I am very excited to welcome Kevin “K.O.” Olusola to Jake’s Take!
Kevin is an accomplished quintuple threat: singer-songwriter, cellist, multi-instrumentalist, producer and beatboxer.
His artistry caught the attention of music icon Quincy Jones, who asked Kevin to represent him in concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival. Kevin also shared the stage with celebrated musicians Bobby McFerrin and Chick Corea.
In addition, his acclaimed “Julie-O” celloboxing video was featured on multiple media outlets such as AOL, CBS, The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.
However, most music lovers know Kevin for being one-fifth of popular Grammy-winning a cappella group: Pentatonix! The quintet conquered the Billboard charts and their amazing videos have accumulated over 886 million views on YouTube!
Recently, Kevin released his debut solo EP: The Renegade. The EP showcases Kevin’s superb arrangements on Top 40 standbys such as “Heart Attack” and “All of Me,” while rejuvenating the New Age standard “Julie-O.”
In this edition of A Conversation, Kevin talked about his arrangement process and how he is gearing up to join Pentatonix on Kelly Clarkson’s upcoming Piece by Piece tour.
Jacob Elyachar: When did you first get interested in music?
Kevin “K.O.” Olusola: Music is something that I always loved. My parents early on, saw that it was as second nature to me. They took me to cello, piano and saxophone lessons when I was younger. My dad is from Nigeria and my mom is from Grenada, they are also a psychiatrist and a nurse respectively. The reason why they immigrated to the United States is that they wanted their children to have prestigious and well-respected careers. My folks really encouraged me to go into medicine and I was groomed to enter the field. I was enrolled in medical prep programs in high school and went to the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Then, I went to Yale for my undergraduate studies. I was an East Asian Studies major and I was also in Pre-Med. I thought I was going to do medicine and travel to China and other developing countries.
But, during my junior year in college, my trajectory completely changed. I placed in second in an online competition that Yo-Yo Ma hosted. Mr. Ma told me that he respected my music because it was innovative and unexpected. That comment boosted my confidence about a certain possibility about having a career in music. I decided to take a chance and pursue music. At first, I did not know how to market my music. Then, I turned to YouTube and once I uploaded my first video, my life was changed for the better.
JE: One of the things that I loved about “The Renegade” EP was your impeccable arrangements. Could you please share your creative process with my readers?
K “K.O.” O: When I was recording The Renegade EP, I looked for songs that I loved and I wanted to make sure that I could “kill” the vocal line. I always call the vocal line: a cello vocal. Every time, I play the cello I want listeners to know that I am not a cellist; I am a singer and the medium that I sing happens to involve an instrument. I also try to make sure that the melodies I picked could really come through on my cello.
Once, I finished picking the tracks, I thought about what I wanted the listening experience to be on this first album. I wanted to give the tracks a harder beat and an overall fresher feel. When I recorded my cover of Demi Lovato’s “Heart Attack,” I thought it would be cool to record a chamber music version of the song. However, the song had a difficult beat, which was tough during the first steps of the arranging process. Luckily, I grew to be an expert of arranging tracks, thanks to my work with Pentatonix and I began to implement my ideas of how I wanted the songs to turn out.
After figuring out the instrumentation, I started to work on the tracks’ individual beats and how I wanted the cello vocal to sound. Once, I was done with that, I handed my work over to Ben Bram, who has worked on multiple Pentatonix projects. He helped me rearrange several tracks including “Heart Attack” and “All of Me.”
During our arranging meetings, I told Ben that I wanted the lines to be very vocal. We did not want to arrange the tracks to work for a string quartet; we wanted to create four distinct parts singing harmoniously.
JE: What were some of the challenges that you faced during the recording process? How did you overcome them?
K “K.O.” O: I started the recording tracks for The Renegade in 2013. But, I became even busier in 2014. Pentatonix went on a much bigger tour and recorded two more albums including a full-length Christmas album. I am the band’s businessperson and I had to schedule everything. Because of Pentatonix’s hectic schedule, it was very hard to find time to do my own work. I worked on The Renegade at very sporadic times. Another challenge that I faced was working on the music itself. I started working on the song, “Renegade,” in 2011. But, it took me two years before I felt comfortable enough to even perform it in front of a live audience. During the first recording sessions, I made it very artistic and extremely difficult to play. I also realized that technically I could not beatbox and play the cello simultaneously. I had to widdle the track down to where it was still artistic, but also made sure that the catchiness of the track came across to the listener.
JE: How did you select the songs that you wanted to record for the EP?
K “K.O.” O: I decided to select songs by their vocal lines. If the vocal lines were suited for the cello, then I definitely wanted to record the track. “Heart Attack” is a heavy electronic pop track and I decided to record a new spin on the song, so listeners can say: “Man! I never heard it (“Heart Attack”) this way! “ During the recording process I asked myself, “Can I take the song and make it completely different?” When I approached Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” I thought that it would be cool to do a cover because the chords are always the same throughout the track. However, I decided to add more layers to the song, because I wanted to take the listener on a journey.
JE: This summer, Pentatonix will join Kelly Clarkson on her Piece by Piece Tour! How will this opportunity help you grow as an artist?
K “K.O.” O: First of all, we appreciate and love her to death because she is an amazing vocalist! I think that as a group, we want to align ourselves with astoundingly talented vocalists and Kelly is hands down one of the best in the music industry. Just to go on tour with someone like Kelly, helps us have credibility as vocalists too. Hopefully, we will have a set that will impress that the thousands of fans that will be attending her concerts. Right now, we are working on our full-length original album and we are hoping to complete it on the road! We want to have several songs that can speak to a lot of listeners and we can start promoting them. I believe that both the Piece by Piece Tour and our upcoming album will help build our brand as original artists too. We are so grateful that she took us along for the ride!
JE: If you had the chance to meet with a group of aspiring musicians who want to have a career in the recording industry, what advice would you share with them?
K “K.O.” O: Hone in on what makes you unique! I think a lot of people share the same piece of advice over-and-over again. But, if your voice is unique, your arrangement style is exceptional or if you make distinctive videos, then think about how you can project that uniqueness onto the world! That is what we do as Pentatonix. We try to take our uniqueness and spread it out! We knew that YouTube was going to be beneficial for us, because our music is not just something that you can listen to. It is something you have to see for your own eyes. I am using the same strategy for my solo career. I want to showcase my unique way of performing and use the basis of what I do and then grow upon that. I think that people who make careers out of music are the ones that have a unique voice.
To learn more about Kevin “K.O.” Olusola, visit his website: http://kevinolusola.com/