By Michael Marcus | November 29, 2013
Street Corner Symphony rose to fame as finalists on Season 2 of NBC's "The Sing-Off" back in 2010. But far from fading into obscurity over the last three years, the group that coined the term "unpractice" is busier than ever. As a follow-up to their first studio album, 2011's Unpractice Makes Perfect, these six Nashville gents put out an album of all original music this year called Southern Autumn Nostalgia, which garnered a perfect 5.0 overall from our reviewers. They've also been touring and making YouTube videos. And they're not planning to slow down anytime soon.
I spoke recently with group members Mark McLemore and Adam Chance to discuss their songwriting process, Spinal Tap, "Royals," and riding the line between art and silliness.
RARB: How do you write songs?
Mark McLemore: We actually had very few songs written specifically for the project. You could think of it as covering ourselves, since we're all songwriters. Seven tracks were written before the album was conceived, and three were written after deciding to do the album. We decided on this album in early 2012, then we started tracking in the summer. Three songs were written during that time frame: John Martin wrote Little Old Me, then John and I wrote the chant [Sicut Tempus Fugit] and Dragon Rider. We all brought something to the table. Dragon Rider was being finished as we were in the studio. We don't expect this to be quite that way in the future, since now we're all together.
Adam Chance: As for the other songs, a lot of them were collecting dust, since we hadn't done anything with them. We picked the songs for the album as a group.
RARB: What's different between your originals (Loves a Loser, Dragon Rider), your arrangements, and those songs arranged by others (Nostalgia, Myriad)?
MM: The approach was different based on who was writing it or arranging it. There are definitely some distinct style differences as writers within the group. John Martin has a distinctive arranging style, as do I. Deke has his own style as well. You maybe can't tell by hearing the end product, but we could definitely tell on paper. For example, Loves a Loser is just six straight parts with no overdubs, but Dragon Rider was written with guitars and effects in mind. John Martin arranged one of Adam's songs, Southern Autumn Nostalgia, with a more choral approach.
RARB: I hear elements of Ben Folds and Beck in these songs. And Loves a Loser reminds me of the Beatles. Who are your influences?
AC: The Beatles, yes. Also the Beach Boys. The group is like a Venn diagram of musical tastes. At the intersection is the older folky stuff, and then more rock stuff like Radiohead.
MM: We're big fans of Stevie Wonder. A couple of us are actually Jeff Buckley fans; Jeremy [Lister] for sure. We're all big Ben Folds fans to some degree; we've been listening to him for a decade. Dire Straits. Adam actually knows a lot of bands that nobody else knows. He turned me on to Tom Waits.
RARB: How did you apply your famous "unpractice" work ethic to Southern Autumn Nostalgia?
AC: That's actually a funny question for this album. We had about nine days to record it. We're used to working at a much slower pace, doing things as they come. For this album we wanted to do it with Bill [Hare] and Deke [Sharon], and we only had a short time with them. We spent ten hours a day recording. So it was "unpracticing" at a much faster pace.
RARB: You collaborated with other big names too, like Ed Boyer and the Swingle Singers. How did you pull that off?
MM: Ed Boyer was involved mostly to help with the workflow, because we had a limited amount of time. Bill would send the tracks to Ed to edit, and we'd start working on another song. The album was pretty much 90-95% complete when we left Bill's studio.
The rest of the work happened over the coming months. We wanted to involve our audiences in the process. For Dragon Rider, and the chant before it, we had opportunities to get some big crowd sound effects — there's a "Hoo! Ha!" that goes into the pre-chorus of Dragon Rider.
Also, Bill is really good at networking, because he's worked for so many people. He called up the King's Singers, the Swingle Singers, his other pals in Europe and other places, and he got them to track some parts for Dragon Rider and the chant. We just call it "the chant".
Something that people may not know is that those Latin lyrics actually mean something. John Martin translated them [into Latin] from English that we wrote. They're not just nonsense.
RARB: Let's talk about Sicut and Dragon Rider. Those two tracks are totally different from the rest. Where did that come from? What sparked that?
MM: We each submitted five songs. I had a few that were written and recorded with instruments, and one that was merely an idea. I had written a chorus on my way to a rehearsal in Nashville. I started to sing this Dragon Rider chorus, I went over it and over it and adjusted some things, and that was all I had. I thought, "Hey, this would be a great song if I actually wrote it." So we sent emails out when putting the album together, and Dragon Rider was one of my five songs. I said, "It's not written yet, but it could be." And the song made it onto the album, so I had to write it very quickly. I knew we were in good shape when I played a demo of the pre-chorus with guitars and stuff and everyone really liked it.
