While the Vineyard Sound was strictly made up of members of the CocoBeaux, the Bandersnatchers, and the Wesleyan group, there would be open auditions for this new venture. In the spring of ’93, Townsend went on a mini-college tour, scouting guys from the Hullabahoos, the Bubs, and elsewhere for a new group to perform that summer on the Cape. It was the same business model. Except that Hyannis Sound would have one advantage: population. Where Martha’s Vineyard was made up of six towns, Cape Cod comprised some twenty-three towns.
On the first night, Townsend sat down with the boys of Hyannis Sound to lay out the group’s mission statement. This was not
The Real World: A Cappella.
“This summer, you’re looking to grow as much as possible in musicality and stage presence,” he said. “You’ll also grow personally. You’ll make some money too.” He appointed two music directors. He assigned house responsibilities. “The best thing you can do,” he told the ten men of Hyannis Sound, “is to put yourself in front of an audience. Learn five songs and knock their socks off.” Musically they were probably better than Vineyard Sound. But they weren’t motivated. On the weekends, Townsend would take the ferry to Cape Cod to check in on the newbies. “They’d say,
We’re not making enough money
,” Townsend remembers. “Well, there are probably sixty empty cases of beer on the porch. Why don’t you go return those bottles and make some money?” They were loving the volleyball court, though.
Both groups began doing community outreach work, stopping by the local schools at the start of every summer to conduct music workshops (which were really advertisements for both Sounds disguised as goodwill). Needless to say, women everywhere fell in love with them. Both Sounds were invited to family barbecues. They were doing a hundred shows in ninety days.
Fairly quickly, the groups took on their own personalities. In a reverse, Vineyard Sound embraced a laid-back spirit. Meanwhile, improbably, Hyannis Sound became something of the overachiever. They moved out of the house with the volleyball court and began recording albums—a live album every summer, and a studio album every two years. (The Vineyard would only do live albums.) But both were thriving enterprises. The Hyannis Sound albums sell close to two thousand copies each—and the money goes right back into the group. They even performed the national anthem at Fenway Park.
And then Townsend got cocky. In 1995, the year after launching Hyannis Sound, he set his sights on Newport, launching, yup, Newport Sound. It flopped. Early in the summer the group scored a one-night, eight-thousand-dollar gig on a yacht. And then they didn’t work for two weeks. “The gigs were too inconsistent,” Townsend says. And so Newport Sound folded.
Ed Boyer of the Bubs was a member of Hyannis Sound and recorded their 2006 album,
This is what he remembers of his time on the Cape: “The house was not well maintained,” he says. And the house parties were frequent. “Every Friday night,” Ed says. “Sometimes more. Inevitably a handful of girls would crash on the couch.” This was actually a good thing, and not for the reasons you’d expect. “I’d wake up in the morning,” Ed says, “and these eighteen-year-old girls would be
cleaning our house
.” What? “Cape Cod is full of old people,” Ed says. “Except for us ten guys. We were the only market in town, literally.”
As the empire expanded, Townsend—who by now had left Merv Griffin Enterprises and was living in New York—set about legitimizing the operation. Formal auditions for Hyannis Sound were scheduled annually in Boston. (The only restriction was age: Auditions were open to anyone from the summer they’d graduated high school until the summer after leaving college.) In 1998, a formal board of directors was put in place. In 2003, Hyannis Sound became an official 501c3 nonprofit in Massachusetts. They’ve got an accountant, a lawyer, and all the trappings of a nonprofit.
The corporation is there to ensure the group’s continued existence, but the summer is student run—by design. Every summer Townsend sits down with the boys on both forks and gives what’s come to be known as the Speech. The one that begins: “We are handing this to you on a silver platter. You’re in the public eye. All we need is one person to sleep with a seventeen-year-old and this is over.” Townsend trains the new business managers every year and then walks away. “I learned so much from negotiating with Merv Griffin’s people,” he says. “I want these kids to have that kind of experience. It’s priceless.” Townsend himself had learned the most important lesson of all in a cappella: when to walk away.
