Since Scott Bradlee posted a YouTube video from his New York basement apartment in 2009, his Postmodern Jukebox has grown to an online following of millions and transformed into a spectacular stage show touring the world, including an upcoming performance at Thebarton Theatre. The seed to this concept, however, goes right back to Bradlee’s teenage years.
“I started as a jazz pianist,” he explains. “I got into music when I first heard ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ by George Gershwin and I heard the sound of jazz for the first time. I realised that I loved this exciting music. All through high school I was really into jazz but my friends weren’t really into that kind of stuff. So I started taking a lot of the songs that they liked and played them as jazz. Then years later, I moved to New York City trying to make a living as a jazz pianist and it was very hard to find work. So I set up a camera in the basement apartment I was living in and I recorded what I had been doing for a long time: taking pop songs and playing a whole medley of them as ragtime. And my first video went viral. From there, I thought there’s something to the idea of taking music from today and reinterpreting it as if it was recorded in the past. Gradually it grew to include lots of musicians from the New York area, and then later musicians from all over the world, bringing this universe to life. So that’s how Postmodern Jukebox came to be.”
But the concept didn’t end there. Bradlee and his fellow artists were performers first and foremost, and therefore keen to play this material in front of a live audience.
“It was an organic process in a lot of ways,” he says. “We started by doing all these videos in my living room, picking different songs every week with different performers, and as I brought more and more people in I realised the one thing we had in common was that we were live performers, we all started on the stage, playing gigs around town. But it was funny that we had gone back to YouTube to get an audience. So the next logical step was to give people the experience, hearing all these amazing artists live.
“It’s funny that in this day and age it’s a really revolutionary concept to put amazing talent on one stage and have a whole bunch of singers with no auto-tune, no crazy lights or anything like that, just to be enjoying this talent. So the best way to do that was to put together a stage show. It’s a variety show format, so we bring multiple singers, we have an MC, we have a tap dancer, a full band and just create a high energy show to really celebrate that talent in a unique way.”
So how does Scott go about choosing his material?
“I like to pick songs that are familiar to a lot of people, so they get that jukebox effect of not knowing where they know this song from and liking it. I think that’s the coolest thing when somebody’s singing along and they don’t even realise that they know this song, it’s just a different version. I really like to pick songs where I can do an arrangement where I can change the context of the song. For instance we did ‘My Heart Will Go On’, everybody knows that from Titanic, and in our version we do a 1950s thing with it, because if you look at the lyrics it’s like a 1950s song: the same kind of format, the same language. So I imagined somebody like Jackie Wilson singing it, and I found an amazing singer who can channel that era.”
In re-working the material, Postmodern Jukebox has even managed to attract the attention of many of the original artists.
“We’ve had Beyonce share our music, we’ve had Meghan Trainor, we’ve had Lil Wayne, Adam Levine, the list goes on. Lorde said our cover of ‘Royals’ was her favourite. So we’ve heard a lot from the original artists and that’s been cool to get that kind of feedback and to be able to bring them into our universe.”
It was only last year that Scott Bradlee was here in Australia with the Postmodern Jukebox show. But after receiving such an enthusiastic reaction from audiences, he is looking forward to performing here again.
“The audiences were the most exciting part about coming to Australia,” he says, “because everybody gets so involved with show, everybody was right there with us. Whenever you go through a new area, a part of you wonders if we even have fans in this area, it’s so far from anywhere else we’ve played. But to go there and feel welcomed, to have so many fans come up to us and say what our music means to them, it’s a really powerful thing.”
Postmodern Jukebox begins its Australian tour in Sydney on 8th September, visiting all major centres, including a show in Adelaide on 17th September at Thebarton Theatre.
Written by Matthew Trainor