R.E.M. gives shout out to Chapel Hill chorus

If you happened across the website of the alt-rock giants R.E.M. last week ( www.remhq.com), you may have been surprised to see, at the very top of the home page, the announcement, "Chapel Hill Community Chorus Project performs 'Everybody Hurts,' " with a link to a longer article on the band's news page.

It was the same on R.E.M.'s Facebook page ( www.facebook.com/home.php#!/REMhq). The top post on the band's Facebook Wall said, "Watch the Chapel Hill Community Chorus Project perform 'Every body Hurts' " with links to the website and the YouTube video of the performance.

By noon Thursday, the Facebook post had recorded 1,107 Likes and drawn 92 comments.

"It's very exciting," said Lauren Hodge, founder of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus Project, a program designed to give middle school and high school students an outlet to learn and perform vocal music. "R.E.M. has millions of fans all over the world, and to think that so many of them are looking at what we've done, and liking and commenting on it, we're very grateful."

Hodge, in collaboration with the UNC Department of Music, founded the Community Chorus Project this year. The group's first project was a two-week summer workshop that drew about 70 young local singers.

At the end of that workshop, with a $5,000 Innovations grant from UNC-CH, Hodge, Terry Rhodes, music chairman; and Pat Parker, associate professor of communication studies, organized two recording sessions for the 32 high school participants: one for R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" and the other for Adele's hit "Rolling in the Deep."

Hodge obtained permission to record the songs from the music publishers and gained the approval of the performers and their managers for the project.

"The band has released a couple hundred songs, and a few of them have sort of transcended into the culture, so we get a fair number of requests for things like this," said Bertis Downs, R.E.M.'s manager. "We try to agree to most of them, especially for things like this, which are about music education and working with kids who don't necessarily have lot of prior experience in music.

"Plus, it's in Chapel Hill, which we love, so how could we say no?"

Hodge commissioned cellist Shana Tucker and keyboardist Eric Hirsch, of the local band The Beast, to write original arrangements, and to help the students rehearse.

With Tucker conducting and musicians from The Beast and the Mallarme Chamber Orchestra backing them up, the students recorded the two tunes at Manifold Studios, a professional recording studio in Pittsboro owned by Red Hat software executive Michael Tiemann and his wife, Amy.

On "Everybody Hurts," Katie Weddle, a 15-year-old student from Raleigh, took the main solo.

The recording session was filmed by Scott Rucci and edited into a pair of professional quality videos, one for each song.

"'Everybody Hurts' is an unbelievably beautiful song," Hodge said. "And to hear that song filtered through the hearts and experiences of 32 high school kids, it's just incredibly powerful."

Apparently R.E.M. thought so, too.

"I thought it was fantastic," Downs said. "That song has touched a lot of people over the years, and I thought what this group did with it was really nice. I sent it around to the guys in the band and got some nice feedback, and sent it around to other people I know in the business, especially those who have some connection to Chapel Hill.

"It's very professionally done. It's a great arrangement, it has a really good feel, nice energy, and I like the way the director interacts with the chorus. The kids did a great job."

Hodge is awaiting permission from Adele's management to release the Community Chorus Project video of "Rolling in the Deep." But the reception "Everybody Hurts" has received has already been something special, she said.

"This whole experience has been remarkable," she said.