Beneath the gunmetal skies of a chilly Monday evening in February, more than 50 people wait for the doors of the Durham rock club Motorco to open. But it's early still, not yet 7 p.m., and no concert is scheduled for tonight. Instead, everyone wants to sing as part of the area phenomenon, PopUp Chorus.
As I wait for the queue to shorten, I run into Seamus Kenney. A self-described music nerd, Kenney is a middle-school chorus teacher by day. Almost every Monday, he conducts and presides over this open choir, which requires no rehearsal or commitment to join. He studied voice in college and devoted a decade to playing in the alt-rock band SNMNMNM. He's sung in a lot of choruses, too.
He quickly hits me with what must be an essential question, the equivalent of Beatles versus Stones in some circles: Are you a singer, or are you a secret singer? For Kenney and many others who arrive every Monday for PopUp Chorus, the only answer seems to be that you are a singer, that everyone is.
"You don't go to the Y and go, 'I'm not as good as LeBron James, so I'm not gonna go on a basketball court.' We put singers on a pedestal. If you don't sing as well as Beyoncé, you're going to be booed off the Apollo stage," says Kenney. "People say, 'My middle-school chorus teacher told me I can't sing.' They don't know what they're talking about. Everybody can sing. Some need more guidance, but everyone can do it."
Open choirs are on the rise; as opposed to traditional choral groups that emphasize schooled singing and the standard canon, outfits like the Toronto-based Choir!Choir!Choir! don't try to be perfect. They lean toward indie rock and pop music, too. Kenney saw the ensemble to the north as a good model, but he launched PopUp Chorus with some key differences—most critically, this is done on the fly, with very little pre-planning with those who might show up.
Thanks to this attitude and approach, PopUp Chorus has become a sensation in about a year, garnering the kind of buzz, word-of-mouth accolades and steady growth that most informal community groups can only imagine. They began in January 2014, with about 35 people singing Peter Bjorn and John and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Lauren Bromley Hodge, the group's owner and organizer, filmed it on her phone. Turnout and talk kept building, week by week. Hodge's many years in the record industry enabled her to alert people such as David Byrne that PopUp Chorus was singing their songs.
"Marketing companies would do anything to emulate this," says Hodge. She runs PopUp Chorus as part of Community Chorus Projects, which she started five years ago in association with UNC-Chapel Hill's music department. "People tell their friends, they tell their sister, they tell their neighbor, their co-worker. This has its own energy."
- Photo by Justin Cook
- Seamus Kenney
Each week, when whoever has shown up to form that week's PopUp Chorus has learned another song, the directors film the final result. The videos are moving—for me, anyway. Something about the sight of "Sweet Child O' Mine" issuing from the lips of a woman in her 70s, who also reminds me of my childhood librarian, offers that same heart pull I get when I see someone cry. It's precisely because she, and everyone else picked up by the gently gliding camera, resembles someone we've seen. We're seeing the people we walk past in the grocery store aisle in a new, more human light.
Standing in line, I wondered if I could obtain that glow. My singing voice has always been a mere wisp. That hasn't kept me from singing, which I still do in cars, in the shower, to my kids as a joke or when no one's around. But I'm not much of a joiner; community groups, musical or not, are not my thing.
"People come in who are kind of nervous," explains Hodge. "And you can see them physically, viscerally relax and connect with the people next to them."
Indeed, the line is more spirited than, say, a Cat's Cradle rock show. I chat with Derek, a New Zealander in his 60s—a regular, turns out. We talk through the purchase of a beer at the bar. When I find an aisle seat within the chorus, I'm soon talking with the people around me, as I might at a baseball game.
Tonight's turnout is healthy, about 180 people, which is typical. Sometimes, the PopUp Chorus includes a band, or even a string quartet. Tonight, it's just Kenney and guitarist Dave Yarwood, a skilled instrumentalist with perfect pitch. The lyrics to the songs are projected on a screen behind them.
Something else is standing in the way of my being perfectly receptive to the idea of PopUp Chorus: We're doing "Across the Universe," one of my least favorite Beatles songs, and "Needle in the Hay," by the tragic singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. It's a decidedly unbeautiful song with a chorus consisting of the title phrase sung four times without variation. It doesn't strike me as a song that cries out for choral treatment.
