The Origins of The Real Group and Modern A Cappella — Interview with Peder Karlsson


Peder Karlsson

“Modern A Cappella” is a burgeoning genre: an explosion of small groups, large groups, workshops, festivals centered in Scandinavia and quickly spreading throughout Europe and through the entire world; in America, the collegiate scene, Smash and Pitch Perfect and The Sing-Off.
The masters of the style are The Real Group, a Swedish quintet founded in 1984 and still growing in popularity. They’ve recorded 17 albums and appeared over 2000 times worldwide. TRG are also the widely acknowledged leaders of the scene, combining their status, engaging personal teaching style, and exceptionally warm personalities to inspire this rapidly growing activity.
Modern a cappella is a young person’s genre, singers typically in their 20s, the music an innovative amalgam of pop/jazz. It is distinguished from older styles of a cappella and vocal jazz groups by ‘singing the arrangement.’ A core attribute is ‘groove.’
At the time of writing, members of The Real Group were tenor Anders Edenroth, bass Anders Jalkéus, alto/soprano Katarina Henryson (founding members), baritone Morten Vinther and alto Emma Nilsdotter (replacing soprano Margareta Bengtson). Founding member Peder Karlsson became a ‘non-performing member of TRG’ in 2010, focusing his activities on teaching and conducting. Since then, Anders Jalkéus was replaced by Janis Strazdins, and Katarina Henryson has announced that she will be replaced by Lisa Östergren in coming months.
Jeff Meshel interviewed Peder Karlsson at the Aarhus Vocal Festival, May 2013.

The Real Group Meet in School

Jeff Meshel : I think The Real Group invented modern a capella.

Peder Karlsson: Well, I’m not sure I agree.

Jeff: Okay. So let’s explore it. What was your musical background, of all the five members? When you got together, what was in your ears? Is that a good place for you to start the story?

Peder: It is. And I think it’s part of the story, too. I think one interesting thing about our musical backgrounds was that it was kind of two things at the same time. We had very different backgrounds, yet very similar at the same time. We all went to the same school, which is the name is Adolf Fredrik’s Music Classes. It’s a primary school, junior high school and high school.

Jeff: You grew up together?

Peder: Yeah, but different ages. And I was kind of the black sheep. I didn’t come to the school until high school. But the other four were there from grade four. They are four years apart. So they were not in the same classes. And in this school, you have a choir class every day. And every two classes is a choir and they do concerts all the time. It’s really high quality stuff. And you have to be a really good singer to get into that school.

That school is one of the reasons Sweden is one of the major choral countries in the world. You know, when you go to a choir concert in Stockholm it’s just top class. And many of these singers come from Adolf Fredrik’s. So we have that in common, that type of choir singing that they do there. At the same time, as individuals, we had other things.

Jeff: The material there would have a traditional…

Peder: Basically, the songs that we sing on the album Stämning. That was what we sang at that school. So that was tough, some of us were just 11 years old. Those are standard Swedish choir arrangements. Every Swedish choir singer can sing those songs. It’s like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but for a chorus. Eric Ericson, of course, also always conducted that music. So it was also something we had in common with him. He recently passed away, by the way, you did know that?

Jeff: Yes.

Peder: I was a guitar player, I played jazz fusion, Weather Report-influenced stuff in one of the bands I had.

In another band I had at one point was together with Anders Edenroth, that was more like funk, more West Coast. He was a keyboard player. He also had another band that was also kind of funkish West Coast type stuff. And we were a little bit like competing bands. There were always these gigs and it was a fantastic time at this particular school. We had like 10 or 15 bands in the school.

Jeff: This is in high school?

Peder: In high school, yeah. And so I played in like two or three of those bands, Anders Edenroth played in two other bands.

I was always checking out what other people were doing. And in one of those bands, the best band that I played with, Margareta Bengtson was the lead vocalist, who sometimes would sing three-part arrangements together with our tenor saxophone and trumpet player.

So Anders Jalkéus, he is a choir singer. He sang in all the choirs, including the Ericson chamber choir, everything.

He also plays several instruments, initially folk music and classical. Margareta Bengtson is a harp player and her mother is a vocal teacher. So she went to the Academy of Music to play harp. But she always sang and I think she also enjoyed quite a lot singing in the band that we had. Plus she had a vocal trio, with Carola and Annelie Berg. That was before Carola became a huge star in Sweden.

Katarina Henryson is a jazz and blues singer. Initially, she didn’t want to study at the Academy, because she wanted to learn another way, the live way. So she sang with jazz bands and blues bands, and she also had her own band where they played her music. Katarina started a vocal group, at age seven, called “Humlorna” (Bumble Bees). I think she fired the other singers pretty quickly because they couldn’t sing the way she wanted. Even at that age she totally knew what sound she wanted.

Anders Edenroth was always a band leader and a songwriter. He was very young when he started. I think he had his first band when he was nine years old and he tried to write scores for saxophone and trumpet. But he didn’t know that they transposed. So then he learned that they transposed. And when he was in his first year in high school he was in Texas as an exchange student, and ended up in a big band writing stuff for them.

And then when we started at the Royal Academy of Music in 1984, Anders Edenroth and I just found ourselves in the same class. And you know what, I’ve been following this guy. We’d been following each other for then already for several years. And we were like, then, Okay, maybe it’s time that we do something.

And there was a subject on the curriculum that was called Independent Study, you had to make an ensemble, but without a teacher. It was a requirement that you’d get ensemble experience. So we talked to Anders Jalkéus, ‘what do you want to play?’, because he can play basically any instrument. So if we needed a bass player, he could play the bass or something.


Early Musical Influences

But then there were so many other good bands. And we felt, shit, we don’t want to compete with those great players. I mean, we were good, but we were not the best players. So okay. And that was when Bobby McFerrin came out, in 1982 or 1983. He was pretty early on in his career, and he came to Sweden. He had a television program in Sweden. So Anders Edenroth and I think Jalkan [Anders Jalkéus] might have been in that conversation also. We were like, ‘Yeah, this Vocal Summit thing that Bobby McFerrin does when he does his improvisation, we can do that. But perhaps we want to do it more avant garde.’

And we needed female singers and then I said, “We have to have Margareta from my band.” And Anders Edenroth said “We have to have Katarina,” they had done projects before. She was the lead vocalist of a musical that Anders Edenroth had written, composed and conducted two years earlier.

So we booked a rehearsal room and the material we had, I think that was an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” or something. Just whatever. But it sounded great.

Jeff: There was no model here, you walked into the room, it wasn’t “Let’s do Beatles stuff, but…”

Peder: No, there was no if there was a model for me, it was Bobby McFerrin and Vocal Summit. And maybe Swingle Singers. But it was, ‘We don’t want to do that. We want to do something else.’

Jeff: I don’t know what Vocal Summit is.

Peder: That was a group that Bobby McFerrin had for a short time with three European female vocal improvisers [Lauren Newton, Urszula Dudziak, Jeanne Lee, Jay Clayton].

Jeff: I don’t remember that.

Peder: They made one LP, I still have it in my home [Sorrow Is Not Forever]. It’s a record that stretches in many directions. But they don’t bring it to a home run. Of course we had listened to the Swingle Singers and Singers Unlimited. But we didn’t particularly listen to those groups for inspiration. Of course we knew about it and we had probably sung some of that type of stuff. But, I mean, our role models would have been Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, Count Basie Big Band, Frank Zappa. Plus all kinds of classical music. And folk music. And Latin. And rock’n’roll. You know, curious people.

Jeff: I interviewed Frank Zappa.

Peder: You did? He’s like my major, major… we have to talk about that, then. I’m a total Zappa fan. Totally.

Jeff: Nice guy. Sweetheart.

Peder: I heard so from Jon Lord, you know, Deep Purple. I had an evening when I got to hang with Jon Lord. And I knew that he knew Zappa, so my first question was, “How was he?”

Jeff: Shocking, it was very early in his career. I was the first person in the Midwest to discover Mothers of Invention, very, very early, I think 1967. And the show that I went to, it was a small audience with maybe 500 people. And he was very frightening. They called themselves freaks. “Freak” wasn’t a word that you used then. It was a negative word. And he called himself a freak. What is this? It’s almost pre-hippie. Just when the hippies were starting. And I walked into the room and his appearance – I was shaken. He just says, “Hi, my name’s Frank Zappa. Pleased to meet you. What’s your name? Please, sit down.” A sweetheart.

But I want to talk about The Real Group. You said you had heard Singers Unlimited.

Peder: Of course. And the Hi-Lo’s and the Mills Brothers.

Jeff: Okay. All of them.

