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Nick Lachey opens up about the return of 'The Sing-Off' and changes to the show

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After being on hiatus in 2012, NBC’s “The Sing-Off” returns for its fourth season on Dec. 9, 2013, at 9 p.m. EST/PST. Hosted by Nick Lachey, the fourth season of “The Sing-Off” has seven episodes, with the two-hour finale set for Dec. 23, 2013, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EST/PST). The 10 groups, which are competing for the prize of $100,000 and a Sony Music recording contract, will perform for celebrity judges Jewel (who replaced Sara Bareilles) and returning judges Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman. The 10 groups that will vie to be the best a cappella group in the country were revealed today. Music from Season 4of “The Sing-Off” will be available on iTunes the day of each telecast.

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A new twist has been added this season. At the end of every show, the bottom two groups decided by the judges will face off in an Ultimate Sing-Off, trying to knock their opponent out of the competition with the power of only their voices. At the end of the night, one group will be eliminated from the competition. Here is what Lachey said when he did a recent telephone conference-call interview with journalists.

You just recently turned 40 and you’ve had such a great career, so how have things really changed for you now that you have turned 40?

It hasn’t changed at all. It’s just a number, as they say. So no, everything feels the same, I feel the same, life is the same. No groundbreaking moment happened at 40 other than the fact that the number changed. But everything else feels the same.

Can you reflect on just the general idea of a cappella singing and so forth? Talk a little bit about when you were high school and what you learned there.

A cappella singing has meant a great deal to me throughout my life and career. It’s why the show is so special for me to be a part of. I first started singing a cappella in high school. I went to a performing arts school and spent my summers working at an amusement part in Cincinnati called King’s Island. I was in a barbershop quartet, so I started off singing a cappella barbershop music, walking around the park and singing to guests and what not.

And then [I] continued to sing a cappella different groups, ultimately with 98 Degrees. And when we put our demo together we put two different a cappella songs on the demo. And in our audition for Motown Records, Andre Harrell, the president at the time, asked us to sing a cappella in his office and we sang a Boyz II Men medley a cappella that we had worked up. And that’s what kind of convinced him to sign us. He signed us on the spot. And so that’s how we really got our start in the music business.

So a cappella singing is very, very meaningful to me. And even kind of a subplot of that is to be able to be on the show Shawn [Stockman] from Boyz II Men, having sung a Boyz II Men medley, to get signed to Motown, it’s just kind of a surreal moment for me to be a part of this show and be a part of it with Shawn. So it’s given a lot to me and in some kind of way this is my way of giving back to the genre of a cappella. I think it takes incredible talent to do; incredible talent to pull off.

Oftentimes, people take it for granted and don’t realize how hard it is to do, which is why I feel like “The Sing-Off” is so special. And I think there are so many people out there that are responding to it. I mean a cappella is kind of going through a resurgence; a renaissance if you will. And with all the attention that “The Sing-Off” has brought to it and success like Pentatonix is having now. Their album just debuted in the top 10 on the [Billboard] 200. The success that they’ve brought to the genre.

With movies like “Pitch Perfect,” I think there’s just such a passion right now out there for a cappella music. So I’m very proud to be a part of “The Sing-Off,” very proud of Pentatonix and all the success that they’ve had, and very also proud to announce that they’re going to be performing on our season finale this year on Dec. 23. So obviously, we’re all very proud of them here at the show and all the success that they’ve had since winning Season 3, and very excited to have them back this season.

You went back on the road with 98 Degrees this year. Was that fun? And is it interesting to balance your musical and TV careers now?

It was a lot of fun. First of all, to get back together with those guys after more than a decade off and be able to go on the road with New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men and be a part of a sold out arena tour was very, very special and a great way to get back and experience performing with those guys again. So, that was fantastic.

