Welcome to Spotlight, our new column where we celebrate people, lifestyles, talents and local culture. Each month we feature people from all walks of life, whether they are musicians, food experts or unique creatives who are making a creative impact. Our headline of the month is a world famous a cappella phenomenon. They are an eclectic group who can create hybrid mixes from Mozart, Crooklyn Clan and Nat King Cole.
Where have you heard of Naturally 7? Most likely this describes your first encounter:
On the platform of 66th St Lincoln Center Subway Station, a crowd of people were rushing to work, minding their own businesses in the cacophony of the city. All of a sudden, an orchestra of music started to play in the corner of the train platform. But there were no instruments, just 7 men creating instrumental sounds with their mouths while harmonizing with the Canadian sensation Michael Bublé. The unexpected euphony captivated rushing New Yorkers, who stopped and were serenaded with a rendition of Who’s Lovin’ You.
Someone from the inspired crowd recorded it and their NYC subway station performance has now reached 5 million views on YouTube worldwide. Since then they toured around the world as special guests on Crazy Love Tour with Michael Bublé and put together 3 duets. They have collaborated with Chris Martin from Coldplay and the band has been lauded as one of the rarest talents in the industry by the legendary producer and Grammy Award Winner, Quincy Jones.
Ladies and gents, are you ready? I managed to get an exclusive interview in Hong Kong with Naturally 7, to show you what goes on behind their rhythms and rhymes. Read and find out what it takes to stay current in the ever challenging industry and the highs and lows of being on tour.
Without further ado, here are Naturally 7 and their story.
Put You Onto This
If you think a cappella is just about gleeful cover songs, then now would be a good time to freshen up your knowledge. On top of covers, Naturally 7 write and produce their own original songs. Naturally 7 is a group of seven members, Roger Thomas, Warren Thomas, Dwight Stuart, Garfield Buckley, Rod Elridge, Kelvin Mitchell – aka Kelz – and Ricky Cort, who perform together with no instruments, no backup singers, no dancers. There is no need for those. They are all of the above. Their music output is so diverse that there is not a particular genre fits them all. Gospel, urban, R&B, hip hop, soul, funk, Motown, the list could go on. They merrily combine all the genres and have created one on their own, outside the genre bracket, called Vocal Play. The band defines Vocal Play as making music using only the human voice. From singing, harmonizing, beatboxing, drums, bass, guitar, flute, to harmonica.
The best way to appreciate their creativity and spontaneity is live. Before I met them, I had never had the pleasure to see them live. Vocal Play was on my playlist and had seen their Youtube viral videos, but when I saw them perform live at City Hall in Hong Kong, my mind was blown. Take a look for yourself. Make sure you catch them next time they are back in town or when they perform in Shenzhen next month:
The band was founded in 1999 when Roger wanted to start a band with a group of singers he knew from the New York music scene. In need of a drummer, he asked Warren, his brother. In a way, the push came when Warren’s parents refused to buy him a drum kit. ‘’He really wanted that drum kit,’’ Roger reminisced, “but when he didn’t get it he compensated by becoming the instrument himself”. After learning the beats and kicks to mimic the sound of the drum he provided the rhythm to add to the other members’ vocal harmonies and Naturally 7 was born. Since then, the group has taken the music industry by storm and won over a cappella fans around the world.
Ready to Fly
The band has been involved, and is flying high, with many big players in the game including Chris Martin from Coldplay, Grammy winner Quincy Jones, German songstress Sarah Connor and of course, Michael Bublé. They were asked to pick a most memorable or exciting collaboration. It was a hard question, but the group answered it gracefully. While they enjoy working with every individual artist because of the differences in creativity, they all cannot forget the fact that when Michael Bublé invited them to participate in his world tour as the special guests and requested them to stay for the rest of the tour. Since then, they have performed in 3 other tours with Bublé and created 3 duets together. They emphasized how great it was to work with him and what an amazing individual he is both on and off stage. Roger added, ‘’Working with Michael was definitely a humbling experience.’’
The Creative Process
So what is the creative process of producing a track?
‘’As a track is being developed, everyone has their say about the progression and whether it needs improvement. As the band leader, as an artist and as a producer, Roger plays a huge part in making sure every track is no less than perfect,’’ explained Rod, the band’s vocal DJ. Roger added that his production approach is a collaborative evolutionary process: ‘‘if someone listens to my track and go they don’t like that, as a producer, the goal is to, make it better until everyone in the band is happy with their parts. In the process of making a track, everyone listens and decides whether they are happy with their individual work as well as a group work.” The process is ongoing; they go back and forth with each other, to make sure everyone is pleased with the work they have done.
Ricky, vocalist, human guitar and the latest addition to the band, said often vocalists are not happy with what they put out and hear the flaws in their own voices. So producing for a band with seven vocal inputs must be challenging. The band agrees that feeling their input is valued and placing faith in the final product is necessary. Kelz, the bass-man, and Garfield on harmonica, agreed: ‘’sometimes you just have to let go and let others be the judge of whether the track as a whole is good enough.”
I sense the group has a solid support system and they lift each other up. Do they give each other criticism? Dwight responded,’’ It is important to have constructive criticism from those who you trust the most and have an open dialog.’’ The trust factor is oxygen for the band and is strengthened by the fact that the band has been together for so long.