Peder: Yeah. And Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. I think Anders Jalkéus was sort of the library. He would have those records. Every once in a while we would listen to it. But we wouldn’t listen to it to try to copy that. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, they copied Count Basie, sort of.

Jeff: The Double Six more. Double Six did it out front.

Peder: Yeah. So why copy a copycat?

Jeff: Had you heard them, Double Six?

Peder: Yeah, sure. But that was basically it, right. I mean, there was not much more than that. It was just 6 or 7 or 8 groups.

Jeff: The Boswell Sisters, nobody knew them.

Peder: No. But, the best group for me in terms of vocal ensemble singing, was the Mills Brothers. Not in every song. But you can find great stuff in 10 percent of their catalog.

Jeff: Well, the Beach Boys. I’m a Beach Boys fanatic. And the more I listen to it, my appreciation just grows. I mean, they were doing complex vocals from the beginning. I was listening to the Four Freshmen recently…

Peder: That’s a little bit too slick for me.

Jeff: They’re a pale version of the Beach Boys. The Beach Boys, everything that they do is a million times better, even in the “Fun, Fun, Fun” stuff, I think.

Peder: The Four Freshmen were always too slick for me. Even the Hi-Lo’s. I mean, I could appreciate them, the quality and the singing. But it was too slick for me. Take 6 obviously was The Shit. But they came a little bit later.

But the thing about The Real Group in the beginning was that we were open to stuff. I mean, we were open to not having a plan and we never really discussed strategy or what kind of niche we want to fill. We never talked about that kind of stuff. What happened was that we didn’t know how to do this vocal improvisation thing that we talked about after hearing Vocal Summit. The substantial thing that happened, though, was that Anders Jalkéus wrote six or seven arrangements from The Real Book, or the Real Vocal Book, jazz standards. And Anders Edenroth wrote some other arrangements. So that was what we had. And it was good stuff.

The First Gigs

And we got a gig. And then, ‘What do we have to sing? In the very first performance we had, we sang I know we sang three songs. “Misty.” Then we sang something called “Balladen om briggen Blue Bird av Hull,” which is a Swedish it’s a long narrative, very tragic story about a fisherman, an old man, who rescues a ship. And it takes 11 verses to get to the point where they rescue the ship. And only to find that this ship is the very ship that his son is helmsman of. And then he rescues the boat crew. And then, you know, “Where is my son?” and then they realize, “We had to tie him to the helm because the storm was so high.” They forgot him. So he went down with the ship.

Jeff: If there was ever a song that needed to be done in an a cappella jazz treatment, it’s that.

Peder: Yeah, but it was not just jazz. Anders Edenroth made it like a mini-musical. So we had even we had spoken lines. Yeah.

Jeff: Cool.

Peder: He went pretty far with that arrangement. But then and he gave the punch line to me and everybody started laughing when I was going to deliver this super tragic punch line. And the whole song just died there and then. Because I said, “Carl was tied up and forgotten on board.” And everyone started laughing. And we decided to never do that song again. They didn’t get the serious message.

And then we did a Swedish folk song: “Vem kan segla förutan vind.” But at that time what I was really into was classical, contemporary classical composition.

Jeff: Like whom?

Peder: I don’t know. Shostakovich maybe. I wouldn’t give a role model for my music, either. It was my role models were all over the place. But I wrote music together with a guy who is a composer, classical conductor – Jonas Dominique. And we did some really crazy projects together. One thing that we liked to do was to rearrange songs. For example, you know, to go from C minor to A flat minor, to E minor just within two or three bars. I did that with a Swedish folk song, which is like shock treatment. And so that was what we sang, “Misty” and those two classic Swedish folk songs in contemporary classical ish type arrangements, just because we felt like it.

Jeff: “Misty” like it is in the recording, more or less?

Peder: Yeah. And I think from early on we had an active dialogue with our audience. The jazz stuff, we found a connection there. But some of the other things that we were into, we didn’t feel the connection. In the beginning, the gigs we had could be a jazz club, but they could also be like a corporate kick-off, or something. And this was the second half of the ’80s, when capitalism was booming. And then there was a crash in the early ’90s, you know, and the real estate market just dropped. But in the late ’80s, so there were lots of corporate gigs. So that was one type of gig we got.

The other type of gig we got was, in Sweden at that time the state sponsored concert organization was divided into regions, and each region had their own production. They coordinated international quality acts who’d come to Sweden and go to all these small regions, so that you will bring, you know, culture to the people. It was a system that worked. And for us it was a dream situation. We got a gig to sing at the dinner party of all these producers from all the regions.

And after that we got invited to do tours. And it could be a 50 seat venue, a little hall in a small village somewhere. Gigs like that for two weeks. So we got plenty of gig experience.

Jeff: And you were making money?

Peder: Very little money. And at that time we were still in school.

Creating The Real Group Music

Jeff: The Great American Songbook was known in Sweden, was always kind of popular here?

Peder: Yeah. This was in the ’80s. So that people who booked the corporate gigs, they would be in their 50s and 60s, which means that they were born in the ’20s and ’30s.

Jeff: They grew up on it.

Peder: They grew up on it, and their parents would play it and they would get sentimental when they heard “Misty” or “As Time Goes By.” But also from early on The Real Group was about writing arrangements. That was what it was about, at least from my point of view. Anders Edenroth or me or Anders Jalkéus would bring an arrangement to the rehearsal. The reason for someone to book a rehearsal was to try out a new arrangement.

Jeff: Where did they come from? First of all, rhythm. The whole sense of rhythm.

Peder: But I think we listened to not vocal groups, we listened to music, any music. If you take jazz, you can’t make it sound the way a jazz band sounds. That’s impossible. But what are the musical elements that make it jazz? And so what we did was basically a walking bass and a hi hat, the closed hi hat on twos and fours. And you would perceive that as jazz, right?

Jeff: But the Swingle Singers almost did it.

Peder: They so did it. Yeah, they did.

Jeff: Not vocally. When you listen to their early albums, it doesn’t have vocal percussion.

Peder: In the early ’80s, the Swingle Singers had a bass singer named Simon Grant. And I heard them 1982 or 1983. My girlfriend at that time dragged me to that concert. Otherwise I would never have gone to that gig. I had had enough of choir music after those years in high school. I was into guitar playing. But she said, “Swingle Singers are good and we are going, and that’s the end of it.”

And Simon Grant sang walking basslines. In a British way and all that.

Jeff: In a King’s Singers style? Respectable?

Peder: But better than the King’s Singers. I mean, as fantastic as they are in vocal abilities and the classical, but for jazz, the Swingle Singers were much closer to jazz than the King’s Singers.

Jeff: I don’t know the 1982 Swingle Singers. That doesn’t do I have no idea what you’re talking about. [JM: I’ve since listened to the 1980s Swingles. Peder is correct, of course. They were doing cool, a cappella jazz, quite in the style TRG would take it, but IMHO not as far or as successfully.]

Peder: But that group was good. The mid ’80s Swingles group was really good.

Jeff: Would they have influence on you when you were starting?

Peder: For me, yeah. Sure. They showed us that you could incorporate these percussive sounds into a vocal score and make it sound like something.

Jeff: The Double Six is just like the Swingle Singers, They use a string bass and drums.

Peder: It’s basically the same group.

Jeff: Yeah. But it’s a whole different mindset. Your first album versus the Double Six and the early Swingle Singers.

Peder: What’s different?

Jeff: Well, certainly the rhythm section. And the arrangements. Theirs, at least in the early days, were merely ‘transranging’ Count Basie or Bach. Yours are originals. You’re reinterpreting the original standards.

Peder: But I think the main difference between The Real Group and the Swingle Singers is that we had people in our group with real experience as musicians. We were not just singers who tried to sort of imitate instruments. We had real players in the group. Anders Edenroth and me were not much I mean he had a fantastic falsetto when we began. But I didn’t see myself as a vocalist. I was a guitar player. And he was really he is a really, really good keyboard player. And Katarina Henryson sang, you know, she sang the real stuff with blues and jazz bands. And Margareta Bengtson has a unique voice. She grew up with her father playing jazz with her from when she was small. She had it in her. At that point she was still into some kind of classical tone in the first album. But basically she is the same singer now as she was then, as she was when she was with my band, prior to that. I mean, she’s been the same singer since she was 16. And Anders Jalkéus has a fantastic ability to adapt to many music styles.

Jeff: Also, let’s face it, Bach isn’t the Great American Songbook. I mean, there’s a difference between singing Bach and singing Gershwin.

Peder: Yeah, but Bach was also part of our background – from the classical choir stuff we did in school.

