The six young men in The Filharmonic, an all-Filipino American a cappella group, are adorable. That is, if you’re into well-dressed, charming and funny guys who also happen to have great vocal talent. Excuse my gushing, but after meeting The Filharmonic — vocalists VJ Rosales, Joe Caigoy, Trace Gaynor and Barry Fortgang; vocal bass Jules Cruz; and beatboxer Niko Del Rey — you can count me as a “Filharmaniac,” the affectionate moniker assigned to the group’s legions of enthusiastic fans.
The Filharmonic boys came together in 2013 to compete in season four of NBC’s musical competition The Sing-Off. Week after week, they wowed judges Ben Folds, Jewel and Shawn Stockman (of Boyz II Men) with their infectiously fun arrangements, which infused hip-hop beats, bright pop inflections and soulful vocals that invoked a classic ’90s R&B sound. The Filharmonic thrilled with renditions of “This Is How We Do It” (Montell Jordan), “Treasure” (Bruno Mars) and others; they made it all the way to the semi-finals, finishing in fourth place.
“We practiced so much,” says Caigoy, 26, the powerhouse singer of the sextet. “Thirteen hours a day.”
“We lived in that hotel for two months,” adds Cruz, 23. “It was so stressful being on a reality show, non-stop singing, your voice is dying.”
Del Rey, 24, quips, “My dad says we lost so much weight, from the first episode to the last.”
I ask if they felt disappointed by the elimination, and there is a brief silence. Then, Cruz, the de facto leader of the group, says, “It was the biggest relief.” The guys start to laugh, and everyone chimes in with stories about what happened the next day: They slept in, treated themselves to massages and just relaxed by the hotel pool.
“No rehearsal, no nothing,” says Cruz with a smile. “It was the first time we could leave on our own. It was great!”
In 2014, The Filharmonic traveled across the country as part of the Sing-Off tour. “We love performing,” says Caigoy. “The lights, the audience cheering. It’s surreal, crazy, fun. We feed off of that great energy.” In every city, they were greeted by rabid Filharmaniacs, who waved elaborately decorated posters and brought gifts for the boys. Caigoy recalls a meet-and-greet where one fan walked up to the table and spontaneously began to cry. “I’d never experienced anything like that. I was like, why are you crying? It’s only me,” he says, chuckling.
On the day of the interview, the guys inadvertently dress in theme: Everyone wears shades of navy blue, rusty red and black. They’re effortlessly stylish, in a variety of V-neck tees, button-down shirts, Vans and baseball hats turned backwards. Rosales, 27, in a pair of Malcolm X glasses, is the only one with his shirt tucked.
Before The Sing-Off and the birth of The Filharmonic, Rosales was a solo artist and, at one time, a contestant on NBC’s The Voice. He describes the experience as “rough.” The scheme of the reality competition involves a blind audition for four celebrity judges with their backs turned; if the singer impresses, the judges may choose to swing their chairs to face the stage. For Rosales, however, not a single chair turned.
“I learned a lot about the industry and about myself as an artist,” Rosales says. “In the end, I learned I can’t do things alone. Things went downhill for me after The Voice, but when I joined The Filharmonic for The Sing-Off, everything brightened up. I enjoyed the process of singing again.”
For Fortgang, 22, the youngest of the group — and the quietest — Rosales is an inspiration. “VJ is very classy. He’s good at everything musical — great pianist, great singer.”
As the songwriter for The Filharmonic, Rosales is working to create original music for an upcoming album, which will also include covers of popular hits. With their first album slated to drop in April, 2015 is shaping up to be a busy year for the group. In addition to live performances, giving master classes at high schools and colleges across the nation, and recording YouTube videos of their creatively arranged covers like “All of Me” by John Legend and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” (“Videos are fun because we get to play make-believe,” says Rosales), on May 15, The Filharmonic makes their big screen debut in Pitch Perfect 2.
I ask if they’d seen the first Pitch Perfect, the 2012 hit starring Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson, and Caigoy answers, stifling a laugh, “Oh yeah. Like … a lot.”
Cruz recalls a night at the hotel, during the taping of The Sing-Off, when the guys decided to order a pizza and watch the first Pitch Perfect together. The musical comedy features Kendrick as a member of The Bellas, a college a cappella group, and follows their misadventures and triumphs on the road to the national a cappella competition.
“And now we’re in it!” Caigoy cries with glee.
The sequel, directed by Elizabeth Banks, brings the fictional Bellas to the world a cappella championships. The Filharmonic boys play a competing group, representing the Philippines.
In case it’s not obvious, The Filharmonic’s band name is meant as a shout-out to their Filipino American cultural heritage. “We wanted to personify the Filipino vibe,” explains Del Rey. “We went to Mel’s Diner and threw out names. Jules came up with Manila Ice.” A round of laughter ensues, and they shuffle through other rejected band names: Fresh Off the Note, Filosophy, Filanthropy.
“Every Filipino family sings,” says Gaynor, 23. “There’s always karaoke at every Filipino event. There’s a ton of talent in the community, but it’s not reflected in pop culture today. We’re helping to show that Filipino talent.”
Though it’s hard work being in the band, the guys clearly enjoy each other’s company. They crack jokes and tease each other with an easy camaraderie.
“We see each other five, six days out of the week,” says Del Rey. “Mostly rehearsals, but at least one day we’ll get lunch and just hang.”
“It’s such a passion,” says Rosales. “Sometimes it does take away from having a social life, but I enjoy it. I’m such a workaholic.”
While the group sometimes disagrees on creative choices, the guys don’t shy away from it. “When we don’t have disagreements, the arrangement turns out kind of flat, because we didn’t have a ton of good ideas,” explains Gaynor.
Caigoy says, “It’s not ever like the group’s going to break up. Sometimes we disagree on who should sing which part and how high.” He tells a story about being assigned to sing a part in the upper register. “Super high, and I was like, I’m not going to sing that. That was my diva moment,” he says, laughing.
“But whatever we argue about in practice, afterwards we’re fine,” adds Del Rey. “We go get lunch.”
Hear their music, get tour dates and more at TheFilharmonic.com. Want to see The Filharmonic live? Check them out at the Audrey Fashion Show 2015!
Story Jean Ho
Photo Ben Miller
Stylist Franzy Staedter
Grooming Cat White
This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here.