With so many voices, literally, in one band, I wondered if they have the same tastes; I challenged the group to unanimously decide on a song or album as their favorite and boy was there a debate. Ricky answered through simile: picking a favorite album or song is like picking a winner at the beauty pageant, the prettiest one is always the last one you have seen. Dwight and Roger, however, argued that either Vocal Play or their latest album Hidden In Plain Sight are the most “sonically perfect”. I nodded in agreement, as I think Vocal Play is a musical masterpiece. In the end, the guys did pick some standout songs – Tradition, If You Love Me and Galileo – even if unanimity was not quite possible. Intriguingly, Galileo has a back-story. Naturally 7 are the only performing group in history to be given the okay to sample a classic Queen song, Bohemian Rhapsody. The group emphasized: “In the music industry, it doesn’t matter what level of hip hop artists you are. You are just not allowed to sample music icons such as The Beatles, Queen, Rolling Stones. Fortunately our management and Queen’s management have a close relationship. So we proposed the bold idea of sampling Bohemian Rhapsody to Queen and were given the blessing to use the song. The only criteria we were given is that both managements and Queen had to like the song.’’ The green light was on.
Needlessly to say, with their hard work and effort of not to disappoint the British rock legends, Galileo was released and has become a huge success across Europe and America.
Meet the Masterclass
Right after our chat and a quick celebration of Warren’s birthday, the group had to get ready for their first event: a Masterclass Series with the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. I was surprised when I found out that the group was to give critiques and guidance to aspiring a cappella groups and enthusiasts in Hong Kong. They sat through 5 groups, listened to them perform and deconstructed the notes and groups. They had the groups try out different ways of singing and harmonizing, then put them back together again. They gave individual coaching to each of the members from the group, pinpointing what they need to work on, and how they can harmonize better together as a group. What I witnessed was magical. The sharing of passion and insight. The impact on Hong Kong’s budding vocal players was aurally and visually clear.
Afterwards Roger explained: ‘’There are 3 important things when it comes to The Masterclass. First is to make sure that everybody knows what we do musically and what a cappella is about. Second is to show how we do it with demonstration and participation. Thirdly, invite people to have an open conversation with us and ask any questions which may be useful to their skills and career. It’s important that we lift others up and nurture our youth’s music journeys. We always have a ball at the Masterclass series because we enjoy it so much.’’
On the Road to Fame
I asked the band what they get nostalgic for on a long tour. One thing they miss the most is authentic West Indian and Jamaican food which reminds them of home. I asked them what they defined as ‘’authentic’’, they said even in New York, they can’t find the taste of home because most places don’t have access to the particular herbs and spices.
Speaking of food, I couldn’t help but ask them what the one thing they would like to try while they were in Hong Kong. They debated it for a while and came to the conclusion they have never had Sichuan food. Of course being a foodpanda editor, their wish was my command. I had a sichuan feast delivered right after their rehearsal from one of my favorites, Elgin Sichuan.
The silence at the dinner table showed how much they enjoyed it.
It Is What It Is
After their dinner, I wanted their advice to those who are musicians or artists in the making. Ricky responded: “Always be mindful about what your particular view of your success is. Because that is different for everyone, especially if you are in a group. If you are a solo artist, you can identify easily what success means to you. But if you are in a group, you have to be in sync with other members and your viewpoint of success has to be understood and agreed upon across the board.”
Dwight, added that it is a competitive and tough business to be in and it is not always about success. ‘’There are winnings and there is also a lot of struggling to get to the goal. It takes a lot of dedication and work to get there and along the way, it comes with sacrifices.’’
So what if you are stuck with a writer’s block? Rod, being a gym enthusiast, advised: ‘’Write something every day. It might be awful, but write anyway. When it comes to creativity, it is like exercising. You gotta practice, the more you do it, the more you get toned and better at it.’’
Ricky then added that every artist or musician in the making should surround themselves with people who are better, allow yourself to expand your horizon and stimulate your mindset. ‘’Don’t do it, unless you have to. Don’t do it unless you absolutely love it. If you are only in for the fame, don’t do it. If I don’t do this, I would die. That’s how determined I am to be doing and breathing music every day. ‘’
Break These Walls
After a sold-out show, still glowing with stage euphoria and adrenaline, the band was eager to get personal. Despite their big-stage experience, there are no walls between the superstars and their fans. ‘’We look forward to meeting the fans and getting to know them. They are the reason why we are here.’’
During rehearsals, I witnessed not only professionalism, but also the enthusiasm and passion they project, as if they only started the band yesterday. There was no slacking off during practice. I could not begin to imagine how they manage to keep a tight ship with seven members present, going to rehearsals and showing up to performances on time; I asked: ‘’Is there a James Brown figure fining anyone who shows up late?’’ The band laughed knowingly and Dwight, the baritone, said: ‘‘at the beginning there were issues making sure everyone got to rehearsals on time, so we did have a fining system. The fines varied. It depended on what you missed and how late you were…Over the years, everyone started to improve and the fining system has been kept to a minimum since.”
The only way to judge the pitch-perfect show: 3 standing ovations, an encore that kept the entire hall on their feet and to a climax, an hour overrun, and fans crying at the meet-and-greet. I have been to many concerts here in Hong Kong, and feel that real audience participation and connection with a band is rare. If you want to see how Naturally 7’s live performance transcends the norm check it out here:
Having spent a few days with the group, I can honestly say they are all warmhearted, welcoming and genuinely hardworking individuals. It’s rare to see stars with such humility. I also saw something positive and beautiful throughout – there was a strong friendship, trust and synergy in the group. Every one of the members is a stripped-down talent and each one of them works together cohesively to create one unique sinfonietta.
In a commercial music industry dominated by similar sounds and swamped by auto tune, there is nothing more refreshing and new-feeling than old-school musical talent feeding off and moving their audience.
**Special thanks to Naturally 7, their sound engineer James Caran and everyone at Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. For more information about the Hong Kong a Capella scene, please visit the website of HKFYG.