Kevin Olusola ’11, has enjoyed enormous success after a viral video of him playing the cello and beatboxing propelled him to becoming a founding member of the a capella pop group – Pentatonix.
Kevin was a member of the YSO cello section for two years before taking a year abroad in Beijing, China. During his time at Yale, he studied with Ole Akahoshi, and developed his now-famous cello beatboxing method. Kevin’s ‘cello-boxing’ was the opening act for two consecutive YSO Halloween Shows.
Maestro Boughton and Manager, Brian Robinson, took an afternoon to speak with Kevin about his career, his time at Yale, and his experiences with the YSO, from cellist and featured performer to his time as a member of YSO Stage Crew.
WB: What are your recollections of YSO?
KB: a whole lot of fun, I mean – playing with people who were really passionate about orchestral music. I feel like in such a big place like Yale where there are so many diverse opportunities; people who find the YSO really want to be there and so I absolutely loved that. It was people who were really dedicated to the music amidst their myriad opportunities and commitments and school work. Obviously the YSO Halloween Show is my biggest memory - I got to do a few solos which was really, really cool. There was one year that I opened with a guitarist – we did some sort of… I forgot what it was, but it was fun to explore outside of the classical realm a little bit, but yeah, that was so fun. That’s my favorite memory. I think for any student that is the memory they keep with them.
BR: Could you give a shout-out to our Stage Crew as a former Stage Crew member, and how did your Stage Crew experience help your personal development?
KO: Oh my god! To be honest, it’s funny you’d ask that, because what it taught me to do was to always appreciate the people on your crew. Because now we have an organization of five buses, four trucks, and I really have learned to appreciate all those people who help you do what you do best. There would be no show without them. So 100% shout out to the stage crew.
WB: Do you look at your undergraduate years as transformative?
KO: 100%. I absolutely loved my undergraduate years because I think — whereas when I went to Philips Academy Andover, they gave me the tools to be an effective human — I feel like undergrad was the opportunity to spread my wings and explore my human. So that’s when I started not just doing orchestra and chamber music with people that were very diverse and different than me, which I think made for really interesting music. Exploring China, exploring East Asia was huge for me. I think being in an environment where they really pride themselves on being expansive and being experimental; I really loved that about Yale. I think that gave me the confidence to try bringing my beatboxing into my cello playing and also trying different forms of playing that I use today, whether it’s the singing, R&B vocal style that I use on my cello playing or - now that I’ve explored more rock genres and do more fretting on the cello - I think that all started at Yale because I was allowed and given that freedom to explore.
WB: And did you have any assistance, or was it all just exploration by yourself?
KO: It was really legitimately just my own exploration. I’ll tell you this: in terms of, for example, me kind of learning how to vocalize on the cello; in terms of the R&B, soulful sound that I feel like I have now? What happened was I was with Ole Akahoshi, who was my cello teacher at Yale. Is he still there? Please tell me he’s still there.
WB and BR: Yes
KO: Thank God. He was an amazing teacher. Not just a cello teacher, I feel more about life. And those life conversations really helped me expand my artistry. Because as a young kid, you don’t have so many experiences in your life, and he could talk about some of his experiences, and I think that helped me grow and go deeper into how I wanted to express myself, so I just love him.
But there was a day I remember – I forgot the piece it was – but I was playing a piece for him, and he told me to stop and I asked “why?,” and he said “It just sounds like you’re playing the notes, and you’re being very musical, but I don’t feel like I hear who you are in this piece.” And so he asked me to go to the Yale Music Library and to listen to various opera CDs. So, I just kind of stayed in there and listened and I heard this beautiful music, and listened to the way they sang; it’s so different from how an instrumentalist would. But I thought if I was able to accomplish that, I would be able to really sing through my instrument. So I listened and tried to emulate what I heard, and I went back to my lesson and played the piece again and he said it sounded completely different.
