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Reason to Smile: Roomful of Teeth Wins Grammy
By Stephen Dravis, Williamstown Correspondent
10:32PM / Wednesday, January 29, 2014
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Roomful of Teeth pose with their Grammy for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Roomful of Teeth has been wowing North County audiences for years with its popular annual residencies at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Now, the whole world knows what the buzz is about.
On Sunday in Los Angeles, Roomful of Teeth, which was founded in 2009 by Williams College artist-in-residence Brad Wells, won a Grammy.
The a capella group blends non-classical vocal traditions from around the world. The New York Times described its eponymous debut album in 2012 as "sensually stunning."
The octet, which brings together artists scattered around the country, was nominated for three Grammys. It won for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance.
"Thank you first to the Academy for supporting classical and new classical music," Wells said. "New classical music is well and alive.
"To our friends at Mass MoCA, Williams College and in Williamstown, all around who have supported this project — especially to Herb Allen for honoring, in his words, 'the bold and the difficult.' Thank you to all of our family members and all those who helped this project be birthed and to grow."
Wells thanked his artistic collaborators and family members and added a special shout-out at the end of his remarks:
"And finally, a thank you to the twin inspirations for this project, Meredith Monk and my middle school music teacher, Brian McKibbon, who had the wisdom to instill in all of his students a love all types of music, no matter style or source. He taught us, as Duke Ellington taught us, if it sounds good, than it is good."
Roomful of Teeth performed at the pre-televised Grammy ceremony, where the bulk of the awards are given out and which was streamed live on the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' website.
On Wednesday morning, Wells took some time to chat with iBerkshires about the Grammy experience and what's next for Roomful of Teeth:
Roomful of Teeth's founder Brad Wells is also artist-in-residence at Williams College.
QUESTION: So what are you doing up at 8:20 a.m. in California?
WELLS: I got up and snuck out to a laundromat to wash my family's laundry for the week.
We're out here until the weekend. We just took a vacation week because it's been pretty stressful leading up to the Grammys.
QUESTION: Stressful because you didn't know if you'd win or...?
WELLS: Logistics. Because the group performed at the ceremony and that invitation only came two or three weeks ago. Everyone was spread out all over the country with different jobs, but it was a big enough deal that everyone was able to get out of their things, but some were on tour, some were in New York in recording sessions.
It was a matter of managing logistics, hotels, tickets for various family events.
QUESTION: Not to be too cute, but it sounds like a big job to get Roomful of Teeth in the same room.
WELLS: One thing I'm hoping for as a result of the Grammy win is that the work we do can generate enough income that I can get more support. Up to now, it's mostly been me handling the administrative stuff.
It takes a lot of care and feeding. It's been getting more challenging for me this last year finding ways to balance that work and my college teaching and conducting and, of course, my family.
We've brought in a couple of people to help this last year. We've brought in a booking agent, which is a huge help for me.
And we have Molly Joyce, who is our social media manager, and she is expanding into some other areas.
It's moving in the right direction, but it's ramping up quickly.
QUESTION: I suppose moving too quickly in the right direction is better than the alternative, though.
WELLS: Absolutely. I'm well aware of that.
QUESTION: Do you always perform as a full ensemble of eight?
WELLS: We always do things with the full group. I haven't done any performances with subsets, and I don't think I intend to. I like the idea of the group being consistently eight singers.
That said, as the group has gotten busier and they're all acting as basically freelance musicians, sometimes everybody but one can do a particular gig and it's a really great gig. Now we have a lineup of five or six subs in New York or Boston who we consistently use.
QUESTION: Has the main core of eight singers changed?
WELLS: It's been consistent. There's been no turnover other than the subs for individual gigs.
QUESTION: What's the group's schedule look like right now?
WELLS: This has definitely been the busiest year for us. ... In the spring, it tends to be something every month. For the last few years, we were counting on a rhythm of one or two shows every couple of months. This year, it's been, for the most part, activity every month, whether it's a single show in New York or a residency at a college.
In early March, we're doing a group of shows in Princeton (N.J.) for five days. ... In the middle, we come up to Amherst College to do a workshop and performance.
Later in the month, we tour from New England to Chicago for a few weeks.
QUESTION: What was it like to find out you'd been nominated for a Grammy?
