background_fid.png
Inform, Entertain, Inspire
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

This a capella group known for singing in stairwells now has a new Christmas album

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We sing in stairwells. That's the tagline of the Dallas-based a cappella group Kings Return.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) Ave Maria.

SHAPIRO: And singing in stairwells is exactly what they do. Of course, they post videos of it to social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KINGS RETURN: (Singing in Latin).

SHAPIRO: That's J.E. McKissic, Jamall Williams, Vaughn Faison and Gabe Kunda with a rendition of "Ave Maria." All four of them have day jobs. Gabe is a voiceover artist.

GABE KUNDA: You've probably heard me on Disney's "Encanto," rated PG; Marvel Studios' "Eternals" - now playing.

SHAPIRO: J.E. and Vaughn work as musicians full time. Jamall - he works in insurance. But in their free time, they sing. And this year they've put out a Christmas album. They talked to our co-host Audie Cornish, and she started off by asking them how the whole stairwell thing came about.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You know, it's a little bit like the shower, right? Like, the acoustics are just so (laughter). But most of us, when we start doing that kind of singing, we hope no one else is around. For you guys, what was it like for you kind of being in that space the first time you tried it?

KUNDA: This is Gabe. I think anytime anybody goes into some type of, like, echo-y (ph) chamber, you're just kind of like, this is really cool. And I think as musicians, the inclination is to definitely sing something.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) I know your eyes in the morning sun.

CORNISH: Can anyone else confirm?

J E MCKISSIC: Whenever we're in there rehearsing, Jamall pretty much sings all the time. He's always riffing and running. And so...

JAMALL WILLIAMS: This is Jamall, and I just want to point out that that is a lie.

VAUGHN FAISON: Yeah, this is Vaughn. I'll say it's a good mix between the both of them.

CORNISH: See; now the truth comes out.

WILLIAMS: A form of the truth.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

MCKISSIC: So for those who didn't know - this is J.E. - the church where I lead worship happens to be the location of the stairwell where we record our videos and where we rehearse. So it was a matter of convenience that it just so happened that our rehearsal spot has a really good stairwell with great acoustics. And that's kind of how it all happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) And you come to me on a summer breeze, keep me warm in your love. Then you softly leave.

CORNISH: You know, given that some of you have mentioned that you perform in churches - right? - leading worship teams, how have you coped during the pandemic? - because obviously in the early days, there was this moment where, obviously, many churches were closed. And the act of singing itself - right? - was considered potentially dangerous. And I wonder what that was like for you.

MCKISSIC: It was kind of scary at first because we knew that we had to continue doing worship, but it was all virtual. Meanwhile, Kings Return is still rehearsing regularly. And one of our most viral videos, "Ubi Caritas," was shot during the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KINGS RETURN: (Singing in Latin).

MCKISSIC: And so many people - their comments were saying, this is really helping me through a difficult time. I feel so alone, and I feel so isolated. But this music is helping me find peace in this world that feels so broken right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KINGS RETURN: (Singing in Latin).

CORNISH: What are the reactions like? Like, what are the kinds of comments that you guys are getting on these videos?

WILLIAMS: This is Jamall. I think because of the fact that, you know, we're in a stairwell and we're, you know, dressed in, you know, athletic attire or whatever the case may be, people just don't really anticipate us singing some of the music that we do.

FAISON: One of the things that we always get is, like, I was not expecting that. You know, it's just like they were either expecting us to pull out a beatbox and start rapping or, like - or do, you know, a breakdown dance or something like that. And I'm like, nah, that's not our flow. We just wanted to do something that was beautiful. So we get those comments.

CORNISH: Yeah. It's interesting, people's ideas of where voices belong.

KUNDA: Right.

MCKISSIC: Yeah.

KUNDA: Right.

WILLIAMS: Which is part of the reason why we love, you know, doing what we do just because, you know, the fact that we're four, you know, African American men that are able to do, you know, multiple genres of music. Like, we just had a gig at a school yesterday. So it's always cool to, I guess, kind of be a face that can show that there are no limits or, you know, no ceilings.

CORNISH: I bet the kids were shocked, though, still (laughter).

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. They always do.

CORNISH: You guys show up like you're going to do a TikTok dance, and then it's like, nope.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Now for something different.

KUNDA: That's right.

WILLIAMS: Take this four-part harmony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) Amen.

CORNISH: This Christmas, the band is healthy. You did put out a Christmas album. Do you have a favorite moment or song from that album?

WILLIAMS: This is Jamall. I really love "Carol Of The Bells."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) Hark, how the bells - sweet, silver bells - all seem to say, throw cares away.

WILLIAMS: You know, definitely one of the ones that was kind of difficult to learn and to kind of lock down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) One seems to hear words of good cheer from everywhere, filling the air. Oh, how they pound, raising their sound.

WILLIAMS: The thing that I love the most about it is that it's super-collaborative in the sense that, like, we are all kind of sharing the lead at various points in the song. So, like, OK, now let me turn my part down because I'm singing background while J.E., you know, lets his part flourish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAROL OF THE BELLS")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) Hark, how the bells - sweet, silver bells - all seem to say, throw cares away. Christmas is here, bringing good cheer to young and old, meek and the bold. Ding-dong, ding-dong - that is the song.

WILLIAMS: So I think that's the thing that I love about it the most - because of the fact that we all are so in tune with one another and just kind of knowing, you know, what to do to help to bring another part out.

KUNDA: This is Gabe. Another addition to that song, I think, is our last one, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

KUNDA: We kind of took the motifs of the different tunes that we did in the EP and embedded it into the intro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) Up on the housetop, reindeer - from now on, our troubles will be...

KUNDA: And then it kind of embellishes into this, you know, great four-part harmony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) ...Out of sight.

KUNDA: Just kind of around the furnace there, getting warm, you know, and you're singing, hot cocoa around and stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) And have yourself a merry little Christmas now - merry little Christmas now.

CORNISH: Now, I understand you guys talked about a dream of maybe one day performing at the Vatican. And I don't know how far and wide or viral these videos have gone yet, but have you gotten a call yet (laughter) from the Pope?

MCKISSIC: Not quite (laughter).

CORNISH: No?

MCKISSIC: No. Well, I'm not sure what kind of music he likes, but we haven't heard that he's a Kings Return fan yet. But...

WILLIAMS: This is Jamall. I mean, he seems to be pretty progressive. So, I mean, if you have any contacts that know him...

CORNISH: Get in there.

WILLIAMS: ...Feel free to send one of our videos on.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UP ON THE HOUSE TOP")

KINGS RETURN: (Singing) Up on the housetop, reindeer pause. Out jumps good old Santa Claus.

SHAPIRO: That's Jamall Williams, Vaughn Faison, J.E. McKissic and Gabe Kunda of the singing group Kings Return. Their new album is called "A Merry Little Christmas." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.