On the Line with Austin Willacy

Austin Willacy is as likable as he is talented. But where does he showcase his talents, you ask? For over twenty years, he has been a member of The House Jacks, a tremendous a capella group known as “the rock band without instruments”.  On top of that, he has utilized his voice on video games including Guitar Hero and Karaoke Revolution. Songs he sang on include Killer Queen, Woman, Higher Ground, Fat Lip and many more! I caught up with Willacy during the holiday season to go over the history of The House Jacks, his appreciation for a capella, lending his voice to the biggest rhythm video games, the hard work that goes into perfecting a song for the games, Pitch Perfect, holiday projects and more.

What originally drew you to a cappella?

I joined choir my senior year of high school because I was really psyched about this girl and she was in choir. She heard me humming along with something and said “You have a high voice! You’re a tenor! You have to join the choir!” I tried explaining that I didn’t sing, but she just wouldn’t leave it alone until I agreed that I would join the choir. But who actually got me into a cappella was the director of the choir, Ron Morgan. He needed to put together an octet to do a barbershop song called “Vive L’Amour.” There were only eight tenors in a choir of eighty people. And even though I had only been singing for six or seven months, he put me as one of two second tenors. After we learned our parts individually, we started putting it together.

I just couldn’t believe how rhythmic, full and driving it was. I was shocked by how satisfying it was to be making music with so few people and having it sound so full and purposeful. That really hooked me. I really appreciated what those eight voices and four parts were capable of doing. One of the guys who was a first tenor, Shaun Anderson, was, and is, an absolutely phenomenal gospel tenor. He asked me to join a gospel group that he was putting together for the summer. I was really intimidated, but I said “yes” and that was also really amazing. And then I went to college and saw The Dartmouth Aires perform, they’re an all­male a cappella group. They were doing pop stuff and jazz standards and college songs and classic rock and Motown. It was a mixed bag of everything and it was all their voices. I said, “Oh my God, I have to be in that group!”

When you first started performing on campus, what were you singing at the time?

I joined the group my freshman fall. My first solo was that fall and I sang “The Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. The group was also doing “Peg” by Steely Dan and a spoof of “Rock Me, Amadeus” by Falco that was called “Rock Me, Eleazar” about the founder of Darmouth College. We also did “I Want You Back” by The Jackson 5, “Mary, Don’t You Weep” and “Gold Mine” by Take 6, a phenomenal gospel group. I also sang “Biggest Part of Me” by Ambrosia and “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael. It was in that group that I realized there was a pretty wide range of stuff that I was interested in singing. And because of the way that the music was being made, it was very accessible to a wide range of people. People who wouldn’t necessarily want to listen to Led Zeppelin and Michael Jackson and George Michael would want to listen to it coming from guys who were singing a cappella. That was another thing that was really compelling about it.

What did a capella teach you about expressing emotion with your voice?

I grew up listening to a lot of powerful, expressive singing: Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Bill Withers, a lot of blues and whatever was on MTV. It was easy for me to feel the emotion of the songs that I was singing when I liked the song, but I didn’t have any training. I started learning basic vocal technique in the Aires. We sang most of our shows unamplified and so we really needed to learn how to balance ourselves. What I learned in that was when I really needed to sing loud and how to do that in a way that I still was blending with the big picture. It’s like being in a band, but the guitarist is louder than the lead vocalist and louder than the bass. Things are out of balance that way and it’s actually not a satisfying experience for the audience. The same thing applies in a cappella music, it’s just that it’s all voices. I didn’t really know a lot about vocal technique at that time, so I was just trying to learn anything from anyone who knew more than I did.

Then, I just started trying to explore my voice and figure out what it could do. I was recording myself because I had heard the way that other people had heard my voice isn’t what I was hearing because I was on the inside of my ears and they were on the outside. So I started recording my voice so I could get used to what I sounded like and so I could figure out its natural fluency, as well as the different colors and textures my voice could make. I was able to learn how to control that and know what I actually sound like on the outside.

How did all of this lead to you joining The House Jacks?

