Peter Hollens

Interviews

I first met Peter Hollens at a gathering in Manhattan, after he had served as a judge for Varsity Vocals’s Finals weekend, and after I had sat in the crowd taking feverish notes about the evening’s proceedings. Mind you, this was after Hollens accrued hundreds of thousands of subscribers for his regular releases on YouTube, after he had appeared on The Sing-Off, and after he had co-founded one of the most influential collegiate a cappella groups in the world, On the Rocks, at the University of Oregon.

Upon such an interaction, you might expect Hollens to have been brash, boldly charismatic, or a touch arrogant.

Hollens was none of these things.

He’s the sort of talent who doesn’t seem to realize how famous or celebrated he is. Or if he does realize it, he demonstrates no interest in cashing in on any associated rewards beyond having a broader platform to share his music and get other people involved.

That night, Hollens was nothing but cordial in engaging with a fan for several minutes. And months later, he was kind enough to afford me even more time for us to speak on the phone about his music, his life, and perhaps most notably the cross-section of the two—a new album he will release through Portrait/Sony Music Masterworks on October 27.

But let’s start at the beginning, many years ago. Hollens discovered a cappella as a high schooler and was eager to enter the world of vocal harmony when he got to college. Just one problem—the University of Oregon didn’t have a group to join.

So, Hollens took it upon himself to co-found a group in 1999. On the Rocks would go on to help define the all-male college sound, with a combination of monster vocals, playful spirit, and infectious energy that would ultimately lead the group to the Finals of Varsity Vocals’ International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA). After he graduated, Hollens hung around the a cappella world, recording other groups. “Bill Hare was my gateway to audio production and that whole world,” Hollens said, citing a cappella’s preeminent recording guru.

Hollens went on to earn a living singing on a cruise ship with his wife and a SoCal VoCals alum who ended up being flown off the ship to record with his group, following the success of season one of The Sing Off. Little did Hollens know that when he reached mainland, the producers of the show would be waiting for him, and started calling to recruit his old group, On the Rocks to appear on season two of the show, along with Divisi—a group that’s notoriety had exploded after the release of Mickey Rapkin’s book, Pitch Perfect (on which the popular film was (very) loosely based).

“They didn’t want to audition for the show,” Hollens recalled. But after repeated calls from figures including Deke Sharon, the production team had piqued his interest. Around the same time, he started recording an album for On the Rocks. “I had them come in one at a time to record, so I convinced them one by one to audition for the show. And then they said they only wanted to do it if I would sing with them.”

So, On the Rocks did end up on The Sing-Off, with Hollens at the helm to sing a number of solos. “The biggest thing I took from it is what an incredible experience it is to be surrounded by so many likeminded people. It helped give me the desire to record my own stuff.”

Thus, Hollens’s experience on the show led to new creative endeavors. “I had a lot of people on Facebook asking for new music,” Hollens recalled. “and my dad was dying of brain cancer at the time, and he asked me to record new music.” With very few grand aspirations, Hollens studied the form and saw people like Mike Tompkins doing well on YouTube, and ended up giving one-man a cappella recordings a try.

Hollens enjoyed modest success in the early going. Then YouTube violinist sensation Lindsey Stirling reached out to collaborate. The decision to work together not only furthered Stirling’s canon of great recordings, but exposed Hollens to an enormous new audience that sent the number of subscribers to his own YouTube channel, and his overall notoriety, into the stratosphere. “The traditional music world can be more competitive, less about sharing,” Hollens said of working with Stirling and other members of what he loosely referred to as the YouTube community. “I see that as the opposite of how music should be. I try to make music to make people happy, to make the world a better place.” He commented that for today’s music artists, “The only way we’ll all survive is if we work together, and hopefully overcome piracy by things that are so accessible like Spotify and Pandora.” He went on to note his advisory role with Patreon, through which he has helped crowdfund a number of his productions and now tries to give back to “help other people do what they’re interested in.”

While Hollens’s career is far from finished—he continues to release new songs on alternating weeks (a pace he slowed from weekly releases after the birth of his son)—it’s hard not to look at the release of his eponymous album as a culmination of the preceding years. “I’m thrilled officially have a real album to release to everyone,” Hollens said. “It legitimizes my work in the old school format of an album, and it pushed me to get music together for my supporters. I reached out to artists I haven’t worked with before. I’m excited to have a song on the album with Brian Wilson.” Hollens noted that a week after we spoke he would fly from his home in Eugene, Oregon to Los Angeles to record a video with Wilson, of Beach Boys fame.

The album features seven songs from Hollens’s catalog and six new releases. In addition to “Our Special Love,” an original song written by Wilson, the album features collaborations with Avi Kaplan from Pentatonix on “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallellujah” (a collaboration with Jackie Evancho) and a rendition of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” featuring Sabrina Carpenter. The album also includes “Skyrim” with Stirling, a medley from Les Miserables, featuring guest vocals from Hollens’s wife, Evynne, and “Ashland’s Song” for his son. Rounding out the collection, Hollens has include iconic songs from his YouTube work, such as Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up,” as well as a selection of folk songs he had started working on before the album deal came to fruition.

In addition to offering consumers great music, Hollens also made mention of a more specific goal for the album. “I’m an a cappella dork and I’m all about helping the genre,” he said. “I’m hoping to get more young people, especially males interested in singing. It wasn’t the coolest thing and I think that’s changing, and being even a small part of that is a great thing.”

Hollens was quick to share the credit for his successes up to this point, only reinforcing my perception of his modesty and impulse to put the music first. He spoke fondly of everyone from Brigham Young University Vocal Point as one of his early a cappella inspirations, to YouTube collaborators, to long-time creative partner Tom Anderson, to expert producers Hare, Ed Boyer, and Russell Kamp, to FifGen Films for their work on his videos, to a cast of others who helped him cull the musical and visual products that have made him a success.

You can learn more about Peter Hollens and pre-order his album at his official website. The album will also available now (or will be shortly) via the following sources: iTunes, Amazon via Mp3 or CD,
Pledgemusic and LOUDR.