And yes, to balance the two, obviously it’s all about scheduling. Shawn and I with Boyz II Men were both on the road as part of the package tour. And literally we finished our last concert in Indianapolis on Aug. 4 [2013], and started “The Sing-Off” Aug. 5. So we went right from one into the other. But when you’re doing stuff that you’re passionate about and it’s exciting to you then it’s easy to rally and kind of summon the energy to move from one to the other.

So I feel very honored and blessed to be able to do both. I know Shawn would say the same thing. So yes, it’s been a great year; an exciting year. The tour was great and now obviously very, very happy and proud to be a part of “Season 4” of “The Sing-Off.”

Did it kind of come as a surprise to you when “The Sing-Off” came back in 2013? Had you kind of thought maybe it was done? And kind of what was your reaction when it did come back? And second of all, it’s been in different forms. One year, it was a long form and lasted 11 weeks. This time it’s going to be very quick and it’s going to be resolved with 15 days of viewing time. So tell us which you prefer.

Yes, we’re very cautiously optimistic that the show would come back. it was put on the back burner there for a moment. And I really have to give a lot of credit to the very passionate fans of the show out there for really petitioning and clamoring for it to come back.

So obviously when we all got the call that it was coming back to the air, we were ecstatic. We all do the show because we love the genre of a cappella and love the show and really believe in it. Shawn and I who had been with the show from the beginning, it was a very, very welcome call to hear that we were coming back for Season 4.

Personally, I think the show worked great in the holiday season. I think we saw that in season two. It’s just such a feel good show and feel good music. It’s the time of year when families are really in the mood to sit down together and watch a great family show, and that’s frankly with “The Sing-Off” is.

So personally, I’m a fan of the holiday scheduling which we have again this year. And also I’m very excited about you get all the shows kind of in a short period of time. it keeps people’s interest really honed in on the groups and their favorite groups. And then you get the winner announced right there at the end of it. So personally, I think this schedule works great for the show, and excited to see excited NBC put it back there in the holiday season.

A cappella is obviously big in your life. Is that something that you’re bringing into your home? Are you and Vanessa singing to your son? Does he have a favorite song?

Music in general is big in our home. Obviously, I’m a musician and my wife is a passionate lover of music, working in TV for so many years. And so there’s constantly music on in our house and yes, we sing to Camden every time we put him down for a nap or put him down for the night. So yes, technically there is a little a cappella happening in our house every day. It’s usually in the lullaby form, but it is happening every day.

Does he have a favorite lullaby?

I’d like to think it’s one of the ones I wrote for him. I did a lullaby record for him that came out this year called “Father’s Lullaby,” and there’s a song on there called “Sleepy Eyes.” That one, that I kind of wrote while he was still in the womb. So that’s the one I sing to him every day before he goes down. So whether he likes it or not, that’s really the only one he gets served up, so he has to like it.

The first two seasons of “The Sing-Off” had a lot of Christmas carols or just holiday musical type numbers. Is that something that we can expect this season, and will you be participating again?

There really was not too much of a holiday theme, in terms of the music involved in the show. You might see a little bit of that in the finale, because I think that’s kind of how it worked in years past as well. But, for the most part, these are songs that everyone will know from this year and year’s past some really creative themes like we’ve had in the past of chart-toppers.

And we have a movie theme night. Some of the shows have themes that really give them a great kind or arc. But, all in all, it is happening during the holiday season but it’s not necessarily a holiday music themed show entirely. But still as I said earlier, it’s just such a feel-good show, it really does lend itself to the holiday season.

And one thing we have always had a lot of fun with is myself and the judges kind of being involved musically, performing with some of the groups. So I can either confirm or deny that will happen, but if history is any indication, there’s a good chance you might see that.

It’s safe to say that any singer who does a show like “The Sing-Off” or “The Voice” or “Idol” does it to turn it into a career afterward. And we’ve come to realize that that exposure is pretty much not enough at this point. What do you think an artist can do after a show like this, with the exposure, to parlay it into a career?

