Whether they are singing bluegrass, folk or soft rock, Honey Whiskey Trio mesmerize with their dulcet tones, harmonies and body percussion. The trio’s acapella sound is sweet, yet intense. Fun and serious. Haunting and sometimes silly. Their music is as different as they are.
Yet Christina, Courtney and Ann Louise sing with one story-telling voice, and the trio of music educators recently have begun to rise to an unforeseen level in their vocal careers. It’s a place none of the three could have imagined five years ago.
A mere five months after the jazz vocal Long Beach State University alumni got together to form Honey Whiskey Trio, they won the 2012 Harmony Sweepstakes, a long-standing major acapella competition with hundreds of competitors from around the country.
“There was a couple layers of feeling failure,” said jazz vocal master’s grad Courtney Politano, a self-professed lover of competition and the culprit who signed them up. “It was Harmony Sweepstakes and we were at the regionals at the Hermosa Playhouse, and what we didn’t realize was that almost all of the groups competing, besides us, were pop.”
That meant beatboxers, choreography, matching outfits, and “soloists singing these runs when we’ve never sung a run in our lives,” chimed in Christina Wilson, the group’s soprano, and an alum of the vocal performance department.
Convinced that the audience was going to hate them, the boot-loving trio, who describe their music as a blend of American folk rock with a twist of bluegrass and jazz, took the stage and performed one of two songs they had in their repertoire at the time.
The next thing they knew, they were on their way to nationals and facing the same challenge. Only now the competition was fierce — winners of the regional contests in seven other states.
“We went out and did our thing, and we were in the hallway having this horrible moment where we weren’t talking to each other,” recalled Courtney. “And Christina started first saying, you know, no matter what, this experience has been great…We were talking ourselves mentally into not getting anything.”
That’s when the show producer tapped on the shoulder of the youngest member of the trio, vocal performance grad Ann Louise Thaiss, telling her that they had won the title of “audience favorite” and needed to come up with another song.
They took home first place.
The experience, according to all three, was surreal but a huge boost to the budding group’s confidence that they truly had something unique to offer.
Since then, the Honey’s have produced three albums and perform gigs monthly up and down the left coast. They’ve garnered a huge local following for their mix of raw, gritty performances and lyrics with gossamer-like harmonies that bring Americana into the millennial age. They have even opened for 10-time Grammy-winning jazz group The Manhattan Transfer.
And they’ve done so by overturning some big expectations from the acapella community.
“This is not always spoken, but there’s this idea that your group has to have that male, low sound,” Courtney explained. So three females attempting to compete in the acapella arena was a big risk.
Add to that the performance element of the group, which for the Honey’s means a minimalist approach. The trio stand close together – three figures in the middle of the stage – with many of their songs performed standing completely still. Their song arrangements, performed by Courtney and sans beatboxing, often include moments of silences, pauses and verses or choruses sung completely in unison.
But their audience digs it.
“Some music just hits you full force every second and it can be exhausting, so giving (the audience) space, giving them ranges and dynamics – because we’re also not super loud – they need that,” said Courtney.
Despite their growing success, the Honeys won’t be quitting their day jobs.
When they aren’t performing, the Honeys work as music educators. Ann Louise teaches music classes to pre-schoolers in Manhattan Beach (she noted that she’s the most popular teacher on campus) in addition to private voice and piano lessons. She’s also the musical director for a musical theater company in Long Beach.
Courtney teaches music history, theory, singing and ensemble at an independent school in the San Fernando Valley to students from pre-school through 8th grade. On top of that, she also teaches beginning strings.
Christina is a member of the vocal faculty at Musicians Institute in Hollywood teaching sight singing, vocal performance and private lessons. She was named as part of the Faculty of the Year in 2016.
Asked if their goal is to take their music performing full-time, they all said no.
“We get that question all the time, but I think for us we enjoy the variety so much that we wouldn’t change it,” said Christina. “Being able to go and inspire youth and then come play a rad show and then go and teach – having the ability to have that variety of music-making, I would never want to get rid of it.”
The trio also know the value of good music education. Not only were they able to meet each other through Long Beach State’s award-winning vocal jazz ensemble, Pacific Standard Time, they are still, years after graduation, connected to and enamored of Bob Cole Conservatory’s vocal jazz director Christine Guter.
“There’s things that we learned being a part of her ensemble that we will never forget,” said Christina. “Like being on time and responding to emails, being punctual, blending as a group and speech-like singing – I say that every single day to my students.
“There’s so many things that we’ve taken away not only as human beings but as music educators ourselves. She speaks the truth, that lady.”
Ann Louise added that she appreciates Professor Guter’s generosity. Back when she was preparing for her undergraduate recital, she wanted half of her performance to be jazz. Guter voluntarily offered to do private lessons with Ann Louise “because she knew how important it was to me.”
“If it weren’t for our teachers, we wouldn’t be who we are,” Christina said. “To be able to keep youth excited about making music is a huge deal, not just individually, but through this group too.”