Sunday, February 18, 2018
Human Interest

Nick McKaig finds a cappella stardom on YouTube


nick McKaig was already picking himself apart, trying to nail the pa-pa-pahs and ooooeees and ba-dums that turned his voice into instruments.

"Ahh," he said. "It's not bums, it's ooos. I should have known that. It's the most annoying part in the world, the piano part."

His last video, an elaborate a cappella cover of the Star Wars theme, had a million YouTube views. It had caught the eye of E!, ABC News, the Daily Mail, Colombian radio. It had been viewed in Chad and Kazakhstan. People were waiting for the next one. No one knew he was just a guy, 23, crammed into a college apartment, working as a camp counselor, trying to find a career in a way that was impossible a decade ago.

He stood in front of a green screen he bought online for $15. He hit his mark on the floor, a Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred DVD.

"Okay, Jayne, I'm going to need you to push the magic button."

His cousin put down her homework and shuffled to the tripod.

"Does it look good?" he said. "Okay, make sure I smile."

Music was always his thing because he was no good at sports. By 10, he was singing in barbershop quartets as a tenor. At 13, he got sick for a month and came out a bass. He played Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde onstage. He knew the cello and the French horn and the piano.

At Plant High in Tampa, he auditioned for the top choral group alongside seniors. The director was stunned. Nick had perfect pitch. Perfect.

"It's a huge thing for a freshman boy to be able to do that," said Bruce Yost. "He was always sort of above the high school fray, if you will."

After high school, he studied music at the University of Miami and the University of Southern California. He was surrounded by serious people who could dissect a 400-year-old piece of music but had limited appreciation for silly jokes and TV themes.

He pictured himself old, gray, standing in front of a chorus, conducting some canon from 1609. He felt worried.

"What am I doing?" he thought. "What are these people doing?"

He moved to Tallahassee to be with his fiancee while she finished college. He started tooling around on YouTube. He posted a video of himself reading the Walt Disney World monorail script. "Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor, mantengase alejado de las puertas." Next, he decided to try singing Stand By Me. He sat behind a laptop, looking at the screen the whole time. In June, he covered the Mission Impossible theme, splitting the screen into fourths.

He posted the videos on Facebook. Friends from school thought they were cute.

He did Breakfast at Tiffany's, splitting the screen into sixths, beat-boxing, trying different camera angles. By October, his views hit 1,000.

"Awesome," he thought. "I'm really going to start being something."

By Christmas, You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch hit 5,000 views.

In January, The Simpsons had way more. It got attention from tech blog Gizmodo. He got dozens of new subscribers and mustered the courage to try Star Wars.

"It's just an epic song," he said. "Either it's going to be a big hit or everyone's going to laugh at it."

He recorded 90 vocal parts inside his 4- by 6-foot closet soundproofed with polo shirts, an ironing board and towels. He waited for his neighbors to take their showers, for the cars to quiet down at the liquor store across the street.

"May the fourth be with you," said a kid at Nick's after-school camp one day.

Nick had no idea, but Star Wars Day was fast approaching. With this new revelation, he hurried to finish in time. He launched on May 3.

The views started. First 100. Then 1,000. Then 10,000. Then seven digits.

"The whole story is just to me kind of ironic," said Yost. "He's obviously got this great musical talent and direction after coming up through all the academic music, and he's finally getting his due recognition producing these TV themes on YouTube. The genius was always there."

People emailed him, analyzing his songs as they did back in college.

At a minute and four seconds, you left out a string flutter ...

An Indiana Jones hat and whip sat on Nick's bed. They had to wait a bit. He'd learned after Star Wars that you need paperwork, that you can't just record those kinds of legendary songs without signing many things.

He decided it was best to jump back in smaller anyway. He was not likely to top Star Wars with, well, anything.

"Okay, time for my solo," Nick said.

"What are you going to wear?" said his cousin, Jayne Reynolds.

"Something awesome."

He put on a black shirt and ripped some cuff links off his old choir tuxedo. He padded back to the workout DVD and performed once, twice, three times.

"Last time," he told himself. "No redos."

Jayne hit play.

He sang Michael Bublé's Haven't Met You Yet, a song about timing and luck. He thought this video might get 30,000 hits eventually, but he'd already gotten the one that mattered most. Someone at an entertainment company invited him to arrange live songs for Orlando theme park shows this summer.

A real job.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.

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