Pro Voice: A Chat with Thirdstory
April 22, 2016
In a world where a majority of music flooding the airwaves is heavily airbrushed with production and other parlor tricks, very rarely do our ears come across a sound that has chipped away at the smoke screens and exposed true talent. When I first stumbled upon Thirdstory, the refreshing authenticity of the trio was like diving into a babbling spring. It was purely natural. In a bittersweet moment, I wanted to make sure every ear heard their voices while wanting to keep the treasure all to myself. Elliott Skinner, Richard Saunders, and Ben Lusher are three skillful, stylish, and overwhelming humble musicians effortlessly sharing their gifts through music.
Individually, each voice floats through a diverse range of tones and eventually, like a molecule, attaches itself to the voices of his bandmates and develops a molded melody of climactic proportions. Ben would use the word triumvirate here somehow. After a series of viral YouTube covers (I’d start with “Style”), their following has grown exponentially (no surprise there), and opened the doors to opportunity. Currently on tour with Tori Kelly, the gents of Thirdstory were in Miami this past Sunday and we sat down with them before they hit the stage at The Fillmore. Be a fly on the wall during our conversation below:
You guys are all Young Arts alums, how’s it been for you? How has it helped you?
Elliott – Young Arts is actually the reason that we are a group.
That’s how you guys met?
Ben – Yeah! Well I did Young Arts in 2010 and Richard was my R.A.
Elliott – And 3 years later, I met Richard at a singer-songwriter showcase that was hosted by Young Arts.
And how did Young Arts help you in terms of finding your path musically, or connecting you with people who could help you carve it out?
Richard (the oldest) – I think Young Arts was amazing in that it encouraged me, at least in my personal story, at exactly the right age, right when I was figuring out what college I wanted to go to, or what kind of path I wanted to explore. After high school, it kind of said like “you’re doing a great job in the arts, so why not continue doing that?” so that was really cool.
How do you go about arranging the songs and choosing which covers you do?
Elliott – It’s a super collaborative process. We usually start looking at the charts and seeing what’s popular because that’s kind of what the “YouTube game” is about– essentially finding things that are relevant. And then we see which ones have great melodies, which ones speak to us musically. Once we find that song, we try to put it in a different beat almost. It’s just a process of learning the song and adding things here, adding harmonies there. We each have different ideas that we bring up and it’s a really open process of putting in ideas and having selfless criticism with each other but adding in when we need to add in.
Richard – One crazy thing that surprises people is that we don’t write any of our arrangements out. It’s all completely done by ear. Coming from college where there’s a lot of written music, it’s refreshing to come to this group and be able to create an arrangement out of thin air.
Did you do anything separately before you met?
Richard – Yeah, when Elliott and I first met at the singer-songwriter showcase, we both had our own bands and were performing our own original music and we both loved each other’s stuff and began to collaborate. Ben came into the picture once Elliott and I were deciding we wanted to 3-part harmonize and I knew him from Young Arts and it kind of came together.
Yeah, you each have such distinct voices with ranges that are equally wide, how do you go about selecting who would be best for what part?
Ben – It’s organic. With the covers, once we pick the song and put the tune to a new beat or something, we’ll pretty much just sing through the song a million times.
So there’s a lot of improve involved?
Ben – Yeah. Especially now that we’ve done so much arranging and writing together, it’s just even faster and more obvious like “oh, Elliott you sing this part”. By this point, we pretty much know that for a certain sound we want, which sort of…
Elliott – Configuration.
Ben – Yes, configuration or harmony parts. It’s pretty quick to see whose part will be whose.
I personally hate hearing my voice [currently cringing while transcribing] — how do you guys feel hearing and re-hearing your voices?
Ben – Oh! Yeah. We’re used to it now but yeah, there’s still an element of “oh man this feels weird.”
And with the videos, have you ever been reached out to by the artists that you’ve chosen to cover?
All three – Tove Lo.
Richard – Actually tweeted us. With the very first video
The Sam Smith one?
Richard – Yeah, the Sam Smith video, we didn’t get a direct response from Sam but we did get a direct response from his band members and his team and we ended up doing some writing for the album with Sam Smith’s bandmates. It was really cool.
That’s super cool!
Ben – Yeah, that’s actually how we got connected to Tori because when we put out that video, Tori was opening up for Sam and I guess Ruben, the pianist from Sam Smith’s band, showed Tori the video and then she tweeted at us. That was kind of our first connection with Tori. A couple of months back we got that e-mail from her team asking about the tour.
Okay, top dream covers you’d love to perform. Go.
Elliott – Ohhhhhhh…
Ben – That’s a tough one.
Richard – Cover song?
Yeah, you get to Thirdstorify one song.
Richard – That’s really hard.
Elliott – Well, I’m not sure, but there’s one song that we’ve done since the beginning that we’ve never done a video of but we try to do it at every show and it’s “Many Rivers to Cross” by Jimmy Cliff. But yeah… I don’t know [laughs].
Ben – Uh…Okay! I can only pick one? Alright. Pass. I have like four.
Okaaaaay you can pick two.