So it was from that completely different way of thinking about music, that I said “Well, if I can do it with this, well, I’ve always listened to popular singers through my late teens and early twenties and I loved the way they sing. I wonder if I can take that framework and utilize that with how I’d love to also play.” and I said “I don’t really know anybody that does this.” but I said “whatever. I mean, why not try it anyway?” And so I think that’s been really helpful in the way I play and I think there have been people who thought that was a really interesting way of me playing the cello.
WB: How fascinating. I’ll pass that on to Ole.
KO: Please! He’s one of the biggest influences in my playing. Not just from a technical perspective, but really from a thought/leadership perspective on how you should approach practice and playing. Because I feel like he was one that was very smart in saying “Don’t just practice for practice sake. Of course you need to do your fundamentals, but what is the purpose of this practice? What do you want to accomplish?” And then you engineer it backwards, and that’s always been super important because now that I’ve explored so many different types of music, I say well, I’m not just going to practice these fundamentals just to practice it – do I need to practice it in a completely different way to help me achieve what I’m trying to achieve? And so he’s been super instrumental in that for me.
WB: When you finished at Yale, you went to Berkeley?
KO: You know, I did not, actually. What happened was I applied to Music School and I got into Berkeley and – I’m not sure what it’s called, now – but the NEC program. I was going to go, but in my Spring semester of my Senior year, I had this video that went viral of me playing cello and beatboxing; and when that video went viral, a few opportunities came from it, which was, you know, to try out with my band, Pentatonix and we [prepped] the day before the audition which was two weeks before I graduated. That, and I also [had the opportunity] to join a tour for a Christian worship band called Gungor because they needed one instrumentalist to round out their sound, as they only had two of them. So, I thought I was going to go to Berkeley, and I still had my application there. I thought, “if these opportunities don’t pan out, well, what not what have you, it’s fine. I can continue with Berkeley. But, it happened that the tour went really well, and it looked like we were starting to do really well in The Sing Off. So I had to make a decision while I was on The Sing Off whether I was going to stop and go to Berkeley, or I’m going to forfeit my admission to Berkeley. I forfeited it, and thankfully we won the TV show, and we started this acapella business.
WB: Is there a typical day in the life of Kevin Olusola?
KO: [laughs] Absolutely not. It really depends on what’s going on. The band is so full time. But I do try to focus on the things that I personally want to get done before I start working with the band, because I love what we do, but there are personal projects that I’ve been working on that would be nice to get done first so that I feel more energized and rejuvenated before you start doing your other work. But, no, there’s not a really typical day. I couldn’t tell you one.
WB: Do you consider yourself to be a crossover artist?
KO: Interesting! I guess in the lexicon of what people deem as popular music, and how the music industry tries to define things, sure. But for me I feel like this is just me digging deeper into who I am and understanding that large part of me and how to let that out, so I mean if that’s ‘crossover art’ for people in the industry, that’s fine, but I think it’s just me trying to understand me and be authentically who I am.
WB: And what are you currently working on besides the Christmas Tour? Is there a cello beatboxing disc on its way?
KO: No, not right now, but I actually composed a piece for our tour that has a lot of looping and beatboxing and lots of strumming on the cello. But for the past five years I’ve been working on a more pop solo project which will be incorporating a lot of different sounds. I’ve just been writing a ton of songs. That’s been really fun, exploring parts of who I am, like my singing ability, trying to play different instruments while performing - which you can see on my YouTube channel. And it’s been really good. I feel like I’ve been really expanding myself in a way that allows me to write some pretty interesting songs. It’s been good. I don’t know when that’s coming out. I have been releasing samples on Spotify recently which has been good. And it’s been getting good response. I’m really happy about that.
WB: I didn’t know that. Congratulations, Kevin. I mean, your success is fantastic, and I’m glad you’re so happy in what you’re doing.
KO: Thank you so much. It was definitely unexpected, especially in the music business. I mean, you really have no idea. I’m thankful for the roots that I have to Yale in terms of just being really open minded about the way you can do things, because I think had I not had that, and thought there was only one way of doing things, then I think I would have never sought these other opportunities. And so I’m just really, really thankful.
This interview was taken in November of 2019, transcribed and edited by Brian Robinson.