FOUNDERS OF CHOIR! CHOIR! CHOIR!

 

I answered a call on a Tuesday night from a friend who briefly invited me to "this choir thing his sister did at a bar once a week." That was all the convincing I needed. A few hours later, I wandered into No One Writes to the Colonel, and five minutes into the experience I began to comprehend what a special moment I had just become a part of.  I was one in a group of mostly strangers that was completely owning a three part harmony rendition of The Go-Go's, "Our Lips Are Sealed". We undoubtedly rocked it that night, but I was most impressed by the way it came together. Daveed Goldman (right) & Nobu Adilman (left) ran the show with the right amount of humorous banter and musical aptitude needed to entice a room full of strangers to shove their fears aside and sing to their hearts' content. Choir! Choir! Choir! has grown into bigger venues, performing at the Juno Awards, TedXToronto, and most recently, the Art Gallery of Ontario with a 500-person cover of the late David Bowie's beloved "Space Oddity". Prior to the latter, we met up for oysters and a few pints of beer to talk about how they went from a tiny gathering at a friend's birthday to the epic, internet-breaking phenomenon they are today.


 
 

Describe the path that brought you to what you're doing now.
Daveed: We got started with humble beginnings. We both partook in a choir-like performance for a mutual friend's birthday, and we rehearsed at Nobu's house. It was kind of a one-off thing and it was really fun and very simple and that's where the seed was planted in our heads. It took a couple years after that performance, where we would see each other around and we didn't really know each other that well, but we had done this thing together. Whenever I would see Nobu, we would say things like, "Let's do that choir thing again!" and then it wouldn't happen and we wouldn't see each other for six months. At one point in 2010-2011, I was in the depths of winter depression, and Nobu came into the restaurant I've managed for a long time, and I said it to him again he said, "Okay, let's do it. I'll put a post up on Facebook and see who would come out and sing." From there, he put a post up and the response was really strong. 

Nobu: And by strong, he means that 30 people wanted to come out and sing, which at the time was a lot.

D: It took a couple of months for it to finally happen, but we did it in February of 2011, in the middle of a snowstorm. We thought no one would come out, but about 20 people came out in the biggest snowstorm of the year to sing a few songs with us at a real estate office and we were just impressed by the idea that we got 20 people to come out and sing.

N: We were very nervous. It's one thing to get up in a room full of your closest friends because there's usually no power dynamic. You're just hanging out with your friends. But suddenly we're the leaders of this thing and we're trying to get people to do this thing, and we don't even really know what it is that we're trying to get them to do. When it comes down to it there was no shape to it.

D: There was no end game. Neither of us had talked about the idea that we would have this trajectory. I just thought it would be fun to maybe do it a couple of times and see what came out of it. It was just a way to meet people. It was winter, I was feeling lonely and depressed, and I figured, being in a room with 20 people singing was better than being in a room alone.

N: I find it interesting because we come at it from different perspectives. Daveed is a very talented musician who really didn't share his music very much. He was writing in isolation and performing in small venues with a lot of support from other musicians but keeping it more private and was less inclined to share it with the world. In many ways, I don't think a lot of people knew how talented he was or is. I think they saw him as the manager for Aunties & Uncles, which he's been for a long time. And for me, I've always been very involved with every community I've been a part of. I lived in Halifax for a number of years and it seems like everyone in Halifax is in a band, so I started making music with a couple of friends when I lived out there. I'd never been in a choir before, so this idea of joining a choir was very foreign to me. It was almost by accident that he happened to get enlisted by a mutual friend of ours to play guitar for this birthday party that he mentioned. And even though none of us knew how to arrange the song, it was very evident from the beginning that Daveed could respond to that, almost like a positive knee-jerk reaction. After that first performance, we weren't really thinking about it beyond that moment, but there was a spark. I remember the other people that were a part of the performance were asking us about when it was going to happen again. And once we got going, it was kind of a snowball effect. We would suggest we do it again the following month, but people wanted to do it again the following day. And we kept having to move venues. One time it was at my house but then it grew out of that so we moved it to an art gallery, and then we held it at Double Double Land. It just grew so quickly, because (and this is what we didn't realize at the beginning) people wanted something that would allow them to be creative, even if they were already super creative. Sometimes being the person who calls all the shots can be a little overwhelming. So people wanted a way to flex their creative muscles...

D: They wanted to be passively creative.

N: Exactly. Let somebody else steer the ship for a bit. We were motivated by the idea and up for the challenge of meeting this demand. There was a void, and I don't say void in a desperate way, but it seemed there was something lacking in people's lives and once choir got started it moved quickly, and we had to move fast to keep up with it. At times it was very overwhelming. I've had a lot of extraordinary moments in my life, but the kind of response we've gotten from this particular project has brought up something that's never happened to me before. It's really powerful and humbling and insane, in the most beautiful and encouraging way.

LISTEN TO 500 PEOPLE SING DAVID BOWIE'S "SPACE ODDITY"

 
 

You always seem to have a lot on the go. What else have you been working on these days?
N: We recently appeared in a music video with a band called shy kids. In August, we gave some keynote speeches and talks at various events. And most recently we have been raising money to sponsor a Syrian refugee family.

