A Cappella Innovation: The Octopodes’ New Album Covers New Ground, Not Songs

Octopodes members at rehearsal.

By Brandon Fiksel
As the lights dimmed on a packed Shriver Hall, two students representing two separate generations of Octopodes Alums took the stage to introduce the Octopodes’ spring concert. It was Saturday night, April 18, 2015, and the Octopodes were celebrating their 25th anniversary, and thus the 25th anniversary of a cappella at Johns Hopkins.

The Octopodes began with a cover of “Wrapped Up” by Olly Murs. Thumping beat boxing, harmonies and echoes complimented the clear, prominent soloists, who switched out as the night went on. Halfway through the show, dozens of graduated Octopodes of all ages – the oldest from Hopkins’ class of 1994 – piled on stage to join the current line-up. The swarm of singers performed a few old favorites, their collective voice mightier than ever.

With the alumni bowing out, it was time for the group’s senior send-off tradition. After an emotional speech by her peers, Lajari Anne, ’15, belted “Speak,” a song from the Octopodes’ new album, “The Kraken.” “Speak” was a catchy, uplifting pop tune, with a hand-clap breakdown and a contagious chorus. But it wasn’t until Anne’s performance has ended that one of the front-row Octopodes alums yelled praise of the song’s most outstanding quality: “she wrote that song!”

“The Kraken,” a ten-track album that was released on November 19th, 2014, is, in fact, entirely composed of original songs—all music and lyrics were written and performed by members of the Octopodes.

Austin Sullins, a Hopkins junior and casual ‘Pode’-fan who attended the spring concert but did not know “The Kraken” was all-original, singled out ‘Speak’ as a highlight of the night: “The one that Lajari sang, it was amazing.” He would make sure to check out the album on Spotify, he said.

The Octopodes are Johns Hopkins’ oldest a cappella group. Represented by a blue octopus logo, the group has often made the semi-finals in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCAs) and graced a cappella compilation albums such as Voices Only. A Cappella reviewer Mike Chin conceded that they have achieved “national prominence.”

But before this album, the Octopodes had only released one original song in their entire discography (six albums, including “The Kraken”), which was “The Clock’ from 2011’s “Code Blue.” Their leap to producing several original tracks, especially an all-original album by a collegiate a cappella group, is an anomaly by all means. Kimberly Sailor, Editor in Chief of the influential review aggregate site The Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB), reported via email that while it is “not uncommon to see an original track or two on a collegiate album…original albums on any level are still pretty rare.” Sailor noted she has heard one high school all-original a cappella album, but that to the best of her knowledge the Octopodes have indeed produced the first all-original collegiate album.

Peter Yang, ’14, the former Octopodes Music Director, was heavily involved in all aspects of “The Kraken”’s creation. He admitted via email that the unprecedented, ambitious nature of the project was certainly part of the impetus for making the album all original: “We had to figure out a way to make it different, as well as a way for it to cause buzz amongst the greater a cappella community.”

Original music checked both of those boxes. “Octopodes has always been known for pushing the envelope,” said current Octopodes Music Director Joseph Paek, ’16. “So the next step, for us, past covers, was to start doing original music.” Paek mentioned that the seniors of the group, especially Yang, were very interested in pushing the group towards originals.

Initially, “The Kraken” was supposed to be a considerably shorter-length EP, to coincide with their 2013 EP, “Release.” It was also only planned to be half original songs. As group members began to plan and write their original music, however, more singers began to express interest.

“All of a sudden, everyone wanted to start writing for this album,” said Lajari Anne, ’15, named Best Soloist three times at ICCA Quarterfinal and Semifinal rounds. They ended up with about nine usable tracks out of the process, and that is how the ‘all-original album’ angle eventually came about.

In addition to the innovation and differentiation offered by creating an all-original album, the Octopodes were hoping to build up their group’s artistry. Anne argued that original music lends a sense of legitimacy to an a cappella group. She brought up Pentatonix, who are among the most popular modern a cappella groups in the nation. Though they started their career doing covers on “The Sing-Off,” as soon as they had a recording contract they branched off into original songs. The group’s identity as an ‘artist’ was a kind of model for what the Octopodes wanted to do.

