Postmodern Jukebox: Interview with creator Scott Bradlee

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Postmodern Jukebox have achieved worldwide acclaim with their stylised brand of ragtime, swing and jazz inspired covers of modern classics. They have managed to accumulate nearly 6 million YouTube subscribers and achieved approaching 1.5 billion views. I spoke with the mastermind behind the group, Scott Bradlee, to discuss what audiences can expect from their upcoming tour: 

Interview written and conducted by Tom Read

What can audience members at your ‘life in the past lane’ tour expect from each show?

Well, the show has kind of taken on a life of its own over the years. It started as taking the idea of big pop hits of today and imagine what they would sound like years ago. But in the process, it’s turned into this whole alternate universe variety show where we bring some of the most phenomenal singers and musicians and even tap dancers of today, coming together to put on a show that takes you through all the decades of music, with a soundtrack of songs that you’re gonna know, because they’re the biggest hits of the last 30 or so years. There’s something for everybody. It’s one of those rare shows where I think every generation can kind of take something away from it differently. For  older generations they’ll enjoy just hearing the music that they either grew up with or that they have fond memories of the most classic styles. And for younger people, it’s a chance to hear some of the biggest hits of today, reimagined in a completely different light.

The retro and vintage nature of postmodern jukebox his work is so clearly showcased from the sound but what can fans expect from the aesthetic elements of your live performances?

Well, we’re trying to kind of create a world. We want people to come to our show and really feel like they’re stepping in a time warp, that they’re going back in time. To the point that we actually have lots of our audience members that will choose to dress up in their favourite vintage styles. It really does have that sense of when you go and see the singers on stage that are all meticulously dressed up in period authentic outfits, and same with the audience. I mean, it’s easy to mistake it for a scene that happened many years ago.

How long does it take for you to choose and adapt a song for your setlist?? What is the process you go through there?

That’s a good question. It’s tricky because we found that it’s more art than science. Sometimes an idea will kind of come right away, mess around with the song at the piano and then all of a sudden, okay, this works perfectly in this style. This is what we’re gonna do. Other times you have to sit with it for a bit and make some tweaks along the way and oftentimes, I’ll have an arrangement ready to go and then we get everybody in the studio and we’re about to film and everything and I’m just like, ‘Ah, it’s not quite right’. Sometimes somebody will have an idea of, ‘well, what if we tried this?’ and you need to be flexible with art, you know? I’ve learned that it’s not so great to be very rigid, and sometimes you’ll see if something isn’t working, you just abandon it and try a different concept.

How big would you say YouTube was in your eventual success and growing postmodern jukebox to the size that has become today?

I’d say that it played a pretty crucial role because of the timing of it all. I’d say that YouTube was kind of in its nascent phase where it was just starting to be adopted by lots of people. When I started making videos, that was in 2009, I think was the first YouTube video I uploaded. And at that time, there weren’t a whole lot of musicians or professional musicians that were on there. It wasn’t a mainstream thing, and that took a few years so I think we certainly benefited from the fact that we were early. That helped give us that initial push that I think really helped get us known over the world. Previous to YouTube, if you wanted to do a US, let alone a world tour you had to start in a local market. You probably needed a record label or somebody like that to put lots of advertising dollars into you, and you had to work your way out from this local market into regional markets and national. But we got to bypass all that because of YouTube. YouTube had global distribution. So when we did our first tour in 2014, we toured the US and we also toured Europe and UK for the first time. I feel like very few acts without a label could do such a thing.

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It’s been over 10 years since the release of mashups by candlelight. At that point, did you think that your passion for fusing song styles and genres would lead to the juggernaut that postmodern jukebox has become now?

Absolutely not. That mashups by candlelight album was basically I had a restaurant gig, and I just started recording. I was very enterprising, I guess even back then. I was doing my gig and I would just record it and just be like, ‘well, okay, so I’ll get paid to do this gig, but I could also record an album and put out an album of piano music’. It was recorded in a restaurant so you can actually hear silverware clanking and the cash register and all that stuff. I just kind of spun that as like the atmosphere at dinner noises you know? Because at that time, I really had no idea what the future would hold, I was just happy to be working. I really believe that if you’re a musician and you can make a living doing your craft, you’ve already won the game right there.

Who would you say your main influences are?

So my biggest influence in the piano realm was a pianist named Art Tatum that I just really studied obsessively. I could never play like Art Tatum, Art Tatum was something else. But he was a huge influence for me just in that he could seemingly do the impossible, and there was also nobody like him. There were pianists that kind of emulated his style, he was very technically proficient and he also was very imaginative harmonically. There were some pianists that came after him that followed in his footsteps somewhat, but he was a complete original, he kind of had his own world of music, I guess you could say. I’ve always been really inspired by people that could create their own musical language. Duke Ellington was another, as an arranger and as a bandleader. He was a huge influence on me. As you listen to Duke Ellington, and he really just created a whole world of music, like his own genre pretty much.

You are an artist who is self-taught, has created an incredible group of artists and essentially your own style. What would you say to any young musicians aspiring to forge a path, either just in the music industry or do something similar to yourself?

I’d say the big thing is, you have to find what it is that you are passionate about within music. Before I did the postmodern jukebox route I tried all kinds of different things. I tried the more conventional jazz route, I tried making more pop music essentially, and trying to write things and all this stuff. I wasn’t really doing it because I was passionate about it. It was more that I felt that this was a box that people had success in, and it wasn’t until I really embraced what was authentically me that it actually connected. I think that audiences are very savvy and they really look for authenticity and they can really sniff it out. When somebody’s putting out something that isn’t really them, audiences can kind of see through that, but when somebody just embraces what it is that they do when it’s authentically them, audiences are really inspired by that. You know, we all want to see people that just kind of go for something that they’re passionate about. I would say that it can be a little bit of a process. It’s definitely not to say you shouldn’t try to do different genres or experiment with different things because that’s a big part of how you make these breakthroughs. I would say that some people will shy away from the thing that really is their greatest gift. 

Anytime there’s something new that comes out in music, it always follows a period where everybody said that that thing couldn’t be done or it wouldn’t work or it wouldn’t connect to an audience. So, you know, every time that there’s, I mean, and I remember even pitching the idea of postmodern jukebox and you’re pitching my own, you know, piano kind of Ragtime transformations of songs to all these tiny little indie labels and things like that. Before, you know, we had any success and everything. And, you know, the feedback was, in general, like, oh, there’s not much market for this. There isn’t an interest. The audiences aren’t interested in this style of music. This is seen as old fashioned, right. So you know, I think that’s a pretty universal thing. too. I think that a lot of people go through that experience where they have something that people are saying that there isn’t an audience for and sometimes you just have to create that audience, I guess.

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