Beyond the Quads

Out Loud and Outbound

After getting serious about what it loves to do—sing—Voices in Your Head is raking in awards.

By Asher Klein, AB’11

Voices in Your Head started out singing show tunes and covers in campus archways and out-of-the-way rooms with bad acoustics. Today, the a cappella group is singing lauded original songs and arrangements at gigs across the country.

One of seven such student groups at UChicago, Voices in Your Head is the most accomplished, having completed a rare a cappella triple crown: It landed on all three major compilation CDs in the genre this year, which only a handful of groups nationwide have accomplished. The 15-member group also won a 2011 Contemporary A Cappella Recording Award—the Grammys of a cappella—for best original scholastic song, and was nominated for three 2011 A Cappella Community Awards, which are voted on by the public.

Voices, as the group is commonly known, wasn’t so thirsty for the spotlight when it was founded 13 years ago. But in the past few years, new members committed to working hard and creating art at a time, pre-Glee, when their medium didn’t get much publicity or respect. Their hobby became more like a second life; they spent as much as 30 hours together each week rehearsing for competitions as far away as Durham, North Carolina, and cutting an album (their fifth) that took three years to record.

“That has really changed the whole life of the group,” says former Voices president and alto Miranda Meyer, AB’10, who helped lead the transition. “They go other places to perform now. They’re on compilations, they’re winning awards. … I’m a really proud mama bear,” she laughs.

Voices perform most shows in suits and black cocktail dresses whose seriousness is leavened by their bright colored ties and leggings, the group’s bubbly core peeking out from under the sheen of professionalism. Their music works the same way: they sing some slow, moving ballads like “Magic,” by piano-rocker Ben Folds, and end most concerts with their crowd-pleasing signature piece, “Afternoon Delight,” where the boys and girls pair (and triple) off in silly embraces, and one singer leaps across the stage like the skyrocket named in the song.

Performances with intricate harmonies and footwork require “really working at every step,” says bass Zach Denkensohn, ’12, the group’s current president, in a Skype call from Greece, where he’s studying abroad. “We want to make sure we’re in the best position to have our work recognized.” Meyer says all that work could leave her with a surreal feeling of running around on campus without doing schoolwork. “You’d see people who would ask if you’re going to the library. You’d say, ‘Nope, I gotta go sing.’”

The group’s rise to national prominence began almost four years ago in 2008, a year when, according to the group’s musical director and tenor Chris Rishel, “everyone covered ‘Viva la Vida,’” a Coldplay single released that summer. The group decided to devote themselves to standing out from the crowd by writing arrangements of songs few other collegiate and professional groups were likely to cover. They agreed that “we want our album to be something interesting to listen to by someone who’s listening to 200 a cappella albums a year,” Rishel says.

Soon, the just-written Voices version of “Magic” was written up on by High Fidelity author Nick Hornby, who called it “a heartstopping cover of one of [Folds’s] most affecting songs.” Then it was featured on a CD of collegiate a cappella covers of Ben Folds’s songs. “I felt like it was our coming-out party,” Meyer says of Hornby’s praise. Soon, Voices performed with Folds at a Wisconsin concert, an experience they still remember with a glow and which Meyer says validated their recent forays into professionalism. “You had this experience that made you feel like, ‘That was awesome. Let’s do it again,’” she says.

It’s this feeling that has motivated the group through three years of hard work recording its new album, I Used to Live Alone, drilling for competitions, planning an upcoming tour of the Northeast, and, in May, signing with A Cappella records, the first digital record company dedicated to the form. (UChicago group Men in Drag is also on the label.) “It was great when people on campus started recognizing us as a group and a cappella as a form of art, but to have our music reach beyond the University and beyond Chicago, even, is truly amazing,” says soprano Sarah El Mouatassim Bih, AB’10.