Ben – Okay great because we have a couple that we’ve kind of done but never really finished. “Lucky” by Britney Spears [WHAT THE WHAT?]. I mean, there are tons that we’ve covered but in terms of the ones that would be really random…
That would go viral though.
Richard – [laughs]
Ben – “Lucky” uh, “Cable Car” by The Fray, “Daydreamer” by Adele [brb, dead] or really probably any Adele song, come on.
Richard – What was the Usher tune?
Ben – Oh! “Burn”
Just do all of them. Every one.
Richard – That covered everything, but I would love to dive into like Joni Mitchell territory. It could be “A Case of You” but there’s a lot of artists who do that song.
Elliott – What was the one that we never sang, but we listened to and wanted to do?
“Both Sides Now”?
Richard – No, it’s from a later album.
Ben – But that’s an amazing one. Oh!
Richard – “Down to You”.
Alright, another thing is, yes you’re talented singers, but you’re also very stylish in the way that you dress in the videos. Let’s be real, who does the styling and how many outfits do you go through
Richard – Yes. If there isn’t a stylist involved or anything like that, it’s usually Elliott. I mean, we all have our styles going on but he’s kind of the one who has the vision for what will go best with what. It’s hard to style three people and not make it look super boy band-y.
Yeah, you all have your distinct styles, it definitely translates. Is that absorbed from living in New York?
Elliott – I guess so. I mean, we all actually like fashion and it’s a different way of expressing yourself. Ben wears a lot of crewneck sweatshirts. Like that’s just his thing. Richard just looks dope in bombers. Like I have a hoodie on but I don’t wear bombers the way he wears bombers. It’s kind of finding out what our strengths are fashion-wise and how they work together.
Richard – Yeah. I do think New York fashion is a big influence. Personally, I love walking around Williamsburg even though it gets kind of crazy and weird, but I love all the styles and crazy/dope outfits.
What part of New York do you guys live in?
Ben – I live in Brooklyn.
Richard – Same.
Elliott – I live in Upper Manhattan.
Ben – I live in Park Slope right now which is like “Momville”. It’s cool and nice but if you discount kids under the age of seven, I’m like consistently the youngest person who lives there.
Does NYC inspire you guys musically and creatively in that way?
Ben – Hugely.
Elliott – We have a song we’re performing tonight that’s based off of New York.
Ben – There’s that, but also in a broader sense, Hip-Hop is a big thing for us and I think New York plays into a lot.
Richard – I’ll say lyrically, I definitely would say that we were making a point to make it a lot about New York stories and the song Elliott was talking about: “G-Train” is about being on the train the struggles you have to take.
Ben – Seriously! Because people don’t know. Like, I can’t wait ’til we go to New York and perform that. They will really, deeply feel the frustration within that song.
Richard – But yeah, I think in other songs we’ve mentioned specific New York places and it’s very much a huge presence in our music.
In terms of your original music, when is that going to be incorporated into your online presence?
Richard – We’re working on putting songs out soon. I would say, just look out for stuff maybe in the next few months. We have a full album pretty much completed. We’re making some finishing touches to it.
And do you have any dream collaborations or projects you’d like to accomplish?
Elliott – Yeah, there’s a lot. We like to look at ourselves as three individual singer-songwriters that are coming together and creating the idea of Thirdstory. I think that from our separate influences that make us unique but together there’s just so many people we’d love to work with. We’d love to collaborate with. One of them obviously being Tori because she’s an amazing artist.
Ben – I mean, Pharrell is at the top of my list, for sure.
Richard – Totally. Ever since high school I think there’s like a triumvirate of Bjork, Thom York, and Kanye.
Ben – Kanye West. Absolutely.
Elliott – There’s just too many. It might be a cliché but I’m deeply in love with Matt Corby.
Ben – That would be scary. If you guys collabed that would be too tight.
Elliott – But yeah, James Blake. I really like his sounds. I’ve no concept of that idea so I think that would add so much.
Ben – Totally, he’s like an architect.
He actually played here during Art Basel a few years ago and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while.
Elliott – I…opened for him.
Richard – He was there!
No way! What? I feel dumb.
Elliott – So Young Arts hosted…
It was at Young Arts!
Elliott – Yeah! The openers were three people from Young Arts and I was one of those people. It was crazy.
James Blake is one of those artists that sucks you into a vortex and you come out the other side not knowing where you’ve come from.
Richard – Yeah. His live show is so unique. We’ve brought it up a few times as we got ready for this tour. He just takes you into his own universe and it’s amazing.
Okay, video-wise. Are you also a part of the editing in the way your live videos are shot?
Elliott – Yeah. We always send in references to the video director and it’s a somewhat collaborative process with that person and telling them the vibe we want.
Ben – We’re always the ones to make final decisions on location and styling. We want to make sure everything fits the vibe of the song.
Richard – It seems like somebody just brings a camera and films us randomly on the sidewalk.
Yeah, these three stylish cherubs popping up out of nowhere.
Richard – But there’s so much that goes into it it’s crazy.
And clearly. If you aren’t smitten over these guys, read through our Unearthed Gems piece we did on the trio almost a year ago. This is the type of act that deserves the praise it receives and we know it’ll only grow from here.