The show, which is in its second season and premiered Sept. 19, highlights a cappella singing groups, and whittles down the amount of voice-only bands through judging processes, week by week, until only one is left standing.
Daniel Ellsworth, 27, who lived in Woodbury from the time he was a child until he graduated high school in 2002, is among the field of participants with his band, The Collective.
Ellsworth, who now lives in Nashville, learned about the show when his friend, Jeremy Lister, competed last year on the show with the band Street Corner Symphony.
Lister’s group finished second on the debut season of The Sing Off. When NBC renewed the show for another season, Lister put together a group of nine Nashville-area musicians to compete on the show as The Collective.
“It was really exciting because it’s something that’s so new,” he said. “Everyone of us in the group are just artists who checked our egos at the door and became one voice to make it work as an a cappella group. It’s not about being the front person—it’s about being one unit and blending well. It was tough, but it was exciting, too.”
Unlike some of the groups in the competition, Ellsworth said none of the musicians in The Collective have past experience in a cappella groups.
Ellsworth described the newness to that particular type of singing as the group’s “biggest challenge and at the same time (The Collective’s) biggest advantage.”
He said other groups might look to strictly adhere to the parameters of a cappella singing, but The Collective breaks away from those standards and composes some creative performing the judges might not ever have heard before.
“It worked for us—just figuring out what everybody’s voices were and who sounding good singing which parts,” Ellsworth said. "It was a huge learning experience and there couldn’t have been a better group of people to do it with. We gelled really well from the start.”
Proud parents and teachers
Ellsworth’s parents, Dan and Kathy Mathews, have known for a while their son has a passion for music, and are eager to see him and his band perform on The Sing Off.
Dan noted his family is very musically inclined, so a career in music was pretty much in the genes for his son.
“I play guitar and sing, my wife and I both sing at our church—we’ve been doing that for years—and we used to perform at weddings,” he said. “All my brothers sing and play guitar and piano. On my wife’s side, her brother is a very good musician. Daniel grew up around that kind of music and whenever our families get together there’s always music.”
Dan said his son started taking piano lessons at about 8 years old; he’s been involved in choir, spent his first two years of college studying music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and finished out his education at Belmont University in Nashville, obtaining a degree in jazz piano.
While he was at , Ellsworth was active in numerous school productions, and school staff involved in those shows recognized his talent right away.
“He was an amazing musician,” Woodbury High School art teacher Karen Seashore said. “I remember him fondly as the lead in our production of Fame. He not only had a chance to sing his solos, but he also played keyboard, which he was very good at as well. It came as no surprise that he would pursue music and do well. He’s a very, very talented young man.”
Dan recalled the moment when he knew his son was going to pursue a musical education.
“Daniel was in his sophomore year of high school and he played football with his cousin, Josh,” Dan said. “Josh and Dan were also in a high school musical together, and during intermission Dan came up to me and I asked him, ‘How do you like it?’ He responded, ‘Dad, I’m not playing football next year.’ That was kind of the turning point.
Why not ‘Dan Mathews Jr.’?
Ellsworth, who was named after his father, said he choose the “Ellsworth” moniker when he first started performing music because he got tired of people cracking Dave Matthews jokes due to the similarity between the two performers’ names.
“It’s me and my dad’s middle name—it’s nothing against our last name,” he said. “When I first started performing songs as Dan Mathews, I’d go out and people would be like, ‘Oh man, are you like Dave Matthews? Can you play Crash Into Me? I decided if I was going to keep doing music I better change my name.”
That was probably a good decision in retrospect, Ellsworth said.
He his band have even been receiving some recent recognition for their work on a well known website.
The band’s single, Shoe Fits, off the album Civilized Man, was named one of the top digital favorites on Amazon.com this year.
“That was pretty exciting,” Ellsworth said. “I was out in L.A. filming for The Sing Off and a friend texted me the news. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but we’re happy with the response.”
Ellsworth and his band are also excited about some of the comparisons they’re receiving to other popular performers and bands.
“We’ve been getting compared to Jack White, M. Ward and the Black Keys,” he said. “That a huge compliment when someone compares you to the music you love.”
Other musical influences for Ellsworth include Paul Simon, Wilco and the Talking Heads.
Regardless of where his musical career takes him or how well he and The Collective do on The Sing Off, Ellsworth said he’s enjoyed the ride thus far.
“Where (music) takes me remains to be seen,” he said. “The music industry is kind of upside down on its head right now, but (The Sing Off) is such a unique opportunity. I hope people will see us and be inspired by what we do on the show. If from there they connect to our independent music that would be great. That’s all you can ask for.”