Traces of Blue isn't quite a household name just yet, but if you're familiar with NBC's The Sing-Off, you might remember them by their old name, Afro-Blue, the a cappella jazz group hailing from Howard University in Washington, D.C.
They recently took a break from working on their debut EP to stop by NPR's D.C. studios for a special performance.
"What attracts me and probably the rest of the group to jazz is how amazing and beautiful an art form it is," says vocalist Danielle Withers, in an interview with Tell Me More host Michel Martin. "There are so many amazing musicians and singers that we all look up to that perform this beautiful art of music, and to have an opportunity to be a part of that history in any way is definitely something that I was definitely really excited to be a part of."
On juggling music and school
"I just try to remember my priorities, try to remember what's important. It's such a great opportunity to be able to do so many things. And I guess having in the back of your mind that not everyone has that kind of opportunity kind of drives you to strive to make it work," says John Kennibrew, a member of the group. "Like, I'm in school — I have to get good grades. That's, like, non-negotiable. But I also want to be in this amazing group, so OK. I have this kind of time, I have this kind of money, all those things; you find out how to use your resources."
On combining jazz with contemporary pop
"All of us really are part of this generation, which means we don't listen to just jazz," says Kennibrew. "We're influenced by just about every other kind of music that you can think of. And a lot of the elements that are in those [types of] music that makes those genres so accessible, so attractive to people, they often find their way into what we do anyway. So that's probably what I love most about this group. We're able to offer jazz to you on a plate with a whole lot of sides that you really like. So you're like, 'OK, I'll try this main course because I know I'm gonna love the mashed potatoes.' "
On not winning The Sing-Off
"We basically didn't think we'd make it as far as we did on the show," says Withers. "I mean, some of us have watched The Sing-Off in the past. We know it's a pop show. You go on the show and you're singing these popular songs from the radio. And we were a jazz ensemble form Howard University. Everything is very — we're using our minds, everything is very calculated, and there's nothing really poppy about what we come from. And so we were really excited to have made it onto the show at all."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And now, we're going to turn to some music. You might not recognize the name Traces of Blue, but if you are a fan of NBC's "The Sing-Off," we bet you'll recognize their sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRACES OF BLUE SINGING, "PUT YOUR RECORDS ON")
MARTIN: That's their performance of Corinne Bailey Rae's "Put Your Records On." It blew away "The Sing-Off" judges back in 2011. At that point, the group was performing under the name Afro Blue. They're a collection of classmates from Howard University's jazz program.
But since then, they've left the nest, changed their name; and they're taking the world of a cappella jazz by storm. And Traces of Blue are with us now in our studios in Washington, D.C., to talk a little and sing a lot. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.
REGINALD BOWENS: Thank you.
JOHN KENNIEBREW: Thank you.
DANIELLE WITHERS: Hi.
DEVIN ROBINSON: Hey.
INTEGRITI REEVES: Thanks for having us.
CHRISTIE DASHIELL: Thank you.
ELIZA BERKON: Thanks for having us.
MARTIN: Well, I'm going to ask you to introduce yourselves in a minute. But before we do, why don't we just start with a song - so in case people missed your performance, people can understand what it is that people are raving about. So let us start with "American Boy." All right, here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN BOY")
MARTIN: All right. That was "American Boy," sung by Traces of Blue. And let me just confirm for people who aren't here - everything is happening right here; it's all contained within, no instruments, just the voices that you heard. And so why don't we ask you all to introduce yourselves.
ROBINSON: Hi, my name is Devin Robinson.
REEVES: Hi, I'm Integriti Reeves.
DASHIELL: Hi, I'm Christie Dashiell.
BOWENS: Hi, I'm Reginald Bowens.
WITHERS: Hi, I'm Danielle Withers.
KENNIEBREW: John Kenniebrew.
BERKON: And Eliza Berkon.
MARTIN: And Reginald, I understand that you are the music director, so I'll direct the question to you. This isn't everybody, this is not the whole group. How many altogether?
BOWENS: There are 10 total.
MARTIN: Ten total. How did you all get together?
BOWENS: Well, we started off as a class at Howard - under the name Afro Blue. In 2011, we went on to NBC's a cappella show "The Sing-Off." And after the show, we decided we're going to keep going. We changed our name, became a separate entity and started performing more.
MARTIN: And how did "The Sing-Off" happen?
BOWENS: We were actually recommended by Cedric Dent, who used to be in Take 6, and - you know, we got a call from the producers of the show. And...
MARTIN: ...How had he heard you? Do you know?
BOWENS: ...Afro Blue actually performed with Take 6 at one point, yeah. And so he called, I guess - I don't know, he talked to them, they called us and said, do you want to audition? And we said yes. So we auditioned...
MARTIN: ...Did anybody say no?
MARTIN: No, people are looking at me like, are you crazy?
