’Tis the season12/16/2015
Minnesota-based vocal group Tonic Sol Fa has been putting on an annual Christmas show for almost as long as they’ve been active. In fact, the holiday season has always played a large part in Tonic Sol Fa’s makeup, with its first holiday CD coming out in 1997.
“Most people don’t know that we’re not just a Christmas group,” admitted founding member Shaun Johnson. “Most of the year we tour around with regular music. But the Christmas shows are something we’ve always been known for.”
As its Christmas following has continued to grow, so has the pressure on the group to make sure that each year holds something new for people.
“It starts Jan. 1,” Johnson said of the planning stages for the holiday show. “It’s one of the few tours that we do that’s entirely us. The rest of our tours are put together by some other agency or promoter, but this one is all us.
“We have to market them a different way,” he continued. “What makes you want to come back? In a lot of cities, it’s become a tradition for a lot of families. But that’s not going to guarantee they come back each year, so we try to add new pieces each year.”
When Tonic Sol Fa was putting together its first Christmas program, the landscape was very different. Where there are now dozens of bands and shows touring the country, 20 years ago there were only a select few doing it with any success. So when Tonic Sol Fa was looking for advice, they turned to the best.
“We reached out to Mannheim Steamroller,” Johnson said. “(Steamroller creator) Chip Davis was like, ‘Come on down! We’ll talk about whatever you want.’ It was an eye-opener. We learned a lot about putting on a good Christmas program.”
Through the early years, Tonic Sol Fa had seen members come and go. As the size of the group changed, the onstage product was adapted to more or fewer voices. For the past decade, however, the group has been a steady four-piece. That changed this year, as baritone and founding member Mark McGowan left the group.
“The four of us had been together for 15 years,” Johnson said. “So we thought, ‘What are we going to do now?’ We found out the day before a show. We had weeks of shows lined up and couldn’t just throw someone into the mix, so we performed as a trio.”
As those shows progressed, Johnson and fellow members Greg Bannwarth and Jared Dove become increasingly comfortable with the group as a trio. That confidence carried over as the group went back into the studio and recorded its latest album, “Original.”
“I think that losing somebody, it cements the other three of us,” Johnson explained. “We went back to voice lessons. We went to dance lessons. We wanted to go back into the studio, but in the past we’d all had our own roles. I’d write one song on my own, and maybe Greg would bring one, and so on. So we decided to write this one together. We just wanted to collaborate more together and release something together. And it worked. Of all the albums we’ve released recently, we’re most proud of this one. This album was done all together.” CV