WELLS: It's exciting. It's the kind of thing where there are so many hundreds of deserving musicians and musical groups doing fabulous, creative works. ... To be in that sweet spot where there's enough awareness among the voting members at the right time.
A lot of it is just dumb luck.
QUESTION: And you got lucky relatively early in the group's history, having just started in '09 and just having released your first album. It's not like you were toiling away in obscurity for years.
WELLS: It's true. It's the first album, and the album is on a small but really, I think, maverick label based in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called New Amsterdam Records. It started the same year we did, I think, and it's run by a group of composers and a small staff. They do like 10 or 12 albums a year.
There are a lot of small labels that do interesting things, particular twists on hybrid styles, bridging two different worlds the way we do.
But these guys are really smart, really active about getting the word out about their releases. The combination of that label being so well run and on the ball and our album being a new take on how music is presented was a great combination.
That resulted in a lot of great press. ... The first couple of months of the release, we just got a lot of wonderful reviews online and in print and ended up on a lot of top albums of the year and played on some New York radio stations. All of that helps generate awareness and buzz.
QUESTION: And now you'll get even more buzz from having performed on the Grammy webcast.
WELLS: We performed just briefly before the announcement. If you go to the Williams website, you can stream the pre-telecast.
QUESTION: What was the performance like?
WELLS: It was crazy. ... You'll see if you look at it for a minute, it's high, TV-quality production values, even though the event is not on live TV. It's livestreamed. There are multiple camera shots in a big hall.
QUESTION: The biggest room Roomful of Teeth has played?
WELLS: Definitely the the biggest indoor venue we've done. We've done an outdoor venue in New York City for several thousand people. This is definitely the biggest indoor room, and that's a different animal than singing outside. It felt different, and it felt great.
We got a standing ovation, which I think was a really special thing.
You never know if you're going to win or not. ... You're never sure if they're inviting people who are winning so they're not embarrassed or are they inviting you as a consolation prize. The first group that performed, I think it was a jazz group, and they did not win. So we thought, well, maybe it's the consolation approach. Then a Latina group performed after them, and they did win.
We just told ourselves that performing in front of these thousands of people, being at this event and being nominees is victory enough.
QUESTION: What do you remember of the announcement that you won? Is that a blur?
WELLS: It's not a blur. I certainly remember it, and we were all excited. What was great about it was the group was, for the most part, huddled together. It felt like a group experience. We had performed, we got off stage, we got out back, we were in the hall, and a few minutes later they announced, and we all got to huddle together to celebrate.
QUESTION: Had you written your speech?
WELLS: It's an odd thing and a position I've never been in, preparing a speech for an award I may or may not win. ... Through the help of friends, I was able to feel comfortable enough about it that I was ready.
QUESTION: Did you practice it?
WELLS: Yes, indeed.
QUESTION: Did that make you feel a little self-conscious?
WELLS: Not at all. ... I think a lot of conductors, actors, singers, when we're doing our thing we're totally calm, but if I have to stand in front of an audiene and talk, I get uptight. The idea of this, beforehand, I was pretty anxious. So I planned it out, practiced it a lot and felt totally loose and totally in control in the moment.
QUESTION: Given what Roomful of Teeth is, I imagine there are infinite directions you can go stylistically. What's next?
WELLS: There are so many directions this project can go. We have a lot of our residency [this summer at Mass MoCA] planned out. ... We'll be working with the Hindustani singing tradition from northern India and Persian classical singing.
We're starting to plan when and where we'll do our next recording. Most of that music I've already decided on. I'm very excited about that.
This spring, a new big step for us is working with an instrumental ensemble. ... We've done one piece with a drum track on it. That was our first move away from being totally a capella.
This spring, [Roomful of Teeth member] Caroline Shaw, who won the Pulitzer last year for composing, has been commissioned by a string orchestra in Boston called A Far Cry. ... Caroline will write a piece for Roomful of Teeth and A Far Cry. It's a perfect commission for Caroline because she knows the group inside and out. She's a also a top-flight violinist and has written lots of music for string instruments. The work she does melding these two instruments is really exciting.
It's a perfect way to pivot into vocal and instrumental work with the group.
QUESTION: And will we see Roomful of Teeth perform locally again before the MoCA residency?
WELLS: No, that will be the next time. We do have the Amherst concert in March. So we'll be in the neighborhood.
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