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How an Obscure Song Became an A Cappella Sensation

Written by The Anand Market

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In high school, I joined Rebel Yell, an a cappella group named after the Billy Idol song. I mostly beatboxed or sang backing vocals. But one year my choir teacher gave me lead vocals.

It was to a song called “Insomniac,” by a folk rock duo called Billy Pilgrim. Our audience didn’t know the song before we sang it. None of us did, which makes it an odd choice for contemporary a cappella, where most of the songs performed are big hits. I didn’t realize until years later that the groups the whole country sang this song, without knowing anything about the original version.

But why?

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Billy Pilgrim performing in the early 1990s.

Two Emory University students, Kristian Bush and Andrew Hyra, formed Billy Pilgrim in the early 1990s, and their self-titled major-label debut came in 1994. “Insomniac” was released as a single, but did not never been classified. The group, named after the main character in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s novel “Slaughterhouse-Five,” also didn’t fare well.

The duo stopped performing together in 2000. Bush formed Sugarland with Jennifer Nettles and his music career took off. Hyra became a carpenter.

However, the strangest thing happened with “Insomniac.”

He took his own life. For nearly three decades, the song has been a staple of a cappella groups across the country, at all levels, whether in high school, college, professional groups or otherwise.

Go to YouTube and you’ll find countless renditions of the song over the years. A sample: The Straight No Chaser professional group. Ouch! has Glenbrook North High School. Article 8 to Ohio University.

Among the list of popular songs typically selected by a cappella groups, “Insomniac” stands out as an unusual favorite. Alex Kaplan, a 20-year-old student at Wesleyan University, said he performed the song with his bandthe Wesleyan Spirits, “a few days ago”.

“It’s not uncommon for an occasional song to gain a foothold in the a cappella community if it has particular qualities that lend themselves well to performance,” Kaplan said. “‘Insomniac’ is strange because it is, with maybe one or two exceptions, just about the most unknown song I’ve seen many a cappella groups do.”

It’s a melancholic, guitar-driven love song with lines like, “I hear your bare feet on the kitchen floor/I don’t have to have these dreams anymore.” »

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The recording begins with a wailing Hammond organ and the middle of the song features a musical interlude, which segues into a sort of jam. Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls sings backing vocals on the Billy Pilgrim version.

“I was looking for a girlfriend,” said Bush, the song’s writer.

“Insomniac’s” path to becoming ubiquitous in the a cappella world began before the record was even released.

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Sheet music for “Insomniac”.Credit…Billy Pilgrim

By the early 1990s, a cappella singing – without instrumental accompaniment, with the power of the human voice – was changing.

Bands like Rockapella and The Nylons were ushering in a new mainstream approach, different from the traditional barbershop quartet style of many predominantly white male bands of the time. This new style of performance meant that every instrument in a given song was considered. Drums would be represented by beatboxing, guitar strings and piano chords represented by rhythmic vocal approximations.

Deke Sharon, an a cappella-obsessed student at Tufts University, has also contributed to this change, particularly on college campuses. As musical director of the Beelzebubs, the Tufts group, he encouraged novel arrangements of pop songs. After graduating in 1991, Sharon aimed to make a career spreading the gospel a cappella.

Everyone laughed,” he said. They said, “You can’t have a cappella as a career,” but he said he told them, “It’s so wonderful.” If people only knew this, they would literally fall in love. »

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Deke Sharon was part of a shift to a new style of a cappella where every instrument was considered. He began compiling the best performances from college campuses.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

There wasn’t much a cappella recorded before this, with occasional exceptions like Bobby McFerrin’s. “Do not worry Be Happy” or the Huey Lewis and the News cover of “It’s OK.”

Sharon formed a non-profit organization called Contemporary A Cappella Society, with the aim of popularizing this new, more modern form of vocalization through a cappella festivals, award shows and networking events for enthusiasts.

He also had an idea. At the time, college bands had no way of spreading their music beyond campuses. There was no YouTube or Spotify. The web hadn’t arrived yet and even email was rare.

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Using a meticulously designed database of groups that he had compiled in his dorm room, Sharon began accepting submissions for “The Best of College A Cappella” Compilation Albums. The selected bands would appear on a compact disc that they could sell at shows. They could buy them for $5 and sell them at shows for $15. Suddenly, representation from Rutgers University, for example, might be available at Boston College.

