“Modern A Cappella” is a burgeoning genre: an explosion of small groups, large groups, workshops, festivals centered in Scandinavia and quickly spreading throughout Europe and through the entire world; in America, the collegiate scene, Smash and Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off.
The masters of the style are The Real Group, a Swedish quintet founded in 1984 and still growing in popularity. They’ve recorded 17 albums and appeared over 2000 times worldwide. TRG are also the widely acknowledged leaders of the scene, combining their status, engaging personal teaching style, and exceptionally warm personalities to inspire this rapidly growing activity.
Modern a cappella is a young person’s genre, singers typically in their 20s, the music an innovative amalgam of pop/jazz. It is distinguished from older styles of a cappella and vocal jazz groups by ‘singing the arrangement.’ A core attribute is ‘groove.’
At the time of writing, members of The Real Group were tenor Anders Edenroth, bass Anders Jalkéus, alto/soprano Katarina Henryson (founding members), baritone Morten Vinther and alto Emma Nilsdotter (replacing soprano Margareta Bengtson). Founding member Peder Karlsson became a ‘non-performing member of TRG’ in 2010, focusing his activities on teaching and conducting. Since then, Anders Jalkéus was replaced by Janis Strazdins, and Katarina Henryson has announced that she will be replaced by Lisa Östergren in coming months.
Jeff Meshel interviewed Peder Karlsson at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, May 2013.
The Real Group Meet in School
Jeff Meshel : I think The Real Group invented modern a capella.
Peder Karlsson: Well, I’m not sure I agree.
Jeff: Okay. So let’s explore it. What was your musical background, of all the five members? When you got together, what was in your ears? Is that a good place for you to start the story?
Peder: It is. And I think it’s part of the story, too. I think one interesting thing about our musical backgrounds was that it was kind of two things at the same time. We had very different backgrounds, yet very similar at the same time. We all went to the same school, which is the name is Adolf Fredrik’s Music Classes. It’s a primary school, junior high school and high school.
Jeff: You grew up together?
Peder: Yeah, but different ages. And I was kind of the black sheep. I didn’t come to the school until high school. But the other four were there from grade four. They are four years apart. So they were not in the same classes. And in this school, you have a choir class every day. And every two classes is a choir and they do concerts all the time. It’s really high quality stuff. And you have to be a really good singer to get into that school.
That school is one of the reasons Sweden is one of the major choral countries in the world. You know, when you go to a choir concert in Stockholm it’s just top class. And many of these singers come from Adolf Fredrik’s. So we have that in common, that type of choir singing that they do there. At the same time, as individuals, we had other things.
Jeff: The material there would have a traditional…
Peder: Basically, the songs that we sing on the album Stämning. That was what we sang at that school. So that was tough, some of us were just 11 years old. Those are standard Swedish choir arrangements. Every Swedish choir singer can sing those songs. It’s like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but for a chorus. Eric Ericson, of course, also always conducted that music. So it was also something we had in common with him. He recently passed away, by the way, you did know that?
Peder: I was a guitar player, I played jazz fusion, Weather Report-influenced stuff in one of the bands I had.
In another band I had at one point was together with Anders Edenroth, that was more like funk, more West Coast. He was a keyboard player. He also had another band that was also kind of funkish West Coast type stuff. And we were a little bit like competing bands. There were always these gigs and it was a fantastic time at this particular school. We had like 10 or 15 bands in the school.
Jeff: This is in high school?
Peder: In high school, yeah. And so I played in like two or three of those bands, Anders Edenroth played in two other bands.
I was always checking out what other people were doing. And in one of those bands, the best band that I played with, Margareta Bengtson was the lead vocalist, who sometimes would sing three-part arrangements together with our tenor saxophone and trumpet player.
So Anders Jalkéus, he is a choir singer. He sang in all the choirs, including the Ericson chamber choir, everything.
He also plays several instruments, initially folk music and classical. Margareta Bengtson is a harp player and her mother is a vocal teacher. So she went to the Academy of Music to play harp. But she always sang and I think she also enjoyed quite a lot singing in the band that we had. Plus she had a vocal trio, with Carola and Annelie Berg. That was before Carola became a huge star in Sweden.
