April 23, 2007

Tonic Sol-Fa takes Delano area by storm

By Kelsey Linden
Staff Writer

The house lights dim upon the audience as four men step onto the stage.

With only a microphone in each hand, the crowd grows curious in its cheers. There are no guitars and no drums. All they need are their voices, their true essence of harmony.

As a benefit for St. Peter’s Catholic School in Delano, a cappella group Tonic Sol-Fa, performed at Rockford High School April 14.

Members of the group include Greg Bannwarth, Mark McGowan, Shaun Johnson, and Jared Dove.

The group has been together 12 years, but Dove did not join until 2000.

When first coming up with the name “Tonic Sol-Fa,” the group turned to the dictionary.

“Tonic Sol-Fa literally means do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do,” Bannwarth said.

Aside from McGowan and Johnson, who attended St. John’s University, the group was spread out around the country. However, it was in Minnesota where the group became one.

“We call Minnesota our home because this is where it all started,” Bannwarth said. “We are so accepted here,”

McGowan and Dove are the only music majors in the group, but when they initially met, they found music was an interest that all four shared.

“We had other plans. However, music seemed like something different and unique and we wanted to try and see what would happen,” Bannwarth said.

When starting out, Tonic Sol-Fa played primarily at colleges. The first few years were very rough, but they kept pushing and performing wherever they could.

“We starved for, like, the first two years on Ramen noodles and macaroni and cheese,” Johnson said with a laugh.

Bannwarth also added, “It’s a challenge. This business is about being able to challenge yourself and love what you do.”

A question that many ask the group is ‘Why a cappella?’

Chuckling to himself, Dove said, “Besides the fact that we can’t play instruments? It was the difference. We’re able to make the sound much more contemporary. Just because of the fact that it is a cappella, a lot of people unfortunately categorize it as barber shop.”

McGowan, who started singing in high school, also said, “I just got hooked on that kind of harmony, and I think we all did.”

“A lot of families will come up after the show and say that the whole family can listen to it,” McGowan said. “I like how families can bond together by listening to it.”

Agreeing, Johnson continued, “It’s just so unique. We really do all listen to totally different styles of music. Greg likes R&B; Mark likes ‘70s and ‘80s. I like country, and Jared is, like, anything that is on a commercial. What’s nice is that we can go and sing anywhere. It’s not like ‘Where is the band?’”

“There is a whole a cappella world out there, and we kind of stay out of it. We don’t care, we want to go out and sing, compete, and just do our thing,” Johnson said.

As far as the group goes, McGowan said, “We all have similar values, so we can work things out. Three of us have families and, for the most part, everyone is very considerate and understanding.”

“They’re all good guys. Everyone has their strengths. It’s definitely a collaborate effort,” Dove said about his bandmates.

Currently, the group performs for many fairs and festivals in the summer, and the members also enjoy performing for corporate shows, as well.

When asked why they perform for so many benefits, Bannwarth replied, “It’s a show, like anything else, but at least you can help people to make money for a greater cause. It helps everybody.”

Tonic Sol-Fa has recorded six CDs and the seventh, which Bannwarth revealed to be a Christmas CD, is scheduled to come out this year.

Their most recent album, “Boston to Beijing,” is said to be the group’s most popular.

When asked about the success of “Boston to Beijing,” Bannwarth said, “I think it is our most popular CD because it’s had more nationwide distributions than any of the other ones. It just depends on the time of year, but the newest ones are generally always the most popular.

“Shaun will typically have the biggest hand in the writing portion of it. He comes up with the ideas, but everyone comes up with their own stamp, with their own part on it. We all know that we couldn’t be doing this without each other.”

When writing, Johnson does not use the same old method every time. Whatever comes to him, he writes.

“Some things are just experience. Sometimes it’s the melody; sometimes it’s a phrase, and sometimes it’s two words of a phrase,” Johnson said. “We think we get a good song out of a hundred. Hopefully, you get better with every CD.”

When it comes to awards and appearances, Tonic Sol-Fa was inducted into the Midwest Music Hall of Fame in 1997, has appeared in Newsweek magazine, and on Jay Leno’s late night television show.

The band has performed in 48 states, and has also toured Mexico and Canada.

Upon their success, Johnson said, “It’s cool that we’ve done it, but we are looking to do more than that. We’ve always been pushing, pushing, and pushing, ever since we started. I think the only reason we have success is that we just work all the time.”

Some aspects of the business are just unexplainable for Bannwarth.

“The e-mails that you get. We’ve gotten some really crazy e-mail where all we can do is sit back and say ‘wow.’ It’s things that you never think of when the people make your music a part of their lives.”

As far as goals go, Bannwarth said, “We have so many things that we want to do. This year, we are looking to get worldwide distribution.”

Johnson also added, “We’d like to do some more overseas touring, and work with the radio more.”

“We just want to continue to take the world by storm with a different sound,” said Dove.

“It’s been successful and it continues to grow,” McGowan said.

Johnson clearly emphasized, “We are not the best. Everybody’s better at something.”

Joking to himself, he laughed in saying, “It’s luck. Luck, I tell you!”

When asked to offer advice to aspiring musicians, McGowan stated, “Expect it to be a ton of work, but always believe, learn from everything, and be able to accept criticism. It takes love, but you have to believe in it and work really hard.”

Johnson also recommended, “I would just perform constantly and do it outside of your town. Just push it everywhere. You’ve got to call people and do it.”

Expressing an interest in music his entire life, Dove added, “When people see you perform, that’s pretty much your calling card. The more you’re out there and the more people you’re in front of, the more you can be seen.”

Not everything is easy, but Tonic Sol-Fa loves being different.

“People are always like, ‘if you just had instruments, we’d sign you.’ We don’t want to do that. We’re not looking for a big record deal. It doesn’t matter, because people get it,” Johnson said.

“It’s a much more hands-on approach to everyone. This is music that they can all agree on and all listen to,” Dove said. “It tends to bring families together. It’s fun to take something that isn’t the norm and be able to perform in a way that makes it appealing to everybody.”

“Everything is such a blessing. Let’s just hope to God it doesn’t end tomorrow,” Johnson added with a laugh. “Please don’t end tomorrow. I love you. I love you.”

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