Nick Lachey became famous for being a singer, but in the last several years, he’s reinvented himself as a TV star in addition to being a recording artist. He had a recurring role in "Charmed," and he has starred in reality TV shows on MTV and NBC. His latest reality show is "The Sing-Off," a mini-series talent contest featuring unsigned a capella groups competing to win $100,000 and a contract with Sony Music Entertainment’s Epic Records. Lachey is the host of the four-episode "Sing-Off" series, which premieres December 14 on NBC at 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time. The remaining episodes air at 8 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time on December 15, December 16, and December 21. Joining host Lachey in "The Sing-Off" are judges Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls, Shawn Stockman of Boyz II Men, and Ben Folds of Ben Folds Five fame.
In a telephone conference call that took place the day before Scherzinger’s participation in the show was announced, Lachey chatted with journalists about "The Sing-Off," his advice for aspiring musical artists, and the possibility of reuniting with his former vocal group 98 Degrees. But one thing he didn’t talk about was his personal life, since journalists were told before the interview that personal questions weren’t allowed and that anyone who asked a personal question would be cut off from the conference call. So don’t expect Lachey to comment in this interview on his ex-wife Jessica Simpson or his relationship with on-again/off-again girlfriend Vanessa Minnillo. (And considering all the tacky and often-erroneous tabloid stories about his love life, it’s understandable that Lachey wants to keep quiet to the media about it.) But if you want to see an in-depth discussion with Lachey about music, then read on.
Can you kind of talk about your hosting duties for "The Sing-Off" and what the format of the show is going to be?
I think obviously it's all about a cappella music, which is exciting to me, because it's kind of a forum that no one's really explored on television before and it's something that's really a passion for me having grown up singing a cappella music. In 98 Degrees, we always really took a lot of pride in being able to sing a cappella and sing live a cappella.
So I think my responsibility here is kind of one part to move the show along and kind of act as the emcee and keep things moving and kind of keep that organization in play. And I think, secondly, to really be kind of a support system to these groups and encourage them as they go through this process. It's certainly a daunting task to take on a cappella performance on live television. So I'm excited to be a part of it and excited to hear what these guys have to offer. It should be a lot of fun.
Nick Lachey in "The Sing-Off"
Are you a fan of "American Idol" and would you ever have Paula Abdul as a guest judge?
I have to be honest with you. I have not been the most avid watcher of "American Idol" as a series but have always been a fan of a cappella music, and I think that's what's so intriguing about this particular show is that with a cappella music — unlike other shows where you have a band behind you — there's really nowhere to hide. It's all about the talent and it's all about the performance and the preparation which is why, again, I'm so excited to be a part of this series.
Who is your favorite group or singer right now?
Favorite group or singer now would be probably Kings of Leon, but I grew up a huge fan of Boyz II Men, which is obviously why I'm so excited that Shawn [Stockman of Boyz II Men] is one of our judges. And in addition to that, groups like Take 6 … A cappella groups were always an inspiration for myself and for my group, 98 Degrees.
How has your music has changed over the years?
Yeah, [it has] just become more mature, I think as I become more mature. The sound in the pop music as a whole has kind of changed and, hopefully, I've been able to evolve along with it.
There are so many a cappella groups out there. So what do you think sets one group apart from the rest as being really outstanding?
A cappella can cover so many different styles. And I think we're going to see a lot of those different styles represented in the different kinds of groups that we have on the show I think that aside from the stylistic differences, what really sets a group apart is their preparation. As I said before, there's really nowhere to hide when doing a cappella. So how much you put into it and how much you prepared and practiced I think is really going to be one of the really telling things that shines through on the show.
Shawn Stockman, Nick Lachey, Nicole Scherzinger and Ben Folds of "The Sing-Off"
What do you think Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman will bring to the table as judges for the show?
Well, clearly, both are incredibly respected and talented musicians who have been in the business a long, long time and both very familiar with what it means to be an a cappella performer and have a real passion for a cappella music. So I can't think of two better-suited people to be on that panel and I think they're going to bring a real expertise and a real knowledge of what it means to be really good at singing and performing a cappella music.
How are you’re a capella skills? Did you kind of grow up in your family singing a cappella like maybe around the holidays or anything like that?
