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Six rising stars from USC Thornton’s Pop Music program

Talented Trojans are making a name for themselves — some before they’ve even graduated

by G. Bruce Smith
USC Thornton Pop Music Program
1. Lara Johnston; 2. Bear Attack; 3. Mora Mora; 4. Alec Benjamin; and 5. Jackson Morgan. (Photos/Courtesy of artists and USC Thornton School of Music)

Launched by the USC Thornton School of Music in 2009, the Popular Music Program offers a uniquely entrepreneurial climate and gets applications from all over the world. Pop, alternative, folk — whatever the genre, hundreds of aspiring musicians submit video auditions. Each year, 25 of the most promising students make the cut.

Though the program launched five years ago, students are making a name for themselves — some before they’ve even graduated. Here are six artists who are launching their careers.

  • Lara Johnston is a singer-songwriter who won the grand prize in the first Unsigned Only Competition in 2012 and recently performed for Sara Bareilles and Ben Folds at the American Voices Festival at the Kennedy Center. A soul and R&B vocalist, she completed performance residencies at the Bitter End in New York and the Sundance Film Festival.
  • Pentatonix is an a capella group that includes Trojan Scott Hoying, the winner of NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011. Hoying discontinued his enrollment in the program after winning the competition because of time demands on the group. Former songwriting student Ben Bram brought Hoying and Pentatonix together. Bram, who helped pilot the Popular Music Program, has become an in-demand vocal arranger and is still a primary arranger and producer for the group.
  • Alec Benjamin has performed and recorded internationally. Often compared to Jason Mraz and Amos Lee, this soon-to-be junior frequently performs in Los Angeles and his hometown of Phoenix, and has also played in Germany and London.
  • Mora Mora is composed of Matias Mora, Leland Cox, Cary Singer, Riley Knapp and Nick Campbell — all 2013 grads. Their cover of “Royals” by Lorde has been making the rounds on the Internet. The band has been described as the “sonic baby of Radiohead, Foo Fighters, MuteMath and U2.”
  • Jackson Morgan is a pop-songwriting student who in his junior year signed a significant publishing contract with Kobalt Publishing, thanks to its general manager, Sue Drew ’83. Jackson, about to start his senior year, has had songs recorded by pop powerhouses Pitbull, Nicole Scherzinger, Akon and will.i.am.
  • Bear Attack includes Eric Radloff, Mia Minichiello, Nick Campbell (also a member of Mora Mora), Logan Shrewsbury and Brandon Bae. Except for Bae, who majored in studio/jazz guitar, the members of this indie band are among the first crop of graduates from the program’s class of 2013. Bear Attack members successfully funded their debut six-song EP, Shapes, through Kickstarter. Since the EP’s release in summer 2013, the hit ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars has featured three of its songs, garnering the band a global following.

The original version of this story appeared in USC Trojan Family Magazine.

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