In the spring of 2006, Townsend Belisle got a call from one of the Hyannis Sound guys. They’d been having trouble finding a house for the summer. Finally they’d found something with promise. “It’s in walking distance of everything,” the kid said. “It’s kind of in a sketchy part of town, right near the U-Haul. But it’s perfect for us. And there’s a volleyball court in the backyard!”
Wherein personal tragedy becomes triumph in the spring of 2007
In a mirrored dance studio somewhere in downtown Eugene, Divisi primps for their spring concert. For the night’s first set, they’ve forsaken their black shirts and red ties—Divisi’s signature red-hot—in favor of a little individuality. The color palette remains the same, but the girls are mostly in dresses, some with halter tops, some with big red belts tied at the waist. The girls run through a bit of complex choreography, some counting the steps to themselves. Andrea Welsh applies bronzer to her legs. “Why won’t my boobs stay separated?” Haley Steinberger asks, staring into the mirror.
Outside, the auditorium is filling up. Peter Hollens and Evynne Smith—the founders of On the Rocks and Divisi, respectively— mill about. They talk about their upcoming wedding—on campus, near the Student Center, fittingly, where they performed on so many Friday afternoons. If this were
, they’d be the Danny and Sandy of Oregon a cappella; he’s even wearing a leather jacket.
Divisi walks out onstage in two lines and assumes an attitudinal pose, all hands on their hips, weight shifted to one side. Marissa Neitling steps up to the microphone. And she sings:
got the stuff that you want // I got the thing that you need // I got more than enough // To make you drop to your knees.”
Marissa sings, beautifully, clean:
“ ’Cause I’m the queen of the night...”
Those who know Marissa couldn’t help but see this performance as a triumph.
Marissa Neitling had been mindful of keeping her story to herself this year. “Whatever is going on,” Rachelle Wofford says, “Marissa always leaves it at the door.” But the week before this final concert, Divisi showed up en masse for the performance of Marissa’s thesis, the one-woman show she’d been working on all year. They were unsure of what to expect. They knew it would be personal, that it had something to do with the ex-boyfriend who was now married (with a child on the way, no less). But they were not prepared for the seething, raw anguish on display that afternoon.
Marissa stood before the audience in the seventy-two-person black box theater, so small up there. True to herself, Marissa had written a play that was both theatrical and precise. Moving about the space, she told the story of her father—of his drug abuse, of his breakdown, of the anger—in exacting, matter-of-fact detail, making eye contact with the members of the audience. She was not intimidated by her father’s childhood friends who were in the audience, the ones who’d accused Marissa and her mother of being (in her mother’s words) “the bad people.” She talked about the night she and her mother had to leave their home in fear, because her “father was a good shot.”
Marissa talked about the calm she’d found. No,
wasn’t the right word, because this thing would still devour her if she wasn’t careful. But she was learning to let go—not because she wanted to, but because she needed to. It had been over a year since she’d spoken with her father. He wasn’t the same man anymore. No, the father she had known was buried inside, in some unreachable place. She didn’t say much more. What would have been the point?
What this year had been about, she said, was learning to grieve for someone who was still alive—there but not there. She had come to this quiet understanding. When Marissa was a child, her father had rarely been without a videocamera. And when he left, she found the tapes—hundreds of them. He’d always said, These tapes will be my gift to you. In the end, it was a greater gift than he could have ever imagined.
“We still have the memories,” she will tell you, of the magic tricks he used to do around the house, of him dressing up in costume with his daughters. “We still have so much.”
The ladies of Divisi sat together, wiping tears from their eyes. Marissa, however, remained strong, her voice unwavering. Until she told this story. The lights dimmed in the theater and a projection came on behind her. It was a video from when she was eight years old. Marissa Neitling is Greek, and growing up, her grandfather was always called Papou. It was Christmastime on-screen, and there was Papou—dressed as Santa Claus, placing gifts under the tree as he did every year. Marissa’s younger sister, Mackenzie, was at the age, five, when she didn’t necessarily believe in Santa anymore. But Marissa—herself still a child, really—was desperate to preserve that innocence for her sister.
“Santa looks like
! ” Mackenzie says in the video. "Why does Santa look like Papou?”
