BLOG: Out of our Comfort Zone?

It’s always better to be busy.  We’re in the throes of final rehearsals for our big gig on the 3rd August, and have just approved the proof of the new CD – ItS is firing on all cylinders.  So while the iron’s hot I’m sitting down to work on my new arrangement – but this one is not for In the Smoke.  Once our August gig is done, our minds turn instantly to a very new kind of concert.  Nearly a year ago, one of our basses Ian Higgins invited us to see his other choir (shocked expressions of acadultery all round) – AOIDE.  He explained that they have a few composers within the choir who write the repertoire they perform – not collegiate pop a cappella like we do, but contemporary choral music.  We felt that there was a nice affinity between that and our philosophy of having all arrangements come from within the group.

Last November I journeyed up to Pinner to hear their Remembrance concert and was blown away – genuinely exciting choral virtuosity, including a daring re-arrangement mixing classic works by Victoria with original music. At the party afterwards talk instantly turned to whether we might experiment with doing something together, and after a few fruitful meetings in the pub over the next few weeks we had a plan.  Their composers would write some things for us, and our arrangers would produce some music for them – each group being pushed a little bit out of their comfort zone.  So Edward, James, Andre and myself are hard at work trying to write things that will show off this amazing choir.  If you’re intrigued by a concert where the contemporary classic and pop sides of a cappella singing co-exist and intermingle, then keep the evening of the 12th October free…


BLOG: Why do we record like we do, or, why don’t we sound like Don Henley?

The modern a cappella record is an extraordinary beast – multi-tracked, multi-award winning, and sounding perfect. Track after track rolls past, absolutely in time, perfectly in pitch, with effects that allow a voice to sound like it’s singing in the Sistine Chapel or at a rock festival. A complete aural environment is created in your headphones that shows off the best of the group – and more.

So why don’t In the Smoke do it?

Bill Hare has argued very persuasively about how an audience recieves a performance on a stage differently from a recording. Aurally, we’re all attuned to the modern, bright pop sound, and modern recording techniques allow each singer to be recorded individually and auto-tuned to achieve something similar from an a cappella group. However, In the Smoke are ploughing an increasingly lonely furrow as one of the few groups that actively chose to record en bloc, in front of a couple of microphones, often with the soloist in the same room.

We do so for many reasons, but the most important is enjoyment. We love to sing, and love to sing together. We feed off the energy in the room, the look on someone else’s face when they hit a note just right, the pleasure of blending that chord. It’s the old adage about the sum of all the parts: it makes us a collective, In the Smoke, rather than a group of singers of varying quality. And we hope it comes across – that energy that we know is present in our live shows is there in the recording too, and we’ve worked hard to fill the gaps and sound as good as we can to make up for the lack of visual stimulation.

We also have different reasons for recording. We are trying to make a record (ha!) of how we currently sound, of the current soloists and arrangements, of the make-up of the group and the blend. Whilst we shouldn’t say this to you (our potentially-purchasing-public), we make a CD as much for us as for you. This method allows that; we do hear the imperfections, but they’re real and part of what happens to us as a group. We hope that this makes sense to a listener too. If you really wanted to hear what “Boys of Summer” sounded like, you would probably visit iTunes and let Don Henley rack up a couple more pence of royalties. But we think you want to hear us; so we do our best to sound as good as we can, nip off to France for a few days, work hard and record a CD that reflects us.

To some of us, it’s also a question of philosophy. A voice is an instrument, as much as a guitar or a snare drum. However, with production, a voice sounds very different to what is does on its own, and the production becomes part of the instrument. By choosing to sing a cappella, we’re choosing to sing without additional help from a bass or a piano, on our own. So is a mixing desk with a virtuosic masterer an unsung instrument on a recording, and does it create an a cappella falsehood? It’s grey line of course (and we’re immensely grateful to Pauline Morgan, our wonderful recording engineer) but my feeling is that it still needs thinking about.

Many incredible records have been made by multi-tracking and using all the tools available. We’ve chosen to follow the other path. Never let it be said that In the Smoke are afraid of doing things differently.


P.S. If you want to see how we do it, here is Brave (Leona Lewis, arrangement by James Crawford), recorded in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, France on the 1st June 2013.

