Photo courtesy of Tim Cruz
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.
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.