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Uncovered: Pentatonix Get Serious With a New Original Album

Pentatonix members Matt Sallee, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Mitch GrassiEXPAND
Pentatonix members Matt Sallee, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Mitch Grassi
courtesy Pentatonix/Jacari Jacobs
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Pentatonix! Are! Excited! First of all, it’s Christmas, and no one loves Christmas more than Pentatonix. Second of all, they’re home. Not Japan (where they’ve been more than 10 times) or Europe or Brazil, but Grand Prairie.

OK, technically band members Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi and Kirstin Maldonado are from Arlington, not Grand Prairie, but close enough. Plus, it’s December 23, 2019, which means words like “pandemic” and “quarantine” are not yet part of our everyday vocabulary. Right now, Hoying and co. aren’t focused on anything other than the 6,000 fans at The Theatre at Grand Prairie.

“It’s so good to be back in Texas,” Hoying tells the throngs of tykes, teens, moms and ugly sweater wearers. “Are y’all having a good holiday so far?”

The roar of the crowd indicates that yes, they are indeed having a good holiday so far. Flashing a thousand-watt smile, Hoying turns to Maldonado, his friend since high school, and thinks for approximately the 500th time how insanely lucky he is to be living out his dreams with the same kids he used to make dorky videos with on the parking lot of an Arlington Starbucks.

Pentatonix shows are exhibits of unbridled joy. If punk music makes you feel like breaking the law, Pentatonix songs are designed to make you peppy and positive. Even if you don’t like a cappella music, or Christmas, or events with thousands of screaming children, it’s practically impossible not to marvel at the sounds these people can create (with just their mouths!) and soak up some serotonin while watching some Arlington All-State choir alums live out their dreams. It’s enough to make The Grinch (or a needlessly cynical writer) crack a smile.

And if, for example, you’ve been mostly trapped inside your own home for roughly a year and haven’t seen anyone (a cappella or otherwise) perform music, then the sheer pep and positivity of Pentatonix might just make you crack a smile, too. That’s what the band is counting on with the release of The Lucky Ones, their aptly titled 10th studio album. But while it contains some of the straight-to-the-heart adrenaline shots of joy fans have come to expect, The Lucky Ones is also the band’s most creative record yet.

“The first album we ever did felt a little formulaic,” Maldonado says now. “We were wondering, ‘How do we make a hit song? How do we fill in the spaces between these songs?’ But now, we’re not catering to what we think is popular. If we want some piano there, we’ll add some piano. If we want some cello, we’ll add some cello. It’s honest, and that feels liberating.”

Like many things, The Lucky Ones was supposed to come out in 2020. The coronavirus delayed the record’s release, and originally, the group wanted to wait until COVID-19 was a thing of the past before putting out any new music.

“Then we realized the pandemic is gonna be 52 years,” Hoying says, “so we said, ‘Let’s just get it out there.’”

Although the album was written before lockdown, it makes sense that The Lucky Ones comes out now. It might be more serious than anything the band has released to this point, but as Maldonado says, “You can’t be happy all the time. This might just resonate with some people.”

“We’ve always had this unwritten rule,” Hoying adds. “We stay really positive, it’s all uplifting, it’s all upbeat, and that’s worked really well for us. But as you go through things, you have to face your hard emotions and process them. Otherwise, the positivity won’t be authentic.”

Hoying wasn’t thinking about any of this on that night in late December 2019. Instead, as he turned to Maldonado, he was thinking about the dreams that he, she and Massi have had since those days at the local Starbucks. And, because this was a Pentatonix show, he was filled with the characteristic elation that’s become synonymous with the band.

“Dang,” he thought, “my friends are killing it!”

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Pentatonix members Matt Sallee, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Mitch GrassiEXPAND
Pentatonix members Matt Sallee, Scott Hoying, Kirstin Maldonado, Kevin Olusola, and Mitch Grassi
courtesy Pentatonix/Jacari Jacobs

It all started with Lady Gaga. High schoolers Hoying, Maldonado and Grassi entered a radio contest for a chance to meet the cast of Glee, then one of the most popular shows on television. The trio recorded and released an a cappella rendition of “Telephone” by Lady Gaga, and even though the video is decidedly lo-fi, it still contains traces of the stars they would become: Maldonado’s diva-esque camera turn, Grassi’s unmistakable, made-for-music attitude and Hoying’s confident stage presence.

They didn’t win the contest, but the video led to what one could consider the first Pentatonix gig: center stage at the spring 2010 choir concert at Arlington’s Martin High School. They then went their separate ways for college but were reunited by The Sing-Off, a now-defunct a cappella competition show on NBC. This time, the original three were joined by vocal bassist Avi Kaplan and Kevin Olusola, a beatboxing cellist from Yale. Even though the group of five congregated for the first time just one day before their tryout, they aced the audition, won the show and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a band.

It’s important to remember that this is before the movie Pitch Perfect, the romantic comedy about college a capella groups starring Anna Kendrick.  Sure, groups like Straight No Chaser had found success via YouTube, but before 2012, most Americans likely associated “a cappella” with barbershop quartets or those nerdy guys from college. Love ’em or hate ’em, Pentatonix (and, of course, Pitch Perfect) elevated a cappella to the international stage. While their covers of chart-topping hits like “We Are Young” and “Somebody That I Used to Know” were amassing millions of views, Pentatonix was signing a record deal and cutting their first of many albums of covers. In fall 2012, their first tour sold out.

