HomeAn Interview With Element's Jo Vinson

Evan Feist's picture

To say that Jo Vinson sings a cappella is an understatement. Her aca-resume is long and includes (but is not limited to) Delilah, Musae, Overboard, the ICCA-winning Divisi that Pitch Perfect’s Barden Bellas are based on, and now Element.

Evan: So you’re in about a billion a cappella groups. How is Element different from Delilah or Musae?

Jo: So Delilah is all about the fierce, edgy, power, belt-your-face-off singing, which is so fun and really emotionally driven  So it’s always a blast.  Musae is super funky and big and a totally different type of music – they like to do dance, funk music, super high energy.  And Element is a lot more fun, easy, really likeable singing. The group is really into musical theater and there are 10 girls and not 8.  It’s just fun, light, with happy energy.

Evan:  This is not your first season on the show; what was it like to be back? Was it a camp reunion kind of thing?

Jo:  I was the only returning contestant for Season 4, so all the people were obviously different, and the experience of getting to know people, hanging out, creating new friends and memories was just as wonderful and delightful as it was for season 3.  Everybody was really cool and I think that every single person walked away with a whole bunch of new friends, which is definitely the best part of The Sing-Off and the most wonderful thing that can come of it for anybody. The experience allows you to meet people that you wouldn’t have otherwise met, but also love what you’re doing, so no matter what happens on the show everybody is just as proud of each other as they are themselves.  Everybody is super-sad to see somebody get eliminated because these are your friends and they go home and you don’t get to see them and that’s a super bummer.

Evan:  Did you feel – as the only veteran there – that people were looking to you for either advice or for any reason people were like, ‘Ask Jo, she’s been here before.’ ?

Jo:  There was a little bit of that, but not really. I tried to give Element a heads up on what to expect from certain situations, like ‘This day we’re probably not going to get a lot of downtime so make sure you bring comfortable stuff and things to do,’ because on press day it’s crazy and hectic and you’re just kind of sitting around waiting your turn.  I tried to help them out as best I could.  Also, ‘When you get to the hotel get a minifridge! They will run out and you will want one…’  You know, insider tips like that. 

It’s hard to tell somebody just how exhausting it’s going to be because you don’t want it to sound like it’s going to be a negative experience. The Sing-Off is the most tired I’ve been in my life but it’s also the most fun thing that I’ve done.  So the fact that you’re tired and hungry and stressed out and so anxious is completely not even as important as how much fun you’re having the whole time.  So you don’t want to say ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to be really tired and really hungry and it’s going to be stressful,’ because you don’t want them to be like, ‘Oh yikes, this doesn’t sound fun at all.’  Because first it’s a blast; second you have to be on all the time because you’ve got to go, you’ve got to learn something, got to do choreo, got to go back to stage and rework whatever changes to the arrangement.  There’s always something to do, so you never really get to sit down and relax at all, but that’s kind of the fun.

Evan: Can you take me through an arrangement or performance – from picking the song to the choreo to the arrangement?

Jo:  The first song that we do on the show is actually was not the first song we were given. They wanted us to sing (Evan’s note: let’s just say a very popular, regal song) but the show couldn’t get the rights to that one – there are a lot of legal issues.  Not only does the song have to get approved by the producers, but before you can perform it you have to get permission by the artist and the writers.  So there are a lot of hoops you have to jump through before you can do anything, and not every song is releasable and performable.

So we were about to learn that one and then they changed it and we were going to do “Lights” by Ellie Goulding. We learned that song and performed it and had an arrangement and all that stuff ready. And then they were like, ‘You know what? Change the arrangement, it’s too busy.’  They just wanted it to be a little bit different.  So basically you just go in and take out the parts that you think can be replaced and replace them with something different, and hope that the higher-ups like what you’re doing. So we tweaked the arrangement some and actually got a completely different song approved for us.  A couple of days went by and we got an arrangement for that one, which was very similar to “Lights,” even though it’s not really the same song.  It was kind of busy in the same way, so they were like, ‘Change it again the way that you changed “Lights.”’  And we did that and it was still 3 days before the show was going to tape, and Deke [Sharon] came in and worked with us and we ended up completely rewriting the whole song from scratch. 

So it’s pretty funny: you’ve got to come up with something that’s creative and singable and we shorten the songs down from 5 minutes to a minute and a half, because that’s just the nature of TV, so you have to find a format that works really well.  And sometimes different cuts don’t make sense or people are like, ‘Oh, I like the 2nd verse better so let’s start there instead,’ and then ‘Where do we put the bridge, should we cut the bridge? Double chorus?’ ‘No double chorus!’ So there are a whole lot of steps because everyone has to be happy and everyone has to feel comfortable. 

And then, once you get the arrangement written and approved and memorized, you’ve got to redo the choreo that goes with it because if you have a song and they write you some choreography for it, but you’ve completely reworked the song or taken out the bridge, you’ve got to keep it all cohesive and stuff.  There are people who work on the show, like the music team, who sometimes provide you with a skeleton of the arrangement and the cut and stuff, and then some groups do their arrangements living in a house and have the music team come in and make sure that it sounds good and has the right moments and stuff.  Sometimes the music team will write an entire song for you and you’ll learn it and that’s good.  And other times they’ll write the song and you’ll tweak it and they’ll say those were good changes.  So some combo of that always goes on depending on the week.  Sometimes somebody in the group might be really creative and have a really good idea for a song, and the teams can better spend their time writing a chart for somebody else and not writing yours.  It’s kind of a dividing of resources until everyone is happy.

