BLOG: What do windmills have to do with it?

Just what should we call our fourth album? Discussions began almost as soon as we were on our way to France to record it. Our efforts began with an epic and entertaining quest to find a suitably cringe-inducing pun (does anyone know the French for fog?) – and it was only on our return that we realised that, whilst we might always associate this album with a week in France, perhaps no-one else would! The debate began anew and it seemed the task would not be easy, particularly when the shortlist of potential names started to outnumber the people voting. Much time was given over to discussion; names were suggested or vetoed, lists were shortened then extended again, and elaborate voting systems were devised only to be waylaid by last minute suggestions. The issue became too lengthy for our weekly business meeting (which we hold in the last few minutes of each rehearsal). Additional/lengthy/wardrobe items are often postponed and tackled during post-rehearsal drinks, and so the final album-naming decision happened in our local – The Windmill.

Every Tuesday, after rehearsal, we turn up, steal the comfy seats, move furniture around and make a lot of noise. ‘Wine club’ work out whose turn it is to get the wine, get confused, and end up with more than we planned (or that’s the official story). Several packets of crisps are added to any leftover cookies from the rehearsal and shared around. There is usually some post-match rehearsal analysis, classroom chat from the multitude of teachers, job updates from the freelancers and some karaoke-style harmonising with the background music. Some of us may be too busy to get to the pub or tired after a long day but there’s always good chat and a chance to catch up on the week just gone. The Windmill has also been an impromptu performance space; in fact it was where we unveiled this year’s competition set for the first time. Recently, our fondness for the Windmill has grown to the extent that there’s now a fairly regular pre-rehearsal session, so that those of us with spare time/marking to do/a penchant for Jessica Rabbit sandwiches might amuse ourselves between work and rehearsal.

So, all in all, it seems entirely fitting that our album is named after the place we spend most time together (well, apart from rehearsing, but ’empty office’ didn’t even make the shortlist). If you missed the chance to buy The Windmill Sessions at our gig on Saturday, then you can buy it on iTunes, or from Amazon, or even listen to us on Spotify. Please rate and review us once you’ve had a listen!


BLOG: Greenwood Track List

Some people have been asking for the set list from our Greenwood Theatre gig – here goes!

First half

  1. Not Done Yet – Michael Humphrey
  2. You Make My Dreams – Hall & Oates arr. Andre Flemmings
  3. Ex Factor – Lauryn Hill arr. Michael Humphrey
  4. The Boys of Summer – Don Henley arr. Michael Humphrey
  5. Sophia – Nerina Pallot arr. Tom Searle
  6. Don’t Do It – The Band/Marvin Gaye arr. Michael Humphrey 
  7. A Place Nobody Can Find – Sam & Dave arr. Michael Humphrey
  8. Driving With the Brakes On – Del Amitri arr. Darren Chadwick
  9. Summertime – Gershwin/Lou Rawls arr. Andre Flemmings
  10. Teardrop – Massive Attack/Newton Faulkner arr. Andre Flemmings
  11. Don’t Stop the Music – Madonna/S Club 7/Basement Jaxx/Daft Punk arr. Edward Brightman

Second Half

  1. Get Ready – Temptations arr. Michael Humphrey
  2. Ain’t Nobody – Chaka Khan arr. Andre Flemmings
  3. Brave – Leona Lewis arr. James Crawford
  4. Walk Like an Egyptian – Bangles/Puppini Sisters arr. Andre Flemmings
  5. Thinking of You – Katy Perry arr. Michael Humphrey
  6. Hard Times – Gillian Welch arr. Michael Humphrey
  7. Rap Battle – Various arr. Michael Humphrey
  8. Don’t Stop Believing – Journey arr. Michael Humphrey
  9. Oh My Sweet Carolina – Ryan Adams arr. Michael Humphrey
  10. Love Shack – B52s  arr. Michael Humphrey
  11. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
  12. Riverboat Song – Ocean Colour Scene arr. Andre Flemmings
  13. Give Me Love – Ed Sheeran arr. Andre Flemmings
  14. Acapella – Kelis arr. Michael Humphrey

BLOG: Encore!

We’re as guilty as any other group of preparing an encore just in case we do a good enough job to warrant one. After all, we’d hate to palm paying punters off with a poor performance and second rate singing, if they’ve enjoyed us enough to request more… Last impressions and all that.

The thing is, though, that the requests can often be a tad specific, and one request has been bellowed at our bowing bodies more than all the others put together. It’s a song that’s been with us since our first gig over five years back, as famous for its moves and video as its music and vocals… none other than Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller‘.

It’s quite a rush dragging your reluctant feet across the stage, crooked arms outstretched to grab the virtuosic Vishal, while trying to remember whether this ‘doop’ is the one that’s sharp…  But like all our songs – and our members – it needs some time off to put its feet up after a long stretch of hard work.

So if you’re coming to see us on Saturday, please do ask us for the encore we’ve so presumptuously prepared, but don’t expect to have any choice in what it is. You’re gonna love it.


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

GIG: Tickets on sale now!

Celebrating our fifth anniversary and launching our new (fourth) album, we’re doing a proper full length show in a proper big theatre, and tickets are NOW ON SALE!

Expect brand new, never-before-performed arrangements alongside highlights from our first half-decade, and the sets that earned us the title of Champions (2012) and the Ward Swingle Award for Originality (2013) at the Voice Festival UK Community Competition.

In the Smoke: The Story So Far
Saturday 3 August 2013, 7.30pm (doors open at 7.00pm)
Greenwood Theatre, 55 Weston St, London SE1 3RA
Tickets £7 (adult), £3 (concession), FREE for under-16s or school pupils
Book online now at (no booking fee)

Load up on puns, bring your friends…  And while you’re there, buy our shiny new CD.  Sneak preview now available at Soundcloud, or a video on YouTube!

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…