More Than a Good Idea

 
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Signs editor Nathan Brown recently chatted with Andrew Piper from Australia’s most successful a cappella group, The Idea of North.

The name is actually the name of an old radio show that was produced back in the 1960s in Canada,”  explains Piper. “We just liked the sound of the name. We didn’t want to have a corny name like Sweet Harmony Singers or anything like that. We just wanted to have a name that perhaps, one day, we would eventually define. So we names ourselves after an old radio show. There’s no connection to the radio show and there’s no specific meaning, although a lot of people have come up with their own idea of what it means.”

Australia’s gift to the King of Thailand to mark his golden jubilee celebrations this month comes in the form of a musical group called The Idea of North. They will perform their unique brand of a cappella music at a Bangkok concert to mark the occasion. This performance will cap a busy year for The Idea of North, which has seen them perform internationally, launch their fifth album and complete an extended national tour.

According to bass Andrew Piper, extending their national tour over a number of months simply fitted with their timetable. “We’ve been doing quite a lot of international touring, so it has had to fit in with that,” he explains. “We’ve just recently come back from an Asian tour. We did Japan, Malaysia and Korea and they were a lot of fun. So we’re just fitting in around other things. We kind of feel that we don’t necessarily need to just go on the road and promote the whole thing in one big slab, but we can do it over a few months because Australia is a big country to get around.

For The Idea of North, their new album, “The Gospel Project,” is a return to their musical beginnings.

The group formed back in 1993 when we were students at the Canberra School of Music,” Piper recalls. “All of us were singing in the jazz vocal ensemble there, and we struck up a friendship between the four of us. And it just so happened we had a soprano, alto, tenor and bass. So it was very convenient. One of the things we did in our friendship was to sing, and because we had the right combination of four voices we could sing a cappella without instruments.”

So the group came out of a love of singing and we sang for the church we were all going to at that time, and they asked us to do more, so we got a few more numbers and performed those and then we started doing concerts around town. It just kind of built from there.” The Idea of North has worked full time since 1998 and retains three of the original quartet with alto Naomi Crellin joining the group in 2002. And, of course, their name is a recurring question in their interaction with the media and public.

But to many fans “The Idea of North” has come to refer to a kind of music blending rich harmonies with a jazzinspired sense of fun. But, according to Piper, the group has always had a love of gospel music. “We say we’re a jazz-based group, but within our repertoire we’ve always had gospel songs we really like. Most of our CDs will have a few gospel numbers on them and people have said, ‘We’d like a whole CD of just gospel music.’ So we thought, Let’s do one.” But Piper is quick to explain that this style of music is not about preaching.

We really let the music speak for itself,” he says. “We’re not preachers or anything like that. We don’t say that we’re a Christian group, and we’re not just doing Christian music. But this particular album is a themed album.”

The Gospel Project” takes this interest a step further, including three prayers by Australian cartoonist and writer Michael Leunig. Piper says the idea came from tenor Nick Begbie. “He’s been a fan of Leunig for some years and he received a book of prayers,” explains Piper. “And he thought it would be nice to set them to music. So Nick wrote the music and the arrangements for them and of course he asked Michael’s permission. He said he would be very happy for us to use it.” Piper admits their style of music is a niche market “but we’re finding that wherever we go, whomever we sing for, people really like what we do.” He suggests audiences are fascinated by this unique way of creating music: “I think it’s intriguing for the audience to hear the music being created with just four voices and the idea for us is to perform the songs without the audience thinking there’s anything missing. So everything’s there, even though it’s just four voices.”

As such, he suggests writing music for a cappella performance requires a different approach. “You’ve only got four voices,” he explains. “When you’re arranging for a band, often you don’t have as many limitations because you can have a keyboard and drums, bass, brass instruments and singers and the whole works, so everything is covered, but with four voices you’ve only got effectively four parts that you can write for. So you’ve got to be very creative in the way that you apply the music and convey the chord changes and the whole thing to get it across. It’s a challenge, but I think when you crack it, it really is rewarding.”

Piper also attributes something of the distinct sound to their musical isolation.

A cappella isn’t huge in Australia. We’ve been to the United States a few times now and there’s a huge tradition of a cappella singing in schools, colleges and universities where they have this big network of a cappella singing and training.”
We haven’t come from that,” he continues.
“So we haven’t been influenced as much by those particular styles. We’ve kind of created our own unique Australian style as a cappella singing, and not drawing just from a cappella groups but also from a lot of other styles of music as well, from instrumental players and particularly from jazz. So we’ve pooled all of these to create our own style, just subconsciously by what we’ve studied and appreciated. Just by doing it, by trial and error.” It seems one of the advantages of touring with an a cappella group is travelling light, without the heavy lifting of other bands. “There are no instruments, that’s true,” Piper chuckles at the suggestion.

But we travel with our own sound engineer and we also travel with our own mixing console, our own radio mikes and monitoring system, which amounts to a few road cases. Being a cappella, we have to make sure the sound is spot-on and that’s why we like to have our own dedicated sound guy.”

Across a successful 13-year career, The Idea of North has had many highlights.

We’ve done a lot of big, exciting gigs and we’ve done a lot of small gigs too that have been really exciting and rewarding,” Piper reflects. “The big gigs have been things like the 2000 Australian Football League grand final, where we sang to 90,000 people and were televised around the country and world. The gig we recently did in Korea in front of a TV audience of millions with a studio audience of 900 was a lot of fun.”

But then we’ve done the small gigs, a couple of hundred people—and they encourage us. They might be going through a hard time, a hard patch in their lives. It’s really uplifted them. You can’t get anything better than that. Sometimes if you’re having a bad day and you’re a bit sick of touring of whatever, and you get these people coming up to you or you get some fan mail or email— you really feel encouraged in what you’re doing and it keeps you going.”

It can be hard, particularly being away from family,” Piper expands on the challenges of touring. “I have a family of two little girls and it’s kind of hard being dragged away from them going on tour. But that comes with the job. Every job has its ups and downs. A nine-to-five guy is away during the day, but when I’m home I can be with my family during the day. You have the good and bad points, like any job. It’s never that much of a drag. What a job—being able to travel around the world and see all these places, sing to people and make them happy.”