After producing over 160 music videos, chances are good that you have seen a Peter Hollens’ digital single before. From tributes of Disney movies to sacred classics, Peter has done just about everything music-wise until recently. Since last week, the Epic Hand Washing Parody has been viewed over 608,000 times on YouTube and for as silly as it is, it is a passion project for Peter.
Earlier this week I got a chance to chat with Peter about his craft, his personal life and what drove him to create this squeaky-clean work during these days of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was just so apparent to me that it was needed. We all need levity, but we also need to educate through humor,” Hollens tells me. “I feel my favorite way of taking in actual news nowadays is through humor because that’s the only thing that makes it so that you can stay sane, at least for me.”
The Epic Hand Washing Parody spoofs the likes of Bruno Mars, Taylor Swift and even Pinkfong’s “Baby Shark” among others. It not only a toe-tapper for it serves a real purpose. It not only features 10 different song in just under four minutes, it also demonstrates proper hand washing techniques the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends. Each segment runs for for about 20 seconds or so, which is the duration that the CDC recommends.
“I feel like if I can do it through humor, I think people are more willing to keep watching,” says Hollens.
Hollens is a classically trained vocal artist whose superpower is that of a cappella music. It is a skill he mastered while attending Oregeon State University where he formed the group, On the Rocks. This is also where he met his future wife Evynne, co-founder of the rival a cappella group, Divisi. Both Peter and Evynne were interviewed by Micky Rapkin for his non-fiction book, Pitch Perfect: The Quest for Collegiate a Cappella Glory. It tells a lot about Evynne’s time at the 2005 International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella Finals and was the inspiration for the 2012 movie, Pitch Perfect.
In 2007, Peter and Evynne got married but neither could shake off a cappella. “I really fell in love with it,” says Peter who began becoming a producer for various groups. Three years later, producers for the NBC show, The Sing Off, contacted him and encouraged him to get his old group back together to compete on the show. They wouldn’t audition if he didn’t join them.
On the Rocks came in 6th place out of the 10 groups who performed on the show and that was it for Hollen’s singing career or so he thought. “Even though I had five solos on national television, it didn’t really do anything for me.” He thought, “Well I’m just going to be an engineer and make this much an hour and still work in music and do something I love, but not have to try to make it work as an artist. That was just never on my radar. And then I saw this YouTube thing and started paying really close attention to it.”
Hollens, who had already taught himself about audio engineering, took it upon himself to learn the craft of video editing as well. In 2011 he released a cover of Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” that begins with the phrase, “All sounds made by my voice and mouth” and he demonstrated different harmonies. He began to release new YouTube videos as often as he could and says that he started realizing some sort of semblance of a business when little paychecks from iTunes and Amazon began showing up. That’s when he stopped recording others and instead focused on creating music for himself full time.
In 2012 he colaborated with Lindsey Stirling on a project that he says was “probably the most powerful relationship in terms of changing my entire life’s path.” The video, Skyrim (based on the video game) wasn’t just a success collaboration in term of how will it did, but also in how much he learned from Stirling. He was amazed by how she really dove into this “really silly spoof.”
“I remember before we shot the video, she stayed up all night making our costumes. And you know, this was somebody who at the time was (and still is) about 10 times anything I am. She was just so open to helping and caring about making sure her audience checked out my work. I immediately adopted the way she treated me in perpetuity in regarding every single person I would work with since then and will work with.”
Like Stirling, Hollens says that he doesn’t want his relationships with his fellow artists to be solely based on business, but on actual friend ad wanting to see each other succeed. “Lindsey taught me that.”
Helping Others Succeed
At the end of 2017, Hollens launched his digital education platform, Creator Education. It is a robust, online education video series that teaches aspiring creators the key entrepreneurship skills and strategies needed to live their passion in the digital age. Hollens’ first course, How to Make a Living Online, has had over 1,000 students so far.
“If you’re an animator, a podcaster, a photographer or a writer like yourself, you can run your career and monetize it in a way that is beneficial to you. It doesn’t matter what you’re creating. It just matters that you’re able to harness people’s emotions and to be able to care about what you’re creating and then be able to communicate and be a community caregiver or community manager. In turn, people will support what you create as long as you’re providing value to them.”
It’s a Drug
Peter and his wife, who has her own YouTube channel, create about 50 new videos every year. When I asked him how he keeps himself motivate, he told me that keeping motivated wasn’t a problem. In fact, his creations and the immediate, genuine and honest feedback he receives from his videos, are sort of a drug to him.
“I mean, the things that we get sent [in terms of feedback] is unbelievable and hard just to realize. And that kind of thing is a drug unlike anything else. I love the content creation. It’s not hard to do and … it’s the only thing I can do to not only deal with my own anxiety and depression that I’ve dealt with my entire life but I have to do the thing that I know how to do well in order to promote good.”
This word, “depression,” stuck with me and asked him if he would be comfortable talking about it.
“Yeah I’m very open about it,” He says. “I think it’s something that’s very important to talk about, but I usually don’t because so many people never ask because they think it’s like a taboo subject.”
He stumbles a little and then just comes out with it: he’s bi-polar.
“I always knew that it ran in our family and I just didn’t know any different growing up. I just thought like, you know, I feel sad and I feel this way and I have these dark days because I’m a geek and I got picked on and I lived in a small town and I never got out of that stigma.”
Peter wasn’t actually diagnosed with depression until he was in college. “That was a rude awakening,” he tells me. “I had a very difficult, difficult experience that then threw me into the hospital and then I learned this about myself.”
But unlike others who have struggled with mental illness, Peter knows how to keep himself in check. Ever since he was diagnosed, he has been taking his medication regularly and hasn’t ever had another episode.
“I’m very aware of my emotional state, both in manic and in depressive situations and I’ve really tried to be as outspoken as possible,” he says. “I seem to attract people from my hardcore audience who are also struggling with not only mental illness but suicidal thoughts, and I’m very, very empathetic to it because it is my life. It’s just in my blood.” But it’s not easy.
“If you know anything about bi-polar, it’s super stigmatized,” he explains. “I have much higher highs and much higher lows in general, but it doesn’t mean that I’m any different than anyone else. I just have that spectrum and I just need to be aware of what that means.”
Even so, he wants to encourage others who also struggle in this way and to know that medication is key in keeping one’s life together. Some people who have bi-polar don’t like to take their medicine because they are afraid that it will take something away from them. That hasn’t been the case for Peter.
“I’ve been taken taken medication for twenty-some years and it hasn’t stopped me from fulfilling my dreams or trying to change the world in capacity that I have.”
The Faith that Drives You
“My faith is really important to me and my family,” he tells me and laments that they are not able to go to church these days due to the virus. However, he does say that he and his family are finding it kind of fun watching a digital remote video of their church service while eating breakfast at home. His faith drives him.
“I believe it was put on this earth to create positive uplifting content with the gifts that I’ve been given. I couldn’t do anything other then create positive content right now. I think in general, even before the current pandemic, there’s been so much dark stuff out there. I want to try to be as much of a light as I can and that’s what faith is to me. I’m just going to keep on keeping on.”
Back to the Beginning
And so that brings us back to the subject of the Epic Hand Washing Parody.
“I think the one thing that I wish people would would keep in the back of their minds right now is that, we’ve been given a very interesting opportunity in the midst of horrible events. All the noise being turned off and all the distractions in life are being stripped down to the real true element of who we are and what makes our lives important,” he says. “I really hope people can take advantage of the soul-searching that’s being presented to us.”
Since my interview with Peter, he has released a new “Quarantine Song” parody video:
All images: Peter Hollens
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.