Jeff: But when we’re talking about the Great American Songbook material, it’s not Bach. It’s jazz. [Singing a beat] Harmonically, it’s a different world. It’s the jazz world.

Peder: Yeah. So what? [Laughing]

Jeff: Somehow the bass and the percussion, that’s not Bach. It’s much funkier than the early Swingle Singers. Or the Double Six. It’s much more modern music.

Peder: An amazing influence for us, also, I think, was something, you know, and we didn’t realize this until much later – Swedish folk music inspired jazz, that was played in the ’60s when we grew up. Jan Johansson and Georg Riedel, Bengt Hallberg, Rune Gustafsson. Arné Domnérus, Bengt-Arne Wallin, Monica Zetterlund. Big, big legends in Sweden.

Quincy Jones came to stay in Sweden. His best friend Bengt-Arne Wallin was my and Anders Edenroth’s arranging teacher.

Jeff: And these are all instrumentalists?

Peder: Yeah. Jazz musicians. Except Monica Zetterlund, who was a singer, actress, and cultural hero in Sweden.

Jeff: And their inspiration was Swedish folk music?

Peder: To some extent, yes, but they were real jazz players. And they created if you never heard that music, you have to hear it. It’s just fantastic. They created a fusion of Swedish folk music and jazz. And they had also the personal connection with American jazz players who came over. And being really, really good players, they could play this stuff. And we all we heard this from when we were born. And we never thought about it. It was something just it was in our blood.

Jan Johansson would take a melody like [singing folk melody with a jazz beat]. And that’s not even a Swedish folk song. I think that’s Spanish or something.

Jeff: I get the idea.

Peder: Yeah.

Jeff: So you three guys [Anders, Anders, Peder] would write arrangements and you would have rehearsals, you would write an arrangement for “All of Me” and “All of You.”

Peder: “All of Me” was the turning point. We can get back to that. Yeah, you were saying?

Jeff: One of you wrote the arrangement for “All of Me” and you said you’re listening to Stevie Wonder and you can’t help but start bouncing as you’re listening to Stevie Wonder. So why did you choose to do the Great American Songbook and not Stevie Wonder?

Peder: Because a problem with Stevie Wonder is that he is so good. If you do soul music, you really have to have soul. And we figured we can’t touch this. I mean, we did Sir Duke on our first record. But to try and do Stevie Wonder, being white Swedish choir kids. I think our respect for that sort of thing was probably…

Jeff: Beatles.

Peder: Yeah. Beatles was different, though. But I was the only one in the group who really was digging the Beatles. I was a total Beatles fan, but the other four were not.

Jeff: What were you listening to, the other guys, how could you not be listening to the Beatles in the ’80s?

Peder: We were born between ’62 and ’66, which means that when we started listening, it would be 1971. And then the Beatles was dead. Then it was other stuff. ABBA, Kiss and Sweet were the popular things.

Jeff: That’s a whole ‘nother discussion.

Peder: ABBA was always off the grid for me. And I always keep returning to ABBA. Just last year I did a huge arrangement of ABBA, man, it took me two months to write it for my current group, Perpetuum Jazzile. Anyway, I think Anders Edenroth was the guy who really pushed the border of what we could do. He would write more difficult stuff than anyone else, and he would combine different… I mean, Anders Jalkéus would write a jazz arrangement in a jazz style, arranged in a way that you arrange jazz music. Anders Edenroth would take a jazz song and arrange it in a slightly different way.

Jeff: Can you give me examples?

Peder: “All of Me,” “Blues for Alice.”

Jeff: What’s the source of “Blues for Alice”?

Peder: I don’t know where he got that.

Jeff: I know the song.

Peder: It’s be-bop.

Jeff: But I don’t know where it’s from.

Peder: I also don’t know. I don’t know why he picked that.

Jeff: Where is “Walking down the street” from?


Peder: That’s something Margareta Bengtson just wrote. And she is a great composer. Unfortunately, she only wrote like 10 songs or something. But all of them are fantastic. It just comes from her head, some corner of her brain.

Jeff: Count Basie was a major influence…

Peder: I think Anders Jalkéus was the big, big Basie fan. And he listened to “Atomic Basie” inside-out so many times. So he wrote the “Lil’ Darlin‘” arrangements, and then he wrote the “Splanky” arrangement. Then he wrote the “Flight of the Foo Birds” arrangement, all from the same record. He was totally into that record. And at one point I think when we did “Flight of the Foo Birds,” we realized, Okay, we have to get into how they play it. I don’t remember what key they’re playing it in, but it’s different from the key that we sing it. But it was just like a major second away or something. So we could sing it along with so we put on the album and they do how they play the saxophone

Jeff: This is with LPs?

Peder: Yeah. So we would just do that 40 times, sing along with Count Basie playing “Flight of the Foo Birds.

Jeff: I thought you said you would come in with a written arrangement?

Peder: Yeah, yeah. That was a written arrangement. And, of course, we followed our score. But that score was pretty close to the original.

Jeff: Are you talking about the–

Peder: The phrasing. How to approach a note, how to take the note, how to approach the timing. We did that from imitation. Imitation is the greatest type of flattery, I guess. We just listened to it over and over and over, this particular song. We didn’t quite do that with “Lil’ Darlin'” or “Splanky,” but we did it with “Flight of the Foo Birds.” But that spilled over.

Jeff: “Joy Spring” is…

Peder: Clifford Brown. But that was yeah, Anders Jalkéus was really into jazz those years. He sat down and he wrote the score. I didn’t really provide a lot almost till, like, 10 years later.

Jeff: What about Bill Evans’ ‘Very Early’ and ‘Monica Vals‘?

Peder: Yeah. Those were my contributions. ‘Very Early’, there is a keyboard player in Sweden, her name is Monica Dominique. Genius, genius keyboard player. Especially as arranger, composer and songwriter. And her son is this composer that I was hanging with all the time. So I spent a lot of time in their home. And she would play Bill Evans.

She played ‘Very Early’ in a gig I heard. And I loved it. And then I wrote the lyric to it. But that was a pretty tough chart to sing. It transposed it starts out [singing].

Jeff: Yeah [laughing], there’s nothing difficult about that. It’s a very “Where is the song?” It’s very…

Peder: It’s a C note here, B flat 13 sharp 11th, that goes into the E flat major 7. So the next [singing], it immediately transposes from C major to E flat major. But and that’s Coltrane did that and Bill Evans did that. And Miles did that also with the Wayne Shorter band. And I was I was more into that type of jazz. I was more into the Miles/Coltrane/Bill Evans/Gil Evans, more that stuff, I was personally more into that than Count Basie.

But it was very, very hard to sing that music. It requires the ‘Very Early’ type of harmony. We spent hours, hours, hours. I wrote a song called ‘Varsang’, on the first album [Debut], it means spring song.

Jeff: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Peder: It was the first Real Group original. That also has lots of harmony. It’s pretty difficult to sing that chart. And that material also didn’t catch on with our audience. So we kind of didn’t explore that further. But, you know, we tried it and it’s there on record. But the Basie stuff worked better. The Real Group was always quite commercial in that sense. We had a communication with the audience. Combined with a vision. You know, we wanted to try this, we tried this.

Jeff: But it wasn’t pandering, it wasn’t singing ABBA. You would have done much better commercially to sing ABBA at the time.

Creating The Real Group Sound

Peder: Yeah, we think commercially in terms of the live audiences that we met. And from early on we also started working not just with a song, but working with a concert program, as an expression. The whole concert program from beginning to end.
All of Me” was a turning point. It was still written when we wanted to show off Margareta’s fantastic range. So it goes really high. But it’s an arrangement style. And I think that was the innovation, that particular arrangement by Anders Edenroth. And it was in that song that Anders Jalkéus got the vocal walking bass line plus hi hat together. It was in that song

Jeff: He’s doing both?

Peder: He’s doing both, yeah. [Singing.] Yeah, he does both. Eight years after that, that was how we wrote. Bass plus hi hat in the same part. Which left four singers to do something else. So we didn’t do beat boxing like the groups do today. That came later. That came with ‘Commonly Unique.’ But at this point we’re still at 1987.

Jeff: So it was always the bass and the hi hat and frequently Anders [Edenroth] ended up doing other vocal percussions?

Peder: Not yet. Not so much at that point. At that point he would write melody, three part harmony, plus bass. And with melody and three parts, you can do jazz harmony. We considered adding a sixth singer to get even a little bit more of harmony. But then what was cool about The Real Group is that Margareta’s extremely high soprano, Katarina Henryson, or at that point she was Katarina Stenström, then Katarina Wilczewski, and Katarina Nordstrom was also one of her names for a couple of years [laughing], she’s actually a soprano. But with a massive alto range. She can sing down to the low C alto.

