When the SoCal VoCals turned 20 in February, USC’s oldest a cappella group also happened to be coming off a string of high notes. The 12 members just returned from a gig in Washington, D.C., entertaining the president and first lady at a White House holiday party. Only six months earlier, they had been crowned a cappella world champions.
For those who haven’t seen Pitch Perfect, the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA) is a voice competition on a national stage, an epic battle of song where the world’s best college groups throw down harmonies. And the SoCal VoCals pretty much own it, according to Newsweek and The New Yorker. The team has won the Super Bowl of a cappella every time it has entered. Its unprecedented four titles came in consecutive attempts in 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2015. (Preparation is so grueling that the team usually takes a breather in alternating years.)
The VoCals’ story begins in 1995, when founding member Brock Harris ’97 posted flyers inviting Trojans to form an a cappella group. He didn’t expect much. This was long before American Idol, Glee and The Sing-Off became pop culture fixtures.
“Contemporary a cappella was this strange, nerdy niche thing,” recalls Harris, then a junior from Victoria, British Columbia, majoring in filmic writing. Yet Harris’ phone started ringing the day he tacked up his flyers on kiosks and bulletin boards. More than 60 people came out to audition. On February 11, 1996—the date of the group’s first rehearsal, held in a classroom in the Von KleinSmid Center—its 18 inaugural members blended their voices for the first time. Within a month they made their debut at Tommy Trojan’s feet, with original arrangements of Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” and “Come On, Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners.
From the beginning, Harris had a vision: Unlike Yale’s crisp-tuxedoed Whiffenpoofs, the USC group would spearhead pop-and-rock-driven a cappella.
They were an instant hit. Within a year, the VoCals were playing one or two paid gigs a week and had recorded their first album, This Ain’t No Choir, Babe.
More a cappella groups began popping up at USC. “I started the wave,” Harris says. “I was very proud of that.”
Harris is the first to admit that the caliber of VoCal singers has greatly improved over the last 20 years. “I would not get in the current group,” he says. “None of the original members would.”
Yet SoCal VoCal alumni—all 120 of them—are the bedrock that anchors the group. Tradition-bearers, sponsors, mentors and die-hard fans, they follow the team from concert to concert. They trouble-shoot thorny new arrangements, set current members up with jobs and internships, subsidize travel and recording expenses, coach members on vocals and host students on tour. Three times a year, SoCal VoCals past and present unite to sing and mingle at weekend retreats and special “alumni rehearsals.”
It was so intense—the connections we had at a musical level, but also at an emotional and storytelling level.
Lucy Jackson ’08
Harris credits the group’s staying power to these tight intergenerational bonds. “Very few student organizations persist decade after decade,” he says. “You look at old yearbooks, and they’re full of pictures of clubs that no longer exist. This group was meant to be a long-term thing.”
Lucy Jackson ’08 was one of about 50 SoCal VoCal alumni who traveled to New York City to root for the team at the 2015 ICCA finals. “They were so incredible this last time,” she says exuberantly. Rehearsing a 12-minute song set over 275 hours, the typical prep time for the competition, will forge an unbreakable bond. She knows that. After all, Jackson was a VoCal when the team captured its first ICCA championship. “It was so intense—the connections we had at a musical level, but also at an emotional and storytelling level,” she remembers. Today, she moonlights as the producer of ICCA’s Northwest and Southwest regions while working fulltime as a marketing professional in Los Angeles.
Many VoCal alumni work in entertainment, and some are bona fide stars: songwriter Ross Golan ’01, who penned No. 1 hits for Maroon 5, Justin Bieber, Nicki Minaj and Keith Urban; Grammy-winning Pentatonix vocalist Scott Hoying and music arranger Ben Bram ’10; and actress-singer Kelley Jakle ’11, who was one of Pitch Perfect’s Barden Bellas.
Founder Harris, now a Southern California-based independent Realtor, remains intimately involved with the group—as its landlord. In 2005, he purchased a nine-bedroom Victorian a few blocks from campus on 27th Street. It’s now known as the SoCal VoCal House. “I think we’re the only college a cappella group with a home base like that,” he says. The hub of VoCal life, it hosts rehearsals Wednesdays from 10 p.m. to midnight and Sundays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Four ICCA trophies greet visitors in the entry hall, and framed posters and memorabilia line the walls. Harris takes no profit from rent and says he’ll never sell the house.
That’s the remarkable thing about VoCal alumni, notes junior Jonathan von Mering, the VoCals’ current president. “When they achieve success, they aren’t more distant. These are people we see around all the time.”
Want to see (and hear) the SoCal VoCals in action? Check out the video below, and others, on their YouTube channel.