The House Jacks were formed by seven guys who sang a cappella at Tufts, at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Brown University. I had sung with five of the seven guys touring around with the Aires in college; mostly at invitationals with a bunch of a cappella groups. I moved out to the Bay Area to pursue music about a year after The House Jacks were founded, but having no idea they existed. I saw an ad in Bay Area Musician Magazine saying “The House Jacks, a rock band without instruments are looking for an experienced high tenor, age 18 ­- 27. Looks good. Moves well.” With a phone number. I called and the person who answered the phone was somebody that I had known since my sophomore year. He was in a group at Tufts called The Beelzebubs. He asked if I could put together a demo. I said, “Yeah, I’ll put together a demo by borrowing my friend’s 4­track. It’ll take me a couple of weeks.” So I go out of town for a few days, I come back and there’s a message on my answering machine. “Skip the demo, just come in for an audition.” So I scheduled the live audition. The first thing that I sang at the audition was an original song. Then I started singing some of their stuff and sang with them. It was just a very natural fit, musically and interpersonally, from the beginning.

Several years after that, how did you get on board with Karaoke Revolution and Guitar Hero?

The House Jacks was another really amazing arena in which I got a chance to explore my voice and the textures and sounds it could make. I was also exploring how to safely do a couple hundred shows a year because we were really busy for quite a while. I learned how to take care of my voice so I could sing well and not destroy my voice doing all those shows. I started playing guitar and started writing myself stuff and I said, “You know what, I feel like I need to explore other parts of my range.” So I started writing songs with melodies that were way lower than anything else that I was singing just so I could get some facility. A few years after that, I was playing a lot in the club scene in the Bay Area/San Francisco. A keyboard player from one of the bands that I had been on the bill with kept saying to the people who were doing the music and tracking all the production for the games that they really need to call this guy. “He’s great and he can sing all sorts of stuff.” “Eh…we don’t need the black rock voice for any of the songs on this.” He said, ”No no no, you don’t understand. I heard him do this, I heard him do that.” And they finally called me for Karaoke Revolution Volume One. They said “There’s this one vocal where we can’t find anybody who can sound like this guy. Can you sound like Eagle Eye Cherry?” And I said, “I don’t know, let me hear it.” They sent me the song and I said I could do that. I did a great job and I prepared really, really well. I sang it very well, very quickly and the leads and the background very efficiently.

Then they said, “Well, this is the last one for this game, but would you be interested in doing more? If this game takes off, we’re probably gonna be doing several more volumes.” I said “Absolutely!” I did one song on Volume One, four leads or so on Volume Two and then six or seven on Volume Three, etc. They were bringing me in also to do background sessions. I was doing soundalike vocals for Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson and Billy Joel and Freddie Mercury. Did a whole bunch of Queen stuff. I was on the Big & Rich song in Karaoke Revolution Country. So by the time that Guitar Hero started, which was after several volumes of Karaoke Revolution had done very well, it was the same people who were involved in the production of that. They basically said, “Here’s our song list, what do you think that you could sing? We have a couple of people who specialize.” There was a guy in a cover band called Stung who sounded exactly like Sting, so he was gonna do the Sting stuff and the Police stuff. We picked the stuff that I thought that I could do really well. I ended up recording that on Volume One and on Volume Two. I think I sang on Karaoke Revolution Volumes One through Seven or Eight.

Which songs do you recall singing on Guitar Hero?

I sang “Woman” by Wolfmother. I sang “American Woman” as performed by Lenny Kravitz. I sang “Spanish Castle Magic” by Jimi Hendrix and the Hendrix Review Board decided that because of the special nature of Jimi Hendrix’s vocals, his singing and laughing at the same time, they thought I sounded too much like him and that people might think it was actually him. Then they said they were worried people would think somebody was making fun of him. They ended up deciding to do it as an instrumental. I feel that I did great work. Unfortunately, it was so good that they decided not to put a vocal on it at all, so that was kind of funny. I did “Fat Lip” by Sum 41. “Higher Ground”, by the Chili Peppers and “Killer Queen”, by Queen. That was really fun. The thing that was great about the Queen stuff is that I got to do all the backgrounds, too, which was at least as fun as doing the leads. All those background vocals are absolutely insane. But yeah, “Killer Queen” was really fun to do.

How did you feel about knowing that your voice was representing some major rock songs on a video game franchise that quickly blew up?

I was totally honored to know that my voice was a part of those games and that I was singing along with people who were rocking out to some of the best rock songs ever, all over the world. It was so cool, and so much fun!

With all the songs that you’ve recorded, which one do you consider your proudest accomplishment because you nailed it so well?

I think “Killer Queen” was the first one where I was like, “Oh wow, I’m really dialing in on this Freddie Mercury thing.” I felt great about it. With the backgrounds, I think I did a great job of really recreating the atmosphere of that track with both the lead vocals and the backgrounds. Another one where I think that I did a great job was on a song called “Perfect” from Simple Plan. It was another case of “we don’t know anybody who can do this”. There’s this really weird whiny, throaty voice and it’s supposed to sound teenage angsty. Because of the background in a cappella and me exploring different parts of my range, I was able to figure out where this guy was resonating his voice and what he was doing to make those sounds. I think it sounds a lot like the original version of it.