I wish I had a great family holiday a cappella story for you but I don't. Just having gone to performing arts school, I was in a couple different groups that we really loved singing a cappella. One was a six-part male group that I used to meet with before school and we did a lot of Take 6 music which is six-person harmony which is really, really intricate and challenging stuff. And then I was also in a barbershop quartet that performed at King's Island Amusement Park so that was kind of my summer gig in high school.
Did you ever have dreams of being in a barbershop quartet?
Yeah, I sang my share of "Lida Rose" back in the day and just did all that stuff and had a lot of fun. So yeah, it's always something I've enjoyed.
Nick Lachey in "The Sing-Off"
What do you think are the challenges of a cappella music?
Well, it really encompasses so many things. You have to be a good individual singer but more importantly than that, it's when it all comes together. And when it comes together successfully, I think there's no better sound in the world. But on the flip side of that, if it doesn't come together successfully, it can not come off so impressively, which is what these groups are going to be challenged with. But it's everything from blend and tone and timing and feel and you have to really sing as one voice so to speak — and that's the challenge of it.
Did you ever have like a singing remedy, like lemon tea, that you used to kind of get your voice in tip-top shape?
I think the best remedy is to practice and keeping your voice in shape. But I think tea and honey and all that stuff and warming up and really preparing [are] all good ways to go about being ready to perform.
Jerry Rice and Nick Lachey at the Madden NFL 10 Pigskin Pro-Am in Malibu, California, July 2009
Can you talk more about a cappella, as far as competing will be like, as opposed to just performing? What changes in the aspect of the competition?
I think there are so many different ways you can treat a song creatively, a cappella wise … I think it's going to be their arrangement and their renditions and the ways that they creatively use their voices, you know, that's going to set them apart from one another. So I'm excited to hear it because there's just so many different ways you can go about it. And I think that the more creative you are — so to speak — the more impressive it's going to be and that's what's great about a cappella.
Out of all the jobs you've done in the entertainment industry which one was your favorite?
I think singing is always for me kind of my passion and really the way I broke into the business. And it will always be, I think for me, first and foremost in my heart. It's what I love to do and love to be a part of, so obviously it's why I'm excited about this show.
And is there anything that you want to do entertainment or not that you haven't done yet that you would like to do?
One thing I'd like to host [is] a sports talk-radio show. Aside from music, sports is my other passion, I could talk about that for hours on end. So to get paid to do that for hours would be kind of a dream come true at some point.
Nick Lachey and his younger brother, Drew Lachey, at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 in Homestead, Florida, November 2009
Is there any hope for a 98 Degrees reunion?
I think there's always a chance of that. We've always kept that door wide open.
And you said you always liked a cappella, but how'd you all come up with the idea for this show?
It's an interesting story, actually. It really started with a film [with the working title "A Capella"] that was being developed by Sony Pictures. There is a movie script that was being developed around the whole a cappella world especially around colleges and universities. And the way I understand it Amy Pascal, the chairman of Sony Pictures, was reading the script and of course not only was responding to how good the idea was for a movie, she immediately I think contacted the television division of Sony and said, "You guys should try to turn this into a sort of reality competition show." And that's sort of when it started. And then the Sony television people contacted me and I came in and we sort of all developed it together. And several months later here we are with "The Sing-Off."
What’s one of your favorite a cappella performances that you've done in the past?
I'd say one that really sticks out to me was when I was in 98 Degrees and we had a chance to do the "Christmas at the White House" special when President Clinton was in office and a chance to sing "Ave Maria." We had a great a cappella rendition of "Ave Maria" that we had a chance to sing for the President and quite a few other dignitaries at that event so that stands out as probably one of the most exciting.
Nick Lachey in "The Sing-Off"
Did you sing, baritone, tenor, bass?
I was the second tenor so I was the second highest in the foursome.
What would be some of the songs you'd love to see performed a cappella on the show?
I think that's what's going to be so exciting about the show: The range of the repertoire is going to be pretty extensive. And to hear the approach that these groups take in taking the song — maybe not at first listen which seemed like you'd hear it a cappella — but being able to take that song and make it a cappella and do a great creative rendition of it is what's going to make the show so fun to be a part of.
Now the hosting gig sounds pretty cool. What would you have said if they asked you to be a judge?