Katarina Henryson is a jazz and blues singer. Initially, she didn’t want to study at the Academy, because she wanted to learn another way, the live way. So she sang with jazz bands and blues bands, and she also had her own band where they played her music. Katarina started a vocal group, at age seven, called “Humlorna” (Bumble Bees). I think she fired the other singers pretty quickly because they couldn’t sing the way she wanted. Even at that age she totally knew what sound she wanted.
Anders Edenroth was always a band leader and a songwriter. He was very young when he started. I think he had his first band when he was nine years old and he tried to write scores for saxophone and trumpet. But he didn’t know that they transposed. So then he learned that they transposed. And when he was in his first year in high school he was in Texas as an exchange student, and ended up in a big band writing stuff for them.
And then when we started at the Royal Academy of Music in 1984, Anders Edenroth and I just found ourselves in the same class. And you know what, I’ve been following this guy. We’d been following each other for then already for several years. And we were like, then, Okay, maybe it’s time that we do something.
And there was a subject on the curriculum that was called Independent Study, you had to make an ensemble, but without a teacher. It was a requirement that you’d get ensemble experience. So we talked to Anders Jalkéus, ‘what do you want to play?’, because he can play basically any instrument. So if we needed a bass player, he could play the bass or something.
Early Musical Influences
But then there were so many other good bands. And we felt, shit, we don’t want to compete with those great players. I mean, we were good, but we were not the best players. So okay. And that was when Bobby McFerrin came out, in 1982 or 1983. He was pretty early on in his career, and he came to Sweden. He had a television program in Sweden. So Anders Edenroth and I think Jalkan [Anders Jalkéus] might have been in that conversation also. We were like, ‘Yeah, this Vocal Summit thing that Bobby McFerrin does when he does his improvisation, we can do that. But perhaps we want to do it more avant garde.’
And we needed female singers and then I said, “We have to have Margareta from my band.” And Anders Edenroth said “We have to have Katarina,” they had done projects before. She was the lead vocalist of a musical that Anders Edenroth had written, composed and conducted two years earlier.
So we booked a rehearsal room and the material we had, I think that was an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” or something. Just whatever. But it sounded great.
Jeff: There was no model here, you walked into the room, it wasn’t “Let’s do Beatles stuff, but…”
Jeff: I don’t know what Vocal Summit is.
Peder: That was a group that Bobby McFerrin had for a short time with three European female vocal improvisers [Lauren Newton, Urszula Dudziak, Jeanne Lee, Jay Clayton].
Jeff: I don’t remember that.
Peder: They made one LP, I still have it in my home [Sorrow Is Not Forever]. It’s a record that stretches in many directions. But they don’t bring it to a home run. Of course we had listened to the Swingle Singers and Singers Unlimited. But we didn’t particularly listen to those groups for inspiration. Of course we knew about it and we had probably sung some of that type of stuff. But, I mean, our role models would have been Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Count Basie Big Band, Frank Zappa. Plus all kinds of classical music. And folk music. And Latin. And rock’n’roll. You know, curious people.
Jeff: I interviewed Frank Zappa.
Peder: You did? He’s like my major, major… we have to talk about that, then. I’m a total Zappa fan. Totally.
Jeff: Nice guy. Sweetheart.
Peder: I heard so from Jon Lord, you know, Deep Purple. I had an evening when I got to hang with Jon Lord. And I knew that he knew Zappa, so my first question was, “How was he?”
Jeff: Shocking, it was very early in his career. I was the first person in the Midwest to discover Mothers of Invention, very, very early, I think 1967. And the show that I went to, it was a small audience with maybe 500 people. And he was very frightening. They called themselves freaks. “Freak” wasn’t a word that you used then. It was a negative word. And he called himself a freak. What is this? It’s almost pre-hippie. Just when the hippies were starting. And I walked into the room and his appearance – I was shaken. He just says, “Hi, my name’s Frank Zappa. Pleased to meet you. What’s your name? Please, sit down.” A sweetheart.
But I want to talk about The Real Group. You said you had heard Singers Unlimited.