It was around this time that John Craig Fennell, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, joined the Virginia Gentlemen, an all-male offshoot of the Virginia Glee Club. Working at a summer camp in New Jersey, a co-worker handed him Billy Pilgrim’s recently released debut album.

You hear those first squeezebox notes on the Billy Pilgrim track,” Fennell said. “I love it. It was immediately convincing.

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An arrangement made by John Craig Fennell for the Virginia Gentlemen of the University of Virginia assigned vocal parts to all singers.Credit…John Fennel

He saw an opportunity to take advantage of the a cappella change and expand the capabilities of the Virginia Gentlemen. He painstakingly transcribed the arrangement by hand – as was the custom at the time – with vocals imitating guitar and organ sounds: “JUM-BUH-DUH, JUM-BUH-DUH” .

The arrangement marked the first time all 14 members of the Virginia Gentlemen had their own vocal parts on a song, he said.

They submitted their recording to Sharon, who liked it enough to put it on one of the first “Best Of College A Cappella.” albums in the mid-1990s.

From there, the record hit campuses and the arrangement began to spread the old-fashioned way: word of mouth.

Other groups copied the arrangement by ear. A member of the Wesleyan Spirits who had performed a version in high school brought it to the Spirits. This arrangement made its way to the sound of the vineyard, a group based on Martha’s Vineyard. Similar arrangements were made to the University of Rochester And Plymouth State.

This song is what made me fall in love with my band,” Michelle Shankar, who was part of the Dartmouth Dodecaphonics from 2008 to 2012, said. “They open almost every show with this piece. It’s very energetic, super optimistic, at least in its a cappella version. And it just starts with this wall of sound – this very high belt that sounds like: “Wow! »and it has become an iconic line.

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Many singers interviewed about the song couldn’t help but sing a few bars spontaneously.

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Straight No Chaser during a performance. Its members have been singing “Insomniac” since it was a college band at Indiana University in the 1990s.Credit…Ashley White

“It’s a perfect storm that’s specific to ‘Insomniac,’” said Walter Chase, founding member of Straight No Chaser.

Hunting arranged a version after hearing it on the band’s compilation album in the mid-1990s, when it was still a college band at Indiana University: “When you’re a student and one of the main purposes for which you do a cappella is to sing for girls, to get attention and to be able to sing, the material for the soloists is this very intoxicating love song.

At an annual retreat in New Orleans around 2000, the Wesleyan Spirits performed the song at a bar during the day. The bartender informed the group that Bush, the song’s writer, happened to be performing that same night. The Spirits returned that night and Bush invited the group on stage to sing his song.

“I remember trying to play it, and it was very square,” Bush said with a laugh. “You can’t really play guitar on it.”

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Kristian Bush of Billy Pilgrim wrote the song “Insomniac” and first performed it in 1994 with Andrew Hyra. The song has become a staple of a cappella groups, although it is not a hit in itself.Credit…Elliot Liss for the New York Times

Yet Bush and Hyra had little awareness of the niche success they had created. Hyra first realized it about a decade ago, while sitting in a Martha’s Vineyard hotel with his family, including his sister, actress Meg Ryan.

The Vineyard Sound were nearby and started singing “Insomniac.”

“I was like, ‘Holy cow! “, Hyra said.

Ryan, who still considers herself Billy Pilgrim’s No. 1 fan, said she couldn’t believe her ears.

“I’m not a singer, but I can still sing along with this song,” the actress said. “They always seem to write these songs that somehow give poetry to something very universal.”

With the help of films like “Pitch Perfect” and the old NBC show “The Sing-Off,” a cappella has become more mainstream. Production values ​​are higher and transcription is easier using software. But Virginia Gentlemen’s arrangement of “Insomniac” remains a constant.

Billy Pilgrim reunited during the pandemic. The band never made any money from covers, but airplay of the song left them elated. At concerts, “Insomniac” is the most requested song, Bush said. They even play a new version.

“Maybe this song should have been a big hit,” Hyra says.

Bush finds this whole phenomenon delightful.

“The music business is a whole bunch of ‘You’re already failing,'” he said, adding, “Every once in a while something comes along and attaches a little balloon to your belt loop and all of a sudden you’re a little lost.” lighter, you know? And I think that’s what it does for me.