Pentatonix Embraces Singer-Songwriter Roots on ‘Evergreen,’ Get ‘Worldy’ with Latest Music

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Going in with every intention to make a pop album, when Pentatonix eventually reconvened in the studio after the pandemic lockdown, the a cappella group found themselves gravitating toward something more organic and rootsy around the compositions for their fifth holiday album. Working within a more singer-songwriter realm, the five-piece started naturally piecing together seasonal and other songs for their 2021 release, Evergreen.

Recorded at Henson Studios, the former filming studio of silent film legend Charles Chaplin and where everyone from The Police, Toto, Van Morrison, and Soundgarden among dozens of artists recorded throughout the decades, the group improvised, shifted arrangements around, and recorded all five vocals together live.

Leaning on more folky renderings, Evergreen touches on another end of Pentatonix’s spectrum that’s rarely visible behind their grander holiday renditions. Throughout the 13 songs of Evergreen, are covers, including the group’s take on the 17th century English carol “I Saw Three Ships,” Stevie Wonder’s 1984 hit “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and Joni Mitchell’s Blue folk classic, “River,” along with the acoustic-driven title track, written by Pentatonix as a tribute to mothers—For all the weight she carries, she ain’t tired / I spend my whole life tryna be more like her.

Following Evergreen, the group connected with a collective of artists from around the world for their sixth seasonal release, Holidays Around the World, in 2022. Their multi-cultural collaborations include Meghan Trainor on the opening track “Kid On Christmas,” along with Chinese pianist Lang Lang, Congolese gospel singer Grace Lokwa, Indian singer Shreya Ghoshal, and the British a cappella ensemble The King’s Singers filling in the remainder of the album.

Now more than a decade since forming, and three Grammy award wins— including their 2017 win for Best Country Duo, Group Performance for their Dolly Parton duet with her 1974 hit “Jolene”— Pentatonix has been nominated again in 2023 for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album for Evergreen.

The group, who were also recently honored with a designated day in Los Angeles on October 28 in 2022, sat down with American Songwriter to talk about tapping back into their songwriting roots as they move ahead, the magic of improvising and recording as a unit, and their perpetual fear of running out of holiday songs.

American Songwriter: How did Evergreen evolve from a pop album to something more acoustic and folky? What happened once you all reconvened in the studio?

Scott Hoying: Something we noticed in the past with Pentatonix is when we all sit in a room together and do things organically and arrange in an improvisational way, there’s just an energy to it that creates something really special. And because of the pandemic, we hadn’t done that in a really long time. So this was an opportunity to go to the studio for a couple of weeks and just build this from the ground up in a really traditional way. We had everything on sheet music, and we changed things and moved things around. It was really cool because we haven’t done this in a while. We also sang everything all together, at the same time. There’s always nuanced magic about that as well. 

We’re so happy to have a [2023 Grammy] nomination for this [Evergreen] because we feel like it came from a really special genuine place.

Kristin Maldonado: It’s amazing what technology can do now with the ability to record separately, but it really doesn’t capture the magic of what Scott was saying when we originally came together and we’d all sit in that room, and it was so organic. I think you can always tell the heart of the music. That’s how we feel when we’re on stage and you can feel those voices and connect with each other in that way. It was incredible that we were able to continue recording during COVID times and in quarantine, and I think that’s really why we feel that this album is so special and meaningful to us. You really did feel the heart in the room, which is not as easy to do when you’re just layering it on top and worried about perfection in that way. It was more about the perfection of the intentionality of the songs.

AS: What was it about these particular songs on Evergreen that you all gravitated toward?

SH: This album had like a little bit more of a folk rootsy feel than other Christmas songs we’ve done, and there’s a lot of three-part harmony and a lot of emotional, poignant lyrics like “My Heart With You.” That’s not a Christmas song, but it’s just a song that’s meant a lot to us as a band. It’s about love, and it’s about unconditionally doing anything possible to reconnect with the ones that you care so much about. I think that’s also a through line to “Evergreen,” the title track. It’s about just appreciating a mother or a motherly figure in your life who makes all the sacrifices and does every single thing they can to make Christmas a special memory for you. It’s that heart and that emotion and that love that we have for each other, and for this album.

AS: Now that you have six holiday albums, whether you’re taking on classic standards or adding in originals, how do you find new ways of reinterpreting some of these songs?

KM: The challenge is finding new songs to do (laughs).

