The Silver Lake Chorus formed in the winter of 2010 through word of mouth, flyers (“can you or anyone you know sing tenor?”) and Facebook. Auditions pared 60 hopeful singers down to a choir of 25 young men and women, many of whom had previous choral experience and most of whom actually reside in Silver Lake and Echo Park.
Founded by Sam Rader and led by choral director Mikey Wells, the group has found a de facto leader in Australian singer/songwriter and longstanding music industry figure Ben Lee, who has become a sort of spiritual shephard for the choir as the executive producer of their debut album and soon to be self-released EP Wreckage, out September 18.
What's more, the Chorus is currently recording material written especially for them by a host of artists you know including Bon Iver, Beck, Sia, Of Montreal, Tegan and Sara, The Bird and the Bee, Aimee Mann, and Lee himself. Clearly this isn't your typical group of hipsters getting together to record Bon Jovi covers in jenky harmony before hitting the bar on a Friday night.
The big names tracks came via Lee, who got involved with the group after sitting in on a rehearsal session during which the choir formed a circle around him, launched into song and sent him to a place of sonic ecstacy. “The sound was just amazing,” Lee says, “and they obviously had great taste in music with the covers they were picking, interesting songs off of Sea Change and things like that. It wasn't Glee.”
Propelled by his desire to collaborate with the group, Lee jumped on board as mentor and number one fan. He had a hunch that performing fresh material from popular artists would distinguish The Silver Lake Chorus from other choral acts. “It's one thing for a choir to sing a song you know,” Lee says, “but when you go home, you're not going to put on an album by that choir because you've already got the song. The idea I had was to reach out to songwriters and ask them for a track no one had heard before.”
Although the band wasn't convinced they could get songs from established artists, Lee understood the allure of such an offer. “Most people would think they can't approach Beck or Tegan and Sara, but as a songwriter, it's such an honor to have your song sung by someone else, especially 25 people with great voices. So I just started putting it out there. It was very much a leap of faith.”
Lee asked the choir to make a dream list of the top artists they'd want to collaborate with. Bon Iver was number one, so Lee reached out; frontman Justin Vernon sent over a song the next day, and momentum grew from there. Soon the choir had enough material to fill an album.
The next task was figuring out how to actually perform the songs. This proved daunting, considering the technical challenges inherent in creating instrumental and vocal arrangements for 25 people based off of songs not necessarily written for a chorus. “There are endless possibilities in terms of what we can do in terms of singing and instruments,” says Wells. “Those possibilities are exciting but can also be really intimidating.”
Thus, the group found itself in a prolonged process of experimentation, rubbing microphones against the wall and whatnot before ultimately deciding to let the artist who wrote the track determine the ethos with which they would perform it. “We have our own interpretation, but we try to let the spirit of the artist be really present,” Wells says. “Bon Iver was interesting because we tried all sorts of embellishments, and in the end we came back to just doing vocals because everything else we tried wasn't making it better.”
Throughout this process, Lee was fundamental in not letting technical concerns overshadow emotional impact. “A lot of what I'm trying to do is keep them to the emotional truth of the song,” he says. “When you're a good musician and really technical, it's tempting to do a lot of stuff to a song. With me, it's been more about finding the message and feeling.”
That feeling is palpable while watching the choir perform at an intimate show in the living room of Lee's house in the hills. The group looks like a Benetton ad and sounds like a dream as they sing their hearts out while working through a repertoire including Vernon's ethereal “From the Snow Tipped Mountains,” “Wreckage” by A.C Newman of The New Pornographers, a hip-hop infused contribution by the Bird and the Bee and Lee's own “Overboard” — the show's triumphant and unabashedly joyful finale. One can't help but smile, especially because they're all smiling, all 25 of them.
While it features just two songs, Wreckage provides a taste of what the Chorus has been up to and hints at good things to come. And while the scheduling restrictions inherent in getting two dozen plus adults in Los Angeles in a room at one time has extended the recording process, it is coming together slowly but surely through Wells' spirited coordination and Lee's guidance. Longtime indie rock guys Brad Wood and Brian Deck are also in on the project as vocal engineer and mixer, respectively.
With the album release loosely slated for the spring of 2013, the choir continues to practice, record, perform around town and field offers to provide vocals for various film and commercial projects. They have already lent their collective voice to the theme song for the film MacGruber as well as backup vocals on The Lonely Island's “I Just Had Sex,” featuring Akon.
“How many choirs out there can do this?” Lee says with a smile from a deckchair in his backyard. “It's so cool. It's like when David Blaine was first starting out in New York; he picked up so many chicks. There were so many actors and musicians, but only one magician. That's the Silver Lake Chorus.”
The Silver Lake Chorus performs at The Satellite tomorrow, September 15 at 8:30pm.