Eight years ago, three talented string musicians “started to go to the moon.” At least, that’s how upright bassist Nick Villalobos describes the rise to success of the string trio Simply Three, of which he is a founding member.
The past few years have certainly felt like a meteoric moonshot for the trio, who have seen their YouTube channel reach nearly 1.5 million subscribers and dozens of their songs reach millions of streams on Spotify. They’ve received critical acclaim from Rolling Stone and the Boston Philharmonic. Celebrity musicians have praised the trio’s covers of their songs, too. American pop rock band OneRepublic raved over Simply Three’s version of its hit single “Counting Stars,” posting on Twitter: “[We] LOVE this ‘Counting Stars’ cover! All strings!!” Grammy-nominated R&B sensation Janelle Monáe said the trio’s mash-up of her hit singles “Cold War” and “Tightrope” was an “honor,” and she featured the music video on her personal website.
From songs by Adele to Michael Jackson to Queen, Simply Three’s sophisticated covers are anything but simple. But the trio—Nick Villalobos, Glen McDaniel, and Zack Clark—make the results look effortless as they explore many musical genres. Now the group has created something new: an entire record of sacred hymns they call All Amazed.
While sacred music is uncharted territory for Simply Three, they don’t believe in musical boundaries. They’re open to any inspiration that leads them to write songs that bring people not only joy in the good times but also solace in the bad. And they’ve seen the power of music at work again in full force with All Amazed.
One: On the Rise
Simply Three’s roots began decades ago with two young musicians in the ninth grade. Nick, who plays upright bass, and Zack, who plays cello, grew up in Arizona and are both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The two met while playing in the Arizona All-State Orchestra and performing in the Phoenix Youth Symphony in high school. After serving full-time missions for the Church, they both studied music at Arizona State, where they reconnected and started playing together for fun.
Looking back at their time in college, Nick says he and Zack realized they 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.” He explains, “We always liked [all kinds of music] like rock, rap, heavy metal, R&B, all that stuff. So we thought, ‘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.
But with time, Nick and Zack began to apply their music theory and composition training—as well as their classical performance experience—to develop a unique fusion of classical strings with pop, rock, and R&B hits. They brought in a violinist to round out their sound and got to work arranging and recording song covers.
In 2014, the popularity of classical crossover music was beginning to explode as artists like Lindsey Stirling and the Piano Guys released viral music videos and Billboard-charting albums. At the same time, Simply Three was releasing its own videos to show off the group’s take on classical music. And their efforts quickly paid off.
“After we did a few [YouTube] videos, they just started shooting off [like] crazy,” Zack says. He isn’t exaggerating—the group’s cover of “Demons” by Imagine Dragons received over 200,000 views in just a couple of days and was described as “the most beautiful version [of the song] yet” by the Huffington Post. The group’s viral videos secured Simply Three a loyal fan base and cemented its place in the classical crossover genre.
Zack and Nick had several violinists come and go from their group before Glen entered the scene. Glen met Nick in 2012 through a mutual friend. Serendipitously, as Glen was transitioning out of his performing group, Simply Three needed a new violinist. When the men began playing together in 2014, they all agreed that the trio felt natural from the start, and they’ve been performing together ever since.
Over the years, Simply Three has gained popularity not only because of these musicians’ talent but also because of the emotion conveyed in both their original compositions and covers. Their music is so powerful that listeners often have profoundly sweet experiences with the songs—and those special moments have made the most lasting impact on the musicians. Simply Three was touched when at their first real show as a trio, a woman flew from Florida to Delaware to see them perform. They also recently had a fan fly from Seattle to see them perform in Alaska. On top of that, consistent emails and messages from fans expressing what Simply Three’s music means to them give the men purpose in their work.
“We got an email from this woman who said that her husband just died,” Nick says. “And they would always listen to our song ‘Rain’ every night on the porch; that was their thing that they did together. I realized, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s not even us; our music is doing that for people.’ It’s really incredible to think that there’s a couple out there with this bond because of our music, and now this song is bringing her comfort. That gets me—that our music can bring people that kind of joy.”
Two: A Refreshing Approach
Simply Three has won over the hearts of millions of fans and achieved a place among classical crossover royalty. One of the group’s most exciting opportunities was playing at the Emmy Awards after-party in 2018. Zack 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 Donald Glover. It was crazy. I was like, ‘What is happening right now? How did we get here?’”
And yet, for all their years of classical music training and the level of fame they’ve received, the men maintain their humility. Bart Olson, music product director for Shadow Mountain Records, worked with Simply Three on their All Amazed album and says when he met the trio for the first time in Arizona, he realized right away how relatable and down-to-earth they were.