SH: Yea, we’re definitely running out of songs. I’d say the trickiest thing is that some of these songs are so famous, like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and stuff like that. When you’re trying to interpret a Christmas song, it’s staying true to what makes it special, because it’s stylistic and special to people. But it’s also putting your own spin on it, and making it unique and different. It’s finding that fine line, the perfect balance between the reinvented and not losing the essence of the original.

KM: Naturally, traditional Christmas songs have a lot of harmony in them, and that was a big thing that we wanted to return to with this album, which is why it still felt like a Christmas album, even though it wasn’t like the traditional songs we had done before. They [the songs] were all about coming together, and there was a lot of harmony with that and love after having such a long period of not being together. That made it feel so cozy and organic as if you’re sitting in the same room with us. That was our intention.

AS: You’ve been together nearly 12 years now. How do songs come together now as opposed to the earlier days? Is it still very collaborative?

Mitch Grassi: We have this sort of renewed, rejuvenated chi. We’re all really locked in synergistically, and I think the overarching theme of the music that we’re writing is about unconditional love, gratitude, joy, and happiness. And because we’re all in that place now, it’s been really fun to collaborate. I feel like we’ve started this new creative journey where anything is possible, but we don’t always sit in the room together. Usually, it’s one or two of us writing with another songwriter or producer. But then we bring the songs to each other, and we figure out how to make it cohesive, and how to make it Pentatonix.

Because we’ve been together for so long, we know how to communicate clearly, especially when it comes to creative decisions. We don’t hold back. We’re very respectful, and we’re very open about what decisions we think will be made that has to suit the band and its trajectory.

SH: That’s also what’s special about “Evergreen” being the title track because I think “Evergreen” is a story that all five of us relate to so deeply. With original music, sometimes it’s hard to tell a story that’s completely authentic to all five of us at the same time, but I feel like “Evergreen” captures that. And that’s why it’s so fun to sing it together on stage.

AS: On Holidays Around the World (2022), you have a number of collaborators, including Meghan Trainor and more artists from India, Africa, and elsewhere. What did these artists add to this particular collection of songs?

SH: We love to collaborate. Anytime an artist that inspires us is down to make something, we’re always ready. There’s so much magic that comes from combining styles, combining creative energies. On Holidays Around the World, we worked with all these different artists from different countries. Just learning about their music and their genres and their cultures and how they celebrate the holidays—all of that was so eye-opening. That combination of so many different people can make something so special.

Matt Sallee: I also think it’s really humbling when we do collaborate with artists that are so excited to sing with us. I remember when Christina Perri came in and did a version of [Mariah Carey’s] “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” She was just so giddy. When we got together to sing around the piano, I’m like “This is Christina Perry, and she’s singing with us.” That’s happening more often than I ever thought it would, so it’s really cool to be in that position where people respect what we do so much. We respect what they do so much, so it’s evenly collaborative.

AS: Pulling from your individual solo projects and your collaborations with so many diverse artists, do you find that it adds a different dynamic to the music you’re making or how you want to approach Pentatonix songs?

KM: We all have solo endeavors that we’ve done where I think I can just find myself, personally. I feel like I learned so much about songwriting, which I was then able to bring to Pentatonix. I feel like we’ve all gotten to creatively dabble in our own things and our own interests, and that’s only helped us grow individually to come together and be where we are right now.

AS: Holiday music is a year-round affair since you have to record these songs during the summer months, or well in advance of Christmas. What is it that keeps Pentatonix coming back to the holidays?

SH: I think we’re drawn to holiday music because it’s such a joyous time, and to be able to make holiday music that so many people listen to is really special. I feel like the holidays are some of the best memories you have growing up and the best memories you make in general with your family, so being able to be the soundtrack to so many families’ core memories is a beautiful, profound thing that gives us a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Also, holiday music and harmony go so well together. It’s just a no-brainer to dive back into it every year.

MG: I think people have a real strong connection to hearing the human voice, especially human voices uniting in harmony and those emotional memories. I think they’re intertwined with the emotional nostalgia of Christmas time and it just feels like a really perfect marriage.

AS: Aside from the holidays, what type of songs are you all gravitating toward writing now?

SH:  We’ve done a lot of writing this past year in this new phase of Pentatonix to see what our songwriting direction is going to be, and I’ve noticed a recurring theme. Some of the songs we’ve written are around rebirth or a renaissance. It’s like an evolution, a new beginning or a start. I think it naturally mirrors where we are now, and it’s exciting that we’ve landed there.

Photo: Courtesy of Oriel PR

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