From left to right: Ben Folds, Sara Bareilles, and Shawn Stockman
Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Television / Lewis Jacob
Shawn Stockman has seen a lot in his musical career as part of the ever-popular R&B group Boyz II Men. Dazzling success, guest appearances, and millions of frenzied fans, he has seen it all. Now, he watches and judges artists who are trying to break into the business on NBC’s hit a capella show The Sing-Off. Multi-platinum Boyz II Men, just released their historic 20th anniversary album Twenty. Listening to Shawn is like listening to the voice of experience, ripe with joy but also a surprising dash of humility. He’s a man who is very grateful to still be doing what he loves and it shows.
I spoke with Shawn prior to the airing of The Sing-Off’s hip-hop night, a momentous occasion as it is the first show to ever dedicate a whole night to hip hop. We talked about that, religion, and even Justin Bieber came up. Catch The Sing-Off Mondays on NBC, 8/7c.
Is there a big difference in the level of talent now from when Boyz II Men started?
It’s a huge difference, to be very honest. Me and my guys did a capella, but never would we have thought of taking it to the level that these guys are taking it. They are taking it to places that we never imagined and never thought a capella could go. With us, it was just voices and maybe the occasional imitation of an instrument. These guys actually sound like instruments, guitars, bass, and trumpets, and piccolos, and flutes, and all that other stuff. They are really way more advanced than me and my guys ever were. They’re taking it to different heights, I would have never thought of doing the things that they do just normally. That’s what makes this so enjoyable too, the fact that they are able to do it so fluently and in such an incredible way with the incredible arrangements that they put on. It’s just absolutely and it’s fun to watch. I enjoy looking at ‘em.
What do you think is the major reason that it’s so hard for groups to survive in today’s music climate?
I know the answer, but I don’t. The more interesting question to me is “Why?” Because I don’t know why the industry has become so corporate, or why it’s become so cold, and just so un-soulful. I’m baffled by the change of the industry, because everything is so rigid and has no curves and waves. Everything is just so structured and straightforward. One of my group members said “these days it’s not about the music, it’s about the sound more than the music.” It’s about how something sounds as opposed to how it feels. You know, can you use it? Can you play this for your woman? Can you play this for your man? Can you dance to it? Things of that nature, the industry has lost that touch, and I think that a lot of artists that are doing this might not understand what it is that I’m talking about, because I think there’s been a gap too, between generations as far, as the history of the music. A lot of these kids, you know, if you told ‘em about the Isaac brothers, you hear “who are they?” or “who’s Marvin Gaye?” “Who’s the Temptations?” It’s like for some reason with all of this information and all of this knowledge that kids have access to through the internet, where you can look up these people with just a push of the button, but the kids don’t and I don’t know why.
Do you think that a capella music can dominate the charts?
I hope so. Because, the art form of a capella deserves it, and these kids deserve it. I’m not saying it just because I’m a part of the show. I might be a little biased, but the truth is that these kids work harder than any other vocal competition show that’s out there. That’s just the truth. It’s one thing to sing and dance, but to sing and dance without any instruments, it’s harder. It’s a different discipline. It’s a side of your brain that not too many people have. These guys have that and they do all of it without any help from any pyro, guitars, anything. It’s just them and their vocals. That in and of itself is amazing, and that’s what sets them apart from anybody. I’ll put it this way – I’ll put them up against any artist from any of those other shows, no disrespect, but the bottom line is that I’ll do that and we’ll start off with music and at any given point the music will cut off and we’ll see who can continue to show.
You’ve been there from the beginning, what do you love most about being a judge on the Sing-Off? What do you get out of it?
I get a lot. I’m not gonna sit here and lie and tell you that I don’t learn something from these groups, from these artists. I learn so much musically, I learn how far you can take music; the ideas, and the possibilities just by listening to them. It’s inspirational in the sense that I’m taking mental notes watching them and listening to them. Being still an active musician, I can’t help but to be inspired by sounds and I get to hear that for hours at this show. That’s just a treat for me, if anything I should be paying NBC, but I don’t want to give them any ideas (laughs). I enjoy all aspects, I love the fact that again I get to sit down with two other co-judges who I truly and utterly respect and listen to not only good music but their take on it. It’s all a learning experience, and at my age that’s what it’s about. It’s about learning and understanding and just getting more information to become a little bit smarter than you were before.
Which artist has surprised you with the most with how they’ve grown throughout the competition?
To be honest, the Dartmouth Aires, the college guys. They’ve surprised me because I honestly didn’t think that they would have as much diversity as they have had. After awhile I thought that I was going to get tired of them doing all the jumping around and things of that nature. They’ve shown that they are so much more than that. They’ve shown that they can be serious artists and that they can really change it up. They’re probably one of the most diverse groups in the whole competition and I think they are going to go really far.
The Sing-Off deals in religion more than most reality shows, why is that?
Reality. You know, people believe, people have beliefs, and people have philosophies and things that they follow. That’s just as real as anything else on television. You know a lot of people tend to shy away from that for some reason, but to be honest that’s real life. That’s what goes on, people go to church, and people worship, and people pray, and people do all of those things, that’s okay. It’s a normal occurrence. It happens all the time.
