Interview: Vocal group Naturally 7 hits the road with classic songs
Naturally 7

You’ve heard old school doo-wop groups like The Four Tops, Temptations and Four Seasons. And perhaps you’ve seen video clips of modern acapella groups like Straight No Chaser and Pentatonix.

But you’ve never experienced anything quite like Naturally 7.

That’s because the New York-based vocal septet combines the best elements of street singing, sweet barbershop-style stacked harmonies, and hip-hop inspired rap and scat. What’s more, each guy in the group has a dual role: Each Naturally 7 member plays a part in the harmonic spectrum (based on his vocal range), and each man doubles up by mimicking a specific musical instrument.

The result?

Naturally 7 croons like a choir of angels, but they can also simulate a full orchestra or a pop-rock band…using just their voices.

They did in television commercials and on hit songs by Coldplay and Phil Collins. They did it on tour with Michael Buble, and are still doing it today.

Now nearing their 20th year, the group is hitting the road again behind the recently-issued studio album Both Sides Now and in-concert DVD Berlin Live.

The new disc finds Naturally 7 co-founders (and brothers) Roger and Warren Thomas and the fellas conspiring on covers of pop hits by Paul McCartney (“Pipes of Peace”), Sting (“Shape of My Heart”), Roberta Flack (“First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”) and Joni Mitchell (the title cut). But they also blend their smooth, rich vocals on a couple classically-inspired originals (“I Need Air,” “Prince Igor”).

We spoke with emcee / rapper / baritone Roger last week about Both Sides, the forthcoming tour and the evolution of Naturally 7’s patented “vocal play” style.

AXS: Hello, Roger! How are you?

ROGER THOMAS: I’m good! How you doing?

AXS: Would you mind telling us a bit about how you started Naturally 7?

RT: We started out just my brother and I, and then some church friends in New York. Then it was friends of friends. Along the line, we developed this acapella thing, which we’d been doing since we were much younger! We just wanted to find a way to do something different, and have that signature sound…like Earth, Wind & Fire, The Beatles or The Bee Gees. When people hear harmonies like that, they’re like, “That’s The Beach Boys!” or whoever it is. There was something to our New York-ness, the fact that we grew up with hip-hop, R&B, and jazz, and really just finding out that each guy had the ability to imitate an instrument. It started out with my brother, who is the vocal “drummer” in the band. It started with the rhythm section first, and as we ventured further out we realized we could mimic an entire band, and do it so well that an audience will think they’re actually hearing a full band. That’s going back to the earlier years, like 2003. So we decided to coin the phrase “vocal play.”

AXS: Can you distinguish between acapella and “vocal play” for Naturally 7 newcomers?

RT: Yes. The way I describe it is, acapella is when you sing without instruments, but vocal play is where the voices become those instruments. Oftentimes with acapella and coming up in the doo-wop times, those substitutions happened with sounds that only the human voice could make, like the oohs and ahhs and shoo-bops and all that stuff. But people knew it was voices. Our audiences are the opposite of that: They relate to the instrument that the voice is replacing. I started as a rapper and my brother did the beatbox thing. The first incarnation of this was him going to the drums. And even then he decided to—little by little—to not just do a beatbox, but go beyond it. Beatboxing is imitation of a drum machine. What my brother Warren does is more an imitation of a full drum kit.

AXS: I used to make sounds with my voice in grade school, but it didn’t lead to a musical career for me. It led to detention.

RT: [Laughs] Right! That’ll happen!

AXS: Can you tell us about the other guys and their respective roles?

RT: Right! There’s Dwight Stewart, who is our baritone, and whose go-to instrument is trombone. “Kelz” Mitchell is a bass, so obviously he’s our bass guitar and bass synth. Garfield Buckley is second tenor, and his instrument is harmonica. Then there’s Roderick Eldrige. He does different instruments, and D.J.ing, like the cutting and scratching and vinyl sounds. Ricky Cort is the last member to join the group. He’s guitar. He’s the screamer…he’s got the highest voice in the band, so he’s lead guitar.

AXS: How does Both Sides Now differ from previous efforts like Ready II Fly, Wall of Sound, and Hidden in Plain Sight? And how does Naturally 7 choose which cover songs to interpret?