D: Everything happens pretty last minute with us. Usually, we have an idea and within a week it's happening. 

N: We have our Epic Night series, where we've brought on Sloan, and Tim from Hey Rosetta, and more recently, Joel Plaskett. We've got a few of those cooking. We have been informally putting together a list of the top 20 artists we would love to work with. A lot of the unique things we've done with choir has been because of people we know or friends of friends - this all happened so organically that way. So it's always interesting to go outside of that and gain access to different musicians who we don't know at all.  It's pretty cool when people have heard of us from the internet and they show up from Europe as they're traveling through Toronto and decide to come just for that one night.

D: We're not on Lonely Planet yet, but I'm pretty proud of the fact that this is something that's happening pretty exclusively in Toronto. I think it's something people should do when they come to Toronto. It's a way to experience something they wouldn't be able to experience in New York or Chicago. These other cities have a lot of things to offer, but this is not one of them.
 

You really manage to bring out the best in these crowds. I think out of all the art forms, singing seems to be the hardest for people. It's the one that people seem shyest about even though most are a lot better than they give themselves credit for. People just end up blossoming in your crowds...
D: I feel like we have to act like sparks. If we're getting people to sing, we have to ignite this initial fire. That's our job. But once it happens, I feel like we end up being a reflection of what's going on in the crowd. So if the crowd's getting into it and I can hear all those voices coming at us, people are almost seeing what's happening on our faces. You know, if I'm lost in it and playing my guitar and Nobu's jumping up and down and we're swaying back and forth people are like, "Fuck if they're so into it, I should be into it too." You really feel it when you're there and it's just about keeping the momentum of the night going. Even if you're not a great singer, if you're surrounded by that many people you can just go along for the ride. It's kind of fun to let your guard down for a couple of hours and unlock something inside of people.

N: I see it as a great hang. We're just kind of hosting a really great hangout session. 

D: Yeah, one where we'll do all the talking.

N: *laughs* Yeah. And a good party relies on everyone contributing on some level. Even if our jokes suck in that particular moment, I want to hear you fucking tell me that it sucked. Say something. React somehow. That's the buy-in that I'm always looking for because if that doesn't exist I'm wondering what's wrong. I always get excited when there's some loudmouth in the back because we'll take what they say and throw it back at them, or someone else will jump in on the conversation from the side...

D: We've become masters of spinning anything. You know how they say there's no such thing as bad press? It's like there are no bad moments. You can handle any sort of shitty, negative moment where the song sounds terrible and no one is singing it properly or someone keeps screwing up. If there's one person screwing up the same part over and over, we find a way to make light of it by calling it out, in a goodhearted way of course because if you can't laugh at the mistakes you make, you're not having fun anymore. And it's always those people that we'll pick on that come up to us after and tell us how much fun it was and that they loved that we picked on them.

N: We've maybe once received a comment about a person not enjoying the banter, and it was fine in the end. They kept coming back to choir and it wasn't really a problem, but the thought I have towards that is to grow a thicker skin because we're all getting it. We're up there on stage looking like the biggest idiots in the world and we don't worry about it. To your point earlier about how singing is really hard, we were hired to go to this event and teach singing for a few nights and prior to us going up and doing our thing, these people were teaching a choreographed dance and Daveed turned to me and made a similar point. If you're dancing and not really good at it, it's not a big deal. You can just make fun of it and fall back into rhythm or whatever, but singing is a different story. You're putting yourself out there in a different way.

 
 

Every week you stand in front of these groups of people who are often strangers, and manage to make really beautiful sounds come together. How difficult is that? Is there a technique to it?
N: Over time the arrangements have gotten easier to teach. It has a lot to do with Daveed and his ability to create arrangements that don't involve a lot of leaping from note to note. We've done arrangements that are really hard and learned a lot from that, even though those songs still sounded good.

D: We've had the luxury of doing 250 weeks with 350 songs, or something crazy like that. When you do that many songs and do it every week, you get better at it quickly. I remember we did this Wham! song, "Freedom", which we did within the first three or four months of choir, and it was the first song where people just really loved singing it. We would always get asked to sing it after we were done learning the next song and so we would sing it again at the end of choir sometimes. It was kind of our first anthem. And that song turned out so well even though the arrangement was more complex. Then, one week we were set to do Pointer Sisters and I remember being so excited thinking it was going to be even better, almost like "Freedom 2.0", and of course we did it and it was just way too complicated.

N: It was hard and it wasn't fun. We were getting frustrated and the crowd was getting frustrated. 

D: And we learned it was about finding that balance of what's fun, and what sounds good. Because people don't care if it is complicated. That's not what gets them excited.

N: It took us a while to learn that.

D: You want an arrangement that people can get into and feel like they're in a groove. They don't want to be thinking too much about it because then it's not fun anymore. We're not professional musicians, so sometimes changing the key can make something really beautiful, even in the simplest of songs.

