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Faith, Innovation, and Cello Beat Boxing - An Interview with Kevin Olusola of Pentatonix

A capella pop act Pentatonix is poised to make an impact, and beat boxer Kevin Olusola has a lot to say about it. The Sing Off winners have amassed millions of youtube hits and a coveted #1 release on itunes. We talk to Kevin about their success, his beliefs, and what it is like to play cello and beat box at the same time.

BY: Stephen Russ

Kevin Olusola is a busy man. An outstanding cello player, a well-known beat boxer, a member of the Sing-Off winning a capella group Pentatonix, and a world-traversing performer, you would think that he would be untouchable, frequently stressed, and arrogant to boot.
Fortunately that isn’t the case.

Kevin is relaxed, humble, and he also loves to, as he says, “chillax.” I was fortunate to catch him during some of this “chillaxing” and ask him questions about his experience in the world of a capella music, his strong belief in Christianity, and of course, playing cello and beat boxing at the same time. Kevin is the kind of guy you want to root for – an accomplished Yale graduate with amazing skill at his craft and a world of opportunity in front of him, but unassuming as can be and an absolute joy to talk to. He even called me “Mr. Russ,” which is certainly a first.

On top deck for Kevin right now is his work with Pentatonix, whose first release, the EP PTX Vol. 1, released to the world on June 26th. Fans of the group know what to expect – blistering pop covers that completely reshape the songs, a strong dose of musicality that is still accessible, and an emphasis on having fun with music. The EP also contains the groups’ first original songs, and they are tunes that stand up to the caliber of the performances that the band put on all last year on NBC. It is one of the more unique releases delivered by a group this year, and hopefully one that will find the kind of mainstream success that has alluded a capella groups in the past.


Check out our interview with Kevin below, and pick up a copy of their EP here!!

How did you start playing cello and beat boxing at the same time?

I started in Beijing, China. In the summer of 2008 I was studying Chinese all day and during my rest breaks I would play the cello. I randomly had the idea and thought “why not?” We actually had a talent show and I tried it out there just a little bit and all the Chinese kids were like “WHOA! What are you doing??” So I kept developing it just for fun, not thinking that anything would come out of it. The video that you saw, I was actually nominated for a senior prize at Yale and the board members wanted to see some of my work. That cello beat boxing piece I had worked on for about a year so I decided to put it up for the competition. My friend who filmed it said I should probably put it up on youtube, and I was like “eh, this is not the kind of thing that gets big on Youtube” and he said “just try it and see what happens.” All of a sudden it went viral and praise God, from that the next six months were set in stone by going out to tour with Gungor on the David Crowder Band’s last tour, and then Pentatonix.

Does it help you with your art to be performing as a beat boxer and a cello player at the same time? How does that shape you as a musician?

Absolutely. I think being part of Pentatonix has helped my arrangement style a lot, and that’s helped me expand myself. Plus, the one thing I try to do is singing through the way I play the cello. When I play the cello I’m a singer, and the medium just happens to be the cello, so I think being part of Pentatonix has really helped that. I was actually going to go to a conservatory after I graduated college, now I’m thankful that Pentatonix happened because I’m working with singers in this realm of mainstream music, and to learn about how all that comes together has really helped my cello playing. From the cello side to the beat boxing, that has definitely translated because I think about my beat boxing in a very musical way rather than just kind of doing “booms” and “kahs.” I try to really think about phrasing and dynamics and all the things that go into making the cello music innovative and interesting. That all translates into what I do with beat boxing.

When Pentatonix first performed on the Sing-Off it was clear that this was a very special group. At what point did that really click with you guys, or was it there from the start?

I think the signs of it definitely were there in the very beginning. I believe in destiny, I believe in God, and I believe this was a God given thing that happened, it just clicked so well. Most of us didn’t have an a capella background and we met the day before the audition. When we sang together it was definitely a diamond in the rough, but it was still a diamond. I think it continually grew as we went through the Sing-Off. I’m so thankful because I really believe it was the Lord that put together this entity and who we are. I guess the way that we always think about music, it’s very similar. Although we have different styles we bring all the sounds together into a modern context. We’re always thinking about the mainstream context and how we can break boundaries but maintain being a capella.

Could you tell me a bit about where your strong belief in God comes from?

I’ve always been technically a Christian, my Dad and my Mom, they’re both Christians. They raised me in it so I’ve always known of God but it didn’t become real to me until college when I really started digging in on my own and realizing that everything I do, if I’m not focusing on the word of Jesus Christ, it doesn’t [amount to anything]. Christ, heaven, those are the things that are everlasting. I’m so thankful because I think being in Pentatonix is a tool, the influence that we’ve gotten from that is something I can use in a positive light and I’m so thankful for that. That’s why when you see my tweets, when you see my Facebook messages, I always try to tweet things that are uplifting and not be afraid to show people that we can be Christians in the industry. There’s a book by a guy named DeVon Franklin, I think he’s one of the Vice Presidents of Columbia Pictures, he always talks about how it’s not really that it’s bad to be in this industry, if you really follow God and His principles and are consistent people will see your life and your testimony. That’s what I keep hoping for myself. I’m not perfect, I would never say that, I just believe that if I try my hardest to be consistent, show what I believe, and live it, most importantly, then that will hopefully shine through more. I guess that’s kind of the prayer for what I do.

There was a bit of a controversy during an episode of the Sing Off where the song chosen for you guys didn’t sit right with your beliefs. Do things like that occur within the group now, and does the rest of the group continue to handle it well?

They always ask me “Kevin are you comfortable with the song? If not we’ll find something else.” There’s a lot of songs in the mainstream that are actually not bad songs. We just have to find those that are relevant and popular, and then we can work on those. So I’m thankful that they understand from that point that it’s more of what I’m about.

How does your faith affect your approach to playing and performing music?

The first way is kind of what we’re talking about right now with lyrics and things like that. I always try to make sure we find the best lyrics that can represent us very well and have kind of a universal theme. You can’t exclude anybody, I want people to hear the music that we’re doing, so that’s why I pray that we find the things that will really give us a worldwide audience so that when I talk to people about faith they can take an ear to it. Approaching music itself, that’s a good question, really every time I approach the cello or approach anything I always start with a word of prayer. I ask God to give me the ability to do what I do, because it’s not really coming from me. I feel like I’m more of a messenger. What I’m trying to create, it’s not really mine it’s [God’s]. I make sure in whatever I’m doing that the message is coming across very well. I think that’s the main thing for me in terms of how I approach music, it’s more like “Lord let me be the messenger, you come through me, because if it’s not from you then it doesn’t really matter.”

What can people expect from this EP and in the future?

We’re going to definitely stick to our original sound that you heard from the Sing Off. We still think we have a lot of room to grow within that sound. I think the EP is extremely eclectic,it has something for absolutely everyone. If you like more esoteric music that’s kind of out there, “Aha,” a cover of Imogen Heap, is one that I think will really up your alley. If you really love dance music that is for fist pumping and jumping up and down I think “Show You How to Love” that Avi and I wrote is absolutely incredible. We have a vocal dubstep part in it that I go crazy for every time that we do it. If you’re somebody who loves amazing lyrics and really likes to just groove and pay attention to what the words are saying, Scott’s song that he wrote “The Baddest Girl,” it just slaps me in the face every single time. I just love it, I really think it has something for everybody. People will never expect an a capella group to do this type of EP.