“These guys are very serious about music, but they’re fun-loving, really happy-go-lucky guys. But they love what they do, and it shows. It’s refreshing because in the classically trained world that they come from, a lot of times people can be a little bit buttoned-up, kind of stoic, and maybe overly serious,” Bart says. “These guys just have a refreshing, approachable quality to them where you could run into them on the street, strike up a great conversation, and walk away saying, ‘Those guys are awesome!’ But little do you know that they are some of the best classical musicians you’ll ever meet.”
Even as a professional musician with years of experience playing in a sharp suit onstage, Zack says he’s still not used to the idea that millions of people listen to his music. “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,” he says. “We’re literally three normal dudes, but every now and then I’ll 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 All Amazed has taken the group into uncharted territory.
Because classically trained musicians playing hymns could easily start to feel traditional and expected—two sounds Simply Three has never sought after in its music—they hesitated at first to take on the project. But the group found a way to reach deep into the timelessness of sacred hymns and powerfully infuse the music with its more modern take.
“I never expected us to do a hymns album,” Nick says. “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 hearing these songs 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 hymn.”
“We knew and loved that [Simply Three] is known for pushing the boundaries of what classical instruments can do,” Bart adds. “They really rock out, and they have this intensity about how they play, and we absolutely did not want them to lose that. So in working on a hymns album, I told them, ‘Guys, we don’t want this to be a sleepy hymns record. We want you to bring that passion to whatever you do [for this album].’”
Three: New Territory
Over the years, the men have written cover arrangements as well as original songs. And, like any good songwriters, they have occasionally hit creative roadblocks. But they say they were able to face those roadblocks more calmly and with a more enlightened attitude while working on All Amazed—maybe due in part to the truths taught in the sacred songs they were recording.
Nick had to overcome one of those roadblocks while working on the arrangement for “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” He had written something early in the process that he said was “fine”—something they could finesse later. But their time for composing was cut short, and when the day came to record, Nick knew his early arrangement wasn’t up to par with the rest of the album. He left the studio feeling frustrated, not knowing how to move forward.
“While I was driving home, I was mad and upset, but I got new ideas. I heard it. It was just out of nothing. ... Was that God? Was it inspiration? Or was it just me using the knowledge that I had? … I know there’s sometimes a debate among Latter-day Saints about revelation. Like, how do I know if it’s from God? Or how do I know if it’s myself? We’ve been taught that at some point, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “So I heard the beginning cello line [in my head], … and I wrote a bunch of it out immediately so I didn’t forget. Then the next day, I just finished. It happened immediately.”
The new album’s arrangements seek to bring out an emotional element inherent in each song. For example, in arranging “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” Nick says that when he heard the opening cello line in his head, he thought it could be intriguing to give it a more somber feel by putting the melody in a minor key. “When I think of the phrase, Where can I turn for peace? it’s not a happy thing,” he says. “That’s not a happy question. You’re in the depths of despair. There’s a struggle there. There’s something going on.”
Zack says that their fiddle-rock version of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is one of his favorite songs on the album. On the All In podcast, he shared that they sent their drummer a demo track of what they had in mind for the song and were thrilled with how the musician built on their ideas. “It’s the most energetic and fun song on the album. I love music that gives me that excitement,” he says.
Glen adds that their cover of “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,” he says.
All Amazed ventures into new territory in many aspects: the arrangements of the hymns are certainly different from what Latter-day Saints are used to hearing. In an online review of the album, a fan named Jonathan praised “the rich sounds of the bass, cello, and violin” and admired the songs’ “incorporation of percussion and creative interludes.”
The group’s YouTube fan base may be surprised by the faith-filled emotions found on the new tracks. Many Simply Three fans are not members of the Church, so Latter-day Saint hymns on the album like “If You Could Hie to Kolob” and “Come, Come Ye Saints” may be both beautiful and intriguing. And instead of rocking out with copious amounts of drums and synth behind their strings—which you can still find plenty of on the album—some tracks like “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” involve just their three instruments moving in a passionate progression of chords, highlighting the talent and musicality of each group member. As a whole, the album is a testament to the trio’s ability to infuse their unique sound into any genre—including hymns.
“[All] the arrangements are so awesome,” Zack says. “I personally love how our versions of these hymns are fresh and new and exciting and so different.”
From his perspective as a producer, Bart was impressed not only by the original take on each of the songs but also by the musicians’ delivery.
“On every track, their performance is so sincere,” he says. “And they aren’t rocking out just for the sake of rocking out. They infused these beloved melodies with the passion that they feel about each song’s message. It all came from such an authentic place.”
Nick says that emotion made all the difference on the album. “We were able to present these hymns in a way no one has ever heard them before, with a much more cinematic feel,” he says. “I thought each of us played with a lot of emotion on each track, and the songs are some of our best recordings yet.”
Editor’s Note: This article appeared as a feature story in the July/August 2023 issue of LDS Living magazine. Find past issues and learn how to get inspiration sent straight to your mailbox at ldsliving.com/magazine. Enjoy a sneak peek of the music from All Amazed in the player below.