MARTIN: You were - you didn't win, but you were fan favorites. You came in fourth, and that is a big field of contestants. So was it a happy feeling, kind of frustrating?
WITHERS: It was...
WITHERS: ...It was, for Afro, I mean for Afro Blue at the time, and Traces of Blue now - we basically didn't really think we'd make it as far as we did on the show. I mean, some of us have watched "The Sing-Off" in the past - had watched "The Sing-Off" in the past and we know it's a pop show, like, you go on the show and you're singing these popular songs from the radio and, you know, we were a jazz ensemble from Howard University.
You know, we're using our minds, everything is so calculated and, you know, there's nothing really poppy about what we come from. And so we were really excited to have made it onto the show at all. And so for us to have made it to fourth place, you know, it was - we were so grateful to have made it that far. Not knowing that we'd make it past the first episode.
MARTIN: So don't draw anything from the fact that I'm directing this question to you. I'm going to just ask you this - diva is a musical term for a reason. I was just...
WITHERS: ...Oh, man.
MARTIN: ...I was just wondering if it was hard for - I can hear each of your voice individually. Like, I heard you when you were warming up and I can hear because I'm here with you, physically. I can see when each of you is contributing, and I just wonder - was it hard for any of you to agree to be part of an ensemble? Because each of you is really an artist in your own right?
WITHERS: Yeah, we definitely all are artists in our own right but we love each other so much, and have performed together in other ensembles for years, and had been performing for years together before "The Sing-Off," and so it definitely wasn't a difficult thing to slide into and to get used to, if you will.
Granted, "The Sing-Off," that competition was definitely very different. There were definitely many challenges that came along with it. You know, having to really, really learn each other's personalities under different circumstances, sometimes very difficult ones. But it definitely...
MARTIN: ...I'm looking for body language here just to see what I can see but I'm not picking up anything so far.
WITHERS: But we love each other. And we love singing together. And so that definitely wasn't something that was difficult at all.
MARTIN: So speaking of singing together, let's hear another, shall we?
BOWENS: One, two, three.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL GOOD")
MARTIN: How do you go about picking material?
BOWENS: Well, we all talk about it all the time. You know, it could come - it could end up becoming a series of emails that we're annoyed by. But we, I mean, we look at, you know, the charts, we think about what we like, and we just go for it, really. That last tune, Christie actually wrote...
MARTIN: ...Oh, OK.
BOWENS: ...She did the arrangement herself and we just tried to sing what she put on paper.
MARTIN: OK, Christie so what was your inspiration?
DASHIELL: I think what inspired me at the time - I was in grad school and I was probably having a bad day, and I just needed to tell myself that I feel good and I feel great, and to, you know, be loving to everyone that I meet, because...
MARTIN: ...There are passages of scripture there that I think people recognize from Corinthians. So...
DASHIELL: ...Yes ma'am, yes ma'am. So that was - I guess that was my inspiration. Just, you know, loving and being kind to everyone.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL GOOD")
MARTIN: You're all young - I have to say it, I'm sorry. You probably don't feel very young at this point, but you are. But jazz is not associated with your age group, I just have to be honest about it, and I just wonder, do people ever - do you ever feel like they don't understand it? Do people appreciate it? What about - John?
KENNIEBREW: It is always a challenge to find out how to make the genre itself accessible to this generation. But, like you said, all of us really are still a part of this generation, which means that we don't listen to just jazz. We're influenced by just about every other kind of music that you can think of. And a lot of the elements that are in those music, that makes those genres so accessible, so attractive to people, they often find their way into what we do anyway.
So that's probably what I love most about this group - we're able to offer jazz to you on a plate with a whole lot of sides that you really like. So you're like, OK, well, I'll try this main course, because I know I'm going to love the mashed potatoes, you know, that kind of thing. So it's worked out...
WITHERS: Good analogy.
KENNIEBREW: Yeah, that was pretty good John.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP MEMBER #1: Wow.
KENNIEBREW: So it's worked out pretty well.
MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for coming. I'm excited to see what you do next. Reggie, what's next for you? Anything we can look forward to - album, performances?
BOWENS: We're actually working on our EP project now.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP MEMBER #2: (cheers).
BOWENS: And the single should be out in the near future, you know.
MARTIN: OK. I think you're going to grace us with one more song as we say goodbye for now. What are we going to hear?
MARTIN: ..."Change is going to come?" "A Change is Going to Come"?
BOWENS: Yeah, we can do that.
MARTIN: OK, all right. That goes to the roots. OK, Traces of Blue joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much.
BOWENS: Thank you.
WITHERS: Thank you.
DASHIELL: Thank you for having us.
BERKON: Thank you for having us.
KENNIEBREW: Thank you.
MARTIN: "A Change is Going to Come," here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GOING TO COME")
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GOING TO COME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.