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The Choir Practice Sings Out!

Is the world ready for an indie-pop choir? It seems so.

By James Tennant

Anyone who works in campus radio knows that the number of CDs you receive is borderline insane.  Ever seen Miracle On 34th Street, where they
The Choir Practice carves out its own style
dump bags of letters on the floor?  Yeah.  It’s like that.  As a result, sometimes discs get lost in the shuffle, and they slip by unnoticed.

That did not happen with The Choir Practice.  There was something so sixties about the shade of green, it made me open the jewel box.  Inside, photos suggested the band were more like a soccer team.  The back jacket photo looks like a still photo from a Lawrence Welk Christmas special, with white scarves and sweaters and fake cottony show.

This, clearly, was awesome.

Yet the Choir Practice’s strength is not in any kind of gimmick or in their excellent group photograph design.  It’s in the music - a folksy, catchy choral pop that has skipped its way up the campus charts in Canada and the U.S.

The Choir itself was founded and fleshed out by Coco Culbertson.  Culbertson is a Canadian indie rock stalwart; her previous groups include The Gay, the A.C. Newman Band and, briefly, The Tennessee Twin.

At interview time, Culbertson is relaxing in her latest digs – the new family farm in rural Saskatchewan.  She is nine months pregnant, so it would make sense if music is not foremost on her mind, but even so, it does seem unusual.  How does a person start a project, see it come to fruition, experience a great deal of initial success…and then leave it all in someone else’s hands?

“Oh, I love it,” Culbertson says happily.  “As much as it was my baby I love it that can be shared.  I did this with The Gay, too. I cold call people - I've got this really dorky idea, would you be interested? It makes it way more fun for me.  I’m not the lead singer type.  It’s really not about me, it’s about the collective, which is way more fun for my personality.”

While there is some limited instrumentation on the Choir Practice’s eponymous debut, Culbertson’s original concept was an a-cappella, traditional choral ensemble.  She claims she was inspired, in part, by meeting Pat Spurgeon and Gram LeBron of Rogue Wave.  They had been involved with the Neptune Lodge, which was in turn part of something called the Immersion Composition Society.

“It’s this old hippie sort of writing workshop that happens through different chapters,” says Culbertson.  “People who are into music would meet – all sorts of different types of musicians from pan flutes to people who just sung to theremin players, and they’d hash out your ideas as an exercise.”

Though she denies being a “folkie hippie” herself, she found the idea of a random drop-in collective, where people could come and just sing along, very appealing.  To form the group, Culbertson began to approach people she wanted to work with, whether they knew her or not.

“I did this with The Gay, too,” she laughs.  “I cold call people – ‘I’ve got this really dorky idea, would you be interested?  I think you might like me!’”

For about five months, the ensemble worked on material at Culbertson’s home or, more entertainingly, in Maclean Park We're compared to the Polyphonic Spree all the time, but I can't hear it. They're Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat; we're more Kate and Anna McGarrigle. in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood.  Passers-by probably thought the group was about to break into a rendition of “Good Morning, Starshine.”

The Choir Practice have played a number of live shows, but as they average between nine and twelve members, a regular bar-circuit tour is probably unlikely (unless they are able to attach themselves to bill that features a larger band, perhaps).  The size of the group might have been prohibitive to its own existence, but to Culbertson’s surprise, that has not been an issue.

“It’s funny because all the years I’ve been in bands it’s been a struggle to even get a power trio together,” she says.  “This has been so easy.  There has never less than six or seven people at practice.”

There has been an effort to democratize the Choir as well, making sure everyone gets equal time and takes equal ownership, whether it is over the music or even the snappy wardrobes.  Despite the fun costumes, however, the visual aspect of the Choir Practice is just that – fun – and not an attempt to be clever-clever.

“It’s not smug,” says Culbertson.  “ There’s no irony in it whatsoever, there really
There's no irony in it whatsoever says Coco Culbertson
isn’t  I don’t own a Polyphonic Spree record.  We’re compared to them all the time, including by our own label, but I can’t hear it.  They’re Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat; we’re more Kate and Anna McGarrigle.”

Still, there has been at least one wardrobe issue that made Culbertson bristle…

“After I left Vancouver, they did a show in muumuus,” Culbertson says, referring to the performance at the NCRA’s annual awards show in June.  “I can’t believe I missed it!  It’s the only thing that suits my figure.  They wait until the big Shamu whale has retired to birth, and they break out these wicked muumuus. I was like, ‘You bastards!’  I think they planned it.”


Coco Culbertson, her husband (New Pornographers drummer) Kurt Dahle are pleased to welcome the newest member of the family.  Clement Ace Helge Dahle was born during the lunch hour on a very hot July afternoon, shortly after this interview. 

“Now we have 2 sons, both named after drummers.,” says Culbertson.  “Boy I sure have a house full!”

According to Culbertson, she, Kurt, Levon and Clement are all doing swimmingly.
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