I don’t think that anybody is out to get anybody here. One of the things that this competition is good about is that they want everyone to be liked.  They don’t want anyone to be hated.  And even if you go home, you’re not going to go home completely embarrassed because you were terrible – they won’t let you sing it if it’s not good.

In my experience, a cappella people are generally really friendly and open to meeting new people and working as a team. Whether it be a small team or a big team, whether it be lots of little teams united under one – an idea like The Sing-Off, nobody wants to see anybody else fail because everybody understands how hard it is to do this job.  Singing in an a cappella group, whether you’re a professional or in college, is hard.  And it takes a lot of group effort.  For those who really enjoy it and want to pursue it, they don’t want to be the one who makes it difficult for the group.  Everybody’s really on the side of music.

Evan: You were interested in Element because you wanted to do something different than before.  It seems like since you started singing bass you weren’t allowed to do anything ever again… Is that true?  And if so how do you feel about that?

Jo: My role in a women’s a cappella group is pretty specific – the role of the bass in general is pretty specific – and I happen to really enjoy it.  Apparently people seem to like what I do; whether or not it’s deserved is debatable.  I am good at what I do and when people have a job that stays open for that role, it’s just the nature that there aren’t very many girls who can go super low, can do it confidently, and want to do it.  It’s not that there aren’t girls who can, it’s that they don’t know they can yet.  I didn’t know when I started singing that I could – I kind of fell into the job by accident.  I think there just aren’t many of us yet, and at this juncture because I’ve done so much, I happen to be somebody that everybody knows can do the job.  So when a job opens up people ask me if I’m interested and I keep dividing my time more so I can become available to do more things, experience more, and learn more.  I don’t think I will ever consider myself finished learning how to do what I’m trying to do. I want to be the best female bass singer that I can be, so I’m going to keep taking jobs when they’re offered to me so that I can continue to perfect my craft.  That said, there is probably going to come a time when I can’t add any more to my plate, and I would love for more girls to feel confident in their ability to sing low and to learn how to do that. 

I taught some workshops at the various a cappella festivals; I’ve done a couple of one-on-one classes and clinics with people.  I’m always looking to teach more girls how to sing low, because there’s definitely a technique to it so you don’t hurt yourself.  It’s important for people if they’re trying to learn how to stretch their range and how to sing low and what it feels like, that they do it correctly so they don’t end up completely hemorrhaged and with nodes. I’ve started training a couple of girls who are interested in it and I’m always really excited to see that happen because I think that women can do more than what they’re doing, they just don’t know how to do it yet.

Evan: Could you tell us a little about the differences in this season like the battle eliminations and movie night?

Jo: If you’ve seen Pitch Perfect there are odes to that, if you will.

Evan: Word on the street is that the red-headed lady bass in Pitch Perfect is based on you. Can you definitively tell us whether or not that’s true?

Jo: In the movie the chick gets nodes, and as far as I know I don’t have nodes, I’ve never had them. I didn’t wake up one morning sick, get surgery, and then have a low voice. I used to only be able to sing a B-flat on a really good day, and now on a normal day I can sing a G2. That is just from practice, I’ve trained myself to sing lower in a healthy way.

In the book Pitch Perfect, the Bellas are based on my college group, Divisi. I was in Divisi, and although the book isn’t really about singing bass, I have been told by people who are more in the know than I am that because there’s was girl in Divisi who can sing low, they put a girl in the movie who could sing low. But it is not necessarily me – I don’t have red hair, so…

Evan: Would you do anything to change the protocol of how things work (on The Sing-Off)?  Are the long days and hecticness just part of what it is?

Jo: I don’t think the show could happen if we didn’t stay up late and care enough to work super hard.

Evan: Do you have any stories or funny/interesting things to share?

Jo: I recall a specific night.  It was late, one of the AcoUstiKats when, I think it was Banks – who sweet-talked the front desk to let all of us stay out at the pool way past the time we were supposed to go back inside. Everyone was down at the hot-tub and the pool just hanging out and having a good time. Several members of Element and the Princeton Footnotes reenacted the jump-catch spinning in a circle scene from Dirty Dancing – in the water of the deep end of the pool. It’s a lot harder than it looks, water notwithstanding.

Evan: If you were asked to go further into one aspect of the show, what would you like to see explored more?

Jo: I don’t feel like America gets to see just how close the groups get all together.  There isn’t a camera that comes around at 2 in the morning when we’re all done rehearsing and chatting and drinking – hot chocolate – and eating hotel cookies. We hang out a lot as people who are friends and like each other a lot.  There’s never a camera around to watch Element and AcoUstiKats hang out.  And there’s not anybody watching TEN and Homefree in the hot-tub shooting the breeze. I would like for America to know that everybody on the show doesn’t want the other groups to leave.  We’re all friends.

[Special thanks to Alex Daitch]

About the writer:
Evan Feist has been in music/vocal percussion for over 10 years. He has his Bachelorʼs Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Music and holds two Master's degrees in Music Education from Columbia University’s Teachers College. When not producing and composing for Stacks of Wax Production, he teaches voice, piano, vocal percussion, songwriting, and music business. He currently directs and manages many high school a cappella groups throughout the NY Metro area. Evan is currently available for workshops and clinics specializing in writing/arranging for a cappella groups, vocal percussion, group and solo improvisation as well as starting/managing an independently sustainable group. Please feel free to contact him for help and guidance in all your musical endeavors.