I also feel great about “Makes Me Wonder” by Maroon 5. There’s also some Michael Jackson stuff that I did that turned out really well, too. I really enjoyed it and it was an opportunity for me to get paid to teach myself and to really get a chance to explore while doing some amazing stuff. I got to do the vocal on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”, which turned out really well. I don’t mean to go through and say that I nailed them all, some of them were harder than others to get or evoke. I sang a lot of leads on them. I’d say those are some that I feel really, really good about.

So when you’re given a list of songs for a game, how do you go about researching and studying the tone, emotion and technique for the singer?

Whatever previous association I have with the song, whether it’s a guilty pleasure song or I just totally hate the song, I have to just put that aside. Now I need to love this song. That was one of the things that I had to do when I was preparing. It’s actually a really useful thing because as a songwriter, I’ve realized that I learn as much about how I want to write and what I want to write from music that I don’t love as I do from music that I do. The process of arriving upon something that I feel great about is as much about choosing not to do the things that I don’t want to do as it is about choosing to do the things that I do. I got to try to get inside of the head of the people who wrote the song and really try to get inside the vocalist. It’s really fun! It was a great opportunity for me to teach myself. For all of these, it was sounding as much as possible like the original. But it’s also about really evoking the vibe and the atmosphere because that’s the missing piece. Particularly for Karaoke Revolution, the phrasing had to be identical to the original version. If Michael Jackson sings it a particular way and I don’t go up where he goes up or something like that, then somebody who actually studied it more than me would get penalized for doing it better than I did. And that’s just not right.

So, I would get the lyrics and then create a guide, a color­coded system that I used. For words that require a little bit of extra energy, I’d put those in a dark red. If there are lots of runs that are written in, like a Stevie Wonder song, then I will write it out. It’s so my ear knows it, but my eyes are seeing it too. I practice it that way so when I’m in the booth doing it for real, I don’t have to try to remember how that run goes. I’ve practiced seeing it and doing it and hearing it. Then I’ll write other things like long vibrato or if there’s a crazy timing thing. I did a pretty good job on “Virtual Insanity” by Jamiroquai. His phrasing on that song is totally all over the place, it’s amazing. It’s a masterpiece of a song and he’s a brilliant singer. It was really, really hard to prepare for that because on most of the songs people are singing on downbeats or offbeats so, I could just remember it or write myself a quick note “this word ends on 3”, but Jamiroquai was definitely really laid back and very elastic with his phrasing, so in a lot of places i was splitting sixteenths to find where he was coming in. It was as much really just owning every aspect of the feel and the phrasing of it as well as taking notes as clearly as possible about “here’s where this line comes in, hold this one, the vibrato hits on the downbeat of three and then there’s a little flip and a trill up and then cut on the downbeat of one”. So some of them were really, really involved in terms of the notetaking.

My lyric sheet would look like this crazy rainbow of black and red and green and blue. Bright blue would be the things that sounded like they were also a background vocal, like if I was singing “Yeah!” by Usher. Then I get into the place where I’d say, “Okay, this is a Michael Jackson style vibrato.” or “This is a different person’s style vibrato, a fast vibrato.” I would first go through and do the leads and then I would go through and need to triple track these backgrounds if they’re huge. And then spelling things phonetically for the way that they need to be sung. I don’t need to know what the lyrics are, but I need to know how I’m supposed to make it sound like the original.

Getting back into a cappella, I read that you influenced a song that was featured in Pitch Perfect. Is that correct?

Yeah! So The House Jacks, we were messing around and getting ready to go on tour in Germany. We said, “We should probably have a big anthemic pop song. Wouldn’t it be cool to take an American Idol song that was done by a woman and do it like a rock version?” “You know what, Kelly Clarkson kinda rocks. There’s a cool song that she did called “Since U Been Gone.” So I started messing around with that on lead and then we started arranging it and coming up with the textures for that. Then we started performing that live and people really dug it. It was a chance for me to really belt it out, and make no mistake, that song is so high. But what ended up happening is people really dug it and that was the song that was used and the arrangement that was used for the audition scene in Pitch Perfect. It all came from what we were doing when we were trying to figure out a new opener for a Germany tour. It was really cool to see that on screen and to know that we had influenced something so huge to that degree. That was a sleeper hit, such a great movie!