Part of their success is rooted in internet savvy. Well-executed covers of unavoidable hits are bound to attain high numbers of views on YouTube, especially when you boast vocalists who sound like Pentatonix. But the band also has that amorphous “it” factor that makes A&R folks salivate. Fans connected with Grassi’s humor and impeccable style and fell in love with Kaplan’s silky smooth voice. It also didn’t hurt that they had Olusola, a guy who could beatbox and play cello at the same time. To this day, each member of the band can scroll through Instagram and find fan art and homemade montage videos dedicated to them and their interactions with one another.

“I’m obsessed with everything Pentatonix,” Hoying says. “I look through all the tags every single day. I got made fun of by a fan once because the only hashtag I follow is ‘Pentatonix.’ But it’s only because I don’t want to miss anything!”

The band admits that backstage, at the hotel or on the tour bus, they had the arguments and growing pains that should be expected among any artists, particularly those in their twenties.

“You know that early twenties point where everyone changes?” Maldonado says. “We did that all together on a tour bus. It’s hard to find yourself when you’re never by yourself. I don’t want to say we had confrontations …” She pauses. “But it was hard.”

“We clashed,” Hoying adds. “A lot.”

In interviews, the band has always excelled at presenting a united front. When Kaplan left the band in 2017, the five members of Pentatonix appeared together in a somber video in which the bass vocalist explained he missed his friends and family too much to continue the grinding tour schedule demanded by membership in Pentatonix.

Over Zoom in early February from Los Angeles, Hoying and Maldonado acknowledged that was one of “the low points” of the band’s first 10 years.

“It’s a thing in the industry to say that bands don’t stay together, but of course, you always think yours is going to be the one that does,” he says. “So, after Avi [left], we didn’t know if Pentatonix was just going to completely fall apart. There was a lot of tension.”

But that’s where he leaves it. Instead of elaborating, Hoying talks about how happy he is to be in the same band as Kaplan’s replacement, Matt Sallee.

“He has this youthful, very grateful energy that is just infectious,” he says.

“He gives me serotonin!” Maldonado adds. “Matt’s the guy you want to make laugh, because he will light up the room.”

It’s easy to read this exuberant praise the cynical way and chalk up Sallee’s supposed serotonin-giving laugh to faux merriment fostered by a PR team. It doesn’t feel like it, though. On that Zoom call in early February, surrounded by succulents both real (“I’m a proud plant mom,” says Maldonado) and fake (“I couldn’t keep the real ones alive,” says Hoying) both singers seem completely sincere. They clearly love their bandmates, and they feel lucky.

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Album artwork for The Lucky OnesEXPAND
Album artwork for The Lucky Ones
Jacari Jacobs

The Lucky Ones is completely bereft of the covers and Christmas songs most people associate with Pentatonix. Instead, it includes emotional ballads like “Exit Signs,” on which Maldonado appears to be pleading with a flakey lover, and “It’s Different Now,” on which she opens up about her uncertainties and anxieties.

“I felt like this is the first time I was able to share my voice or thoughts,” says Maldonado, who wrote several songs on the album. “I just didn’t have the confidence until now. Over the last three years, I’ve been through issues with family and relationships, and I just thought, ‘Why not? Why not now?’”

While Pentatonix is known for songs that merge the talents of each member, the new album includes plenty of solo tracks spotlighting a specific singer.

“If they wrote that song, it just felt better to have them perform it,” Hoying explains. “It made the whole thing a little more honest.”

That’s his favorite part of The Lucky Ones: the trust they’ve given each other to tell truthful stories.

“We didn’t want to look at Billboard and see what was trending so we could try to sound a little like that,” he says. “We didn’t want any rules at all. It was all just like, ‘What do we want to make? What do we want to say?’”

Like Maldonado, Hoying got the chance to say what was really on his mind, sans any covers of Gaga or Gotye.

“There are a few songs that are just madly-in-love songs,” he says, “which is a feeling I’ve been experiencing the past couple years. It was so fun to write those and in a way, it was easy to write those once I decided to just do it.”

But his favorite track is the album’s self-titled single. “The Lucky Ones” is the band’s attempt to encapsulate their nearly 10-year journey from Arlington to stardom and all the feelings they have yet to chronicle in a single song.

“I think that song will always make me emotional,” Hoying says in early February. “Even last night, when we did it on Kimmel, it made me stop and think about my time with these people. It just hit different.”

“I’m still waiting for a fan video montage with that song,” Maldonado chimes in.

“Oh, there is one,” Hoying says. “I’ll text it to you right after this.”

For much of quarantine, that’s what the two stars have been doing: texting, FaceTiming and MarioKarting with their bandmates. They made a customary Christmas record and even dropped a six-song EP of covers called At Home, but with tours on hold, they’ve had plenty of time to kick back at home. Hoying got a golden doodle named Bubba and Maldonado became a proud plant mom.

“I didn’t use to be a plant person, because it’s impossible to keep anything alive when you’re never home,” she says. “But now there’s greenery all over my downstairs. There’s something therapeutic about tending to something, about trying to keep it going.”

She also discovered the greenery right outside her LA home.

“I remember going for a walk last year, and it was like I was seeing these trees for the first time,” she says. “I’ve never been here when they’ve been in bloom, but they’ve been here the entire time. I never knew.”

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