A collective led by creative directors Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman, Choir! Choir! Choir! has amassed a dedicated and passionate community of singers, along with a thriving international fan base on YouTube and beyond. Acclaimed for the ways in which the group brings music alive, its true importance may lie in something much more fundamental: it brings people — of all walks of life — together.
That was on display at an incredible Carnegie Hall tribute to the legacy of David Bowie. There, the duo brought together 2,800 people, alongside Debbie Harry, the Pixies, the Flaming Lips, and Cyndi Lauper in a stirring finale: a rendition of Space Oddity.
The New Yorker put it this way:
On its surface, Choir! Choir! Choir! is exactly what its name sounds like: a gathering of enthusiastic singers. Between a hundred and three hundred participants show up at a bar or concert hall, pay five dollars to receive a lyrics sheet (the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” and Toto’s “Africa” have been among the hundreds featured), and are divided into three sections, by pitch. Led by Adilman, as conductor, and Goldman, on guitar, they rehearse a three-part harmony and then perform it. A few days later, a video of the performance goes up on YouTube. What Goldman and Adilman realized soon after they started the “project” (they’re not sure what else to call it) is that they had hit on a profound way for people to connect and interact.
“The simplicity of it is kind of frightening in this day and age,” Goldman told me, recently. “You sell yourself short by connecting with ten thousand people in one hundred and forty characters over the Internet. People don’t even go to movies anymore. People feel something in that room that we’re in.” He and Adilman were sitting at a booth in Caffé Brasiliano, a diner in Toronto’s West End that served Italian food from metal bins, cafeteria-style, and would be closing the next week. The table next to us was entirely occupied by uniformed police officers, and much of the ordering took place by yelling back and forth between the tables and cashier. It was a fitting neighborhood joint at which to meet the guys—their activities, onstage and off, tend to be community-based. They had wanted to come and say goodbye.
Goldman, forty, is unshaven and bearish. He’s the songwriter, a brooding perfectionist who’s as likely to snap at you as he is to deliver a snappy joke. “He views the crowd as an instrument,” Kate Rae, a Choir! veteran, said. “We’re singing and there are maybe two hundred and fifty people, and if one person is off he picks it up right away and calls them out and fixes it.” Adilman, forty-four, is the showman: lighter, bouncy, and beatific. He’s also remarkably compact; he looks like a character from a Super Mario game. A full head of died blond hair swoops to the right of his face, “like Justin Bieber, if Bieber was a Japanese Jew, with a mustache and rolls of fat,” he said.
Choir! fills its two sessions every week, appears often on the radio across Canada, and has been a rallying point for tributes. When Prince died, Choir! packed Massey Hall—Toronto’s Carnegie Hall—with nineteen hundred and ninety-nine (a.k.a. 1999) fans for a rendition of “When Doves Cry.” After Bowie died, the video of the Choir! tribute to him garnered more than seven hundred and fifty thousand views on YouTube. The group has opened for Patti Smith and Jay Leno, and performed with Tegan and Sara. When Leonard Cohen saw a video of Choir!’s version of “Hallelujah,” he e-mailed a friend to say that the group had breathed new life into his much-covered song. Rufus Wainwright, less than a week before he was scheduled to reprise his Judy Garland concert at Carnegie Hall, travelled to Toronto to sing “Hallelujah” with the group. (He’ll bring his tribute performance to that city on June 23rd.)
Goldman and Adilman began collaborating nearly eight years ago, when Adilman was asked to assemble a small choir, with Goldman on guitar, to play at a musician friend’s fortieth-birthday party. (The birthday boy was Matt Murphy, whom indie rock fans will remember from the Super Friendz). The energy was palpable, and the group met with a few others in a real-estate office two years later, in February, 2011, for Choir!’s first organized sing-along. The choirs grew, and by 2012 they were filling venues. “People wanted to connect. People love singing. There are a million studies that talk about it,” Adilman said. “And then these pop songs. We attach so much meaning to these songs.” The idea is to have the lead vocals coming from the crowd; the performers onstage become the backup singers. “That’s the shift we try and create,” Goldman said.
As people have opened up to the songs, they’ve opened up to one another. Rae, an old friend of Adilman’s, joined in 2011. “I was going through a rough time, a divorce. I was super bummed,” she said, noting that in her thirties it had become difficult to meet new people: everyone was coupled up, having kids, not going out as much. “Nobu called me and said, ‘You’re coming to this thing.’ I went and left thinking, This is going to dramatically change my life. And it did. It completely did.” Rae ended up meeting Shawn Cantelon, whom she began dating. They’ve been married since 2014. “No one I know goes to church or anything like that,” Rae said. “It’s a remarkable thing. They teach the melody and the harmony, and that first time we hear them together you get what we call a ‘choirgasm.’ I don’t know anything else in my life that creates that feeling.”
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