Editor's note: Portions of this feature have been previously published.
Maybe their mothers imagined these classically trained musicians would be performing in beautiful concert halls with orchestras and symphonies, but instead, Simply Three often plays in front of cameras on urban streets, in forested meadows and on rooftops at sunset.
Simply Three's collection of masterfully produced music videos include all the strategic elements to create an online following — beautiful people, modern graphics, flashing lights and impactful music. Without a single word, the trio’s videos tell a story and relay meaningful messages.
Aside from their new album of original works, they also perform covers from Twenty One Pilots, U2, Imagine Dragons, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Coldplay and the Eurythmics, to name a few. And they do it all with a cello, a violin and a bass.
Whether the online performances fuel their live performance schedule or the other way around, both have become integral to the group’s worldwide success.
In October, they set out on an aggressive coast-to-coast U.S. tour starting in Montana, winding down the West Coast, across the country and ending in Pennsylvania mid-December.
'Similar souls in music'
Simply Three is comprised of Glen McDaniel, Nick Villalobos and Zack Clark, and the nontraditional strings trio has been touring worldwide since 2010.
Villalobos and Clark are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and served full-time missions from 2006-08 during a hiatus from their intense musical training in college. Villalobos served in Orlando, Florida, and Clark served in Scotland.
The two met while in middle school through mutual friends and crossed paths at all-state orchestra competitions in Arizona.
“We were passionate about music at an early age and couldn’t help but incorporate a sense of humor,” Villalobos said. “We were similar souls in music and kind of progressed from there. In 2010, we decided to make this venture official and find a violinist who had the same vision.”
McDaniel joined them in 2014 and confessed that as a young student of classical music, he never imagined the path his career has carved.
“We all grew up studying classical music, which is the highest form of art you can study on our respective instruments,” he said. “It’s the most demanding in improving your technical ability and musicality — the training is irreplaceable. But I always had this idea that if you study classical music, you should play classical music professionally. So that was always my plan — go to school, study music, take auditions, win a job, take other auditions and win a better job.
His perspective on the potential for his talents and work ethic changed with a single phone call. The call was from a friend from when he was a teen, who was now touring with with singer Janelle Monae, who has since been in "Hidden Figures." The friend said they needed another violinist to finish out the tour. After the tour, he continued playing with the band.
It was his first experience working professionally and his "first real step outside the classical world."
“Touring was really eye-opening to me in terms of different kinds of music making, presentation, production and all these things that I wasn’t aware of,” he said. “The experience was super insightful for me and exciting to see that a string instrument can hang in that world — a classical violin can entertain at the same level as singers and rock stars.”
Forming a trio
McDaniel was still playing with Monae when Villalobos and Clark from Simply Three called and offered him the open spot in their trio.
“My touring experience changed my perspective on music,” McDaniel said. “I used to think, ‘What can my classical training bring to the table with this band?’ But now the reverse is true, and I walked into an opportunity to play with Simply Three asking, ‘What things did I learn playing in an R&B funk band and how can that affect my classical music?’”
McDaniel calls playing with Villalobos and Clark a “natural fit. I would say the transition wasn’t intentional or planned, but it was pretty organic and it’s cool to see how far we’ve come together.”
Villalobos said the trio, along with their sound engineer, have a great time on the road and share Christian values that unite them even more.
“We all have a good belief in Christ,” Villalobos said. “We always try to make a point find a church service when we can and to say a prayer and give thanks for our opportunities. We ask for safety on the roads and ask for blessings to help us pay attention while we travel. We’ve been having a lot of car trouble on the first half of our tour. You never know what obstacles you’re going to run into on the road, but you make the best it. We’re just always super thankful for this opportunity and for those who come to our concerts.”
Tours, albums and YouTube
In the coming weeks, Simply Three is scheduled to perform in stately concert halls, intimate theaters as well as churches, schools and even a hospital.
“In Columbus, Ohio, we’ll be performing at the James Cancer Hospital,” Villalobos said. “That will be a really awesome experience. These people are going through a big trial in their life, obviously. They’re fighting for their lives, and it will be cool to be a part of the uplifting process for them.”
On the tour, they are planning to share the songs from their new album, McDaniel said.
“We’ve been doing these creative reimaginations for a long time, but we are really excited to present our original music on a larger scale," he said. "There’s nothing like performing music that you’ve written yourself. So we’re super stoked to be able to do that and see how people respond to it.”
Within six weeks of its September release, their new album, “Undefined,” hit the Billboard charts, already climbing to 17 in the classical genre and close to the top 10 in classical crossover.
The Simply Three website at simplythreemusic.com/about/ states, “By reshaping convention through this style of genre hopping, the trio continues to seek the true essence of classical crossover with original works as well as innovative arrangements that showcase their technical virtuosity and heartfelt musicality.”
Simply Three’s mix of “Wake Me Up” by Avicii has amassed more than 23 million views since the video was first published on YouTube in 2014. The group has hit the illustrious 10-million mark in the number of subscribers to its YouTube channel.
“'Wake Me Up' was wildly popular when it was first released, and we had a lot of fun creating our own cover,” McDaniel said. “We thought our video views might fizzle out after the popularity of the song waned, but it gets a large number of hits consistently and is our most persistently highly viewed video. It’s interesting to see what creates virality on social media platforms because you just never know.
“As for the production, sometimes we spend a lot of time storyboarding and filming but for ‘Wake Me Up,’ we just decided to see what kind of beautiful shots we could get. Sometimes when you set aside the planning and just say, ‘Let’s go outside and wing it’ — as with the case with this one — it ends up being your most successful project.”
Seeing Simply Three live
Standing on a wood floor under a basketball hoop at a small school in rural Montana with their instruments, Simply Three musicians played for orchestra students and then took questions.
One of the first came from a fifth-grade violinist, “Do you know Lindsey Stirling?”
“Yes, we know Lindsey,” Villalobos said. “We also know the Piano Guys and Two Cellos. We share a booking agent.”
The connection to other LDS YouTube phenoms helps get their name out, but it’s their love of music that usually wins fans over, Villalobos said.
They are all quick to thank their families who supported and sacrificed in the early years, and their young families today who hold down the fort while they’re traveling.
“My wife gets to stay home and focus on our 2-year-old son, Zander,” Villalobos said. “She’s very supportive and holding it all down at the house while I’m able to play music with great guys and get the name Simply Three out to the world.”
Stacie Lloyd Duce is a columnist and magazine editor featured regularly in several Montana and Utah publications. Email: [email protected]