RT: Good question. Both Sides Now is different from our previous albums in that the majority of it is cover material where we take classical pieces—or classic songs—and interpret them vocally. How do we choose? For us, I’m the primary vocal arranger in the group, so it’s very important when someone suggests a song in the group, that we would be able to respect what that song is so that people go, “Yeah, that’s the song I remember,” but at the same time take it to a play where it’s something they could get only from Naturally 7. Say you take a song we’ve never done, like The Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven.” Now, you know there’s a way someone could do that song where they’d absolutely destroy it for you, where you’d be like, “That’s not the way it goes! This doesn’t bring back any memories!” So it’s important to keep enough of that original element intact so that you can get that feeling of, “Oh! That’s it!” But at the same time, we ask what Naturally 7 can bring to the table so that you go, “I need to get your version of it.” So that’s two of three ways we pick the songs. The third way is, we just don’t want to do what people expect us to do! For example, we’ve been doing Simon and Garfunkel throughout our entire career. That’s because it’s not expected that seven black guys are going to be doing Simon and Garfunkel! So we’re doing “Sound of Silence,” “Scarborough Fair,” and “April, Come She Will.” People like that we’ve kept what they know about the songs intact, but they like that we’ve taken it someplace else. Another thing is, they’re shocked that we’re even trying it [laughs]!

AXS: Did you grow up listening to old singing groups like The Four Freshmen, and Motown groups like The Temptations and The Miracles?

RT: All of them! All of them! I mean, I grew up the ‘80s, so I went back to the ‘70s and ‘60s and went back to the ‘50s. I went back to all of it. You said the Four Freshmen, and then there were the golden quartets of the 1950s. We pulled from it all. The key is to go back and see where all this stuff came from, and why this type of harmony was “in.” And you go all the way up to Boyz II Men in the ‘90s. We pull from it all.

AXS: In the ‘60s and ‘70s you had groups like The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Bee Gees doing these insane harmonies on pop songs. Or Simon and Garfunkel, who you cover.

RT: Most people don’t understand how the Bee Gees reinvented themselves, like three times. That is one of the hardest things to do. When people talk about the all-time greats, people give it to The Beatles. But if you ask me, I put The Bee Gees up there. When you have a hot time of about five years together and then break up, nobody knows what might’ve happened after that. It’s the same thing with Simon and Garfunkel, too. They never faded away. Like The Bee Gees, they bowed out with hit material going into the ‘80s, which happens to everyone eventually. But to have reinvented themselves that many times—in the late ‘60s and ‘70s and going into the ‘80s—that might just be a little above The Beatles in terms of career span and reinvention and longevity.

AXS: How do you guys take care of your voices, since those are essentially your “instruments?”

RT: We police each other. Sometimes it’s just talking. When we’re driving we’ll talk, and thirty minutes of talking can be worse than two hours of singing. So we police each other like, “Keep your voice down!” And sleep. There’s really nothing that can beat sleep. People underestimate it, how it rejuvenates you. The different guys in the group might do different specific things, drinking specific types of teas. One guy does pushups and calisthenics before the show. But the big deal is when people ask, “Where’s the after-party?” And we’re like, “Nooo…we don’t do that!” Even when one guy goes down—with a cold or something—it can mess things up. So we wear hats and scarves and watch it. Like you said, it’s our instrument. Like a violin. When you subject them to certain temperatures, it can make a difference.

AXS: “Going Home” is one of the standouts on Both Sides Now. Tell us a bit about the classic piece that was woven into the song. It’s very moving.

RT: It’s a classical piece of Anton Dvorak [9th Symphony, 3rd Movement]. The lyrics were probably written like, a hundred years ago. So it’s a full classical piece. I was born in England. Before I left England—I came in 1979 or ’80—and there was a commercial on BBC with this little boy on his bicycle trying to get home. They played [sings] doo-doo-doo-doo-doo. And that just stayed with me all my life. And as soon as the label suggested that we make an album that concentrates more on our harmonies than anything else, I was like, “Yeah, we’re gonna do that one!” I really like how it came out. It’s a showstopper. We could be inside of a club, and I could say it’s gonna be a classical piece, and they’ll all hush up, and it’ll bring the house down. It’s one of my favorites to do right now.