Eight years ago, three uniquely talented string musicians, Nick Villalobos, Glenn McDaniel, and Zack Clark, “started to go to the moon.” At least, that’s how Villalobos describes the success of their performing group, Simply Three.
That same year, in 2014, the popularity of classical crossover music exploded. Artists like Lindsey Stirling and The Piano Guys were also releasing Billboard-charting albums and mega-viral music videos, and Simply Three’s rise in classical crossover fame began to take off too.
As their many fans can wholeheartedly appreciate now, the performers of Simply Three clearly saw the writing on the wall for classical musicians like themselves and took full advantage.
“We were like, ‘Hey, this YouTube thing seems to be working for … people in our genre, so let’s try it out.’ After we did a few videos, they just started shooting off and it was crazy. … [Our video for “Demons” by Imagine Dragons] got like, 200,000 views in two days,” Clark explains.
That video for “Demons” has been described as “the most beautiful version yet” by Huffington Post senior editor William Goodman. Today, Simply Three’s YouTube channel has 1.45 million followers, and their Spotify streams have surpassed their YouTube video views with dozens of songs on the platform boasting millions of listens.
Performing cover songs by artists from Adele to Michael Jackson to Queen, Simply Three’s music is anything but simple to play. Their talents have been lauded in the classical world by symphonies like the Boston Philharmonic as well as the pop and rock world. OneRepublic has praised Simply Three’s version of their hit single “Counting Stars”: “[We] LOVE this ‘Counting Stars’ cover! All strings!!” And GRAMMY®-nominated R&B sensation Janelle Monáe said that the trio’s incredible mash-up of her hit singles “Cold War” and “Tightrope” was an “honor” and made their video a highlighted feature on her personal website.
The year 2014 was also when they solidified the Simply Three lineup as it stands today. Villalobos, who plays upright bass, and Clark, who plays cello, are both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Arizona. The two met decades ago—in the ninth grade, in fact, while playing in the Arizona All-State Orchestra. The two both performed in the Phoenix Youth Symphony together and ended up at Arizona State University after serving full-time missions for the Church. And their aspirations as musicians aligned too.
“We didn’t want to take the traditional route of a classical musician, which is either to be in an orchestra or get a professorship somewhere,” Villalobos explains. “And we thought, ‘We like all these different kinds of music—we always liked rock music, rap, heavy metal, R&B, all that stuff. Why don’t we try to do this on our classical instruments?’ So we got a Beatles book and tried some stuff as a duo, but it was not that great,” he says, laughing at the memory.
Clark and Villalobos had two other violinists come and go from the group before McDaniel, a classically-trained violinist, entered the scene in 2014. McDaniel met Villalobos in 2012 through a mutual friend. Timing was once again perfect when a couple of years later, McDaniel was on the road with another performing artist when Clark and Villalobos approached McDaniel about collaborating with them, and the vibes of the trio felt solid from the start.
With the diversity of the songs they cover, the emotion felt through their original compositions, and their pure talent, Simply Three has won over the hearts of millions of fans and earned them a place among classical crossover royalty.
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A couple years ago, the group was asked to perform at the Emmy Awards after-party, and Clark describes that experience as his most surreal moment as a performer.
“We were up on this rotating stage, literally right next door to the Emmys. So they open the doors and everyone piles in, and we’re looking around, and there’s Benedict Cumberbatch. And then there’s Noah Schnapp from Stranger Things walking by. And there’s Childish Gambino, Donald Glover. It was crazy. I was just like, ‘What is happening right now?! How did we get here?!’”
There have been other moments for each of them personally that felt unbelievable. McDaniel, who is from Dallas, Texas, says he had a blast playing at Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s Hall of Fame induction party, but also appreciates the smaller dreamlike moments. Like the first time they were stopped by someone who recognized them as they were heading into a movie theater, or when his mom’s coworkers make the connection that she is McDaniel’s mother, and, independently and unprompted, mention how much they love her Simply Three’s music.
Villalobos also shares some of the sweet and eye-opening experiences they’ve had, from fans flying in from out of state to see their shows or reading emails from listeners about the influence of their original songs.
“We got an email from this woman who said that her husband just died. And they would always listen to our song “Rain” every night on the porch—that was like their thing that they did together. That was like, oh my gosh. That’s not even us—our music is doing that for people. That’s really [incredible] to think that there’s a couple out there that had this bond because of our music. And that now that’s bringing her comfort. That gets me—that our music can bring people that kind of joy.”
