On the cover of the new Notably Sharp album, Vocal Couture, Oliver James ’14 stands in front of a picturesque Wesleyan background, complete with a bright green Andrus Field and the Memorial Chapel peeking out in front of a perfect blue sky.
“Why is [James] on the cover?” asked Chris Delaney ’14. “Because he’s fucking beautiful. And he will sell albums more than my face.”
Beautiful people making beautiful music is basically the equation for Notably Sharp and is perfectly exemplified by the Justin Timberlake-inspired album cover. The group advertises itself as Wesleyan’s best-dressed a cappella group, as members are always dressed to the nines. However, you’ll never see a poster advertising them as the newest a cappella group, even though the group formed only three and a half years ago.
“Part of the reason we started the group initially was because we realized, there’s something like eleven or twelve a cappella groups on campus now, which is a huge amount, but we realized that there were still people on campus, people who didn’t try out in the fall and wanted to try out in the spring,” said Anya Sproule ’14, who started the group with Delaney and Eli Timms ’13 in the spring of 2011.
Since the group’s formation, over 300 people have tried out to become one of the Sharps, which the group attributes to the talent and drive of Wesleyan students.
“Everyone here is like, ‘Why not?’” said Sharps member Lily Martin ’14. “I’ve never run an a cappella group before, and then you’re like, ‘Why not?’ And then you do it.”
Delaney agreed that his idea with Sproule and Timms would have been nothing without the rest of the members who joined.
“A leader can put the wheels in motion, but we were just so lucky to get the kids who were so determined and so freaking talented to allow this group to grow at the rate that it did,” Delaney said.
The group’s quick establishment on campus and confident approach into the unknown led them to the recording studios last spring. The group was contacted by James Byron Schoen ’05, who is also an alum of the Wesleyan a cappella scene as a former member of Quasimodal. The group was then able to work with his recording company, JBS Recording Studios, to make its debut album.
The album features eleven songs, which allowed all Sharps members in the class of 2013 or 2014 to have a solo on the album. Nikhil Lal ’15 is the only non-senior with a solo on the album.
“The idea [was] that the younger kids, if they made another CD, would have another chance to do it,” Sproule said.
Sproule, Delaney, and Martin were all confident that the group would continue to flourish after members graduate this spring, making another album to showcase the underclassmen all the more likely.
“At this point, it’s a legitimate group,” Martin said. “So we leave, and it’s still living and breathing. Just talking to the freshman and seeing how excited they are and how, to them, it’s a real thing coming into an established a cappella group.”
While the group was horrified by the idea of having to choose a favorite song, “I’ll Be Alright” stood out to some members as a special accomplishment on the album. The song was arranged by Brent Packer ’15 and required fifteen different vocal parts for the seventeen Sharps who recorded last spring.
“Brent’s a really good example also of someone who had never arranged before and came into Sharps and gave it a try, and he’s doing some pretty crazy stuff,” Sproule said.
Delaney agreed that “I’ll Be Alright” was ambitious but turned out to be the pride and joy on the album.
“He brought [the song] to me and I was like, ‘Yeah I love that song and I know that song, but you’re fucking crazy,’” Delaney said. “And then Brent brought us this arrangement and somehow the kid’s just so talented that he created what James and JBS recording called the best arrangement they’ve ever worked on.”
Recording Vocal Couture took over 54 hours total, with Sproule in the room the whole time. “I’ll Be Alright” and other songs on the album were intricately recorded one layer at a time, adding soloists at the end so they were able to hear the sound that would be behind them in the song.
“I know when I first heard that we were doing it this way it kind of struck me as odd because a cappella is so much about feeling people around you, making music together, the blend,” Martin said.
However, a lot of effort went into making sure the group had the same tight sound as they do when they perform live, such as providing a click track metronome during recording.
Again opposing the normal conditions, the group recorded in the third floor of Fisk, which would be a poor choice for a live a cappella concert where sound needs to resonate. However, the power of the recording mics picks up any sound bouncing off the walls, making Fisk the perfect location with its lack of echo.
During Homecoming/Family Weekend, Notably Sharp had the chance to sing some of the songs from the album in a performance setting in the World Music Hall. The Brown Chattertocks joined the group. A large number of parents sat in the audience.
“My friends didn’t get in!” Sproule said. “To know someone’s personality, to know why which solo they’re singing, to understand who they are as a person is such a different experience from the anonymous wall of parents.”
Although the Sharps were not singing to their usual Wesleyan fans, the album was well received.
“I kind of enjoyed the anonymity of having to perform in front of people I wasn’t comfortable [with],” Delaney said. “It was cool. It widens your audience and your horizons. Those people bought CDs; now those CDs are out in the world somewhere that they wouldn’t have been before.”
Although Delaney, Sproule, and Martin are sad to be leaving Notably Sharp after graduation this spring, they all agree that having an album to hold onto forever has been one of their most proud accomplishments.
“We went from something that was a thought of the three of ours four years ago sitting in a dorm room, to watch it grow up to a bar that we had set for…a middle of the road bar of wanting to create a group where we could all have fun, have some friends, and make some music,” Delaney said. “To watch that and surpass that bar to be able to do something like this, it was awesome to watch our baby grow.”
Overall, the album’s professional sound reflects the hard work that the group poured into it. With all of the dedication from the group’s members, an album from the next generation of Sharps that this year’s seniors envision for their younger singers seems all the more likely. With its new album and a promise to continue performing throughout the rest of the school year, Notably Sharp is a testament to Wesleyan’s ambitious and talented art scene.
Vocal Couture can be purchased for digital download or as a hard copy on notablysharp.org.