. That'd be wonderful.
I hope so too. I really, really appreciate that. And I forgot to say if you guys also wanted to follow the stuff we're doing on Imagine LA Community, just go to @ImagineLACommunity on Instagram. You can find out all the information about our ministry, when we start to do our Bible studies, all those kind of things. We'd love to have people over. Especially in the community.
Excellent. Thank you for sharing that. We'll definitely check it out for sure.
Thanks for listening to There to Here. We invite you to check us out on all the various social media platforms and visit our website, colabinc.org to sign up for information on our mini upcoming events and the various ways we help promote the spirit of entrepreneurship. If you have comments on today's episode or know someone who would be a great guest on our show, send your suggestions to Ryan@colabinc.org, and we'd love to hear from you. Special thanks to our producer, Michael Weberley, editing by Tanya Musgrave, and all the CoLab staff. Until next time, be well, and God bless.