I can tell you a bit more about the "why". I had the idea for Dragon Rider because we're all such big fans of the film This is Spinal Tap. We also love making fun of ourselves. We all have a bit of heavy metal in us: Guns 'n' Roses, you know, '80s metal. We were born in the '80s, so it's in our blood.
AC: None of us likes to take ourselves too seriously. We always have a lot of fun, going back to the unpractice thing. That's why it's at the end of the album. First we have eight tracks of what we're all about. Then there's a fadeout at end of Myriad, then this Latin chant. It's like the credits rolling, or outtakes. It wouldn't be right if we had wanted to put out a totally serious album.
RARB: So Dragon Rider isn't meant to be taken seriously?
AC: The songwriting, sure. But everything else is wacky.
MM: We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we take "not taking ourselves seriously" very seriously. I think this is decent music. Everything about it is right. There's some very cool harmonic stuff in it. The melody and lyrics are written with great care. We had to ride the line between good music and awful music, between art and silliness. Just like Spinal Tap.
RARB: What advice would you give to other groups trying to write and record original material?
MM: When it comes to writing, write more than you need, and then take what you like. Take the best. We were very fortunate to have more than enough material, so the best rose to the top. We might still have some material for the next album that didn't get picked for this one. As a side note, Emily was submitted for Unpractice, but one of Richie [Lister]'s songs was better, so we went with that. But then Emily made it to the second album. Whether it's good or bad, just write songs. Write, write, write.
For recording, have the pre-production and arranging done in advance. That way you can just hit "record" in the studio and go for it. That doesn't mean you can't change things in the studio, but you must be efficient even in creative endeavors.
AC: One thing we believe in Street Corner Symphony is: Don't be afraid to step outside of the box. Don't feel like you have to do the same thing as everyone else. Don't let what you're listening to alter your work directly; it will get in there in its own way.
RARB: Let's talk about the "Royals" video. It's a great collaboration with Amanda Taylor from Groove for Thought, who sings the lead. How did that come about?
AC: We're still friends with a lot of people from The Sing-Off. We've stayed in contact, and we've had plans to work together. At the time, Amanda was coming down to visit Nashville for the first time. She and Mark were writing some music, and she went on the road with us for a couple of trips. We had all been listening to the Lorde EP; we had it playing in our tour van. Someone was like, "Why don't we do this song? It's getting popular now, let's have some fun, and let's have Amanda sing it while she's here."
MM: Yeah, it was Adam's idea.
AC: The next day were out working on it.
MM: This was about six days before Amanda went back to Seattle. She started learning the lead right there in the van; she had never heard the song before. We all liked it, and over the next few days we arranged it. Amanda actually wrote an article about this on Groove for Thought's blog, but I'll give you the nutshell version. Before we recorded the final track, we recorded the video against just bare tracks. She and I finished the arrangement over the next few days; we got everyone in on that. While this was going on, Adam and I were editing the video. It wasn't a linear thing: everything was happening at once, because we wanted to get it out there quickly.
RARB: This song is pretty popular on YouTube right now. Had you seen any of the other covers before you started?
MM: Yeah we saw one, the one where some girls are banging on stuff in the subway.
AC: We did look one night to see how many people were covering the song. We wanted to be one of the first.
RARB: Would you have gone ahead even if there were more than just a few covers?
MM: Yes. Not to give away too much of our business plan, but the plan is to make video after video. We've done songs that other people have covered before, so that doesn't scare us away. You just need to bring something special to it. People could say we're copying if another version is more popular, but that doesn't bother us.
RARB: Was this your first time editing a video?
MM: No we did Hard to Handle back in January/February. It was filmed with 6 iPhones; each member had his own phone. The concept was the morning after a party. It was conceived of and shot entirely by Street Corner, and directed by Adam.
It's kind of a one-two punch: we do the music, then the video. Adam and I have a lot of similar tastes, similar creativity, and we work well together. Adam has a real eye for photography and cinematography.
RARB: Any final thoughts?
MM: We're really proud of our second album. We were proud of the first one too, but the second one we feel is our baby. We really owned it. And we feel like this is just the beginning. We hope we can put out many more projects, but we gotta get this one out there so people can hear it. There's much more to come.
RARB: More originals I hope?
Southern Autumn Nostalgia, Royals and Hard to Handle are all available for download on iTunes. For upcoming tour dates visit streetcornersymphony.com/shows.