Jeff: Don’t even tell me that. It just doesn’t make sense. I’m a man. I don’t get how you can…

Peder: She sings really high and really low. And Margareta sings higher. And Anders Edenroth has this falsetto, which made him like an alto. So it was like we had two sopranos and an alto. And with no tenor and the baritone and the very low bass. My function, I think, was the baritone who connects the top voices with a very low bass. So it’s kind of a quartet, but it’s sort of stretched out to be able to squeeze in a fifth person.

But to bring in a sixth vocalist into that picture, you have to compromise somebody else’s role. And I think that’s why that never happened. So we sacrificed the sharp 11th in some chords to have defined roles for each person. I think also one of the strengths with The Real Group, actually compared to most other vocal groups you can hear, is that the two female vocalists have distinguishable timbres all the time. They blend together, but you can still hear both of them. You can hear them as individuals at the same time as they’re blending together.

And Rajaton, my favorite group. It’s sometimes hard to know if it’s Essi or Virpi or Soila. But with The Real Group you can always hear it. This note is Margareta and this note is Katarina. This note is Anders Edenroth, this is Katarina and this is Jalkan. You can hear all the five voices. And it’s the female voice the female singers usually are so good at blending. So they do that. But Katarina Henryson and Margareta Bengtson have such different voices that even when they blend, you can still hear each of them. Emma Nilsdotter also has a very distinct personality in her voice that takes a fraction of a second to identify. Another totally great singer.

Jeff: That’s very interesting.

Peder: And I think that’s also why you can if you put on the old school Real Group records, one second and you know it’s The Real Group. And it has to do with that factor, pretty much.

The Early Career of TRG

Jeff: One question on a career/commercial topic. I’ve heard that when The Real Group was establishing itself as a group, you had to decide where you were going. And you said, We’re family, we decide to not be stars. We decide to limit the heights to which we aspire commercially career wise.

Peder: Yeah, but that was a decision made after we got kids.

Jeff: Right. And you said ‘we will not travel for more than two weeks at a time’.

Peder: Yeah, exactly. That was policy. I mean, what happened was that first we got all these gigs. It was corporate gigs, it was concert gigs, it was combination of different things. It was a little bit of jazz clubs, we could also do classical chamber choirs, we could do all kinds of festivals. We were very flexible.

Jeff: All in Sweden?

Peder: No, we have traveled abroad from very early on. Our first proper tour to the United States was in 1994. But we went to the States earlier. Anyway, and we did Japan in ’89 and Canada the same year, and a quick visit to New York, also, I think in 1989 or 1990. Then other countries in Europe also pretty early. There was no business strategy over this. We just people asked us, “Do you want to come and sing?” And we said, “Yeah, sure.” And we went there and sang.

Jeff: When did you start limiting it?

Peder: I think it my daughter was born in 1990 and I couldn’t practice all the time, which was a shock to the other four.

Jeff: You were the first to have children?

Peder: Yeah. And they were like, “What do you mean you can’t come, your daughter is sick?” I say, “My daughter is sick and I have to stay home. My wife has to work. I can’t come to rehearsal.” They were like, “What?” And two years after that Anna Jalkéus was born, Margareta and Anders Jalkéus’s daughter. And then I think one year after that, no, my son was born two years later, in ’94. And then Anders Edenroth’s son in ’95. And then, you know, we had one child every year.

And we had a contract with an American concert agency. They said that they want us to go there three months. And it took me a long time to realize there are two ways to break an artist in a country. Either you get the introduction ticket, or you work yourself up. Introduction ticket means media. You get big television shows and you get media coverage somehow. I’m not sure how that works now, these days. But usually people get promoted on YouTube first, like a pre introduction platform. And then sometimes some of those get introduced. But introduction means, you know, big corporate support in terms of perhaps not record company, but some kind of promoter in the country when you come from another country. And we didn’t have that in the States.

So the only way we could do it was to work ourselves up. And you need to basically live in the country to do that. How many non American artists have made it big in America without moving there?

Peder: I think what happened later was The Real Group was introduced in South Korea and in Japan. And it’s the level of introduction that determines your whole career in that territory. In South Korea we were introduced on the highest possible level from the beginning. Which means that we are we’ll always be superstars in that country. If you work yourself up, you have to work on improving your public image all the time. That takes an enormous amount of work.

And we of course, we didn’t have this discussion then, because we didn’t know about these things. We just knew that we could not go to the United States and work three months a year. That’s impossible. Or we didn’t want to.

Jeff: You all had children?

Peder: Perhaps not all of us. But I think we had three kids.

Jeff: The group?

Peder: The group had three kids.

Jeff: And South Korea and Japan? I have the impression you became so popular there by accident that you could make your surgical strikes and make a living for the year?

Peder: A little bit. South Korea, especially. In Japan the introduction was interrupted. We had a member change. And so it was a little bit confusing to the audience who the group was.

Jeff: What member change?

Peder: Margareta quit and we had Johanna Nyström, in 2006.

Jeff: I thought we were talking about earlier than that.

Peder: No, the introduction in Japan came quite late. I mean, like the big introduction.

Jeff: But in South Korea it was before that?

Peder: In South Korea it was 2000, 2001.

Jeff: So you had already been in existence what year was the first album?

Peder: ’87.

Jeff: So you had already been making a living in…

Peder: We made a living from the day we graduated in 1989. Since then it was full-time. We did mainly Sweden, Norway, Finland, a little bit of Denmark. We had many gigs in Austria. A little bit in Germany and Holland. Just by word of mouth, I would say. In Norway, though, there was what I would call it an introduction, too. We went to concert agency and they wanted to book us into the Oslo Concert Hall. And we said, yeah, book two nights. And they went, “What? Two nights?” I mean, this is a big concert hall. “Yeah, book two nights.” And we insisted on that. And they said, “Okay, fine. We’ll book two nights.” And they booked two nights, two nights were sold out.

Jeff: You were all involved in the business?

Peder: Yeah. Which was both good and bad for The Real Group. The media got interested in, “What is this vocal group selling out two Oslo Concert House?” So we did four or five prime-time television shows. And that established our level in Norway from the beginning. So we are hipper in Norway than in Sweden. Because in Sweden we worked our way up. That’s my impression. If I were trying to get laid at some point, it was easier in Norway than it Sweden.

Jeff: Maybe, like the Beatles in England and North America?

Peder: I would not assume we ever reached that level.

Jeff: No. But

Peder: Oh, the getting laid-ness factor. [Laughing]

Jeff: But the Beatles always related differently to America. It was hard for me to grasp why they

Peder: Because every artist has a unique public image in every country. That’s just how it is. Songs in different languages belong to different cultural spaces. In America it is the same language as in England, but the Beatles didn’t go to the States until they had one or even two #1 hits. And that was a conscious decision. “We don’t go there until we have a #1 or two.”

Jeff: It was the third.

Peder: Even three.

Jeff: It was the third one that was a hit simultaneously, I think. It was “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” And they came, I think, they came after “I Want To Hold Your Hand” was released. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was the first one to be played in the States. “She Loves You” and “Please Please Me” weren’t played at all.

Peder: But then they did The Ed Sullivan Show.

Jeff: Right.

Peder: So they were introduced at the highest possible level.

Jeff: Oh, there was incredible hype for them. The press was already there photographing them as they came off the

Peder: Yeah. And that’s how you have to do it if you want to break it in a country where you don’t live.

Jeff: I remember hearing the Beatles for the first time, hearing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I had heard the hype.

Also, what people don’t remember is there was no information flow. And pop music was outside the media. Media were establishment, they were Nixon, they were white boxer shorts, they were Republicans.

Peder: WASPs.

Jeff: Yeah. Very much so. And they didn’t want to talk about popular music. That was… but you’d hear little hints of things here and there, this Beatle thing and strange name. And I remember on my little red radio hearing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” for the first time. I said, “Sounds like the Everly Brothers with a beat, I don’t know.” Nothing that different. But then of course it grew, and I remember watching The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time when they appeared.

Peder: But it was their attitude, often, wasn’t it?

Jeff: It was very much connected to Kennedy, to Kennedy’s murder. Kennedy was murdered in November ’63. And they and they came half a year later, or even less. Might have been the late to spring… [JM: February, 1964]

Peder: Meanwhile, it was kind of a positive…

Jeff: Yeah. Kennedy’s assassination had tremendous effect on the United States. It’s a country that doesn’t know how to deal with gloom. It’s a happy, plastic Disneyland. And this thing happened. And it was kind of like a 9/11 in a way. Just… “It’s hard for me to deal with this.” And the whole country was in a depression after the assassination.