Can you talk about having the boys from BYU singing hip-hop?
You know those boys actually surprised me. That’s another group of guys who thoroughly surprised me, because you think BYU and you only think one thing. Maybe two things, you think Mormon and you think Donnie and Marie, that’s pretty much as far as it goes. You know, those guys actually show true diversity as well. They flip it and they know how to flip it, they have their niche and they know how to bring a song to life. They really get into it and they understand what a capella music is all about. That’s what makes them fun to watch as well. They’re good clean, good-looking kids who can sing their behinds off and that’s the cool thing about them. I love those guys from BYU, Vocal Point is off the hook.
Click here to check out an interview with Season 2 winners Committed!
Were they what you expected coming from BYU?
Honestly, outside of what I knew of them, I didn’t expect much of anything. These past few seasons of the show have shown me to expect the unexpected. What you think might happen may not happen at all, and you’ll definitely see that this season. We’re midway in but you’re gonna see a lot of things that a lot of people might not have thought would happen as far as who goes home and who stays. Like, you just don’t know, and that’s what makes this show fun and so interesting. A lot of times after all the performers are done and we’ve gotta decide who stays and who goes, sometimes it’s a freakin’ headache because everybody is so good. You have to judge things on a different perspective, not necessarily the obvious thing, because it’s not so obvious who’s bad and who isn’t because everybody is good. We have to figure it out in some sort of way and it’s tough sometimes.
What are the hurdles of doing hip hop with a capella?
This whole competition now, as it gets deeper into it, obviously we’re narrowing it down to the best of the best and this is one of the moments where they have to really show their diversity. This is all about the Sony contract and scoring the record deal, so in order to get it they have to show that they can be diverse enough as an a capella group to do different styles of music. It’s already a hard enough job that they are doing an intricate form of music, in order to appeal to the masses they have to be able to do certain things that the masses enjoy. This is why we do the hip hop thing, to see if they can handle the pressure.
Is there anything that they will have to work on especially with their voices?
Well you know hip hop is drum and bass, they can’t be thin at all, they can’t sound like the Carpenters (laughs). No disrespect to the Carpenters, I love the Carpenters, but in this case they have to bring some attitude, just the feel or the flavor of hip hop.
Let’s talk Boyz II Men. What can people expect from your new album?
History, and I’m not meaning in that in a presumptuous way. Literally, it’s history, it’s our twenty years encompassed in one record. It’s a double CD that features the Boyz II Men classics, I guess you could say, I don’t want to sound presumptuous there either. Just the songs that people most know us for. We have those on one disc and we re-recorded them and added a little twist and flavors here and there, not too much because we didn’t want to [tick] anybody off who liked the originals. On another CD we have twelve original, brand new Boyz II Men records, and this is something we haven’t done in about nine years. So people will actually get a chance to hear new music from us and where we are musically. That’s what we’re most excited about. We’ve grown a lot vocally, we think that we’ve gotten a lot stronger. We always just try to make music that people can apply to their everyday lives. Music is practical, at least it should be, and we try not to make it too hard, too intricate, or too deep, at least not in the sense of the body of work. We try to create something where it’s palpable and people can feel it and just understand it and get into it for what it is. We feel like a lot of times when it comes to love and relationships, the best way to talk about it is simple (laughs). So everybody understands it. It’s bad enough that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, we try to even the playing field by expressing it in a way that both parties can understand it.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career?
The biggest lesson I think I’ve learned is – don’t panic. There’s so many things that go on in life that seem unsure and you really don’t know which direction you have to go in order to succeed or even stay afloat… [but] a lot of times every action doesn’t require a reaction. Learning all of that is what I take the most out of everything. There was a point even with my life, and with my group, and even personally, where I did not know how it was going to play out. I didn’t know what the end was going to be. It’s still that way in some cases, but things are a lot better in my life as far as my group, and personally, and things of that nature, but there were storms, and I didn’t understand until I just took the time to relax, sit back, chill, and to not freak out. When you let life just happen, and to not always have to do something just because something happened to you, and just wait and be patient, answers tend to kind of formulate and crystallize, and then you can make the right decision. My biggest lesson then is – don’t panic.
What was it like working with Justin Bieber?
Just in is a real professional, he’s really great. Despite all the hype behind him, and all the girls screaming, and all that, he’s a legitimate artist.He’s not a flash in the pan artist at all. I enjoyed working with him, and I enjoyed talking to him and hanging out with him. He understands a lot to be so young, and I didn’t really necessarily feel like I was talking to a young kid, I was talking to a seasoned professional. He carries himself that way, very mature, understands things, understands music, understands the music and the music business. I wish him the best because he’s one of the good ones, he’s one of the guys that I personally root for because I know how hard this kid works. I know how hard he worked before he got the deal so it’s just nice that all of this is happening to somebody who is so dedicated. CLICK to Continue to:: An Interview with Rachael Lampa from The Sing-Off!