N: We did Robyn's "Call Your Girlfriend" and it was the first time we had simply done a three part harmony for the entire song. That was all we needed. If you get a few hundred people in a room and have them sing the same note, you're going to feel something. So I think we have that on our side. A huge part of making things work comes from the arrangement and the other part is managing the crowd.  We did "Naked As We Came" by Iron and Wine, and so much of it was vibe. Drawing a performance out of somebody is something that we've done many times and we've gotten better at it, but it can be a challenge. Sometimes people are scared and I always tell them, "You decided to leave your home, get on the subway or in your car, and come to a choir. There's no false advertising here. You came to sing, so just do it. And it's probably going to sound alright, and when it sounds shitty we'll let you know."

D: We'll also say things like, "You feel goofy singing 'Karma Chameleon'...how do you think we feel? We're on stage leading this whole fucking thing!"

N: Our credibility was lost a long time ago.

D: Right, so let's just enjoy ourselves and have a moment...can we have a moment?

N: *laughs*


This is probably a hard question, but I'm going to ask anyway - what has been your favourite arrangement to date?
N: Yeah that's hard. We did "God Only Knows" by The Beach Boys. It was gorgeous. And it was easy. It was a good example of an easy, beautiful arrangement that just kills.

D: I'm a really huge fan of The Smiths, and we did "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out", which I was afraid to do because it meant so much to me, but when it actually happened I was leaving for Europe the next day and the video was posted right as I was in the cab on the way to the airport. I remember leaving on this high note and being so proud of it. You could just tell from the flow of sound coming from the choir members that they loved singing the backups even more than the lead part. That's always cool. Because most people will just naturally navigate toward the lead parts so it's great when you can make the backups more fun.

 
 

You've received some really phenomenal feedback from significant artists whose songs you've performed. What's it like to hear from them?
N: We are always hoping that the original artists hear what we do and we are always hoping that they like it. It is pretty overwhelming when someone like Leonard Cohen reports back that he likes it. I was super proud and happy that he heard our version of "Hallelujah". We also heard an insane story through a guy who comes to choir that after we did "Hello", he sent it to his sister who happens to be friends with Lionel Richie, and she passed it on to him. The next day he texted her back saying he couldn't stop watching the video.

D: It's crazy to think of Lionel Richie, wherever the fuck he his, watching a Choir! Choir! Choir! video. I think the artists that tend to react more strongly to what we're doing are artists who have had more time to reflect on their own careers. When we cover younger artists, they tend to not comment as easily. We did do a cover of HAIM though, and they reacted right away. I think younger artists are sometimes hesitant to comment on what we're doing because they're afraid fans won't think it's cool or that management will tell them not to, whereas artists like Lionel Richie or Simple Minds or Crowded House - these bands have had huge careers and they're not trying to be hip and new in that same way. They tend to think it's cool that people are still celebrating a song that was a hit 30 years ago.

N: I would say the ultimate "story" is of Tegan and Sara. We covered "Closer" and "I Was A Fool" and when they couldn't make it to their Polaris Prize gala performance, the organizers of the event vetted it with their management and had us sing "Closer" on their behalf. From there, they and their management asked us to crowd-source a choir to sing backup for them at the Juno Awards. It was pretty amazing.

D: We've been so lucky to have these connections to artists.

 
 

You've managed to bring something really unique to this city. Tell me what you love about Toronto.
N: It's kind of turning into the type of city that I loved Halifax for. In Halifax, there wasn't a lot going on so if you wanted to have fun you had to create it yourself. We started a band so we would have entertainment, and then we got a jam space which turned into a venue. I feel like Toronto has become that place, where people feel like they can get something done if they really want to. There is so much creativity running around this city and I feel like it's a big enough place that you can find all kind of things to do, but it's also a small enough town that you can feel connected to so many people. Everything is totally accessible. The standard of living is a bit expensive, but it is a very easy place to live.

D: Overall, there aren't many cities that I feel offer what this city does. I mean that globally. I really feel that way. There's a lot of opportunity here. Think of what you'd give up to live this life in New York. You know, we live pretty comfortably here. We're both homeowners. And if we were in New York we'd probably need six roommates to get by.

N: I have my criticisms about Toronto and Canada too, but those aside, Toronto as a city to live in is great. There are tons of people and great food and it's an incredible place to explore. Maybe we don't have the architecture of countries in Europe, but we're also a younger country and there's so much to check out and be surprised by.

D: I've lived here since 1999, and I've noticed the amount of people that have moved here since. I feel like Toronto is just starting to come into its own and really just beginning to hit its stride. People come from all different parts of the country who probably wouldn't have moved here 30 years ago, but they're doing amazing things in Toronto.

N: It still pisses me off that people don't smile more in the city though. It's tiring. You go to either coast and people aren't afraid to smile at a stranger out there.


What is the best advice you have been given?
N: It's something a friend of mine recently said to me, which is that you need an education and the best place to get it is from somebody else.

I love that. 
N(to D): What about you? 

D: I don't have anything. But the advice you gave wouldn't be mine. In fact, I'd say don't think you need an education, and you shouldn't listen to what anybody else has to say...*laughs* just go with your gut. 

 

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CREDITS
Published on January 19, 2016
Interview & photography by Marlee Maclean
Transcribed by Robby Maclean
Thank you to AGO Toronto