This is how I remember. I was in I think the 10th grade, so I wasn’t a child. I remember pretty clearly. And that was my sense that the Beatles phenomena, Beatlemania, lifted the country out of the depression.

Peder: Cool.

Jeff: So you never felt frustration about not becoming stars in America?

Peder: No. I think we just realized how big a project it would be to make it big with an a cappella group in a territory that size. I think our contribution as The Real Group was that we invented the possibility of an a cappella group succeeding commercially. But [hesitates] — the Swingle Singers did that before us. But, you know, a lot of other groups relate to us as the role model when it comes to that showing an example that you can make it professionally with this type of thing. We invented the job title “a cappella singer” as a profession.

We actually invented this while being in school. We applied for a post-graduate diploma, which is of course reserved for classical soloists. But it was the only thing we could apply for as a group. And they took us in. So they made a statement that this could be something professional, recognized in the academic world. And that was a revolution it was the first time something ever happened to an a cappella group in that ‘music knowledge’ field.

And I think that was a big encouragement for us. We got a huge amount of encouragement from Swedish music institutions. That helped us take the step after school to make it professional meaning that you make your living out of it. And we have been a freelance group for 30 years now.

Jeff: Did you have a good manager?

Peder: Shit. This is we never had I think the managers we had were good, but I think it’s very difficult to be an a cappella manager. What is that?

Jeff: Group managing, booking agent.

Peder: Yeah. We had visionary people who were very smart and with very good ideas. Not always the most structured people. And The Real Group are not always very structured themselves. So maybe we needed someone with a bit more business sense, structured thinking. But we always picked people who were like us. [Laughing]

Jeff: You couldn’t find a Jew.

Peder: Yeah.

Jeff: Were you ever in contact with Bobby McFerrin after he became a thing?

Peder: Yeah. We met him a couple of times. We met him in Switzerland. It just happened by chance. You know, we never arranged for something to happen with Bobby. But that would have been in 1996 or 1997, I suppose.

Jeff: I’m surprised that he didn’t say, “Hey, let’s try to do something together.”

Peder: Well, he came to our concert. He sat in the third row. It was an afternoon thing. It was daylight. And we were, you know, Bobby McFerrin was there and we were nervous and stuff. And he came up to us afterwards. And then he had his gig two days later and he asked us to come up on stage. And so we did. We laid down the our arrangement of “Splanky.” And he soloed on top of that. I think it was probably pretty cool.

But that’s the only thing we ever did with him. We talked to him, we met him. But we never made music with him apart from that.


Refining TRG’s Sound

Jeff: And the scene, the a cappella scene, what happened after you started working?

Peder: A lot of things happened. For example, we showed that it is possible to make a living. Which means that people that know they are good singers, they want to become musicians – they thought of it as a possible career. Rajaton did that. Jussi Chydenius told me that he saw us in concert, and that he didn’t – he said in his Finnish way, “I didn’t necessarily like your songs, but I liked the fact that you did it professional.” So we were an inspiration for them to try and make it professionally. So that’s one thing.

Another thing that happened was that you have a digital revolution. We recorded a Christmas album in 1997, and that was recorded in ADAT tape. That’s digital tape, but it’s still tape. The record called Original in 1996 was also digital tape. “Varför får man inte bara vara som man är”, 1994, was audio taped. We recorded that record in the same studio where ABBA recorded “Dancing Queen.” It’s an all-analog studio. Fantastic equipment, fantastic stuff.

You couldn’t do any editing. We learned our craft in the non-digital world. And then the digital revolution happened. In 1998 we made a record called One For All, and that was made on hard disc. That was our first encounter with hard disc recording. And then we saw the possibilities of that, and did Commonly Unique in 2000, which is quite far away from the record made in 1997. And that was like our version of ‘The Real Group Goes Digital.’ You can do all kinds of stuff with it. Everything on that record is vocal. It’s just, you know, with digital processing.

Jeff: No overdubbing?

Peder: Are you kidding me? There’s lots of overdubbing.

Jeff: Well, no double tracking.

Peder: Yeah, double tracking, for sure. Lots of it.

Jeff: A lot more than five voices going on at a time?

Peder: Yeah, yeah. Sure, sure. I mean, “A Thousand Things,” for example. That’s a full big band arrangement. We had a trumpet player, a saxophone player, and a trombone player come and play the whole arrangement. So we had a click track consisting of actual jazz musicians playing the whole score.

Jeff: Who wrote it?

Peder: Magnus Lindgren, check out that guy. Total genius. Total, total genius.

And the digital revolution helped groups forgive me for saying this groups who don’t have time to practice the way we did. We practiced from 1987 to 1989. We practiced four days a week, like five hours every day. We practiced – how does a perfect fifth sound? How does it feel to sing a perfect fifth? What if we look at the floor, how does that intonation sound? What if we look up at the roof, how does that intonation sound? We did basic hard research for two years while still in school. Most groups don’t have time for that. They get autotune so they can sing roughly in tune and then fix it with a pitch tool.

Jeff: And all five of you were crazy enough to sit there and sing perfect fifths?

Peder: Yeah. Yeah, more or less. I mean, it was pretty tedious work. But we made it like a joke thing. We made it fun.

Jeff: Did you ever have teachers coming in to work with you?

Peder: Sure. They didn’t always understand what we were going through. But they gave us really cool stuff.

Jeff: Were you influenced by any American groups in the beginning?

Peder: Yeah. Take 6, of course. In 1988, we did other stuff during the summer. And late August we had to get this group sound together again. So we booked a studio at the school to just sing and work ourselves into it. And it just sounded like shit. It sounded horrible.

People had been singing different things. Katarina had been touring with a blues band the whole summer, Margareta had been touring with a really classical choir. I don’t remember what I did.

Jeff: You’re out of school, you’d finished school?

Peder: No. We were still in school. But, you know, in summer it’s holiday, and you go back to school at the end of the August. No, it was 1987. I had been floating around all summer, basically. I might have had a job a few weeks. I was single then.

Jeff: I think that was clear. [Laughing]

Peder: But anyway, after a day of unsuccessful recordings, everything just sounded shit, Anders Jalkéus puts on this new record. [Singing “Never, thought I would ever, stumble out of darkness…”]

Jeff: I didn’t realize it was that early.

Peder: 1987, “Doo Be Doo Wop Bop,” Take 6. I don’t think we sang a note three weeks after that experience. They were so good. Our recording session was so bad. And we realized this was something new. This is really some top shit. And I think after this shock, we just had to come to terms with the fact that we could never do that.

Jeff: With the fact that you’re white.

Peder: Yeah. That, and also we didn’t go to their church, we didn’t grow up singing like they did. But it took years to realize that we do something that is different. And I think the main difference between Take 6 and The Real Group is that they are fantastic in one style, soul or gospel and related, and The Real Group stretched out into different styles. And our concert program was always a combination of many different things. I think it has always been our profile to be versatile. And their profile was to be specialized and to be fantastic there.

The Origins of Modern A Cappella

Jeff: You didn’t convince me that you didn’t invent this music.

Peder: But the Swingles were there before.

Jeff: Sorry, you didn’t convince me. I know the Swingle Singers’ early music. I don’t know their 1982 album, I’ll try to find it.

The Swingle Singers, ‘Li’l Darling’ (1982)

The Real Group, ‘Li’l Darling’ (1987)

Peder: The Kings’ Singers were there before.

Jeff: So what?

Peder: The Singers Unlimited were there before.

Jeff: I know the Singers Unlimited. I’m sorry, you invented something new.

Peder: We may have invented something new, but did we invent we did not invent a cappella group music.

Jeff: No.

Peder: What did we invent, Jeff? Please be specific about that.

Jeff: First of all, on a technical level, the rhythm section.

Peder: Yeah, the groove.

Jeff: The rhythm section groove

Peder: The Real Group was the first a cappella group that would be close to sounding like a band, I give you that. I agree with that.

Jeff: No mean feat.

Peder: Apart from Take Six. They also do that. But maybe they are more of a gospel choir than a band. But the Real Group and it took some time to get there. I felt that we really got there in, I’m not sure, around the year 2000. I remember saying to myself, ‘Now we have a band.’ And some of the gigs we did in those years, the years that followed after 2000, were fucking unbelievable. And a lot of that, Jeff, is on tape. It’s just not released.

Jeff: I’m sorry. I listened to the first albums, “The Flight of the Foo Birds.”

Peder: I think it’s okay, but I think we got better after that.