There’s certainly no guarantee for any of us in the music business anymore. It’s a tough, tough business. But I think the one great thing that does come out of a situation like “The Sing-Off” is the exposure. You have the opportunity to perform in front of millions and millions of people. It gives you kind of an instant platform and instant fan base. But there is I think, a responsibility to build on that after the show is done.

And I think you’ve seen a group like Pentatonix do a great job of that. They’ve kind of taken the baton and run with it. They won Season 3, and now they’ve parlayed that into millions and millions of YouTube hits. As I said earlier, their album that just came out last week debuted in the top 10 of the top 200 on Billboard. For an a cappella group, for any group that’s a huge accomplishment, but specifically for a cappella music that is a huge, huge win.

And I give a lot of credit to those guys for first of all, their outstanding work ethic. I think no matter what you do in life you have to be willing to work hard at it. And even those of us who got signed to record deals conventionally there’s a tendency to think, “Oh hey, we’ve made it,” and that’s just not the case.

In 98 Degrees, we knew that even back then, this is the first chapter in our journey. That’s really the beginning. You have to go from that point and continue to work as hard as you can. So I think that’s the biggest thing, you have to have incredible work ethic, use the opportunity and the platform that a show like “The Sing-Off” gives you, but you also have to take the responsibility to build on that. And certainly we’ve seen Pentatonix do a great job of that.

As a host, how much do you get to interact with the groups? Have you been able to get to know them or do you get to mentor them at all? And do you have any specific anecdotes or favorite stories along those lines?

I should mention we have a new production team in place on “The Sing-Off” this year. Mark Burnett [ from “The Voice” and “Survivor”] came on board and took over the show, and he had a fresh take on what the show should be and really infused some new energy into the show. And one of the things that was changed, per Mark’s request, was more interaction from both myself and the judges with the groups.

So you’ll see as the season progresses, all of us kind of taking a turn and mentoring and trying to give some guidance to the groups as they go through this journey. There’s a lot of information they’re trying to process and taking all the judge’s comments and trying to apply those to the next week or the next show’s performance. And so it was a really cool opportunity for us. We’ve all learned the hard way a lot of times in this business, some valuable lessons. And for us to be able to pass those along to these groups was a really cool opportunity.

There was one group in particular that kind of reminded me of my own kind of past history and they come from a performing-arts school in the Bay Area. So I had a soft spot in my heart for them coming from a performing-arts high school myself. I really saw a lot of myself in them and so it was cool to be able to kind of pass along a little bit of knowledge and support.

These are teenagers down here in LA on the big stage with a lot of very, very talented people. And to say they held their own is a gross understatement. So I was very proud of them and very, very thankful to have the opportunity to give some insight to them, and all the groups. It was just a great opportunity for us to interact with them and mentor them a little bit.

Can you talk a little bit about the Ultimate Sing-Off, which is a new twist that’s been added to the show this year?

Yes. Again, another cool new twist that you’ll see in season four. I mean I’ve always felt like hey, if you’re going to have a show called “The Sing-Off,” there should probably be a sing-off, and that’s something that we added this season which I thought a great addition to the format. So basically, the judges score all the groups throughout the night and your lowest two scoring groups then have to go into what we call the ultimate sing off where they duel head-to-head, performing the same song against one another.

And not only is it great entertainment, and I have to tell you some of the best performances you’ll see in the season come during that ultimate sing off. It’s a really neat moment in the show. But it frankly, we all have moment where we don’t give our best and we kind of lay an egg on stage. And it gives those groups a chance to redeem themselves for a bad performance.

So it doesn’t necessarily take them out of the running of the entire competition. They have a chance to come back at the end of the show and prove that they still belong. And so then when the two low groups have the ultimate sing-off, obviously the judges have to then decide on one of them to continue on and one of them to go home. But a really cool, dramatic moment at the end of the show.

And can you talk a little bit about the addition of Jewel to the show’s judging panel?

