NBC's musical reality program The Sing-Off returns for Season 3 on Monday, September 19 at 8 PM ET. The shows features 16 a capella groups all competing for the grand prize: a recording contract with Sony Music and $200,000. Judge Ben Folds and a new addition this season, Sara Bareilles, recently held a conference call to discuss the upcoming third season. Here's what they both had to say below.
First of all, when it was first brought up to you that you could be part of this show what turned you on about the premise of the show?
For me, the decision was a totally easy one. I have an a cappella background and I was also a fan of the show as well as performed on the finale of the Season 2 finale. So when management brought this up to me that this was even a possibility, it was kind of a no brainer for me. It's a really special show with a lot of heart and I love the other judges and so it seemed like a really good thing to be a part of.
Ben Folds: Yes, I'll tell you the truth. When they first asked me I think I told my manager no. But it hadn't run yet, so I didn't know much about the show. I just thought, well, I don't know if I want to be a judge. But what convinced me to do it was that it was a cappella and that it could, you know, that it was unique and could be very musical. And I just worked with some a cappella groups. I've never been in an a cappella group myself but, yes, I thought, oh, well, this is something I regularly do anyway. I listen to music and I have an opinion about it and I know the inside of music, so I can talk about it a little bit.
Sara, how have you found connecting with the judges? They've already been together some time. Have you found your footing with them and connected with them?
Sara Bareilles: You know what? I can't say enough good things. You know one of them is listening. I can't say enough good things about Ben and Shawn. They are both, I mean, at the heart of all things, they're both really kind people and have made it really, really comfortable for me to join up with them in the panel of judges. We had kind of a natural chemistry that started just from Day 1. Ben and I have known each other for a while now and have become friends. But I really met Shawn on the set of the show and we had a really natural chemistry, the three of us. We kind of make each other laugh and we really respect each others' opinions, so I think it's a really nice dynamic that if you're unsure about something or if you have a question or want clarification, I have no qualms in going to either Ben or Shawn to get their opinions to sort of shout what's going on in my mind or just to get, you know, another perspective on what's happening in front of us. And I think that's what makes for a good judging panel. I'm one of the people that's not as interested in the conflict between the judges because I think it takes away from what the show is supposed to be about, which is the contestants singing their heart out. And just for us it's been a really nice thing to be able to have some (solidarity) behind the judging panel and really get to focus on the music.
Ben, what is it about the show that you think continues to make it such a success?
Ben Folds: I think the show is successful because -- I think it's successful, one, because there is a lot of talent on it. I mean, the singers, even the ones that go home early in the seasons, they're really talented and they're really dedicated and they're all singing together really well. I think it makes people feel really good to see people working together. That's been my main theory about this show is that you can tune into television everywhere else and see people not getting along or people not working together well or something that's really not that artfully put together. The show doesn't have to be artfully put together. As soon as those kids walk on the stage and sometimes not kids and sing together, I mean, Sara will know how much work that is but it's not just a lot of work. There's really a lot of art and craft in that and it's sort of counter to what we're told about our culture now, that everything is dumbed down, that everything is, you know, it's all reality shows and off the cuff and just dumb. I think people feel about the way things are going. If you look at groups sometimes high school kids and they're doing this amazing thing and you think, oh, it's going to be okay. And that's what you get for a couple hours of The Sing-Off. Then you can go back to kicking each others' asses and that's fine too. I like to see some ass kicking myself. But for a couple hours it's nice to see some harmony and I think that's what this show provides.
It seems like the groups this year are so incredibly diverse. So how difficult is it as a judge to sort of compare apples to oranges when you have such a huge range of talent?
Ben Folds: It is more of a range this year than the last two years and that does make it hard because if you have an amazing, you know, German Polka group and they're up against like an amazing industrial noise group, what might make one work more than the other -- and you really have to pick personal -- I think you should take personal preferences aside, which I think we've done, and just really try to hone in on what they're attempting to do, how effective it is to the people that would like what it is that they do and, you know, could this make a record. I don't like all records but, you know, a record is a record. And so I think it is really hard because you try not to make it personal. You try to make it about how they're working together, how well they're doing and how effective it might be for their audience and leave the preference to the apple or the orange out of it. But I think it's difficult to do. But I feel like we're doing it. Don't you, Sara?
Sara Bareilles: Okay, I think it is hard to do and I didn't have anything to compare it to in terms of previous, you know, previous seasons of contestants. But I think it does help clarify things and you do keep in the back of your mind this is a competition for who's going to be able to make a great record and hopefully connect to a mass audience and has a lot of depth and complexity to what they're capable of. And it makes it a little easier when you see groups that do it really, really well because you kind of know what's possible. But I agree with Ben. I think the most important thing is to sort of keep your personal preference out of it. It may not be the record you would run out and -- like I would run out and buy but, you know, if the group has got it, it's easy to see.
