“As is its custom on Monday nights, the Silver Lake Chorus is rehearsing in an abandoned church here, its pews removed from its nave but the vault providing natural amplification. With Mikey Wells as musical director, the 20-member group is running through, with great care, “Same Song,” a track from its self-titled debut album. On a stage lighted by paper lanterns, Mr. Wells asks the men to step forward and gather in a circle—the better to hear one another—as they refine their parts. On the second pass, they achieve somber perfection. The women in the chorus cheer in support.
It was a similar circle of singers that led to “The Silver Lake Chorus” (Six Degrees), a collection of choral performances of new compositions by some of today’s most notable songwriters. In 2010, Ben Lee, the Australian folk singer, dropped by a rehearsal and was invited to sit amid the chorus as it sang Beck’s “Lonesome Tears.” Impressed, Mr. Lee offered to help produce an album and handed them a new song, “Overboard.” Then he began to ask like-minded indie rock and pop songwriters to contribute original material. Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, John Roderick of the Long Winters, Tegan and Sara, and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver were among those who responded. Recording began in July 2011.
For 32-year-old Mr. Wells, who, along with Heather Ogilvy, arranged the songs, making an album was far from his original goal. While a student at Beverly Hills High School, he knocked around in rock bands, but was long intrigued by what he called “the mystery of choral singing.” His father, Kenneth, is a classical composer and the longtime director of the Mansfield Chamber Singers. When the junior Mr. Wells decided to form a chorus, he networked among friends and posted fliers; soon, he had enough voices to proceed. The goal was fundamental: to have an opportunity to create beauty with a rich blend of human voices; and, in doing so, to avoid the clichés of choral idioms employed by choruses and college a cappella groups that try to incorporate popular music into the repertoire. “We wanted open, lush arrangements that didn’t pigeonhole us as ancient or kitschy,” Mr. Wells recalled, adding that he wanted “a singularity to the massiveness.” In other words, the Silver Lake Chorus would sound unique and big.
And it does. Though the chorus enriches its core sound here and there with various instruments—Mr. Wells contributes glockenspiel, guitars, percussion and many types of keyboards—it relies mostly on the beauty and expressiveness of the voices to make its mark. The a cappella reading of Mr. Vernon’s “From the Snow-Tipped Hills,” the album’s first track, opens gently and remains delicate even as the sopranos send the melody soaring. “That’s the purity of the human voice,” Mr. Wells said. Also performed without instrumental accompaniment, the Ogilvy-Wells composition “Home Come Home” most resembles traditional church choral music in its warm, majestic authority. It bleeds into a drumbeat that introduces “Wreckage,” a bright blast of pop composed by A.C. Newman, best known for his work with the New Pornographers. Taken together, these two songs display the project’s scope as the solemn coexists readily with a new, often glorious approach to pop. That approach can accommodate many moods. Tegan and Sara’s “Hold Up For,” which profits from a plucked cello, the dulcimer-like strum stick and the ring of the glockenspiel, is joyful to the point of giddy. The disc concludes with a chilly take on Aimee Mann and Paul Bryan’s “Easy to Die,” a lament for a friend lost to drugs.
Since the album’s release in June, the chorus has enjoyed hard-won acclaim, if not bullish sales. Since touring would be a logistical challenge—and an imposition on the members who have day jobs outside the music industry —the Silver Lake Chorus might well establish itself as an L.A. institution that can perform local gigs and support acts who come to town and want to uplift their sound. Thus far, the chorus has sung in concert with Mr. Lee, Moby, Damien Rice and the band Kan Wakan, among others. Last summer, it performed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which seems a suitable venue as nearby paintings by Hartley, Kandinsky and Van Gogh reflected a similar sense of glee and purpose.
As the voices came together during the rehearsal of Mr. Roderick’s “Same Song,” a thought occurred to me: Wouldn’t an appearance by the chorus at next year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival be a sublime treat for Sunday morning’s early arrivals? “Our goal is always to grab the most ears,” Mr. Wells said. The Silver Lake Chorus, he added, just wants to be heard.