When Eric Monson ’92 formed the four-man vocal group Metro in 1998, he had no idea that a decade later he’d be singing Cantonese pop—and garnering more than a million page views for it.
Monson hails from a musical family. His grandfather was a professional trumpet player. His father is a retired choral conductor. His brother, Marty Monson ’89, is executive director of the Barbershop Harmony Society. And his sister, Ann (Monson) Shoenecker ’90, is an associate music professor at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wis.
Monson “tried to break the mold by getting a degree in economics and accounting” at Luther, he says. But music had other plans for him. As an undergraduate, he studied voice for pure enjoyment and sang in Nordic Choir and a barbershop quartet called Water Street Junction with Jon Kohnen ’92, Travis Shaw ’92, and Brady Swenson ’92. In 1992, his quartet won an international competition. New York talent agents booked the group for a tour in Berlin, where two of the group’s members, Shaw and Swenson, still live and perform today. “That completely changed all of us,” Monson jokes. But it’s true: he was hooked.
Monson returned home to work on a music degree, but then went to work producing choir festivals at Disney theme parks. In 1998, hungry to perform again, Monson used his industry contacts to recruit a few singers and founded the four-man vocal group Metro.
Metro was booked to perform on a cruise ship before its members even met one another. They flew to Nashville for three days of intense rehearsal and then embarked on a cruise-ship performance run that would last four years.
During that time, a Disney executive happened to catch one of Metro’s shows and was so impressed that he got the group booked at Tokyo Disney—a gig that Monson and company kept for three years. After that time, says Monson, “Disney gave us with a deal we couldn’t refuse: they asked us to open up Hong Kong Disney” in 2005. It was the first international city that Monson could imagine as home.
A home in Hong Kong
After their two years with Hong Kong Disney, Metro took a break. Monson got involved in a community choir, and during a performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, he met his future wife, a Hong Kong native and professional opera singer, Yuki Ip. “She was singing the requiem in the second half of the concert. I heard her voice, and I was like Wow, I need to meet this person,” he says.
He spent the next year as Yuki’s assistant, and every time they’d go to an event, people would ask whether he taught voice lessons. After some creative thinking about visas, Monson established his own company, American Vocal Studio (turns out those economics and accounting majors did come in handy). “I can use AVS as an umbrella company that offers visas for performing and also for teaching,” he says. “In the hills and valleys of performing, you like to have a consistent income.”
That hardly seems a problem for Metro, however. The group has gained incredible traction across Asia. People love their infectious, highly technical pop tunes, but what arguably launched them into fame was their arrangement of a song by the hugely popular Cantonese group Beyond, whose founder died in a tragic accident. “His music—the lyrics and everything are just incredible. His main theme was: music has no borders. We felt we had to do that piece,” he says of the song “Under a Vast Sky.”
A Cantopop sensation
The group crafted its own arrangement—in Cantonese—and posted it online. Someone copied it onto Youku (Chinese YouTube), and within the first week, the video had two million views and spades of comments like, “If you close your eyes, you can’t even tell these four singers are foreigners.”
Learning to sing fluently in Chinese languages was no small challenge, Monson admits. For example, in Cantonese, he says, the word ho has nine different meanings depending on inflection, and six of those nine inflections are used in singing. Mandarin, another dialect in which Metro sings, uses six different tones in speech and four in singing.
“There was a time when we were singing in Cantonese, and I wanted to take a lick going up, and my wife was like, ‘No, no, no, that’s a swear word—you have to go downward!’” Needless to say, Yuki has been invaluable in the group’s pronunciation. It’s also helpful that three of Metro’s singers study Mandarin and Monson studies Cantonese. While they currently have a native Chinese speaker translate their lyrics, they’d like to eventually write them in Chinese themselves.
On stage with China’s Taylor Swift
Without the right cultural touchstones at hand, it’s sometimes hard for American audiences to appreciate how big Metro is in Asia. When asked about some of Metro’s highlights, Monson has to play a game of comparisons. For example, Metro has performed twice on the Chinese equivalent of the Tonight Show. They’ve been featured guests 11 times for G.E.M., China’s Taylor Swift. In the fall, they launched a three-week tour of mainland China, Taiwan, and Korea, during which they performed on the radio show of Kim Chang-wan, Korea’s John Lennon.
Sometimes the group gets hints of its success via a third party. For example, when Monson’s wife learned that Metro would be performing at the Taipei National Concert Hall, she was incredulous: “What? I’ve always wanted to perform there!” When Metro was in Beijing for the Chinese New Year, doing a TV program for CCTV, the group was asked, “So, how does it feel to be the first Americans to perform on this historic TV program?”
“We all looked at each other and said, ‘What?!’” Monson recalls. “We had no idea. It was quite an honor for us.”
Monson, a native Iowan who still uses “Iowa” in his Skype handle, is as down-to-earth as his home state. “We don’t always know how big a deal what we’re doing is. But it’s definitely cool when you go into a high school and you’re greeted like a rock star. Still, we know that as fast you go up, you can just as fast go down,” he says. “We just try to be humble and always enjoy what we do.”
Metro’s second album drops in 2016.