As the Editor-in-Chief of the Campus Times, having other interests outside of this paper can be incredibly daunting. I do what I love and love what I do, but the news never stops (and often has a funny way of being at its most hectic when I wish it least). However, when I get the chance — two days a week — I get to partake in one of my favorite games: erasing the O’Brien Music Room whiteboard after After Hours has been in the space.
After Hours, one of the University’s coed a cappella groups, has a penchant for whiteboard antics; it can feel as if you’re retracing your steps through erasing each haphazard scribble. Whether it’s an all-caps “AFTER HOURS IS THE HOTTEST A CAPPELLA GROUP” or a smattering of names and drawings that you can only assume pertain to an inside joke just outside your purview, it’s nearly impossible to not imagine what fun a rehearsal of theirs is. The only better way to do so is by seeing it in action.
Luckily for me, After Hours recently released an EP (titled “I Love You So.”) subsequent to their spring concert on April 15. Immediately after the album’s announcement, a billion facets of my life collided; the aspiring a cappella album reviewer in me started scratching at the walls like a feral cat, the fellow a cappella dork immediately got a ticket to cosponsor the show, and the tired journalist who interviewed first-year After Hours member Emma Loiacono months ago for a supposed article finally had an excuse to scrounge up notes for a more timely interview release. (That, in a nutshell, is what I love so much about this university. It’s so easy to have everything you love all of the time; sometimes in excess but always exciting).
In our interview, Loiacono mentioned After Hours with a big smile — one that ceased to wane even as she spoke of the difficulty of shifting from her hometown in Ithaca, New York to Rochester. Despite the proximity, she noted a distinct tie to her roots, one that became even further solidified with the production of her debut EP under the artist name Emma Lyra, “Red Letter.”
As a digression, “Red Letter” is a fantastic EP — one that shocked me with its replayability. The immediate comparison that comes to mind is Lizzy McAlpine; Loiacono’s lyricism is delightfully youthful in a way that successfully evades crossing the line into juvenile, and her voice is full of a richness and soul that grounds you in each piece.
The EP, according to Loiacono, follows her through her life; with the tracks being written throughout her time in high school, and the first and last tracks (titled, appropriately, “Dear Song,” and “Love, Me”) bookending the rest of her life into a neat little package with a chorally-rich bow to tie it all together. It’s a quick 22-and-a-half minute saunter through a musical garden.
With the dreaminess of the album’s instrumentals, it can feel as if you’re floating past each track in a way that makes it the perfect background music, while still being engaging enough to retain your attention if you decide to tune back in. The album, from an untrained ear, feels well-produced and well-conceptualized, which makes sense — it took a village.
Loiacono cited her family and friends in Ithaca as some of her greatest creative resources; a family friend helped direct her through the entire process, others let her use their home studios in the midst of the pandemic, and her brother and cousin play supporting instrumental roles on multiple tracks. “It’s as if he knows what I’m saying and fills in the blanks,” Loiacono said about her brother.
In addition to this, the EP itself serves as a love letter to Ithaca, where Loiacono sees herself going back to after she completes her studies. “It really is a home to me,” she said, “and getting to hear songs I wrote on the bus home from school just feels surreal.”
After Hours, while not nearly the village Loiacono is used to, has started to serve as home away from home. “I was obsessed with Pentatonix as a kid,” she noted, pulling her thick, curly hair away from her face. There’s a weight that lifts off her shoulders; the posture straightens and relaxes, the chin tips up, letting her glasses lenses reveal more of her eyes. “And now, I get to do that.”
The joy that comes from the rest of our interview — one full of trading Pentatonix knowledge and song suggestions and laughing about the specifically funny microcosm of UR a cappella — is one that hits me upside the head months later, as I’m sitting in the second row at the After Hours concert. The May Room is a perfect space to be close to people — to watch the little “oops”es as a choreo formation gets a bit too squished, to see the eyebrows raise on a soloist when the crowd screams their name, to pinpoint the exact second the group feels a chord lock — and it’s the perfect space to watch them feel at home.
The song Loiacono solos on, “Erase Me” — funnily enough, by Lizzy McAlpine — is a great example of common After Hours fare. The arc sings mainly simple — sometimes in a way that feels barren, but for this song, resonates in purposeful emptiness — with the exception of some runs that are done in near-unison. However, the arrangement is just set dressing for the soloist, who immediately takes your breath away.
It’s not something I’m used to, as someone who arranges for a group on campus and puts a lot of stake into the background parts to carry a song. However, that is the After Hours way, and they express emotion with their stage presence in a way that shifts silence to space. It’s that intangible feeling of fullness, combined with how clearly each member’s vivid ardor for the group shines through each piece, which pushes me to my feet multiple times a show. This, in turn, is what makes me sit down immediately at midnight for the release of “I Love You So.”
The EP, which spans over the past couple years, puts all of After Hours’ strengths and flaws on display. As a young group that records on campus and has their audio mixed and mastered by students, parts of each track feel disjoint. The overall mix in the arc is pretty solid, as done by junior Paula Sedlacek, and you can hear the backing vocals in each track really clearly — since this is an a cappella group, that factor is crucial and yet often overlooked in the production process. Despite this, without the professionalism of someone who gets to do this as their day job, some flaws stick out.
A cappella is different from a garage band, which can benefit from low production; instead of seeming relaxed, hearing minor inconsistencies across a group as they boom directly from your headphones can seem unfortunately sloppy. All of the little habits of each singer — a flip here, and scoop there — are easy to pick out from the rest of the arc. However, when the arc does get to shine, taking front and center in songs like “Mykonos,” it feels much more steady.
In addition, the vocal percussion often feels like an add-on to the rest of the song rather than meshing with the arc and solo; despite the technical prowess displayed by graduate student Tommy Oddo, sometimes the amount of intricacy in the beats feels overwhelming in comparison to the simple arc, which is exacerbated by how loud it is in the mix.
Once again, it is After Hours’ soloists that really make the EP, with voices from graduates I haven’t heard in years such as Grace Conheady ‘21 (also a solo act herself, similar to Emma Lyra) serving as a perfect reminder of the importance of this album.
Similar to having digitized archives of the CT, recording an album is like making a time capsule; it’s the musical equivalent of a yearbook, signed with each singer’s voice. Just like “Red Letter,” “I Love You So.” is a love letter — one that feels raw and full of heart.
As the year comes to a close, albums, shows, and interviews like these remind me of the terrifying beauty of college. Just like the whiteboard, our time on campus is ephemeral — and often, it’s way quicker than we expect. Interviews slip by, usurped by tests and papers; rehearsals make way for shows that vanish from the mind near-immediately if you let them. If After Hours has shown me anything, it’s that the marks we make can last forever; whether they are polished or not, they hold weight and make space for those after us.
Editor’s Note (4/26/23): Date changed to reflect the actual date of the After Hours concert. The show was on April 15, not April 18. Phrasing of the release of the album changed to better reflect its timing.