Peter Hollens is a master vocalist and recording artist from Eugene Oregon. He makes music almost devoid of instrumentation save for that which is made by his mouth. He has been married for five years to another glorious vocalist and stage performer, Evynne Hollens. As a solo artist he is a walking choir, together they are the Seraphim of the pacific northwest.
I first discovered him when a friend sent me a link to Peter’s cover of the theme from the video game, Skyrim, the Elder Scrolls. Over 120 tracks were used in this arrangement – 119 of them were Peter’s own voice. The other four tracks were the music of Lindsey Stirling, the adorable violin-playing dub-stepper who competed on America’s Got Talent in 2010. The Skyrim video, shot in Provo, Utah, was actually produced by Lindsey’s ‘people’, with cinematography by Devin Graham.
After some e-mail tag, Peter managed to track me down through an instant message and we spent the better part of two hours on the phone discussing his career, his wife, his early discovery of music and his future. Peter’s range and talent are evident in his songs but what is also evident is his work ethic and quest for perfection.
Another artist might be satisfied with a few tracks from each level within his range, which in Peter’s case is stunning, but Peter says he’s “just not satisfied with the fullness of sound until you get into that spread of 70-140 tracks.”
His musical story is right out of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers”. Peter was an introvert, a “stay-at-home geeky kinda kid” who spent uncountable hours on his dad’s IBM 880 where he learned to play text-based games. His dad was a botanist but also used the computer to interact with fellow brain cancer sufferers in a supporting and inspirational role. His father has been blind most of Peter’s life, a consequence of the cancer, and Peter stayed home a lot to help out. His dad is the longest known survivor in the world of his particular cancer and that resilience has certainly influenced Peter. He said, “My dad is a champion of perseverance.”
Peter’s early access to computers – he types 150 words per minute – has helped him develop his social media expertise and says, “If it weren’t for music, it’s what I’d be doing full-time.” His knowledge of the internet has helped his exposure.
When Peter was in middle-school he hated his French teacher, and I suspect the feeling was mutual. He begged his mother not to make him take French the following year. She acquiesced, but on the condition that he take choir. His reaction was on the order of, “Mom, that’s worse. Kids already don’t talk to me and now they never will.” But his disdain for Ms. Misérable won out and he took choir. He loved it immediately. “Hey, there’s cute girls here and I’m better at this than the other guys in the class.” Although well-rounded, he found his greatest joy in music, “I was a three-sport letter in high school but only really enjoyed singing.”
His skills and drive earned him a “full ride” to The University of Oregon where two other defining events happened – he became heavily involved in a cappella groups and he met his beloved Evynne, whom he adores (cue the collective awww). Since graduating Peter has performed, produced and judged college a cappella music around the country. Peter was featured on NBC’s The Sing Off, performing with On The Rocks, earning plaudits from the judges. His abilities are as boundless as his energy. His early work is clear evidence of the epigenetic effect of talent nurtured by hard work. So as Gladwell described the circumstances of success in “Outliers”, Peter’s unusual upbringing, his French teacher and his prescient mom, created the platform on which Peter’s creative genes could be expressed.
Musically, Peter is mostly influenced by artists like Bobby McFerrin, for his diversity, range, and his ability to transcend musical boundaries and like Bobby, Peter and Evynne love to sing for live audiences. They have both traveled extensively while performing on Royal Caribbean cruise lines.
“The experience has been invaluable and Evynne and I want to create our own show for RC.” In fact the cruise line installed a million-dollar video wall on two of their ships last year, “It’s a full 45-minute production show with dancers/singers and entirely made from the human voice and mouth and it is based off of what I do online on YouTube, and was written by Evynne & I and my friend Loren Van Brenk.”
Peter used to teach voice and says his classical training is the structural core of anything he produces. “Any intelligent singer can use the fundamentals of classical singing to inform his art.” He doesn’t teach any longer because of his schedule but also because he became frustrated at his inability to articulate what he could do with his voice in a way that his students could find useful. His wife continues to teach voice.
Evynne has a sort of Broadway-ingénue quality to her voice. I have kids so I’ve watched a lot of animated movies. I defy you to listen to Peter and Evynne’s version of “The Prayer” and not picture yourself wiping a tear while watching the closing credits to a Disney movie. She has one of those memorable, wholly likable voices. What does Peter say about her work? “Evynne is a perfectionist.”
So is he. My experience with interviewing people who operate on a higher plain is that they are afflicted with what I call the curse of genius. The physicist Dr. Debbie Berebichez told me she has so many ideas it’s difficult to relax. I asked Peter if he is hyper-critical of music or can he just enjoy it like the rest of us. He said, “Ahh I can look like a jaded a-hole, because something is missed that shouldn’t have been or a performance doesn’t match my expectations. It’s definitely a curse in that respect.” But that curse is a coin and the other side gives him the ability to make music that resonates with us on physical and soulful levels.
I asked Peter what advice he would give other young vocal artists. “Whatever it is you’re trying to do, find a niche and put everything you’ve got into it. You have to sacrifice a lot to achieve success. You have to expect to lose friendships, time away from family and other interests. I gave up everything to buy my equipment and now I live and work in my studio.” Peter claims to have no interest in fame and given his blunt enthusiasm, I believe him. This is where the experience with his dad has influenced him. “I just want to help other people. I want to be an inspiration.”
Look for Peter and Evynne to create and perform more often for Royal Caribbean. “It’s a fantastic job.” And here’s a scoop, Peter will soon be making another Skyrim-style video based upon an HBO series.
This was my last question to Peter: What is your vocal range and how many instruments can you imitate?
“Range, when I wake up I have a low Db, (when I sing bass) and I can chest a High Screaming F (above the high C that classical tenors rave about hitting). Although, that’s studio High F, I wouldn’t dare try that live. It would be ugly. I hate talking about range, because it sounds cocky, but it’s very large compared to most, and I’m blessed I’m able to sing period.
Instruments? Well, just depends on what the song calls for, really…. I have no idea.”
I have an idea; subscribe to Peter’s site and find out – http://www.youtube.com/peterhollens. You won’t be disappointed.
Peter’s newest release is his cover for “Some Nights” - https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_AfTBoCKJbU
His album, Hollens, was produced by A Cappella Records, an Indie publishing company run by five young men out of San Francisco. It’s available through his website at www.peterhollens.com
Other ways to link to Peter:
by Joe Hefferon, Author of The Sixth Session and The 7th Level – Designing Your Extraordinary Life, due out in June 2012