Marissa grabs her sister by the ponytail and yanks hard. “Leave him alone!” she says. “It’s Santa! It’s Santa!”
Marissa stops the video and turns to the audience. When she looks back on that moment, she’s still not sure where it came from. But Marissa turned to her little sister, pulling on her ponytail even as the little girl repeated, again, “Why does Santa look like Papou!”
“Because Santa looks like the people you love,” Marissa said.
It was the one moment in her life, Marissa says, when she said exactly what she felt. When she didn’t analyze, and worry, and rethink. She wanted to find that place again as she moved forward with her life. Marissa’s sister was sitting a few rows back in the theater, alongside their mother. That’s when Marissa’s voice broke. She could no more protect her sister than she could bring their father back from the abyss.
Growing up, Marissa’s mother had a saying. In tough times, she told her daughters, you had to
Put on your boots and tromp through the muck.
Marissa used the line onstage. Throughout the show, a bright pair of Wellington boots was visible off to the side. At the end of the show, Marissa sat down, looked out at the audience, and put on her boots.
In that moment, Keeley McCowan cried too. “We cry when the people we love cry,” she says.
It had been an emotional spring for Divisi. But the girls who came in all those months ago, with their sloppy habits and worse intonation, had found their voice. “We weren’t the old Divisi,” Keeley said, “or the new Divisi. We were just Divisi.” The disappointment over the ICCAs had subsided somewhat. Though there was a pang of regret when the girls from Brigham Young’s Noteworthy not only went to Lincoln Center for the finals but were crowned the champions. It wasn’t even close. Julia Hoffman, who’d been a judge at the West Coast semifinals and later emceed the ICCA finals, summarized it best. “Any of the top three groups from the West”—Divisi, Noteworthy, or Vocal Point—“could have won at the finals,” she said. “The West Coast semifinals has become the real finals.”
Divisi’s singular focus on the ICCAs, meanwhile, had let Michaela Cordova hide the troubles in her own life. Always a thin girl underneath those hoodie sweatshirts, Michaela was losing more weight. She was a vegan—and the intricacies of what a vegan could and could not eat gave her license to pick at beans on a plate in broad daylight and without appearing conspicuous. But a few weeks after the semifinals, the girl who’d walked out of a hotel room in Alaska less than a year ago, rather than share some bit of herself, found the courage to let these women know her, to confront her own demons head-on.
At rehearsal one night, Emmalee Almroth sat down with Divisi, as they had done so many times during this difficult and often-times remarkable year, and she read a letter from Michaela. She’d been suffering from an eating disorder for seven or eight years, the note explained. And she was worried about herself in a way she’d never been before. She couldn’t be at rehearsal—not tonight, not for some time. She checked herself into a residential treatment center forty minutes from Eugene.
Divisi would not see her for six weeks. It was not easy for anyone. “She’s such a strong part of the group,” Keeley says, “and all of a sudden she was gone.” But not forgotten, certainly.
Peter Hollens put together practice tapes so Michaela could learn the new music for the spring show from her room at the treatment center. Megan Schimmer would drive forty minutes out to the center to run the choreography with her. Later, when Michaela was able to leave the center for a few hours of supervised watch, Divisi worked additional rehearsals around her schedule.
On the afternoon of Divisi’s spring show, Michaela stands onstage at the sound check trying to pick up the last elements of the set. Her mother is in audience. Michaela is not allowed to be alone—that’s part of the deal. Still, she is there, present in a way she’s never been before. “I’ve never really tried to deal with my emotions and my past hurt,” she says. “I know that I’m changing now. I’m becoming better. I’m becoming the kind of person who can start to experience life rather than going through the motions.”
Following intermission, Divisi returned to the stage—this time dressed in their customary red ties and black shirts, paint-thick red lipstick, and pearl earrings. Michaela sailed through Michael Jackson’s “I Want You Back.” Next it was Jenna Tooley’s turn to shine. The blond girl who’d missed the first round of the ICCAs with mono, the girl who’d nearly been kicked out of the group, had landed a solo.
“Oh what a night!”
“Late December back in ‘63.”