“Why should we hold ourselves to covers?” Anne asked. “We would like to think of ourselves as artists, so why not behave as artists?’ That was the mantra that the group came in with.”

Those involved in the a cappella scene remain divided over whether a cappella, as a genre, is pushing towards original music. Both Anne and Angela Ugolini, one of the mixers at The Vocal Company who worked on “The Kraken,” agreed that it is a current trend. On the same matter, Sailor said that while “a cappella professionals and enthusiasts have been pushing good groups to produce more original music to help redefine our genre of covers,” the time constraints involved in writing for a large number of voices limit original music’s progression to smaller professional vocal bands of four to five members. Some in the group have recognized that the group’s choice to produce original music may put them outside the range of what is considered normal in a cappella. Will Harrison, ’16, Social Media Manager for the Octopodes, said that he still sees original music as a definite outlier to a cappella, and argued that covers will continue to dominate the genre.

Trending or not, the Octopodes has certainly found advantages to singing their own original music. Yang attested that all singers should branch off into writing their own music, citing the connection to one’s self-written song as “seriously such an amazing feeling.”

Anne found that, through this new album, those already familiar with the Octopodes would get to see the group’s creativity in an entirely different and more personal light. “The cover draws you in, but the original music keeps you there,” she theorized.

Planning for “The Kraken’s” release (a pun the group entirely intended) began in the fall semester of 2013. Songwriting commenced in January 2014, and as the year progressed, members churned out songs on a rolling basis. Such an ambitious task was no easy matter. Not only did the a cappella group need to write, musically arrange, and record ten original tracks, they also needed funding. Each track required roughly $1,000 to produce – from hourly charges for recording, to editing, mixing and mastering service fees. The group thus split into two committees: songwriting and fundraising.

Most of the group had never written a full song before, so that added an extra challenge to making this album come to fruition. Katrina Estep, ’17, came into the group already a songwriter, and her contribution, “Wonderful,” was one of only two tracks that were composed previously to “The Kraken.” Estep, along with Yang and Duncan Crystal, ’14, acted as the more experienced leaders of the songwriting process and aimed to standardize the tracks into a more cohesive album. Even so, a main criticism of the resulting album, both within the group and from reviewers, was a lack of a unified vision. “The actual songwriting process was pretty separate to everything else,” said Paek. Those who wanted to write a song wrote the bulk of the melody and lyrics on their own, independent time. Crunched for time, with only three to four months to get all songs finalized, Paek reflected that the process was “pretty hectic, to be honest.”

Still, it was in part a collaborative effort, and the Octopodes were able to offer feedback – both formal to informal – on one another’s songs. Sometimes this process happened casually, at rehearsal, while two group members were hanging out over the piano. Harrison said that it was in this way that he’d given Yang some feedback on what he was doing with the bridge of “Take One Step.” The songwriting committee also had more official group critiques over email, where drastic changes were made in response to what group members said they liked and did not like. For Anne, at first, these group critiques were difficult, but she affirmed the criticisms were productive and never directed in a negative light. She had originally intended to treat her song, “Speak,” much differently than how it eventually appeared on the album. The responses from her fellow Octopodes persuaded her to revise it into a more normalized structure “because it just made sense.” It was a learning experience, she said.

As for the arranging process, the group emphasized the inherent, fundamental differences between arranging a new song and arranging a cover. Without anything to ‘write to,’ no instrumental background or chords to play off of, they were free to do anything to the bare-bones melody and lyrics. This provided the Octopodes both limitless opportunities for creativity and significantly daunting challenges.I know for some people,” Paek said, “it kind of hindered their creative process. All they had was a melody, and a few bass chords, and that’s it, and they just had to make something off of that.”

In creating a song from the ground-up, everything about it could be in constant flux. One example of how transformative the evolution of an arrangement could be was the track “Untouchable,” written by Melissa Jordano, ’14. It initially had a “Rumor Has It”-by-Adele-vibe but “after playing around with different ideas and feels, from the arrangement, it became a power pop/rock angsty empowerment anthem,” said Yang.