BLOG: Our trip to France – general impressions

It’s always fun when your brief is a lot more vague than those of your brothers and sisters. Oh well, here goes nothing. Adopting a gestalt approach, the bits that seemed to stand out for people were:

1. the presence of Tyler
2. the absence of sunshine
3. a kind of thick wettish mist rising through our Pyrenean forest home
4. books everywhere (although maybe that was just me)
5. a screaming goat

So you might suggest a short story: A lonely tiler, laid off, tramps through a kind of thick wettish mist. Bored, he happens upon a pile of unread books, sits, cross-legged on the ground, and begins to read. Through the dark moisture, he hears the rich golden tones of Bill Withers, “…ain’t no sunshine, when she’s..”. Suddenly a goat screams, as if outraged.


BLOG: Communal Cooking

ITS tradition during weekends recording or rehearsing is to intersperse intensive practice with equally intensive eating. In the early days, teams organising breakfast, lunch and dinner would make so much effort (and so much food) that we needed naps to recover which was not good for rehearsal efficiency! We have learned to eat lighter breakfasts and lunches to concentrate on our music (and minimise weight gain).

One of the many desirable attributes the boys of In the Smoke boast is their cookery skills. Without exception, all ITS menfolk (past and present) have been enthusiastic co-ordinators of communal cookery during our various weekends away.* Whether you fancy a fiery curry, creamy chowder, a full Sunday roast with all the trimmings or enough guacamole to wash your face in, the gentlemen (and let’s face it they really are) will provide.**

Ladies of the world, take a tip from we Smokettes: choose your man (or men) carefully and you may enjoy the payback your grandma earned. We sit back, look pretty, drink wine, sing when required and let the lads look after us. Because we’re worth it!

* Interested ladies: unfortunately (but probably unsurprisingly) none of these highly eligible men are currently available for dates. Should this change we probably won’t let you know – we know when we’re onto a good thing.

** Prospective new male members, please be aware that a ‘signature dish’ should be provided at any audition for our consideration.

– Shirley-Anne

BLOG: Haiku

We nipped off to France a few weeks ago to record a CD, and somehow ended up in a Haiku competition. Here is Andre’s contribution:

Biarritz recording:
Teardrops fall, thinking of you
Boys of summer gone.

Biarritz syllables:
Two or three? Depends on tongue.
Babel’s aftermath…

BLOG: Voice Festival Youth Competition

We like to think we’ve got years of a cappella experience, but compared to what we saw yesterday, we were all late starters. In the Smoke was honoured to be invited to host the Voice Festival UK’s Youth Competition, and to work with Patron/Judge/all-round-good-egg Dominic Peckham on delivering workshops during the day.

Still on a high from our own Voice Festival success, we were thrilled to be involved, despite the early start (Waterloo at 8.30? On a Saturday? Seriously?!), not least because of the stunning setting of Wellington College.

Dominic achieved what parents and teachers only dream of – a bunch of attentive under-18s with great posture – then used ITS as a blank canvas for the energised teens to try being MDs. After lunch our own MD Michael led an arranging workshop on Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’, culminating in a forty-part mini-performance (video to come!) in five different choirs – a modern-day Spem in Alium.

A quick change later, it was competition time: six groups completely humbled us with stunningly professional performances.

Last year’s winners, the AcaBelles, opened the competition with slick choreography and stagecraft (later to win them an award) to the Lion King and Gotye; the Hightones gave us a stonking Bohemian Rhapsody arranged within the group (and went home with awards for arrangement and soloist); and barbershop quartet The Gist blew us away with an amazingly confident version of Vocal Spectrum’s Aladdin medley, which won them the Oustanding Performance award.

Fourth up were the Tudor Tunes, the youngest group but brimming with energy and great solo voices; then the King’s Barbers, whose shiny shirts promised pizazz and whose Livin’ La Vida Loca more than delivered it; and finally home team the Wellingtones gave us a polished yet honest and engaging set with uniformly brilliant soloists.

We definitely didn’t envy Dom the task of choosing an overall winner, but the top prize went to the deserving Wellingtones, who were absolutely thrilled.

The Voice Festival is a truly remarkable thing, and we’re so glad to be more involved every year… Roll on 2014!

– James