Well, Jewel is fantastic. I’ve known Jewel previous to us doing the show together, but I thought she was a perfect fit for “The Sing-Off.” She’s incredibly talented first of all. We all know that. But she’s so well spoken and so relatable. I think what really struck me is how passionate and how caring she was about each and every group and each and every performer in the group. And she really gave her all in trying to nurture and walk them through this process.

I just thought she was a fantastic addition, incredibly knowledgeable — certainly not at all hard to look at from my vantage point on stage. She made my night better just sitting out there. So yes, I can’t say enough wonderful things about Jewel. She was perfect for our show and we’re so happy to have here.

The three judges all come from very different backgrounds. Jewel comes from folk-country. Ben Folds is more rock, and Shawn Stockman is R&B. How do you think their diverse backgrounds helped to find the best in your groups?

I think their diversity is also reflected in the diversity of the groups on stage, so I think it’s very cool and important frankly to have judges who come from different sensibilities and have different musical backgrounds to your point. But I think the one thing they do share in common is a love of a cappella and a real knowledge of a cappella.

And so I think even though they may come from different angles they all have valuable insights that our groups really took to heart and tried to apply to what they were doing. Personally, I think it’s the best thing that the show could have is you hate to see three - three R&B judges up there or three rock. And I think the diversity of the judges is really a strength of what “The Sing-Off” is all about.

You’ve said that you’re not ready for baby number two yet. But when you and Vanessa, if you decide to expand on your family, do you think you’ll be hoping for a little brother or a little sister for Camden?

I have no expectations on what baby number two will be, nor do I have any real hope or dreams either way. I think as a father it’s cool to have a son. We already have obviously taken care of that part so, whatever comes number two, is a welcome addition to the family. And although I said it’s not going to happen any day eminently, we definitely do want more kids. So if and when that day does happen, I’m sure we will be ecstatic with either a boy or a girl. It makes no difference.

You mentioned mentoring the groups. What do you think is the most important piece of advice that you are able to give them or that you would give to young students in high school or college hoping to succeed in a cappella singing or just in the music industry in general?

I think I kind of alluded to it earlier, but I think it really frankly is hard work. I’ve said many times I’m not necessarily convinced that 98 Degrees was the most talented group out there, but we were certainly willing to work as hard if not harder, than any other group out there. And there really is no replacement for that.

Work ethic and your desire to go the extra mile that at times can really set you apart and give you an advantage. And all the groups in our show, I mean, it’s a lot of singing in a very condensed amount of time with a lot of pressure. You’re on a national television stage and you’re singing against some of the most talented singers in the country, and you really have to be on your game. And you have to work hard. And if you’re not willing to work hard you’re not going to do well on the show. That’s just a fact.

And so I think that’s really true for any walk of life, but especially in the music business. It’s a cutthroat business now more than ever and you have to do you have to do something to set yourself apart from the competition. And I think oftentimes a strong work ethic and going that extra mile can be the deciding factor.

You were talking about working with Mark Burnett. Can you talk a little bit about what that change was like just on set with the creative team? And now that Pentatonix has won and doing well on the charts, how is important is it to follow up their win, as well as the shows return, with another group that is commercially successful in pop culture and not just the a cappella world?

Yes. The first part of the question … I’ve had the opportunity to work with Mark on shows previously. And the one thing Mark brings to every single thing he does is the intense passion for a project. He does not get involved with things he does not believe in. And we’re just lucky that he has a passion for our show and wanted to take on our show.

And each and everything he does and every day he comes to work, he brings that passion with him. And he doesn’t want anyone working on a project that doesn’t have that same passion and does, and it’s contagious. He’s determined that he’s going to have fun doing what he does every day, and he’s going to bring everything he’s got. And so that attitude and that work environment are contagious, and we all fed off of it. It was a lot of fun.

Obviously, we’re here making a show and trying to make the best show we can. But at the end of the day this is something we all believe in and we all love to do and that passion and that love for it should be reflected in the way we do a show and it certainly was with Mark. So I can’t say enough good things about he and his team and all the great attitude and energy they brought to the stage every time we went to tape.