Recording music, as opposed to the norm of performing live, has always presented new opportunities for the a cappella group as well. Harrison stressed the importance of the exposure that recording songs allows the Octopodes. A lot of the group’s relevance, especially off-campus, stems from their recording, he said. “We record a lot, and it’s where I think we make the bulk of our fans. Like if people hear something, either on AcaVille radio… or if they’re streaming on Pandora.” Having recorded tracks—covers and originals—existing on the Internet allows exposure to a universal audience, even if that audience may be more passive. “I’ve heard stories of people saying they’re in the Octopodes and someone else will go ‘Oh wow, I love ‘Uprising!’ and they may have never seen us live but they’ve heard it.”

On a more technical level, recording music eliminates the limitations of live performance. While recording and mixing “The Kraken,” the Octopodes were allowed infinite opportunities to capture the exact performance they wanted from a singer and could even utilize one voice singing two different parts at the same time. “We have a lot more tricks up our sleeves,” said Anne of the recording and mixing process. Paek gave a few specific examples of these ‘tricks,’ such as stacking voices on top of each other to emulate the sound of a huge choir, or a filter that makes their voices sound like the strumming of a guitar.

Yang led the recording process, which started near the end of 2014’s spring semester. Most of the recording sessions took place in a small Charles Commons music room on the second floor. Every member of the group was scheduled for a number of hour-long recording sessions, to which Yang brought his laptop and professional recording equipment, including earphones and microphones, rented from the Digital Media Center. He utilized two different microphones—the AKG C-214 and the Neumann 103—as different types of voices were picked up differently depending on the mic. Yang used Protools for recording and mixing and Melodyne for editing.

When group members came in, Yang showed them the sheet music, if it existed, and told them to sing certain parts. They would take three takes – sometimes more if Yang was not satisfied with the first three. “If Peter had an idea for something cool that wasn’t in the music, he would just like, sing something at us, and tell us to sing it,” Harrison remembered. “So essentially we would just be arranging on the spot. A good example of that would be ‘Kill the Lights’, which was entirely created during the recording session– there’s no sheet music [for that song], it just doesn’t exist.”

Dave Longo and Angela Ugolini of The Vocal Company mixed the album over at Sled Dog studios in Rochester, New York, where Yang assisted. Yang had actually interned at the Vocal Company a year prior, during his junior year, so he was familiar with the studio. The mixing process–the creative work of combining the various recorded tracks and adding stylistic effects—took about nine days, in early October 2014. Sailor heartily commended the mixing work of the Vocal Company, affirming that “producing for the human voice is a very specific skill set in the studio that is different than producing a rock band. The modern a cappella sound, that mainstream listeners will hear through powerhouse groups like Pentatonix, is the result of decades of a cappella production refinement at the mixing board.”

Ugolini said that once she and Longo received the files from Yang, they started by “sequencing out the vocal percussion, basically taking the best sounds out of the Vocal Percussionist initial recording, and bringing them onto separate tracks so [that they could] treat them like different types of vocal drums.” Afterward, they worked on equalizing and compressing the bass and lead-singer tracks, making sure they “jive[d] well” with the base-line of the vocal percussion. From there, they treated the other singers’ parts while adding “time-based effects” like reverb and delay, “as well as other fun effects depending on the song/section of the song.” After about nine straight days of audio work, and subsequent back-and-forth email correspondence with members of the group in Baltimore, the mixing was completed.

Yang said the only aspect of “The Kraken” he was not hands-on involved with was the mastering, the final process of audio post-production, for which Dave Sperandio of Vocal Mastering took the reins. After the album was mastered, the album was finished, and it was released a few weeks afterward.

Meanwhile, the business division of the Octopodes focused their attention on how to fund the project. This essentially boiled down to creating and promoting the album’s Kickstarter page. The “Kraken” Kickstarter project was launched on March 12, 2014, and included the typical Kickstarter treatment: a promotional video describing the plans for the album and gift packages to incentivize certain donation amounts. Its headline declared, “The JHU Octopodes want be the first collegiate a cappella group to release an album of entirely original music!” The goal was $10,000, which would cover the costs of the tracks, as well as about $2,000 that went towards duplicating the CDs, sending the Kickstarter gifts and receiving guidance from professional a cappella musicians. Facebook and word of mouth turned out to be the most effective forms of publicity that the group used to spread the word—telling everyone they knew about the project and its scope. On April 11, 2014, the group announced via Kickstarter that they had successfully raised $10,581 with 56 backers.

