The Johns Hopkins University Octopodes list among their credits crisp a cappella renditions of Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," "Paparazzi" by Lady Gaga and "In this Moment" by David Archuleta. A fan asked them to perform the Beatles' "Hey Jude" as part of an elaborate marriage proposal. No problem.
But when the 14-member vocals-only group piped up at a recent rehearsal to practice an original song, some difficulty was apparent. The singers stumbled at points as they sang "I Won't Wait," a love song written by senior international studies major Duncan Crystal. They stopped, readjusted and started again.
In a genre defined by pop music covers, the Octopodes are trying to become one of the first-ever collegiate a cappella groups to record an album of original compositions — a project that they say is pushing their creative boundaries as they look for an audience beyond the bounds of Hopkins.
"There's a pull that we're the first ones through the wall," said Crystal, the Octopodes' business manager. "Part of being the first one to do a project like this is you won't know how people will react to it."
As difficult as it can be to re-create a popular track using only the human voice, at least the performers have something to go on. And part of the artistry of a cappella is in the transformation of a familiar tune. But as the form has grown in recent decades, artists have sought new ways to express themselves.
Kimberly Sailor, editor-in-chief of The Recorded A Cappella Review Board, has never heard of an album like The Octopodes' planned production — titled "The Kraken!" — but said it follows trends in the business to record original a cappella tracks.
"I was fortunate enough to review their previous albums," she said. "I know that they are going to fare well. It will be reviewed with great excitement."
Covering popular songs is almost intrinsic to the a cappella genre, Sailor said. It's a characteristic that can feel limiting for performers.
"There's kind of a frustration you have when you're a musician and just covering other people's songs," Crystal said. "I think part of this is we are constrained by what is popular, and with this album we are going with more of a spectrum."
A cappella has grown in popularity, thanks in part to pop culture exposure. The television shows "Glee" and "The Sing-Off" have featured a cappella singing, along with the film "Pitch Perfect."
Crystal said he is attracting singers with ambitions to create songs because more students have become interested in a cappella.
In the over 60-year history of the Georgetown Chimes, that university's a cappella group has produced only a handful of original songs, according to business manager Charlie Plissner.
Plissner, who has been with the Chimes for four years, said the Octopodes is one of the best coed groups he has heard. He's looking forward to the album's release.
"Musically, they're a very strong group," Plissner said. "I can imagine writing songs probably takes a long time and quite a bit of investment. I think for certain groups, it may not be viable."
Crystal described the initiative as an all-out effort outside of classes and rehearsals for shows.
The original idea for "The Kraken!" began four years ago when Octopodes members, Crystal included, worked on the album "Code Blue," which featured one original song.
"The seed of that, that you could write original a cappella music, is where it began," Crystal said. "A cappella has the stigma that it's just all people who can sing. But that's not so much creative or expressive."
The originality of the work will help the group members brand themselves as artists, not just singers, Crystal said.
In March, the group set up a campaign on Kickstarter, an online funding platform where anyone can donate to causes with set goals. If the cause reaches its goal, it keeps the Kickstarter money. The group exceeded its $10,000 goal in less than a month to fund the production of the album.
Each song on "The Kraken!" will cost $1,000 to record, and $2,000 will go toward duplicating the CDs, sending Kickstarter gifts and receiving guidance from professional a cappella musicians, according to the Octopodes' Kickstarter page.
Plissner said most collegiate a cappella groups would not be capable of funding an album of original work.
If it weren't for the Kickstarter campaign, Crystal said, they would not have been able to produce the album.
"If [it were] 10 years ago, at a different time, this crowdsourcing wouldn't have been possible," he said.
All of the songs for the album have been written, two of which are already recorded. The Octopodes expect to finish recording before graduation at the end of May, continue post-production over the summer and release the album a month or two into the fall semester.