Vocal jams

Rockapella's Scott Leonard on why some pop and rap hits need a comedic cleansing

Special to the Union Leader
May 02. 2018 12:38PM
Rockapella, whose discography includes “A Rockapella Holiday,” “Bang,” “Motown & More” and the recent “Jams Vol. 1,” comprises, clockwise from bottom right, Scott Leonard, Bryant Vance, Calvin C. Jones, Jeff Thacher and Mitchell Rains. 
If you go...
WHO: Rockapella

WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., Derry

TICKETS: $30-$45

INFO: tupelomusichall.com or 437-5100

Where in the world has Scott Leonard been lately?

As it turns out, Japan. The leader of the a cappella group Rockapella has just returned from a 13-hour flight from the Far East, where the quintet has a loyal following.

“I just go with the flow,” says the Indiana native of working in one of the most successful vocal groups since its early days as house band for the PBS children’s TV game show “Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?”

Leonard began his singing career at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., when a chance to perform at the Disneyland in Japan led to a two-year stint in Tokyo and Osaka. Upon his return to the States, he joined Rockapella in 1991, just as the group’s fame began to take off with “Carmen Sandiego.”

Leonard, who’s been with the group for more than 20 years, spoke with NHWeekend about his love for Japan, the rise of a cappella groups in the United States, and Rockapella’s unlikely cover of the Migos rap hit “Bad and Boujee.”

What do you love most about Japan?

Man, for somebody who’s from Indiana, the Japanese/Asian mindset is really mind-opening. They’re really aware of their place in the world, that they are one of many. They’re very courteous of each other and your space, and it’s an older culture than I’m used to growing up in the United States. There’s a lot of wisdom there.

Why do you think Rockapella became so big in Japan?

Japan hadn’t experienced contemporary a cappella, so Rockapella was the first of its kind over there. We’ve had a simultaneous career ever since.

And it sounds like the band comes around to New Hampshire often.

We love the area. We play Derry every holiday. It wouldn’t be Christmas without a trip to Derry every year. It’s really wonderful that we’re gonna get an opportunity to do a non-holiday show in the area. So we’re really looking forward to that.

What’s different with Rockapella these days?

We’ve got new guys over the last couple of years that have a lot of new energy and youth. The Ivy League schools each have a group, but now every middle school around the world has a group. It’s so popular. And with “Pitch Perfect” (films) and the (TV singing competition) “The Sing-Off” and Pentatonix, it’s fun to have watched the rise of a cappella. In fact, Rockapella was really the first one to break through on a mainstream level. It’s fun to be the godfathers of a cappella.

Who are the new members?

I’m the last guy left from the beginning of “Carmen Sandiego.” Jeff (Thacher), our vocal percussionist, has been with us for almost 25 years. And then, let’s see, Calvin Jones is five years, and then Bryant (Vance) and Mitch (Rains) — the newer guys — they’ve been (in the group for) two years.

What do they bring to the table?

Bryant is our bass. And I’ll tell you … there are very few-and-far-between true basses. His low notes rumble the house. When Barry, our first bass (performed) in the “Carmen Sandiego” days, he had that incredibly low voice. But then our next couple guys, they had rhythm and were great showmen, but there was something about the actual depth of the sound ... I didn’t realize it until (we) came back with Bryant. I’m like, ‘Woah,’ that sounds like Barry. It’s fun to have a young guy with great rhythm and funk and also have the low notes. He has a remarkable voice.

What about Mitch, Calvin and Jeff?

Mitch and Calvin are the other tenors. We’re basically three tenors, a bass and drums. We used to be like a barbershop lineup. Barbershop lineups are bass, baritone, second tenor and tenor. When you have three tenors, you can do higher stuff. You can do more (like an) Andrews Sisters kind of vibe. (Thacher) does the percussion with his mouth. I’m the high tenor, stupidly high!

You’ve done covers like “Despacito” (the hit collaboration between Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee) and “Shape of You” (by chart-topper Ed Sheeran). The group’s version of the latter seems to be at a quicker tempo.

I don’t actually do stuff just to do it, like make an a cappella version of the original. I like to ... give it a little twist. (With) “Shape of You” .... For Rockapella, it’s a little racy with the lyrics: “Last night I was in your room, and my bed sheets smell like you.’ We can’t really sing that for our fans. So we said, ‘Last night you were in my room, and now I’m missing my shampoo.” (It’s) that kind of sense of humour. Don’t take yourselves too seriously.

So there’s a comedic element in there.

Absolutely, and it always has been. When we did the “Carmen Sandiego” show …. we were like The Monkees that had a lot of personality and crazy hijinks. Rockapella’s always had the humorous element, definitely.”

What are some other songs Rockapella had to adjust the lyrics to?

(He sings a snippet of Bruno Mars’ “What’s What I Like.”) So we did, “Lucky for you, fat’s what I like.” (He follows with “golden arches shining so bright ...) That kind of thing. We’re like Weird Al Yankovic, how he does parody lyrics. Like “Bad and Boujee” — those kind of rap songs — cause they’re so serious and dark and violent. You just rib ‘em a little bit. “Bad and Boujee,” if you listen to that you can hear a lot of incidental funny moments.

I know the song you’re talking about.

It’s Migos. It’s fully rap. (He sings some bars.) We just did a couple Japanese pop hits. We did “Believer,” that Imagine Dragons song. We just did the tempo change on that. What else did we do? Oh, (Kendrick Lamar’s) “Humble,” yeah.

One of our guys was named Mitch, so (instead of a rhyming derogatory word in Lamar’s lyrics, we sing) “Mitch, be humble.” And that made it acceptable. Tasteful but funny.

Is there a genre the group hasn’t covered yet but would like to?

I’ve kind of shied away from us doing really hard rock. But I think it makes sense, because we’re called Rockapella. I’ve gotten into this concept of Bach and Beethoven, but doing a Rockapella contempo with a funky beat. So, look out for that.

What was the inspiration for the Rockapella song, “How Bout Now?”

Well, there’s so much going on with the MeToo movement and the gun violence stuff. Once in a while you get motivated. You don’t know what you’re gonna write about when you write original songs. You never know what’s gonna move you.

So for “How About Now” ... I know that someday it’ll be a peaceful society. It’ll be a perfect society. We’re working towards this ideal. And it’ll happen. But it’s like, “Why not now?” Why can’t we just make those choices now?’ … It’s really fun to have a voice like Rockapella, to be able to … have romantic songs but also have socially conscious songs.

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