Jeff: I disagree. You refined your craft. Yeah, you perfected it.

Peder: The concept was there.

Jeff: The concept, the weight of the work was there from the beginning. And these specific days that we were talking about when Anders Jalkéus walked into the studio with the Count Basie arrangements. I listened to the Singers Unlimited and I listened to the Double Six and the Swingle Singers and you did something else.

Peder: Yeah, maybe we bridged…

Jeff: It’s more of a leap, take whoever you want to what you did, then the Beatles… when I first heard the Beatles, I said it sounds like the Everly Brothers with a beat. I’m quoting myself. That’s what I said. When I first heard the Real Group, I didn’t say, “It sounds like.” I said, “Fuck.”

Peder: But that’s you, Jeff. It’s your musical references.

Jeff: I know the other possibilities. I don’t care what anyone says.

Peder: [Laughing]

Jeff: There’s stuff that I know that I won’t attribute it to opinion or to taste. I’m not talking about taste, I’m not talking about if it’s good or bad. But it’s different. It’s something that didn’t exist. It’s a new form of music that you guys invented.

Peder: Yeah, we were the first a cappella band that I know of, that I think was good, that was any good being like a band in live performance. I never thought the Swingle Singers or Kings’ Singers really reached that level of being a band on stage. But we were that or we are that. I’ll give you that. Yeah, we were innovators in that sense. [Laughs]

Jeff: Yes! I got him to admit that!

TRG’s Impact on the Modern A Cappella Scene

Jeff: How’s the Real Academy going?

Peder: I have now a team for the first time that once we get the time to sit down and discuss it, a team with a manager and one project leader and one promotion person. And with that, I think I can do some serious work. With me trying to do a little bit of everything, it doesn’t become serious. Because I am a creator. I am not the business and I’m not the project manager. I was the project manager of the Real Group Festival in 2008 and 2012. I did the schedule of 2008 festival myself. I did most of that festival also knowing that the Real Group would approve, but we didn’t have time to discuss it. So there were a couple of things that I didn’t ask for approval. So that festival was mainly my doing, Jeff.

But I’m not a project manager type person.

Jeff: I want to tell you something else. Since I convinced you now a little bit that you invented something, I want to give you another big, big compliment. And I’ve said this to you before, but take the opportunity to repeat it. When my friends ask me what is this a cappella jazz thing that you’re involved in and why are you schlepping off to Denmark to a festival, I explain to them that the Real Group invented this genre, and it just so happens that they’re exceptionally nice, warm people, and they set the standard, they set the tone, they set the mode of behavior for this whole field by that, and everything’s at eye level, so the other groups have to conform to that mode of behavior. They can’t come in and be stars. And so it’s created a sense they have created a sense of community and belonging. And it’s a different kind of experience than other genres.

Peder: But we didn’t do our thing in the States, though. We only did it in Europe, maybe to some extent in Asia also, depending on which country. If we’ve had the influence you’re talking about, we’ve only had it on European groups. The warmth and openness you refer to reflects one of the differences between the European and American a cappella scenes, I think. The Americans never saw our type of festival, for example. How would they react? They’re still pretty deep into this competition bullshit. Which is an aspect of the core of American society. A European music group could not introduce an alternative approach that Americans would be willing to embrace. I am pretty sure about that. This is something that needs to be changed from within the USA itself, if at all.

Jeff: But this is also something to be very proud of and maybe it’ll rub off on other genres, as well. Other scenes.

Peder: Cool. Yeah. And for me that started in a workshop we had in Austria sometime in the mid ’90s, that was a turning point for us in terms of teaching. Because we were the big star group and the groups that came to the workshop weekend were vocal groups who expected us to be the stars and give them a hard time for not being that. But what we did was we listened to these groups and said, “Okay, we are what precedes this, and you are fantastic in being you. How can we help you become more you?”

Jeff: They said, “No, we want to sing more like the Real Group.”

Peder: And we said, “Fine. But who are you?” And then during this weekend they said it changed their lives, that the stars related to them on some kind of an equal of course, we’re not equal. But you can always relate to a person on some kind of equality level. And you can’t reach out to them unless you understand. You can only reach them at the border of their grasp of perspectives, right? And I take credit for that workshop. Because I have fought hard for that type of that style of workshop. And it was still a discussion whether we should go there and set an example, this is how you do it.

But then also, it’s a little bit difficult for me, because sometimes also in my personality, I feel it is my responsibility, to just sometimes say “I think this is how you do it.” Because I have experience. But what I’m trying to do is to say “Who are you? What do you want to do with your group?” And I want to say, “This particular thing, I suggest you do it this way.” Doesn’t always make sense. Maybe I’m a natural authority and an anarchist at the same time.

Jeff: It works. I think it’s almost very much connected to the Swedish mindset.

Peder: Yeah, of course.

Jeff: Very much aware, very much conscious of all sorts of things going on here, the way we interact, the sound that Vocal Line makes, the hard muscular sound of the music, of the Scandinavian mindset. It’s very different from where I live and what I come from. It’s part of the same thing. I don’t think it’s coincidental. I think there’s an awful lot about this music that comes from Scandinavia.

Peder: Yeah, Scandinavian cultures.

Jeff: Beyond the music itself. The whole mindset, the whole way it’s developing, it’s working.

Superstars in South Korea

Jeff: The video of the concert in Korea, the old one, with those beautiful paisley shirts. You know which one I mean.

Peder: I think so. 2001 or 2002, probably. [JM: 2007]

Jeff: Maybe. Maybe even earlier.

Peder: Not if it was Korea. Because we didn’t set foot there before. Our first concert in South Korea was on 9/11. It was on that very day. It was like the greatest date we ever had. It was our first show in the country. We had to do four encores. It was completely sold out. And after the show we saw the twin towers collapse on TV. Man, it was total horror to be confronted with a piece of reality like that. What’s the purpose of music? What’s the purpose of anything? When people can do such totally horrible things to one another.

Jeff: Anders Edenroth told the story about how you became stars in South Korea, this arrangement for a commercial.

Peder: Yeah, it was one of his songs and it was one of Margareta’s songs, actually. It was “I Sing, You Sing,” and “Walking Down the Street.” Those two songs were given to be TV commercials. Because our guy in Korea worked with advertising. So he sold those two songs. And at that time…

Jeff: Anders gave them to him for free?

Peder: Yeah. Anders was always sensitive about the contractual stuff, I never knew about the legal stuff.

Jeff: And you became overnight sensations he told the story in Sweden, they said we booked you for this 4,000 seat hall. He said, “Who are we opening for?” He said, “No, no, it’s for you.”

Peder: It was 2,500. But yeah.

Jeff: It might have been me, yeah, adding the 1,500 seats, also.

Peder: It was 2,500. But I was in a festival in France last year. A festival that has a cappella music, but it has other music, too. And there was a South Korean virtuoso jazz singer. And I was supposed to introduce this gig. So I knock at her door at her dressing room, and she opens, and I say, “Hello, my name is Peder Karlsson and I’m going to introduce your show.” And she says, “Are you aware that you are a superstar in my country?”

I just introduced myself with my name. I didn’t say that I come from this group. And South Korea is the only place in the world where I probably can go and say that I am a superstar. Now, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been there.

Jeff: Do you find Asian women attractive?

Peder: Yeah. Sure, but I found my wife, you know, the best.

Jeff: I do edit these. [Laughing]

Peder: [Laughs] but seriously, since I met my wife, my approach changed. That was in 2005. Two things happened to me in 2005. First, I stopped checking out women. Me and my wife were meant to be. We met when we were 20, but things happened and we didn’t happen. The other thing was, the vocal jazz scene changed for me. Up until that point I had spent over 20 years of my life doing everything for the Real Group, we had the best group and blah blah blah blah blah. Hearing the other groups and getting a feel of this community, I felt that I’m also attached to this community as much as I am to the group.

And I started a mailing list for professional vocal groups. All the professional groups signed up for it and we had some good stuff, but we didn’t see what is the purpose. But they all said, “Peder, you have to start some kind of Web portal. And we want you to be in charge and we support whatever you do. We don’t see you as a competitor.”

“Gøta” is a moving song written by Peder and performed by The Real Group wordlessly describing a stark Scandinavian island landscape. The song has become an icon of modern a cappella, performed by many of the leading groups in this field, including Vocal Line and others.

Jeff: “Gøta.” How did it come into being?

Peder Karlsson: I think it started when my dad was in the Nordic Council. He was deputy chairman or something. So they had annual meetings in each of the Nordic capitals and and at one point he was in Tórshavn in the Faroe Islands. It’s a small place, a group of islands in the Atlantic between Scotland and Iceland. He came back with this look in his eyes, and he talked about this place with total passion. I might have been 10 or 11 years old. And I was thinking, I have to go to this place.

