Stripped Down & Chorally Cool

Naked Voices, UCSB’s Contemporary A Cappella Group, Drops a CD

by Matt Kettmann

Last February, on the Film Festival’s closing night, a dozen or so college students meandered onto the Arlington’s stage amidst an announcement about a cappella music. “Oh great, a cappella,” I grumbled, in chorus with my equally dismayed friends, figuring we’d be treated to an unbearably boring — if not plain embarrassing — set before the movie screened. To me, a cappella meant slow, beat-lacking love songs and show-offish vocal acrobatics, a style that hadn’t appealed to me since my Boyz II Men days back in junior high (which I admit sheepishly).

Thirty seconds later, my uninformed opinion of contemporary a cappella was blown to shreds as UCSB’s Naked Voices — backed by ridiculous beat-boxing and fronted by sweet, deep, and sultry vocals — hard-rocked through Muse’s “Hysteria,” laid down the Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams,” doo-wopped through No Doubt’s “Sunday Morning,” and rode the psychedelic airwaves of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’s “The Zephyr Song.” It was the most surprising musical display I’d ever experienced, and we were hootin’ and hollerin’ throughout.

Turns out we weren’t the only ones impressed. “Since the Film Festival, so many paths have opened up for us,” explained Brendan Sherlock, the beat-boxing tenor who’s been with Naked Voices for four years now. “This is the first time we’ve really felt connected to Santa Barbara.”

It’s been a long time coming, both for the town’s acceptance of Naked Voices and for contemporary a cappella to hit UCSB. The style has been a college campus phenomenon for almost two decades, based mainly on the East Coast, where some schools have more than two dozen groups. But it wasn’t until 2001 that Naked Voices became a UCSB reality, and it’s taken five years for Santa Barbara to take note. It’s a good year for it, at least, because the Naked Voices 2006 vintage is particularly appealing.

While previous groups have included between 12 to 19 singers, this year’s incarnation is a solid 15. Group members are selected via a lengthy audition held during the second week of the fall quarter. Last year, more than 100 people tried out, and the group added seven, although the number of truly talented singers was surprisingly high. (One aspiring singer, Alana Allekotte, came to UCSB all the way from New Jersey to be part of Naked Voices; happily, she made the cut.) And that’s often the case, which is why there are now two spin-off groups from Naked Voices: the all-male Brothas from Otha Mothas (known around campus simply as “BFOM”) and the all-female Vocal Motion, who are both great in their own rights.

As for Naked Voices, the members are as diverse as the campus, in terms of majors, age, race, and hometowns, according to Sherlock. “We’re all coming together to do what we love,” explained Sherlock. “It’s the one thing that unites us. We are such individual people, but we all come together to make something special.”

A couple months after the Film Fest debut, my friends and I gathered even more buddies to head down to the Maritime Museum, where both BFOM — dressed, fittingly, in pirate garb — and Naked Voices were doing Friday-night sets. The evening’s highlight was Naked Voices’s rendition of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights,” the breakbeat-driven, multi-layered sonic exercise that soared the charts a couple years back. It begged the question: How does such a song — which to the untrained ear sounds as far from a cappella as can be — get selected?

The process begins when individual members select songs and arrange them into the bass, alto, soprano, and tenor parts. Then, the work is presented to the group and an internal audition is held for soloists. As far as what songs work, said Sherlock, “We listen for arrange-ability. There has to be a degree of chorality.” Added Ashley Harrell, the soprano who served as president last year, “We try to be creative with the arrangements. Some songs are simple, so if you just follow them, it could be boring.” For instance, as “Such Great Heights” fades out, Naked Voices overlays elements of other Postal Service songs just to keep things interesting.

Despite the fact that UCSB totes the group around at various functions and uses them as “advertising,” the campus gives them no money or additional support whatsoever — even getting the Music Department to put a link to their website was a chore — and requires them to pay the yearly dues required of any club. “We’re all paying to be in this group, actually,” explained Harrell. “We look at all these building going up around school and think that if we just had $1,000, it would make a big difference.”

It’s exciting to imagine what Naked Voices could become with a little help from Chancellor Henry Yang and his administration friends. Already, they’ve made it to the semifinals once and the quarterfinals three times of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (twice getting named for best soloist arrangement), released a 2004 CD called The Nude Album, and have been featured on the Best of College A Cappella and Voices Only albums for the past three years. (Oh yeah, they also do private parties and boast a performable list of more than 40 songs.) Said soprano Alexandra Moffitt, another former president, “We can say with extreme confidence that we are one of the best a cappella groups in California.”

And this weekend, Naked Voices unveils CD number two, called Between the Sheets, which was a labor of love throughout late 2005 and early 2006, a period where they stopped competing to focus on their album and performance repertoire. Recorded in L.A. with production wizard Gabriel Mann, its release this Saturday at SOhO and later on at Giovanni’s in Isla Vista promises to be yet another coming-out party for our town’s best-kept musical secret. Get in on it before you’re the only one left with clothes on.

4•1•1 Naked Voices releases Between the Sheets this Saturday, June 17, with shows at SOhO at 6 p.m. and Giovanni’s in Isla Vista at 9 p.m. Visit or for more info.

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