Ben Folds cover contest won by UGA group

A cappella ensemble will join musician at Tablernacle concert

The University of Georgia co-ed a cappella group entered a contest on YouTube late last year by recording themselves performing songs by Ben Folds. Its beat-boxing, boy-girl duet version of "You Don't Know Me," which Folds recorded with Regina Spektor for the album "Way to Normal," won. That gave them a chance to record it with Folds at his studio in Nashville. They also heard recently the song will appear on an album of a cappella versions of Folds' songs to be released in April. And Friday, they'll open for Folds at the Tabernacle.

Yes, it's a great start for With Someone Else's Money, says the group's director, Jonathan Sparks, a UGA music education major. Here, he and "You Don't Know Me" soloist Mary Lee Jackson, a UGA student from Gainesville studying social work and Spanish, share their experiences with the contest, Ben Folds and being Internet famous.

On entering the a cappella contest:

Sparks: "I've been a huge Ben Folds fan forever. I was just randomly on his Web site one day and noticed the contest. The basic gist was you had to record a video of your group covering one of this songs. We did, and so did probably 200 other groups — a lot."

Jackson: "We each gave suggestions about which Ben Folds songs we liked and which would be a good a cappella arrangement. Our regular routine is anybody who wants to audition can. Me and Edward (Speaker) got the solos."

On "You Don't Know Me":

Sparks: "We entered two songs in the contest, 'You Don't Know Me,' and the other song was 'Cigarette.' We wanted to do something newer and something older and obscure. 'You Don't Know Me,' it's a real entertaining song. It probably didn't have to be that difficult, but whenever I arrange things, I try to be true to the song. The song itself had some pretty technical stuff. It had some range issues for the ladies.

Jackson: "I was a Regina Spektor fan, getting to sing her part, it was just fun for each of us. I'm a bigger fan now that I've experienced all this. It's weird to see it on YouTube when I'm watching it. I hear parts and I think, 'I would have done this better, differently.' I have to put that in the back of my mind. I have to make myself stop listening to my part."

On recording with Ben Folds:

Sparks: "It was very relaxed, very honest. A lot of fun, though, to be in his own personal studio. I have a picture of me playing every piano he had there. He wasn't looking for a real overproduced studio type sound. He was just really honest. He's a real nice guy, but some things were out of tune while we were warming up and getting used to the room – he would point that out. What we sang for the album was my arrangement. It helps that he wrote the songs, so he knows what it should sound like."

Jackson: "The night before, I was really nervous. Each take, he would say what he really liked or what he wanted to change. He would give us suggestions. It was cool to be critiqued by someone who knew what he was talking about. He could use our voices to change it, instead of turning up a guitar, or tweaking instruments. When we would record, he'd be in the sound booth, he'd be dancing. You could tell he was enjoying it. It wasn't what you think of when you're about to meet a celebrity. It was like meeting a new friend, sort of."

On Internet fame:

Sparks: "There have been spots running in Australia, the UK – a bunch of different countries, and people come to YouTube and say, 'I saw you on the news in Australia.'"

Jackson: "I didn't think about the fact that everybody could see it. In my mind, it was part of Ben Folds contest, but when people look up his version, they find ours. I didn't realize it was going on. My parents were like, 'Have you seen how many hits you have?' So many people across the world know who we are, when we're still trying to make a name for ourselves here."

On performing at the Tabernacle:

Sparks: "We're definitely doing the song we recorded for him. As far as what else, it'll be of the same genre. We may do some Coldplay or Keane, things of that nature. I don't know if we've ever been in front of a crowd quite that big. For the group, it'll be a new experience. Hopefully, nobody will freak out and choke."

Jackson: "Singing in front of crowds isn't really new — it's going to be an entirely different atmosphere. I'm sure just being on stage there after seeing people perform there, I think it's going to be amazing."

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