Many years later, in 2002, The Real Group had a concert there. Yeah, I was 38. So it was quite a few years after. I decided to stay a week after the concert. I asked the festival managers, who do I need to meet and what do I need to do here?

So I went hiking with some old men. They have something called fjall. It’s the same word in Swedish, meaning a high mountain. In the Faroes it’s more like a big hill. But the wind is so strong in this place, there are no trees.

It takes about an hour to climb to the top of one of those mountains. And then the sea all over, you know, this whole group of islands. It’s fantastic.

The next day they put me in a car and we went for two or three hours. They dropped me off in a small village called Gøta, where two people met me, a young woman, 19 years old at that point, Eivør, and her mother Saedis. Eivør and I played guitar the whole day and we sang and I listened to her records. She was a total genius, living in this small village. At that time she was already one of the biggest stars in her country. She’s huge in Faroe Islands. And then she moved to Iceland, now she lives in Denmark.

A couple of months after that trip, I was in my bed at night. I woke up, 5:00 in the morning, with a melody in my head. And this was after listening to Eivør’s records and other Faroese music. [Singing the first phrase of Gøta to himself]. That was in my head. And it was like, where did this come from? For some reason I went down, from the loft bed I had, I walked down to my study and picked up a microphone and recorded this melody. Then I climbed up into the loft bed again and fell asleep. And I completely forgot about it.

Three or four weeks later I found this recording sitting on my hard disc. So I played it. I was like, “What is this? Is this a song?” I had no idea what it could be used for. It was very different from anything else I had written.

Jeff: Like Eivør’s music?

Peder: In a way. I don’t think that it sounds like her music, but it’s definitely folk music inspired. And at that time she was all about folk music. But then I composed the B part [singing melody], because I felt that if this is a song, then it would need a B section. I only sang the song with my kids. We would have a breakfast jam, singing while drumming on the table or on the cereal package. Stamping on the floor would be a bass drum. Rock’n’roll. Just me and my two kids, for two years. And this song could go on forever.

What would an arrangement sound like? Two years later I was back in the Faroe Islands to have a rehearsal date with Eivør again. Because I had an idea of doing some very small concerts in a place in Sweden called Fårö. It turned out that setting up this rehearsal day was a tough process, to set four days apart, because that was a time when The Real Group had so many gigs. I said I need these four days to just go away and do something else.

The Real Group said, “Okay, yeah, we understand.” Then I called Eivør and said, “Are you going to be in the Faroe Islands these days?” But I never got a definite answer to that. She was like, “Yeah, I think so. Let’s see.” I called her manager in despair, “Sigvør, please, can you book Eivør to be there?” She says, “No, Peder, that’s not going to work. All you can do is go here and hope that something is going to happen.”

So I went and we had one day of rehearsal. My idea was to have a trio. Me on guitar, and her singing, and probably me singing a little bit. And I had a bass player in mind, too. We had a few gigs later in the summer. But in that rehearsal in March, it was just one session, four, five hours, she taught me eight of her songs. I translated four of those into Swedish in this frantic session, while you are just in the zone, for five hours or so. Then I taught her four of my songs. And then we felt, ‘Cool, now we have a set.’

At the very end of this rehearsal, I said, “I have this song. I don’t know what it is.” Five minutes later she could sing the A part and the B part of “Gøta.” And then her mother came and said dinner is ready. So I said, “Just give us five minutes” and pressed “record.” There was no rehearsal prior to that recording. We just improvised the form, everything. I’m very happy I pressed “record.” Because it was the first time I played and sang the song with somebody else in a form that felt totally organic and logical at the same time. Making music with Eivør is special. She is so natural, inspirational and logical, by intuition. And I have it on mp3. It’s the version that I based all the arrangements of that song on afterwards.

Jeff: So much of “Gøta” is beyond the song. The arrangement, the breadth, the sound, the palette.

Peder: Yeah, but I think that comes from the simplicity of the melody. Another thing – Eivør’s parents invited some of their friends and family to come over for an informal concert in their home. I think they did that because they liked it that I came back to the Faroes to play with their genius daughter, without knowing if she would be there or not. In that concert I said spontaneously, “This song is called ‘Gøta,'” because that’s where we were. That’s the first time that song was performed.

And then in the summer The Real Group did concerts, one of which was in a chamber music festival in Gotland, Sweden, where the trio with Eivør and me also performed. Katarina Henryson heard “Gøta” and said, “I am going to sing that song.” To which I responded something like, “This is for me, it’s soloist and instrumental. I don’t hear a vocal group. I just don’t hear that.” And she said, “I hear it. And you’re going to write that arrangement.”

I was skeptical. But then a couple of months later she said, “I’m coming over to your apartment now.” She came and rigged up a microphone and said, “I’m recording now. Take a paper and pencil and you write this down now.” Which I did. And I think it took some time both for me and for The Real Group to realize what this song was. Because we did it on the tour that was connected to the release of In The Middle of Life, 2005. Our lights engineer Pertan Delin did a fantastic light design to this song. The impact of this whole thing on the audience was just massive. There was an idea in the group that it was the lights design that created that feeling. A couple of months later we had a gig in a big concert hall in Norway and discussed, “Shall we sing ‘Gøta’? We don’t have Pertan’s lights.” But decided, “Okay, let’s try it.” And it worked.

I think the whole concept of that song was different from anything The Real Group had done before. And yet, you know, it’s part of us somehow. It’s our Nordic roots or something.

Jeff: Very much so. It’s organic. It lives. The story’s good, it doesn’t change the song. The back story. It enhances it. It shines some interesting light on it. But everything that you said is in the song.

Peder: It is. But Eivør, after those concerts, I didn’t even meet her for another eight years. We were never in the same town. I met her briefly in October last year. And she’s coming to this festival! I freaked out when I saw that. Finally we’re going to be in the same place.

Jeff: What will she be doing here?

Peder: She’s a guest soloist with VoxNorth. And she’s awesome, Jeff. She’s like she’s major top shit.

American A Cappella

Jeff: America. Tell me about American a cappella. You’re being recorded.

Peder: We haven’t met Take 6 much. We met them socially a couple of times. Sweetest guys. We never sang together with them. But, I mean, they are our heroes. And I think they respect us, too.

And then in early 2000 we were in New York, and there were four or five super sweet black guys who came up to us and said, “Hi, we like your group. Want to talk?” Naturally 7. And whenever we were in New York, we would meet them. Just for the record, Naturally 7 are the sweetest guys you will ever meet. They are so nice. And serious about what they do. We just love those guys. And unfortunately we haven’t had the chance to hang out so much with them.

I think Naturally 7 took the Take 6 thing and brought it one step further.

Jeff: In what way?

Peder: Obviously in the way they use the beat box. They have this really, really punchy rock groove beatbox type thing. And they have fantastic soloists. I think my favorite is the baritone of Stewart. I hope he’s still in the group. It’s the same tradition, perhaps, of Take 6, but in a new way.

Other than that, I kind of lost track of America when we didn’t tour there anymore. But as long as I followed it and this was before Sing Off and everything that happened, that I never followed, was that it was collegiate a cappella. People get together in college, they sing and it sounds great. But then they, you know, they move to other states and don’t sing in the same group anymore. After college in the States, not many groups manage to continue.

I guess that things like Sing Off are a motivation for people to put a group together and put it on stage. I’ve heard some groups that I liked. I don’t remember names. But, I mean, some of this is really good. Although I always had problems with music and competition as a concept. I don’t like that. I never – so far I’ve turned down all invitations to be the judge and be on juries. It’s very hard for me to do that.

Anders Jalkéus and Emma Nilsdotter and Katarina Henryson, they do jury gigs, though. Maybe Morten also.

Jeff: Have you heard Vox One?

Peder: Of course. Berklee.

Jeff: Yeah.

Peder: But they don’t exist anymore.

Jeff: I guess not. They haven’t recorded they did two albums that are very impressive.

Peder: Yes, fantastic.

Jeff: And of a certain it’s very studio.

Peder: It’s very studio and it’s kind of what you do when you’re in school to some extent. I don’t know how far they took that in audience communication.

Jeff: It’s studio, Steely Dan. But impressive.

Peder: Sure. And I totally respect that. And there’s a group from I think the West Coast, called Sonos, very good.