Kenney later tells me he likes it because its simple melody allows for new shapes and harmonies. That, he says, is "more freeing for me as an arranger than being pinned down to something that already has background vocals."
Part of this approach is purely practical. After a day spent teaching five 45-minute classes, he simply doesn't have the time, energy or inclination to spend three hours on another one. He wants to keep it fun for the people who show up, which means keeping it fun for himself, too. His inclusive informality is appealing. There are no auditions and no expectations—well, hardly any.
Kenney occasionally has to balance making the song better and getting consumed by the particulars. During one session, for instance, some regulars complained that there wasn't enough gusto behind a song's high part, largely because of the new arrivals.
"I listened and I said, 'You're doing fine. Everybody keep doing what you're doing,'" Kenney remembers. "I got applause from people, who were like, 'Thank you for keeping this fun and not bogging us down.' We'll work on the song until we get it really, really, really good. Or almost good, or as close as we're gonna get it to good—and then we record it."
Indeed, I soon start opening up, genuinely hoping to sing it as best I can. Kenney, like any good teacher, makes us feel like we can do it. He's used to coaxing the confidence out of self-conscious teenagers. While we, the audience, would seem to be the performers here, he's actually the main performer—part conductor, part music teacher, part emcee, part stand-up comic. He namechecks the Decemberists and laments Smith's Oscar loss to Celine Dion's execrable "My Heart Will Go On." He riffs on Kanye.
It is a learning experience, too. My curiosity about harmonies is stoked when we add a first and a second harmony line over Smith's plaintive "hays." I see I was wrong; the chorus isn't really four lines repeated the same way, since the last line is slightly staggered. To hammer this bit into our brains, Kenney engages us in some classic rote repetition.
"Needle-in-the," he says. "Like, one word."
"Needle-in-the," we respond. We do it a few more times
"Can you do it?" he asks.
"Yes!" we all thunder, me included.
My lack of self-consciousness shocks me.
"One, two, ready and boom," Kenney counts.
- Photo by Justin Cook
Everybody loves to sing: Is that it? Is PopUp just Kumbaya on a grand scale?
Hodge and Kenney wouldn't deny a connection to the good old-fashioned campfire sing-along, but they say it's more than that. PopUp Chorus fills a basic human need, they say.
"We're so separated, so plugged in, so apart from the spontaneous, ceremonial aspect of community," says Hodge. "You gather in a room, you create these two things. It's different every time. Each one is a unique thing; this song and this arrangement of people will never happen again."
"If you go to early cultures, indigenous cultures, everybody sings and dances," continues Kenney. "That's what they do. If you went to an indigenous culture in remote Africa and they say, 'Hey, we're going to go sing and dance,' and you say 'I don't dance,' they'll look at you as if you said I don't eat or have sex. It's only a recent thing in a historical perspective that singing is something other people do and you go watch."
People come for reasons far less deep; for some, it's simple camaraderie. It's a good time.
But for many attendees, PopUp Chorus does supply something more profound. A young married couple regularly makes an hour's journey from Henderson because they love to sing; at home, however, the only option is a church choir. Melvin Peña, a smiling regular who can be seen enjoying himself in most of the organization's videos, once faced a conundrum when PopUp Chorus conflicted with a Moral Mondays protest. He concluded they were roughly the same thing, so he headed to Durham to sing.
"Some people say it's like church," says Hodge, "even if they're not religious. Or they'll say it's the only thing making a difference for them. It's a universal concept that people grasp immediately."
When we were done with "Needle in the Hay," everyone took a scheduled break to share some drinks and some small talk. When we reconvened, Kenney and what appeared to be a group of regulars launched into an unannounced version of "Impregnable Question" by the Dirty Projectors. "You're my love, and I want you in my life," the song plainly states.
Kenney dropped to one knee in front of Kerri Lockwood, his girlfriend, and asked her to marry him. She said yes. The audience erupted.
We sang "Across the Universe." When it was done, I was elated, definitely glowing. Maybe for the first time in my life, I felt like a singer.
- Photo by Justin Cook
This article appeared in print with the headline "Changing tunes."