Once it was funded, the album’s release also had to be promoted. The first major opportunity they had to publicize their work was their 2014 “Jam on the Quad” event. They teamed up with fellow Hopkins a cappella group the Sirens and sang songs from their old album outside Gilman Hall to a crowd of spectators. According to Anne, it was a particularly good publicity moment. That night, Wednesday, November 19th, actually coincided with the release date for “The Kraken.” And though they did not yet have the live arrangements for album tracks prepared, they were able to excite the crowd with news of the impending release.

From that moment forward the group began to make consistent posts on the Octopodes’ Facebook page about the album’s impending release. These included mini-contests where the ‘X’th ‘like’ on their Facebook page would receive a free copy of the album.

But the group’s most ambitious publicity project was a short video series produced by Anne and uploaded to the group’s Facebook page. These short videos included group footage and interviews with Octopodes members about the writing and production process. Each video focused on a certain track, teasing audio snippets, while various Octopodes members talked about what the song meant to them personally. The clips were released every day for ten days leading up to the album’s debut.

Anne confessed that while the videos were intended as publicity, they probably acted more as a “bonus feature for people who had already decided to be [their] listeners.” Still, they seemed to do the important work of keeping up the excitement of the fans.

As if all that promotional work was not enough, the new album inspired members to do some work refreshing the Octopodes’ visual identity as a whole. To do this, Anne designed the new official Octopodes logo with Adobe Illustrator, an iteration of which she cropped into the ultimate album artwork for “The Kraken.” Anne found that this new logo, along with the complete shift from covers to all-original music, composed a “rebranding” for the group. The logo and the announcement of “The Kraken” were unveiled together, and Anne thought both worked towards helping the group to “communicate [themselves] better.” They were not trying to get away from their old image, but rather attempting to “represent that Octopodes flair better.”

The album cover for the Octopodes' latest album, "The Kraken." Design by Lahari Anne.
The album cover for the Octopodes’ latest album, “The Kraken.” Design by Lahari Anne.

Paek admitted that they “never really had a logo before. We had an octopus we’d draw at all our concerts, but nothing really official.” It was important for the group, he said, especially with a big project like this, to finally have something official.

A cappella reviewers, who generally insist that they judge original a cappella music in the same way they judge all other original music, have offered the album much praise. Nearly every one has commended the feat that the Octopodes accomplished: the anomaly of an all-original a cappella collegiate album is nothing to scoff at in the world of a cappella.

In her official published review on the RARB website, Sailor was extremely receptive to the album, giving every category and every song a five out of five and comparing its sounds to the works of Kanye West, ‘Sara B’ and Justin Timberlake.

In a later email interview, she said that she has been a fan of the Octopodes in large part, “because of their dynamic group sound. Many collegiate a cappella groups have a powerhouse soloist or two, but when the whole group sounds awesome, it just elevates everything.” She also threw specific praise Yang’s way, impressed by his level of professionalism while still in college. His artistic vision and coordination of the album made “The Kraken” “every bit as good as some professional albums we receive at RARB,” she said.

Similarly, Nicholas Wright, a reviewer at RARB and an experienced a cappella arranger, gave the album as a whole a 5, concluding by saying that he “recommend[s] this album to everyone.”

But not all reviewers were as unanimously positive. Elie Landau, an Associate General Manager for Broadway shows and RARB reviewer, gave the album a 4 overall, opening his review with an interesting metaphor—“An album of all-original music released by a collegiate a cappella group is like a collection of rare birds: fascinating to behold and inspiring in its rarity, even if not all of the birds are necessarily the most beautiful creatures in the world.” He thought “The Kraken” suffered this fate, going on to dub the album “a laudably ambitious effort that impresses in what it attempts to achieve even when its success rate in achieving its goals is mixed.” He questioned if the original songs were truly as ‘boundary-pushing’ as the medium itself, saying that the music “suffers from certain deficiencies. In many instances, the lyric writing — as is so often the case, especially from new composer/lyricists — leans on banal platitudes and obvious rhymes.” Though he praised the group for taking risks, he also threw a quick quip at the “neat” production effects, that he thought were “employed a bit too liberally, almost gratuitously.”