How do you feel about the film itself and its depiction of the experience and bond between an a cappella group?

I love Pitch Perfect! I think it’s really hilarious. And it was the best kind of hilarious; it didn’t take itself too seriously. I thought that it was really faithful to itself. There’s some superhero movies where the origin story, like for some of the early X­Men stuff, wasn’t so great, but once you got deeper into the series, it was good. This origin story for the Barden Bellas and what was going on and introducing the world to it, I thought it was very, very effective. A lot of great performances. Fat Amy and the dude who looks like and acts like a young Jack Black, he was hilarious. The music was really good. The live performance scenes were great and the arrangements were great. I think that it did really good job of showing people that this quirky passion, which does have some nerd elements at its core, is actually a really cool and accessible way of making music. So yeah, I really dug the film. In terms of its faithfulness and accuracy, it’s a dramatization. But the thing about it being the Super Bowl of a cappella, the ICCA (International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella), that’s a real thing. Though most of the college a cappella groups are not in the position of being kicked off the campus by the administration if there’s some minor PR gaffe, college groups that are on The Sing­Off bring a lot of favorable attention to their universities. The set up for the Bellas having to totally rebuild and find their sound and all of that, that’s something that they actually have to do. They have to find their sound. Every a cappella group does.

The group comprises of disparate voices, people who have different influences. Some groups will try and take a bunch of people who sound exactly the same and it’s easy to blend, but then you don’t have any breadth of what you can offer. It doesn’t matter who’s singing lead because they all sound the same. Some groups will take a really broad array of voices so that there’s a lot of stylistic diversity that you can bring, like if you have a great rock singer and a great jazz singer and a great R&B singer, but then if your voices don’t match or really sound like each other, then you have to really do the work of finding out how you unlock each other’s voices so that you can blend. So talking about blending and all that, that’s actually a really crucial part of what you have to do if you want to sing a cappella well. And I think that that was represented to a degree in Pitch Perfect. The whole thing about “let’s match pitch”, that’s not a thing, but it was hilarious that they kept doing it in the movie.

How did your a cappella background develop towards a solo career?

I started playing guitar when I was in The House Jacks when they were signed to Tommy Boy Records. I decided that I wanted to see what some of my songs with instruments sounded like. I had recorded a bunch of demos and some album tracks of the stuff that was written on instruments, but designed to be recorded and performed a cappella. So I knew a ton of singers and I basically knew no instrumentalists. I had taught myself how to play guitar and bass, so I played those. The guy who was the beatboxer from The House Jacks, Kid Beyond, was the only drummer that I knew, so I asked him if he could beatbox on this thing and “play” drums. So my first three songs on a demo was me playing bass and guitar and singing and him beatboxing. That caught the attention of Buddy Saleman, the person at whose studio The House Jacks had been recording all of the demos. Buddy said “I’ve always liked your writing on the things you guys did with Tommy Boy, but I also really dig the stuff that you’ve done with instruments.”

He was getting funded to start an indie label and said he wanted me to be the first artist that he’d release. He asked if I could put together a demo for him of fifteen songs, a home studio demo. I sent it to him and we picked ten or eleven songs that would be my first album. So the a cappella background bridged into my solo career in two ways; the guy who was the drummer on the recording that caught the attention of this guy was an a cappella singer and beatboxer and the guy who ended up signing me to his label had first met me through recording a cappella stuff with The House Jacks. Locally and also domestically, because of The House Jacks having some degree of awareness, people were curious. Some were predisposed and like, “It’s a dirty thing when an a cappella person puts instruments behind their music.” But the covers are a cappella covers of stuff with instruments anyways, so what’s the big deal? It was interesting to start navigating that, but now people are wide open to it.

Outside of a cappella, who are some of the biggest influences for your solo career?

Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel, The Police, Tracy Chapman, Ben Harper, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana. They’re all huge influences on me. Somehow and I don’t really know where it happened, there’s a Latin influence in some of my writings. I’ve written three or four tangos. I definitely know that I owe some of that to a guy named Mark Orton, who is a brilliant songwriter and composer. He’s scoring films now. He’s the principal writer and arranger in a group called Tin Hat. At the time, they were called Tin Hat Trio. They were doing some Klezmerish sort of stuff and some tango. And he was the soundman for The House Jacks for about five years. He had been around me all the time when I was writing and we usually roomed together on tour. He’s an excellent guitar player and he would give me tips on guitar and I was running all my songs by him.

