Have you ever imagined how recent Top 40 hits might sound performed in the musical styles of the past? Scott Bradlee did, and has made a career out of it with Postmodern Jukebox. In his hands, Miley Cyrus’s We Can’t Stop became a doo-wop ditty, Elle King’s Ex’s & Oh’s turned into a 1930s-style jazz number and Radiohead’s alt-rock Creep was transformed into a torchy ballad.
What began as a home project has morphed into a YouTube sensation with hundreds of millions of hits and healthy iTunes and CD sales as well as international performing tours by dozens of rotating cast members.
The American arranger and performer will be bringing members of his ever-growing Postmodern Jukebox collective – 12-strong, with dancers, musicians and singers – to Australia for the second year in a row, and on this tour they’ll be coming to Canberra.
Bradlee describes Postmodern Jukebox as “pop music in a time machine” – imagining if the singers and songwriters of today were around in the 1920s, ’30s ’40s and ’50s and performing their music in the styles popular in those eras. While he’s cagey on the exact contents of the show – “We don’t give away what it’s going to be” – he does say it will contain a mix of styles from the past including doo-wop, swing and big band.
He says he sometimes something about a song will remind him about a song or style from the past that will inspire him in the treatment he gives it. For example, My Heart Will Go On, the Celine Dion song from the movie Titanic, sounded to him “like 1950s doo-wop R&B soul”, so that’s the arrangement he gave it. And Iggy Azalea’s Fancy evoked for him the sound of a 1920s flapper so he gave it a jazzy, speakeasy feel. He says he always intends to be respectful in his treatment of the songs he chooses and to bring out something interesting and new in them.
The response from artists covered has been “pretty cool”, Bradlee says, with Beyonce and Lorde among those praising the treatments their songs have received.
Bradlee, 34, moved to New York City as a young man to seek work as a musician and got his first big break on the immersive theatre show Sleep No More. He began doing his retro-style arrangements in 2009 and posting the videos, shot in his apartment, online. They gained more and more attention over time – now there are two million subscribers, Bradlee says – and have become something of an industry for Bradlee. He continues to choose the songs and do the arrangements for the songs and puts together the shows and casts for the tours.
But the videos, the original foundation of his success, aren’t neglected.
“We do one every week,” he says.
Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music. Saturday, September 10, 8pm. Tickets $83.30-$161.10. wearenice.com.au.