The Octopodes themselves definitely did not think there wasn’t any room for improvement. Paek said, first and foremost, that he definitely thinks the group can be more creative in how they approach original music. He said he saw “The Kraken” as “an album of just ten songs that they had written,” as opposed to a unified album. The next big step, he thought, was to create music that they all care about, “that each and every member has a stake in.”

Yang concurred: “With so many people in a group, it’s hard to come to one identity, obviously. [“The Kraken”] is definitely a wide array of styles. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as it explores a lot of strengths of the group and of our singers. But, that being said, there’s not much of a connecting concept to all of the songs, and that’s something we can work on more for future projects!”

Still, the drastic reinvention of the group’s musical output garnered the Octopodes some critical accolades. In addition to scoring a 4.7 out of 5 on RARB, “The Kraken” was nominated for four awards at the 2015 Contemporary A cappella Recording Awards (CARAs), an organization that relies on judges from a wide field of a cappella specialties to rate contestants. “The Kraken” won the CARA for Best Mixed [coed] Collegiate Album and was runner-up for Best Original Scholastic Song for “Kill the Lights.”

As far as other accolades, “Kill the Lights” was selected to be included in an international a cappella compilation album called “Sing” put together by the Contemporary A Cappella Society. Past editions of “Sing” have featured the work of high-profile a cappella groups such as The Swingle Singers and Nor’easters.

It remains to be seen what kind of impact “The Kraken” will have on the collegiate a cappella scene as a whole. Though reviews were overwhelmingly positive, sales for the album have not been superb. The total digital sales, through Loudr.fm, came to $413.82 – not bad considering they didn’t have to pay the licensing fees that accompany albums of covered tracks. But Yang affirmed that “eventual sales [were] not a concern…We’ve done well so far because of the amount of buzz we generated with it.”

Some in the group have high hopes that that buzz is growing. Paek said he has heard of groups that the Vocal Company has talked to who have heard of the Octopodes only through “The Kraken” “and absolutely thought that that kind of project was very, very, interesting.”

Sailor stated that “The Kraken” “easily stands out as a collegiate album that other albums will always be compared to.” But so far, most members will make only modest projections. Anne foresees the Octopodes always trying to keep at least a couple of original songs in upcoming releases, and Yang hopes to see more a cappella groups “follow” the Octopodes and make more original music.

Perhaps, as more people hear their work, more opportunities will come their way.

One recent opportunity that has presented itself to the Octopodes post-“Kraken” was a pre-recorded spot on AcaVille Radio, an online radio station that streams a cappella music 24-hours a day. AcaVille has been frequently playing songs from “The Kraken,” and on January 6th they reached out, asking the Octopodes to come record a feature spot.

On an early Sunday morning in March, the Octopodes took a short road trip to the University of Maryland, College Park, where AcaVille was visiting. AcaVille had requested that the Hopkins group perform two of their arrangements and chat about both “The Kraken” and how they were gearing up for ICCAs. After walking through a university building into their designated classroom, they found three representatives from AcaVille radio, sitting around a collection of mics and a running soundboard.

While waiting for the group before them to finish recording, they had to be extra quiet in the echo-prone classroom. The setup included two group mics to capture the whole collective sound, as well as solo mics for the soloist, the bass, and the ‘perc.’

When it was finally their turn, the Octopodes clustered together around the microphones, and broke into a first take of their live rendition of Anne’s “Speak.”

Sharing their art on such a public platform felt strange, said Anne. “I’m a pre-med so I was like ‘What am I doing on a radio show?’” But the Octopodes experience in general, performing on stage after stage, has taught her that she can be more than that.

“It’s very easy to fall into that trap of ‘No one’s gonna hear this that I don’t already know’, whether it’s true or not. But having an external organization call in and say they want the group… Oof, talk about validation!” she explained. The experience of recording for the radio gave her a rush she said she won’t ever forget: “Knowing that my words would air, on actual airwaves. Not just a Pandora station, or someone’s grandma’s stereo-set. It’s not something local, it’s something more than what I intended it to be.”

But even if when writing ‘Speak,’ Anne did not foresee the potential scope of its reach, she thinks the group as a whole did intend the album to be “that big.” It was not until that radio session that it truly hit Anne that that people were listening.

“People are listening. And people like it.”