Being a cappella your body becomes the instrument. That's what makes the show so different from all the other singing shows. But for both of you, what do you think the biggest challenge for an a cappella group is wwhen they're looking for a piece for the show or they're looking to perform live on the stage?
Ben Folds: Well, I think it's different for every group. I think that's what's interesting about it is the story behind every group. If you have an obvious one, which is being surmounted like really effectively, is an all female group. You don't have a base. So if you're an all female group, you've got to find ways of making it work and there are plenty of ways but you have to find them. They're off the beaten path. And if you're a group of 18 guys then you might have intimacy issues. I mean, it might be difficult to find like a star, a one-person that can act in the middle of essentially a football team. Some people might be, you know, technically challenged but have just total star power. So I think for each group it's how they surmount their challenge and their difficulties. It's their Achilles heel as (always there). It's interesting for us to watch. Sometimes you keep a group in because you can see that they're on the verge of a revelation. And they may not have done their best show but we make the judgment that if they stay on another show we're going to see something that's going to develop and it's going to surprise us and that is what I think is most exciting about the show. Back to you, Sara.
Ben, this is actually more from you since you are a returning judge to the show. What makes this season different than the seasons before it?
Ben Folds: I think this is the season of innovation. I think everyone will see the innovation be second nature. In other words, you begin to take it for granted and everyone will look for heart. But I think that's what marks this season and my theory is because these groups watched this television show and they thought what can I do to stand out? And so we have a lot of standout groups. For instance, the first season was much more sort of conventional a cappella and they were very good. You know, second season, more of that and now all of a sudden it's sort of more about how they can stand out and be different and that's a nice thing to see.
I've noticed that a lot of times you have repeat contestants from the earlier seasons. Like there's a guy from (Street Corner Symphony) in I believe it's The Collective and...
Ben Folds: His brother.
It's his brother?
Ben Folds: Yes. His little brother.
I was just going to ask about sort of having second chances and like is that like intentional to have this like emphasis on giving people second chances because I know on a lot of other reality shows they wouldn't let someone like compete? Like I know what was it the group last year? I guess the (Back Beats) was made up of people from the first season, right?
Ben Folds: Yes, yes, yes.
Sara Bareilles: And there's another group this seasons, Delilah. There's an all girl group that is made up of some super stars of pervious seasons as well. You're right.
Ben Folds: They slip by putting mustaches on. We only figured it out after they got in. They were strangely attractive with the mustaches. We do encourage it. We do encourage it because it's about groups working together and it encourages the whole development and this show has become sort of a hub of talent. I mean, now you see these people getting together and making bands, rising together, doing things. It's incredible amount of talent. A lot of them -- like one fellow you'll see on this season in the Dartmouth Aires, he said he never thought about being a musician. Now, we've completely corrupted the poor young man. He's going to be a musician. Now he's going to starve.
My question is now that you two are spending so much time together at the judging table is there any potential for you to collaborate together on a song in the near future?
Sara Bareilles: What do you say, Ben? Should we do it?
Ben Folds: Let's do it. Are we going to do this in unison? Or you take the third. I'll take the bottom. Are you ready?
Sara Bareilles: Yes, Ben is actually producing an EP for me and I've hired him. He's producing an EP in November. So I'm going to go to Nashville and we're going to collaborate and I'm very...
Sara Bareilles: Yes, that is the truth.
Awesome. So when should we expect that to actually come out to be something we could hear?
Sara Bareilles: I'll check the time. I'll probably say early next year, maybe January. If we get our shit together it should be quicker.
Ben Folds: We're shooting for a first quarter release. mean, someone's got to make the money.
Sara Bareilles: Thank you. That's the answer.
My first question for you, Sara, is with a background in having performed in a cappella groups before how has that shaped your role as a judge on the show?
Sara Bareilles: I think I come with a lot of empathy for what they're going through and, for me, (it's flat up) a lot of nostalgia for a time in my life that I really, really loved and I think, you know, from my judge's perspective I'm really one of the more emotional ones in terms of the judges that are out there. I get sucked into the story and into their journey and I think that's part of the fact that, you know, I've been in those shoes, not in this exact format before but, yes, I really -- I feel very connected that there's an all girl group and I felt like I wanted to jump up on stage and be a part of it for a second there. Luckily security held me down before I could actually make it on stage.
