“You’ve heard that Louis CK bit about how people these days have everything they want from their computers but nobody’s happy?” asks Toronto musician Daveed Goldman. “Well, when people come to choir, they’re having this experience that they could never ever, ever get on their phone or their laptop. You can download many things in this world but it would be very hard to download the experience you get by interacting with strangers and singing a beautiful song.”
It’s a cold December night, and Goldman is huddled in a parked car with his friend and colleague, Nobu Adilman, sharing a smartphone as they try to explain the effect that Choir! Choir! Choir!, the community singing project they started three years ago, has had on their fellow Torontonians and on themselves.
“We took a field trip with Choir,” Goldman recalls, “up to Canada’s Wonderland [an amusement park, north of Toronto]. I took Nobu on a rollercoaster for his first time; it was a scream. Somebody asked me ‘Why do you like rollercoasters?’ And I said it was because it’s a real experience that you cannot replicate on your computer. Choir is a bit like that, too.”
While the daily litany of Toronto “crack mayor” Rob Ford’s misadventures have become both the punchline for late night comics and the shame of Canada’s largest city, Choir! Choir! Choir! has provided a positive forum for one very vocal part of the community to raise their voices in civic pride, and perform material a cut above standard glee club fare.
Goldman says he was initially inspired to start Choir! Choir! Choir! after a visit to Salta, Northern Argentina, where he and his girlfriend came upon a local peña.
“A peña,” Goldman explains, “is just a place where people can go and hang out, even at 3 o’clock in the morning, and sit at tables with their guitars, drinking red wine or Coca-Cola, and stay up all night singing Salteño folk songs. I’d never seen anything like it before. My girlfriend just turned to me and said ‘You need to open up a peña in Toronto.’ And that’s almost what we did!”
Meeting two nights a week, participants pay a small $5 cover charge to lend their voices, trained or not, to Adilman and Goldman’s ingeniously simple vocal arrangements of music-snob friendly material by Radiohead, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Talking Heads, Leonard Cohen, Tegan and Sara, Lou Reed, Big Star, and Elliott Smith but also breathing cool life into such mainstream nuggets as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” or their holiday offering of the Wham! chestnut, “Last Christmas.” But Goldman insists they have no time for snobbery, and any song is fair game for them to tackle.
“We’ve done more obscure songs that we’ve loved for years,” Goldman admits, “like Dennis Wilson’s ‘Forever,’ or Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle In The Hay,’ but it’s also fun to do a song that everybody knows and maybe hates, but try to do an arrangement that makes people like it. We’ve done songs by people like Bryan Adams, and when we did [Survivor’s] “Eye Of The Tiger”, we wrote a new bridge for it, and we ended up performing it at every gig we played for the year after that night.”
Both Goldman and Adilman are aware of the irony that their organic and human interaction has become, as Goldman says, “slightly tech reliant,” using Facebook outreach to recruit participants to their weekly events, and recording with professional microphones and digital cameras.
“It really all started with Soundcloud,” says Goldman, “where we first put up audio-only clips of our songs. Then we jumped into videos, which we post on YouTube every week. And because of Soundcloud and YouTube, we’ve gotten all kinds of messages from around the world, from fans and from choir directors who are asking for our arrangements, which is just incredible.”
And yet, Goldman and Adilman are both adamant that any and all of the technology they use only serves to further what he terms an “organic human experience.”
“At its core,” says Goldman, “its still just about getting people out of the house and having a communal experience. Personally, I’ve found that as I got older, it gets harder to make friends, and people feel isolated. You’re connecting with so many people online and yet you’re not really connecting with anybody in real time. When we started doing choir, we realized right away that there was something special here. I think one night it was minus 15 outside and the place was just crammed with like 150 people. Nobu and I just looked at each other. I mean it couldn’t be colder outside but there we are with people just cramming into this place because they just wanted to get together and sing.”
Since launching in February 2011, with only a handful of their friends singing Pilot’s “Just A Smile” and The Beatles’ “Nowhere Man,” the events have grown steadily, with average attendance between 80 to 120 singers for the Tuesday nights, and around 60 patrons on the newly added second night on Wednesdays. They’ve even expanded to include a children’s day.
Among their fans are many of the artists whose material they’ve performed including Patti Smith, Tegan and Sara, and Leonard Cohen. After they put up clips of their versions on Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” and “Psycho Killer,” drummer Chris Frantz posted them to his own Facebook page and praised their interpretations. But their biggest fan letter was from Leonard Cohen, who had been so impressed with their arrangements of his songs, “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and the oft-covered “Hallelujah,” that he sent them a note, via a friend’s email, to let them know.
“Thank you so much for sending this.
I agree, the arrangement [of Hallelujah by Daveed and Nobu] is perfect for the song, and the faces of the singers are beautiful.
[No Way to Say Goodbye] is fresh and beautiful.
Please thank everyone [at Choir! Choir! Choir!] on my behalf.
They have given a wonderful life to these songs.
“Somebody we know sent Leonard a link to our versions of the songs without us knowing,” says Adilman. “We were floored by that.”
And when Tegan & Sara had to cancel their appearance at Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Awards, the duo simply asked Choir! Choir! Choir! to appear in their place.
“Tegan & Sara had seen videos of us doing their songs ‘Closer’ and ‘I Was A Fool’ on YouTube,” says Goldman. “They even posted it on their Facebook pages and tweeted about us; they were so excited about it. When they couldn’t do the Polaris show, they let us perform their song for them on the stage at the awards show in front of an audience of all the major Canadian music people.”
But perhaps nothing will ever top the time Patti Smith called on them to sing behind her at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.
“We had already worked out a cover of ‘Because The Night’ when we found out Patti was playing two shows on one night at the AGO,” remembers Adilman, “so we contacted the curator and offered our services. He asked us to prepare a few more covers so we could just play throughout the gallery before the event.”
After Smith was shown a videotape of their performance, between sets, she requested that they join her for the second show. “We were done for the night,” says Goldman, “and everyone was already starting to disperse, when Nobu got the call. We were like ‘Hey guys, don’t leave!'”
Dramatically, the choir was escorted to the back of the stage, remaining there for most of Smith’s set, until the moment of unrehearsed truth.
“We didn’t even know if the keys of our arrangements would work with her keys, but when she got to and ‘People Have The Power,’ it was clear that it was all gonna work perfectly. The choir went insane! It was euphoric, and I would say it was one of the top experiences of my life.”
For now, the slight cover charge only covers costs, but Goldman and Adilman say they’re both ready make Choir! Choir! Choir! a full-time gig. That means corporate gigs, a brand extension into choir for kids, and even a plan for traveling reality TV series.
“Our friend Matt Murphy came up with the name Choirstarter,” Adilman reveals. “Daveed and I would just go out on the road all over North America in a van with a mobile recording studio inside it. On every show we’d go to a new town, meet the people there, get their stories, and get people to record songs with us.”
But for now, Adilman, who claims he only joined Facebook recently, to promote the choir, insists none of this human interaction would exist without social networking.
“We would not have been able to reach out to this community,” says Adilman. “That’s where we first got the word out, and sent out our weekly invites. Now there’s a community that exists throughout the week on our Facebook groups, where people share music and talk to each other. I think this is the good part of what social media can be, a place to extend the conversation online. Funny enough, because we do so much of our organizing through our computers, I now spend way too much time on Facebook. It drives me crazy sometimes.”