And M-pact, of course. We had concerts with them. I first saw them in Mainz in 2005, which was the first festival in Europe when almost all of the best professional a cappella groups were at the same place the same week. Take 6, New York Voices, The Real Group, and Rajaton were at the same festival. That’s pretty awesome. Vocal Line was there, and one of my top five of all-time a cappella groups, Cosmos from Latvia, who don’t exist anymore, unfortunately.

Jeff: I saw them in Västerås.

Peder: What do you think about that?

Jeff: They were remarkable.

Peder: And they also took a cappella music to a new place, right?

Jeff: That’s very impressive. And there are so many great groups from Scandinavia, from Northern Europe. I remember seing some group of 18 year old Estonians. Where does this come from?

Peder: Back to America, Clare Fischer. You know Clare Fischer.

Jeff: The composer?

Peder: Yeah.

Jeff: The man?

Peder: He’s a man.

Jeff: Yeah.

Peder: He wrote some of Hi-Lo’s’ arrangements. And he had a vocal group in the ’80s and ’90s. I heard one of his groups at an IAJE convention in Anaheim, California, in 1995. Or -96. International Association of Jazz Educators. It was six LA session singers and Clare Fischer himself on the keyboard. Total, total top shit.

Jeff: Still, I think the Beach Boys are the underrated geniuses.

The Beatles and George Martin

Peder: But I don’t see them as underrated. For me, the inspiration was the Beatles in terms of vocal harmony. They do two part or three part harmony, but it’s still harmony, right?

Jeff: The George Harrison stuff is really good. The high harmonies.

Peder: Was he doing the top note?

Jeff: Yeah. Like, “I’ll Be Back.”

Peder: Oh, yeah, that’s beautiful.

Jeff: That sustained note, the pedal point– [Sings] Something like that.

Peder: Okay. Cool. I like it in that song, they take it from major to minor.

Jeff: Yes.

Peder: And back to major, yeah.

Jeff: That and “Things We Said Today” is similar, three part.

Peder: But the Beach Boys, everybody talks about the Beach Boys. I mean, the Beatles talk about the Beach Boys. And Pet Sounds, everybody says that Pet Sounds was top shit and then that Sgt. Pepper

Jeff: Was the attempt to compete with it.

Peder: Yeah.

Jeff: There’s a clip out of George Martin going into the studio with Brian Wilson. Have you seen that?

Peder: No.

Jeff: They take George Martin to Los Angeles and he’s driving around in this red Cadillac convertible. And it was to Brian Wilson’s house and he’s already brain dead, Brian Wilson. And he drives into the studio and they put up the Pet Sounds tapes, files. It might have been before they remastered them. Have you heard the remastered?

Peder: No.

Jeff: They did it in stereo. Apparently, they took Brian Wilson back into the studio, made him take out the tapes and re do it in real stereo. It’s incredible. I love it. And you can hear all the instruments. Anyway, so they have Brian Wilson and George Martin sitting at the panel and George Martin says, “What would happen if you kicked up the oboe just a little bit?” He says, “Yeah, wow, that’s really cool, that’s good. I like that.” Like watching Moses on Mt. Sinai, very exciting for me.

Peder: We did some concerts with George Martin.

Jeff: I didn’t know that.

Peder: My daughter was with me. It would have been in the ’90s somewhere. And it was symphony orchestra gigs with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, which is one of the Swedish top symphony orchestras. And they were doing Beatles stuff with George Martin conducting. The connection was this guy, Staffan Olander, who knew the orchestra, and who also knew George Martin. And they wanted singers. So they asked the Real Group. And I said to the group, “We’re doing this gig. You don’t you stop this nonsense about you don’t dig the Beatles; we do this gig.”

So we did it. And I actually sang a duet with George Martin on “I Am the Walrus.” [Laughs] Yeah. My brother was there, he cried.

Jeff: I saw the Beatles in concert.

Peder: Yeah, you told me. I don’t want to hear about it.

Jeff: It wasn’t very good.

Peder: It wasn’t?

Jeff: It really wasn’t. It was stupid. Just girls screaming. I wouldn’t go to see Hard Day’s Night until it had been in the theaters for a month, a month and a half.

Peder: Yeah, because people were screaming.

Jeff: Yeah, I was very passionate and serious, ‘Swedish’ about my love for the Beatles. I don’t want to hear screaming. I want to hear that three part harmony. So I waited and saw it many, many times.

Peder: One anecdote, Jeff. George Martin invited us to the AIR Studios, when he had a charity concert there. I don’t remember for what purpose. But the Princess Anne, you know, of the British royal family, was invited and she was coming. And he wanted to introduce us to her. So we’re standing in a line, all the five Real Group singers. George says, “All you need to do, you look at her, you shake her hand, you just say, ‘Your Highness,’ and that’s it. Your Highness.”

And then she comes and she looks totally totally laid back, relaxed, cool person.

Jeff: Probably stoned.

Peder: Or probably not. And I’m the first one. And my brain doesn’t get into this “Your Highness” stuff. So the word that my brain picks is, “Hello.” And then she looks a bit puzzled, but says, “Hello.” And then all the other Real Group members repeat this. And, you know, you don’t do this in England. He never invited us back.

Jeff: Sir George.

Peder: Yeah.

VOCabuLarieS, Roger Treece

Jeff: Bobby McFerrin’s “VOCAbuLarieS” has made a very big impression on me.

Peder: Yeah, it’s fantastic. It’s also a new step.

Jeff: I agree. I hope to meet Roger Treece, I wanted to talk to him about it. [JM: I did, in 2013. And then in 2015, I had the honor to work with Roger, the great Israeli singer Noa, and the power choir I co-founded and manage, Vocalocity. And it all started with The Real Group.]

Peder: Yeah, but that’s kind of a sad story. I mean, I think they broke up after that. Because Bobby didn’t give Roger proper credit.

Jeff: Roger wrote the music?

Peder: He should have been credited more. Because a lot of what was done, was that Bobby recorded a few lines and then Roger arranged that in a way that, you know, arranging/singing/composition, where does the one begin and the other one…

Jeff: Miles Davis and Bill Evans. “Blue in Green,” Miles just put his name on everything. Bill Evans insists that he wrote it. “I’m sorry, Miles Davis, Miles can say whatever he wants, I wrote the song.” The Band, Robbie Robertson. Are you into the Band?

Peder: No.

Jeff: He put his name on everything, didn’t make any difference to him. He signed all the songs.

Peder: It’s very hard for me to respect that.

Jeff: Yeah. I’m not an overwhelmed Bobby McFerrin fan. I, of course, recognize his abilities and his virtuosity. I find his music usually uninteresting.

Peder: Yeah, but he is one person. And his gig is actually solo. And how do you get harmony?

Jeff: Not harmony.

Jeff: Anyway, I think VOCAbuLarieS, there’s meat there.

Peder: And a lot of that comes from Roger Treece. I heard some of the record before it was released. He was here and we sat somewhere and he played me from his computer. And I said to him, “This is the next step in choir music. This is the next thing.” And I think it is.

Jeff: I violently agree with you. I recently discovered Michael McGlynn, Anúna.

Peder: Yeah, Irish. He’s a very close friends of Rajaton.

Jeff: Yeah. He wrote two songs for them. “Wild Song” and “Summer Song.”

A Cappella Worldwide

Jeff: What about groups like The Idea of North?

Peder: The Idea of North is one of the few vocal jazz groups.

Jeff: How did that happen? You exist…

Peder: Yeah. But the tenor of The Idea of North [Nick Begbie], he came to Stockholm just to visit a friend and he happened to hear The Real Group. And he then said, “I want to do that.” So in the case of Ideal North, yes, we inspired them to do it.

Jeff: It was direct?

Peder: Direct. And they are it’s too bad we can’t meet them. But we have had concerts with them. They are the loveliest people. They’re just fantastic all the way through. I’m sorry we can’t meet them more. But I consider them my closest friends even though I never see them. [Laugh]

Jeff: But the Brazilian groups?

Peder: We haven’t had much contact with those. We have talked a little bit with Banda De Boca, BR6.

Jeff: Those are the two that I know.

Peder: But we’ve never actually met them. BR6 was a guest artist with Perpetuum Jazzile, the group that I am the musical director of. But I never met the group, though.

Jeff: Coco’s Lunch?

Peder: I don’t know what that is.

Jeff: They’re Australian, five girls and a drum. They’re pretty cool. It’s not great, I mean, you’re not going to say, Wow, how do they make those sounds? But it’s an interesting concept.

Peder: But how much further can you take it? I thought that Rajaton had done something new. I’m not sure how. I think it has to do with their passion and emotional involvement and their seriousness and that they are of course, they are fantastic singers. But they they do something artistic.

November 14, 2013.