With the success of this show have you heard anything as a veteran judge of something like this which focuses so highly on the talent of a cappella groups, which a lot of high schools have but it can sometimes be the first program cut in high schools? Have you heard anything about, you know, a positive impact this has had on schools, school boards of making sure that arts departments are getting the funding that they need?
Ben Folds: Well, I can tell you from my point of view it's one of the main reasons that I got into the show because if you're a professional musician or if you're a musician, you know, especially the era that I group up in, we were lucky enough to have music programs. And I've got kids now and I can see that it's been slashed. So I've spent -- actually, the way I got into this show was doing an a cappella record with university a cappella groups and the money went to music education charities. And what I think is great about the show, I can't tell you about a specific affect it might have had, but what you're seeing is that despite the cut, the de-emphasis of music in schools, you're seeing an increased number of kids getting together on their own dime, on their own time with absolutely no class credit in universities. It's becoming a big social thing but, you know, it's easier to just get together and drink. It's more than just a social occasion. They're having to learn harmony and voice leading and they have various, you know, levels of education understanding. But by the time they put themselves through this they really know the insides of harmony. Like, in some ways it's like studying Bach Fugues because every person has to be really aware of what their specific voice leading is. So it's a lot of music education. I don't know if what this means is that like the -- almost the privatization of everything, if what this means is people aren't going to learn music in school, therefore we're going to pick up the slack and, you know, NBC will be playing music that inspires people to sing together and then kids will be singing together and learning music without the structure of school. I think that's heartening but I also think that that's depressing that we can't pick up the ball and run with it. So it's hard to know. I haven' heard anything specifically. But I feel like it's part of a movement that it's basically our culture saying, actually, music is very important and we're going to do it even if it's not in the school system and I think that's all we really know at this moment.
Ben, I wanted to know how will the expanded competition between 16 acts of this year change the format or change things on the show?
Ben Folds: You've got that many groups, it's harder for everybody. It's more of a challenge, more of a challenge from our point of view because the competition's tighter, heavier because there's more talent, so you've got to really hone your ear in a lot more. For the groups, the same challenge, there's more there. Also, finding creative ways to take 16 groups and have them all sing together in one big opening number, which is our sort of opening, you know, variety show celebration part. You're talking about 16 times, it's like a Muppet show. It's awesome. There's probably 120 people on stage for the first show all singing together and pretty amazing stuff. I mean, I think it's nothing but better. It's just more difficult is all, you know, and a lot of times when you improve something it hurts and I think that's what's going on.
Sara, since this is your first year joining Ben and Shawn as a judge, what will you look for in the singers to move them forward?
Sara Bareilles: You know, for me, I'm looking for, first of all, technical skills, someone that's a great singer that's listening to their cohorts and group members, someone who blends well. I'm looking for a great lead singer, sometimes it's just the particular tambour of the voice, how easy somebody makes it look. And then in addition to that, I really like seeing diversity from the contestants. I like seeing someone that can sing jazz and then flip over and sing a pop song and then sing a rock song. I mean, sometimes it might be a lot to task from someone but, you know, it's nice to see people up there giving it their all. I really like to see people not holding anything back. And that sort of particular nature goes a long way for me.
You said that this is the season of innovation. Are you referring to that some of the groups have never sang a cappella before but they're musicians and they bring sort of a new sort of, I guess, technique to the show? Was that intentional for the show to try something new this season?
Ben Folds: Well, I think it was just natural and natural selection. You just had groups that were observing the first two seasons and thinking, hey, I could jump into this and maybe that means it's a group of musicians who are finding it difficult for their ideas in music to be heard, you know, traditionally. And they're thinking this is another avenue. And sometimes it's an a cappella group who is, you know, encouraged to do it because they could do something different, you know. But they may have a secret weapon and someone can make the kind of sounds that you've never heard before or they may just arrange it in a way. I mean, a cappella music, as it's grown, especially in universities, has hit a very conventional method, you know. There's a typical sound to a lot of them but that doesn't mean that there's not room to really move forward. And so what's happened this season is it just took a light year step. It just suddenly all of these groups were coming out and they were being very different and I suppose that's just because they watched and they were, you know, they were encouraged to do that. The musician groups have a challenge in that they haven't done it before. It's not just something you just walk up and do. I had to sit in with one of the groups last year in the finale. Sara has done this a lot but I thought it was really -- it was surprisingly difficult. And I'm glad I did that. They'll have to drag me kicking and screaming to do that shit again but I was glad that I had the opportunity. It made me understand it even more because I'm like, wow, this is not easy.