And the second part of your question, I think obviously we’re incredibly proud of Pentatonix, as I said, incredibly happy to have them back on our finale this year. And I think any show, it’s a real validation to the show when a group wins the title so to speak and then goes on to have commercial success. I think that really validates, not only with a cappella music is about but also validates what “The Sing-Off” is about.

And, so again, winning “The Sing-Off” is great, but the journey doesn’t end there, it really starts there. And I give a lot of credit and props to Pentatonix for really seeing that as the start of their journey and for really working their tails off to make the most of the opportunity that all the exposure gave to them. So I could not be more proud of them. I know them personally. I’ve seen them in concert, and I can safely say that they are the real deal. There is no weak link in that group and all the success that they’ve had and all the recognition they’ve gotten is truly deserved. And so yes, I hope the best for this season as well, that our season four winners will see the same opportunity and take the baton and run with it and make the most of it.

But the fact that Pentatonix has set the bar at a certain place now, did that affect the judging at all, from your perspective?

Well no, because every season is different. I think Pentatonix were incredible in their own way. They really brought a sound to the show that we had never heard before. They pushed the edge of the envelope in ways that maybe none of us even thought was possible. Without sounding overly dramatic, they were just a really special group.

That was Season 3; this is Season 4. All the groups are different, and you can’t try and replicate what Pentatonix did. You have to create your own sound and bring your own definition of what a cappella means to you to the table. And I think all out groups in season four really did. There wasn’t necessarily a Pentatonix type sound but there were incredible sounds from other groups.

So you can’t try and be somebody else. You have to be yourself. I think that’s really important in our industry as well. And again, I think all the groups in season four really did a great job of creating their own identities

Do you feel like you still have the "it" factor with 98 Degrees as did back in the 2000s, and why or why not?

Well, of course, you’ve got to have the "it" factor. You can’t get out there on stage and perform in front of 18,000 screaming women if you don’t feel like you’ve got the "it" factor still. So we definitely did. We made an album we were very proud of and couldn’t have been more proud to be on stage each and every night with Boyz II Men, and New Kids on the Block, and certainly had a great time doing it.

So the music business has changed quite a bit since our last time on stage, but I know we all couldn’t be more proud of what we did this year, and all the things we’ve done throughout our career. We’ve been truly blessed to have a long, long career and to have a lot of success. So nothing but great memories and great moments this year and all throughout our career.

We’re in a time when a lot of the schools cut back on arts entirely, and particularly they don’t have the performing art schools like you were able to go to. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

I can speak for my experience specifically in that I know I would not be in this industry, and I wouldn’t have had the courage to jump in my car and drive from Cincinnati, Ohio, to L.A. to sleep on the floor and try and get a record deal. The confidence that going to a performing-arts school gave to me was really the thing that that was able to get me to go for it.

I think no matter what your passion is in life, being able to pursue that passion and nurture that passion and those talents at an early age, first of all it’s a real motivating in wanting to go to school every day. It gives you something to really look forward to. I know I never wanted to miss a choir practice because I loved what I was doing. I loved the guys I was singing with. So whether it’s football, baseball, lacrosse drama, theatre, choir — whatever it is, it’s great to be able to have a place to express yourself, especially as a teenager, and nurture those talents and those interests.

I’ve been a part of Save the Music with VH1 for a long, long time I’ve been on their board because I really believe in it. It’s important to keep those programs alive and to keep the exposure there for young people to be able to expand and creatively express themselves. It’s a really powerful thing to be able to do and it’s a shame that we’re having to fight to keep that in.

I think the first part of your question talking about teenagers going up against college students and even older, those kids were so talented. There’s no replacement for talent at whatever age. So I’m really proud of them and proud of all the groups for bringing it each and every night. And as I said earlier, you guys are going to see some great performances this season. I was really blown away and I know the judges were and I know America will be.

For more info: "The Sing-Off" website

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