You know what? I wouldn't have been opposed to being a judge. But that said, I enjoy the opportunity to not have to play that role and just the friend to the groups and the support system. That's something I enjoy. But at the same time I think having been in music in the business for about 13 years now, you kind of learn over that course of time what is good and what sounds good and so it puts you in a position to be able to hopefully be able to be an effective judge. But I'm happy to be the host in this case.
98 Degrees, pictured from left to right: Jeff Timmons, Nick Lachey, Justin Jeffre and Drew Lachey
How do you think 98 Degrees would have done in the competition like this?
I'd like to think we would have done pretty well. I mean, a cappella is pretty much the way we got signed and the reason we were in the business to begin with. So I think we'd have held our own.
What's the latest on Season 2 of "Taking the Stage"?
It's coming back in late January .
What advice would you give to the upcoming groups?
Be as creative as you can. And practice as much as you can. I think preparation is a huge component of a cappella singing. And just what I tell every performer before they go out is, "Just leave it all on the stage, go for it and have fun with it and be an entertainer." That's what it all comes down to. So I'm sure they'll be great and they'll have a lot of time to get their stuff together. It should be a lot of fun.
Nick Lachey at the Greater Boston Food Bank, October 2009
You do a lot of charity work. Why is that so important to you?
I feel very blessed in life. I've been fortunate enough to be in the business for a long time and I've had a lot of great things happen for me. And I think a part of that is realizing your position and having perspective enough to use that position to try and do some good and give back so I've tried to do that whenever I can.
You were involved in a reality show called "Clash of the Choirs" a couple years ago on NBC. What did you learn from that that you can tell these kids?
I think it's similar in a sense that … these people don't do this for a living. These are people who have jobs and have families and their passion is singing a cappella. And we saw that passion in "Clash of the Choirs" as well but I think, you know, I think this, you know, it really comes down to the performance.
You know, what was so great about "Clash of the Choirs" when we did "The Flight of the Bumblebee," that was the only a cappella song you heard on that show, so it kind of stood out for that reason and there's really nowhere to hide. And I think that's what's going to be so great about the show is that we have nothing but a cappella performances. And just the level of talent, the level of skill is going to be phenomenal. So I'm very excited to be a part of it.
Have you seen the groups yet? Have you met them yet?
I have not, so I'll get into that here shortly and like I said I can't wait to hear them. There's so many talented singers across the country and … they went through a very extensive process to find the best of the best so it should be fantastic.
Nick Lachey at the Super Skins Celebrity Golf Classic in Lutz, Florida, January 2009
And how many summers did you sing barbershop at King's Island?
Two. It was in 1990 and '91 or '91, '92, somewhere in there.
How much do you interact with Ben Folds and Shawn Stockman on "The Sing-Off"?
I think they will be a judge panel and their decisions and their judgments will be exclusively theirs. I won't have anything to do with that. I think my role is purely to kind of create that synergy between the artists and the groups and the judges and keep the show moving along. So in terms of what they do and their jobs on the show and mine is, mine is separate from that.
What kind of tips or advice would you give to the group that wins on handling the success moving forward and just kind of staying together and being strong as a group?
I think that the most important thing to remember in success is just to remember how it felt before you were successful and remember why you started singing together to begin with and that's because you loved the music and you loved performing with one another. As long as you keep I think all that really relevant in your lives and you remember what got you there then you'll be in good shape.
Brandy and Nick Lachey at Z100's 2008 Jingle Ball in New York City
Were you surprised by some of the song choices and will we be surprised by some of the song choices?
Yeah, I think both. I think it's again that's one of the things I'm most excited about is the opportunity to take some repertoire, some songs that maybe at first glance you wouldn't think of as being done in an a cappella format. But that's the challenge is to take those songs and to make them a cappella and make them a cappella in a very creative and interesting way. So I think there will be some surprises, some of the choices which is great. I think that's one of the most exciting things about this whole [contest].
Which contemporary song would you like to do an a cappella version of?
Gosh you know, I always enjoy taking something that's really like out of left field … There was a group that just did Kanye [West's] "Heartless" and did like a whole scaled-back, almost acoustic musical version of that song. So it's like songs that are completely unexpected. You take a rap song and you somehow turn it into a melodic song. If you're able to do that and do it successfully and do it well, I think it's incredibly impressive. So I think again the choices of songs is going to be a huge part of it and the creative approach that these groups bring to adapting those in their own way is going to be a huge part what sets them apart from one another.