After years of performing together and millions of streams and video views, the group has stayed incredibly humble. “There [have] been a few times I’ve been looking at our YouTube views and our Pandora streams, and I still don’t understand how this is happening,” Clark shares. “Sometimes it just feels like a bunch of numbers. Sometimes I get a little numb to it because we are focusing on our families and going about our daily lives because we’re just normal guys. We’re just literally three normal dudes. but every now and then I’ll just think, ‘That’s so many people!’”
These “three normal dudes” have always marched to the beat of their own drum when it comes to their covers and musical projects, but the group now has more freedom to take on new challenges that might be considered closer to their hearts. Which meant turning to a very different kind of Simply Three project—an entire album of hymns.
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“I never expected us to do a hymns album or like anything like this,” Clark confesses. “I feel like in the beginning, I kind of wanted to stay away from it. I didn’t want to be known for this kind of music. … But this has honestly become my favorite album for us. I think it’s because we grew up with these songs, hearing them in a certain way. And now these songs—the way we did them—they’re totally different. Each one is very fresh and adds a different perspective to the hymns.”
New perspectives on familiar sounds and shared experiences became a theme while working on this album, titled All Amazed. Over the years, the men have often written arrangements for their cover songs and frequently write original songs too, and like most song-writers, hit creative roadblocks. But with this album, they met those age-old challenges with a calmer, fresh perspective and a more enlightened attitude, maybe due in part to the truths taught by the sacred songs on which they were working.
Villalobos’s experience working specifically on the arrangement for “Where Can I Turn For Peace?” became one of those all-too-real moments. He had written something early on in the process that was “fine”—something they could come back to later—but when the time came to record the songs for the album, what he’d originally written no longer felt up to snuff. The team had crafted so many other beautiful gems for the album, and this early arrangement just wasn’t cutting it anymore. They all knew it, and Villalobos was frustrated because he knew they still needed the song on the album.
“Faith has … been a huge pillar in my life. … I’ve been taught that faith is the belief of something that’s not seen. So when I think about music, and especially writing music, it’s created out of nothing. …
“While I was driving home, I was mad and upset, but I got new ideas. I heard it. It was just out of nothing. … And was that God? Was it inspiration? Or was it just me using knowledge that I had? … I know there’s [sometimes] a debate in the Church with revelation. Like, how do I know if it’s from God? Or how do I know [if] it’s myself? And we've been taught that it kind of doesn’t matter. At some point, it doesn’t matter, right? You’re thinking too much about it. … But I believed that could be done, even in my anger. …
“So I heard the beginning cello line [in my head], … and I wrote a bunch of it out immediately so I didn’t forget. And then the next day, I just finished. It happened immediately.”
McDaniel, who is not a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, still appreciates the parallels between walking on a path of personal faith and and the faith it takes to learn any kind of craft. He also appreciates that with music, much like faith, you can rely on its strength for healing, nurturing, and comfort.
“I think music in and of itself is very spiritual. And I think you can find yourself wandering through the great beyond with music, just as you can with faith.”
Everything about this album is new for Simply Three. The arrangements of the hymns are certainly different from what Latter-day Saints are used to hearing. And the range of emotions and more orchestral sounds are new territory for Simply Three’s traditional fans too.
Many of the unique arrangements for each hymn also speak to the overarching message of the song. For example, with “Where Can I Turn for Peace?,” Villalobos says that when he heard the first cello line in his head while driving in the car, he thought, “‘That sounds cool. Let’s make it minor.’ Because when I think of the phrase ‘Where can I turn for peace?,’ it’s not a happy thing. That’s not a happy question. You’re in the depths of despair. There’s a struggle there. There’s something going on.”
Clark says that their “fiddle-rock version” of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is one of his favorites, as he tends to favor their more upbeat tracks. On the All In podcast, he shared that for the song, they had “an incredible drummer, and we sent him a demo … of what the drums were kind of supposed to be like, for reference. And he sent back his recording, and … he added all these extra things, and it’s the most energetic and most fun song on the album. I love music that gives me that excitement.”
McDaniel shares that the track “Nearer, My God, to Thee” speaks to him the most.
“I think it really highlights this path of beauty, of tension, of turmoil, of questioning, [of] doubt, and then ultimately, absolution and peace again. I think the reason … it speaks to me so much [is] because it ultimately begs the question, What does it mean to be nearer to God? And that’s the question I asked myself every time I've heard it.”
“The arrangements are just so awesome in this,” Clark told LDS Living in a Q&A“I personally love how our versions of these hymns are fresh and new and exciting and so different.”
Villalobos agrees. “We presented hymns in a way no one has ever heard them before, with a much more cinematic feel. I thought each of us played with a lot of emotion on each track, and the songs are some of our best recordings yet. I never would have thought a hymns album would be my favorite album Simply Three has done, and yet here we are.”
Enjoy a sneak peek of the music from All Amazed in the player below.