Whatever you do, don’t call Naturally 7 an a cappella group. Not that they’d mind — that’s how they got started — but a cappella just isn’t accurate, not anymore.
When the internationally renowned group takes the stage at the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts & Education on Feb. 3, you’ll hear super-tight vocal harmonies. But you’ll also hear drums, guitars, keyboards, horns and record-scratching.
And you’ll be peering around them to see where the band is — while they’re standing in plain sight. See, Naturally 7 is a band. But instead of using traditional instruments, they use their voices to mimic them. The result is musical magic.
“We were looking for what would make us different, but also what we would be passionate about,” said Roger Thomas, a founding member of the group. “We found out we could mimic instruments. So we asked ourselves if we could perform and have an audience say, ‘I can’t believe it sounds like a band!’
“And we could,” he continued.
Hailing from New York, Naturally 7 got their start singing gospel in the church. In the 1990s, there was no shortage of smooth-crooning all-male R&B groups but Naturally 7 didn’t want to blend in; they wanted to stand out. Once they perfected their musical style, they began to perform college shows in 2001.
Over time, the group built a massive worldwide following. They’ve appeared routinely on television in France, Great Britain and other European nations. They’ve toured with crooner Michael Bublé, and rocked multiple festivals, including the Montreal Jazz Festival (three times) and the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
“We’ve had a lot of success in France, Belgium, Australia,” Thomas said. “It takes two years to tour the world. We’ve done it three times with Michael Bublé.”
But so far, mainstream success in the United States has eluded them. In fact, their 2014 album pays tribute to the concept in the title, “Hidden In Plain Sight.” It’s ironic, given how popular unaccompanied vocal groups like Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser have become.
“It feels a little bit like the Sugarhill Gang and Grandmaster Flash,” Thomas laughed, referring to hip-hop’s original rap battle. “Grandmaster Flash had already been doing rap in New York before ‘Rapper’s Delight’ came out (but Sugarhill gets a lot of credit).”
Thomas insists there’s no shade to be thrown at the acts who have emerged mimicking their style.
“It’s nice to see people paying more attention to vocal music,” Thomas said. “It’s gotten very popular at the high school and college levels. It’s a form of music that people love.”
Their influences include the beatboxing of Doug E. Fresh and The Fat Boys, and the one-man-show called Bobby McFerrin. “We come from a lot of different backgrounds. It’s all infused into our music,” Thomas said.
But he also acknowledges a debt to another highly influential but arguably underappreciated vocal group — Take 6, the gospel sextet who debuted in 1988.
“Take 6 was an incredible inspiration for us,” Thomas said. “I’ve told them this. If they didn’t exist, then we could not exist. They were the inspiration to give you even the concept that tight harmonies coming out of the church was possible. We were closer to that sound before incorporating hip-hop and R&B into our sound.”
As for what to expect from their Feb. 3 show at the Halloran Centre, Thomas said that while they don’t explicitly sing much about their faith, they still seek to create an uplifting experience.
“We’re from out of the church, but we never market ourselves as a religious group,” he said. “We never wanted to beat people over the head with preaching.
“But we want people to expect the unexpected,” Thomas continued. “We’ve got to go beyond your expectations. That’s the goal from the beginning. And we’d like to present an inspirational show.
“We want people to feel filled and uplifted when they leave,” Thomas concluded. “Our show is like the circus and theatre and church — all combined!”