So when it came time to put an actual band together to record my first album, I said, “Hey, you know musicians. Can you play guitar on my thing and do you know anybody who could play bass and drums and beats and violin and cello?” And he knew people. He did arrangements and talked to Jon Evans who has been playing bass for Tori Amos, also Andrew Borger who played drums for Tom Waits. He asked those guys come in. I was in a band briefly with both of those guys for different purposes. Lee Alexander was playing upright bass and bass. He subsequently ended up moving to New York and dated Norah Jones. He was her bass player for almost a decade. So between those three guys, the rhythm section all was touring with famous people. And so that was another a cappella connection through Mark. So Mark was a huge influence there. I listened to a lot of blues growing up. My dad was a huge blues fan. Bill Withers, not for the blues but for his songwriting and singing. B.B. King and Albert King are definitely influences in terms of the way that I try and inhabit songs, some of the bluesy stuff.

So it has been noted that The House Jacks are releasing a holiday album. With the holidays near, what is your take on why a lot of a cappella groups to be drawn towards performing holiday music?

I think that the draw probably is the fact that it’s a commercial opportunity and it’s something that might sell each year. So unlike a song that gets played to death on the radio and you never want to hear it again for a while, maybe you get drowned in holiday music, but it happens for like two months a year. There are some really excellent holiday songs and, never having done it before, it was an opportunity for us to unleash our creativity in a very focused way. Many, many years ago, we wrote a song called “Saturnalia Smile”, that was sort of a pagan holiday song. That was the only holiday thing that we have done as The House Jacks. I did a version of “O Christmas Tree”, a spooky, haunting, version of it in a minor key for a Christmas compilation about ten years ago. And then like maybe six or seven years ago, I did a very bluesy version of “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, that Elvis tune for KFOG’s Christmas compilation.

But neither I nor The House Jacks had ever put out anything that was explicitly a holiday EP or album. And so we started talking about it and getting really excited about the idea of really getting creative with it. I did an arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne” in 5/4 and wrote a bridge for it in 6/4 so we could play with it and make it more open. There’s a beautiful arrangement of “Danny Boy” that fellow House Jack Nick Girard did. We had decided that there was gonna be at least an original song on it. The original song that’s on it is a song that I wrote called “‘Cause You Kissed Me”, it’s about falling in love in the holidays. It’s not explicitly about Christmas. There’s a reference to a Salvation Army Santa in the lyrics in the first verse, but otherwise the song is about snow falling and love in the air. So it was a fun challenge to focus our creativity on making this something that we’re really, really, really proud of and excited about. It’s been great!

What is the general on­stage attire when The House Jacks go on tour?

Usually we’re wearing collared shirts, some of us will wear vests. One of the guys sometimes will wear a vest and a tie, but light jeans and sneaks. It’s club attire, but not like Vegas club attire where it’s like “Hey, look how fabulous I am! I’m trying to be fabulous and sexy and need everybody to look at me.” It’s more like “I’m going out and I want to look good.”

In closing, what are some projects up ahead as we get into 2016? Or perhaps recent releases?

The most recent thing from House Jacks is an album called Pollen. It’s really, really cool because it’s ten original House Jacks songs. We have traveled extensively internationally and have formed some friendships with some very talented singer and beatboxers in other parts of the world. Courtesy of the power of digital recording media and the interwebs, we sent super basic versions of all these songs to friends of ours around the globe. We have a Japanese beatboxer, a Korean a cappella group, a Chinese and Taiwanese a cappella group, we have an Australian a cappella group, a Brazilian a cappella group, British a cappella group, Italian, Canadian, German. All of these are friends of ours and we said, “Hey, we think it’d be absolutely killer if you could add some stuff to this song. Add whatever you hear. Before, during and after the song. And then send it back to us. And so they did. Then we added a bunch of stuff. Then came the hard part; distilling everything down and mix it. That’s what’s on Pollen. The album artwork looks like a subway map for the tube in London. It was a great way to color code things so people can see that this color goes to this song and this group on this song is from this part of the world. It was really, really, really fun.

What was your reaction when you first listened to what was sent back to you? How did it make you feel?

The first song we got back collaborative tracks on was “Quiet Moon.” BR6, a fantastic, Rio­based a cappella group infused the song with totally legit, beautiful bossa nova feel and lines. It was then that I realized how frickin’ cool the album was gonna be! It was so exciting!

It’s a really cool concept. And everything you’ve done is quite remarkable. I’d love to thank you so much for your time and I wish you the best ahead.

Thanks, Alex! Appreciate it!

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