By Steve Lanahan
A cappella is defined as “a performance by a singer or a singing group without instrumental accompaniment.” Delaware native Mike Hinkle likes to expand on that description. It’s also, he says, “a group of people who imitate instruments to create music. Your brain tricks you into thinking it’s being instrumented.”
Hinkle should know. He’s been a member of Backtrack Vocals since 2017. A five-person a cappella group based out of New York City, Backtrack got its start on YouTube in 2013 and has appeared on television, in a movie, and in a Broadway production. They’ve performed from coast to coast and as far away as Vietnam and Kazakhstan.
Hinkle, who grew up in Wilmington, began performing in community theater when he was 11 and went on to Cab Calloway School of the Arts. A proud “Cabbie,” he studied with Marjorie Eldreth, the high school vocal teacher at Cab, and put those skills to work in the Jazz Chords choir led by middle school teacher Marty Lassman. His first experience with a cappella music was in that choir.
After graduating in 2010, Hinkle attended NYU, where he majored in drama. He graduated early in 2013 and worked as a restaurant manager while auditioning for productions in New York City. One of those auditions was with Backtrack.
“I had to learn songs from the group’s repertoire and chat with them so they could get a fit for personality,” says Hinkle. Two weeks later, he received the offer to join. He accepted, quit his day job, and less than a month later, they performed at the Just For Laughs festival in Canada.
A Primer for Audiences
Backtrack gives its audiences an a cappella primer early in each show. Using the song Stand By Me, they start with the iconic bassline, imitated with “dum” sounds, sung by Xander Teplansky. Next, music director Craig Simonetti fills the drum kit role with beatboxing. Padding — the “dos,” “dahs,” “oohs,” and “ahs”— adds the feeling of a piano, guitar, or strings and is sung by Hinkle along with Melissa Jordano and Chrissy Aloisio. Group members take turns singing the melody, and that final layer brings it all together.
“When the melody is added, the last part we sing, this often gets applause,” says Hinkle. Almost every song they perform will include no more than their voices. Something moving, such as a ballad, may get a slight reverb, but everything else is all Backtrack. They also try to include humor in their performances.
“I think we’re pretty funny,” says Hinkle. “We put on a show that can make people laugh and cry. We want to move you in a way that is heartfelt and humorous. We’ll perform anywhere you would have entertainment, and we’re happy to be there. We also enjoy the educational aspect.”
In addition to their live performances, Backtrack runs assembly programs and workshops for schools and choirs. They work with a choir’s existing music or provide suggestions. The group finds that running a clinic on beatboxing, choreography, or vocal improvisation is a fun and informative way to forge connections with students. The group also collaborated with Camp A Capella in Dayton, Ohio, a program founded by Deke Sharon, the music producer of the Pitch Perfect movies. The camps helps students, adults, and music educators improve their performance skills.
Before Hinkle joined, Backtrack’s schedule had been more relaxed, with one or two gigs a month, some simple music videos, and busking in the New York City subway. That schedule started to pick up in 2016, and when Hinkle joined a year later, it became a full-time job of touring, live performances, and teaching. Opportunities for television and stage were popping up. The future was looking bright.
“Crazy things were happening all of a sudden,” says Hinkle.
Then came COVID-19.
Surviving the Shakeup
“The pandemic really felt like hitting a wall,” says Hinkle.
Live performances and in-person education were no longer an option in a world under lockdown. Backtrack had to face this unique challenge, as well as members leaving the group who needed to be replaced. But they managed to find a way to survive, despite the pandemic’s limitations.
Says Hinkle, “It was a pretty big shakeup for us, but it also helped us reinstate what Backtrack is. We were always an online identity. It reminded us that we started as a YouTube channel, and that was an opportunity. We contacted schools and worked with them to set up virtual choirs. We’d always done the talking heads videos, so it was our moment again.”
Backtrack used those online programs to help reduce the feeling of isolation for their students. After their sessions, they asked students to record their parts individually, and Hinkle would stitch those videos together into full choir performances. Backtrack was among the few in the a cappella genre to use the Internet in this way to keep momentum going.
Lockdowns finally lifted, and the group returned to what they love. Working with students became a priority, and in 2022, they ran the first Backtrack music camp in Denville, New Jersey, and enjoyed connecting and singing with the campers.
In 2022, a job offer came their way that would mean worldwide travel. American Music Abroad (AMA), a program run by the U.S. Department of State that promotes American music around the globe, recruited Backtrack to perform and educate in Vietnam. They spent two weeks doing shows throughout the country, from major cities to remote villages and at many universities. At the end of the tour, they appeared at BridgeFest 2022 in Da Nang in front of their largest audience so far — more than 15,000 people.
“No pressure there at all,” Hinkle says with a laugh.
After the success in Vietnam, AMA asked Backtrack to make a similar tour of Kazakhstan. This time, the group was tasked with running a music camp like the one they conducted in New Jersey. The week-long camp, with 55 students from throughout Kazakhstan, was a tremendous success despite the fact that the majority of the students didn’t speak English.
“With the help of our translators, we formed bonds with these students almost entirely through music,” says Hinkle. “It was really cool, one of my biggest takeaways from the experience.”
The students performed the songs in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, with the U.S. ambassador in attendance. The group song was turned into a music video, which is available on backtrackvocals.com.
“Anything we can do with AMA, we will take,” Hinkle says. “It’s a great organization and we leave these places changed.”
Plan for the Future
Backtrack is gaining some traction in the music industry. Spotify added their songs to the All A Cappella playlist, placing them among the best-known names in the genre. Meanwhile, they are planning a 2024 release of an original album that they’re roughly halfway through recording. They intend to honor their roots as a YouTube channel by releasing a full video album.
Says Hinkle, “This is the first time anybody has done this in a cappella. We’re excited to take this project on. The album is going to have a throughline, a storyline. The idea came to us, and we thought we might be crazy, but we put money aside from every gig since then to get our album fund together. We plan on this being big.”
The rough cut of the music video for the new song, Craniotomy, is available on backtrackvocals.com. Wanting to give fans a taste of what’s to come, the group shot the video in Jordano’s New York apartment, managing to clean up the mess before Jordano’s husband got home. It will be reshot for the full visual album release.
“We really love what we do, and that shows,” says Hinkle. “We’re easy to work with, and I think that people in the industry respect how homegrown our process has been. We show up prepared, and people are excited. That’s always so fun for us.”
In November, they will tour Texas, Arizona, and Washington. There are no East Coast tour plans this year, but they will work with schools and perform in private events for the busy New York City holiday season. They also hope to return to Delaware again, where they have fond memories of performing at the Queen for the Do More 24 Fundraiser in March of this year.
— Visit backtrackvocals.com for more information, including tour dates.