Exclusive Interview with Postmodern Jukebox’s Robyn Adele Anderson
The internet has changed the world: people can become global celebrities over night, Twitter can have you recognized as a specialist in your field, and you can now Skype with a friend volunteering in Mali. But there is probably no greater example to the effect the internet has had on an individual industry than that of the music industry. Case in point: Postmodern Jukebox, a band that takes modern pop songs and turns them into ragtime, old time jazz, and swing songs. The NYC-based band has no Facebook page and their “website” hasn’t been updated since January. But what they do have is YouTube.
On February 11, 2013, Postmodern Jukebox posted “Thrift Shop (Vintage “Grandpa Style” Macklemore Cover),” which was then picked up by Reddit. Within a short time the video reached 1 million views. Today, the video has 1,792,598 views. Other videos they’ve posted include a Ke$ha wild west cover (with 770,000 views!), a Justin Bieber cover, and a Swedish House Mafia cover.
In this short time since February, the group has compiled these covers into its first album, titled Introducing Postmodern Jukebox. The album was released on iTunes on April 23 and features seven songs. It immediately sailed to #1 on the iTunes Jazz Album charts and is now #25 on the Billboard Jazz Albums charts. All this success so fast! What could be their secret? To find out, Sensible Reason sat down with vocalist Robyn Adele Anderson for her first-ever interview to learn more about this latest up-and-coming band and internet sensation.
SR: How did Postmodern Jukebox start?
Robyn: [My boyfriend and keyboardist Scott Bradlee] uses a livestream website [which he created, called www.emotectrl.com,] where people can go on and request songs and he’ll play them instantly on piano. One day he suggested I come over and sing [for one of these live sessions] and someone requested “Thrift Shop.” [I had] never heard of it, so we listened to a few seconds of it and pulled up the lyrics and I sang it in a ragtime-style. Scott was like, “That was pretty good. We should make a video of that.” So I learned the song by listening to–not the original–but other covers that people have done and I made up my own melody to it to make it sound jazzy. Our friends [Adam Kubota] on bass and [Allan Mednard on] drums came over to the apartment and we just banged it out and in a matter of a day it had 300,000 views and went absolutely viral. So then we were like, “We have to do more of these!” and now we’re an established group. We’ll have friends come in on different instruments, like clarinet or trombone, for different videos and we’re trying to do more of that.
SR: How did you get involved in performing and playing with Scott?
Robyn: I met him in February 2012 and we would do karaoke together. He asked me to sing a gig with him for the first time for a friend’s birthday party in October. So I learned jazz for the first time, since I’ve been obsessed with pop music and show tunes all my life… [Scott said] that it sounded really good and that I should consider singing jazz, so I started learning old jazz tunes… But I still loved pop and I wanted to combine these different genres of music. Fortunately, we found a way.
SR: What do you think caused your song to go viral?
Robyn: Tons of people ask us, “How did you get that video to go viral?” But we didn’t [do anything], the internet did everything for us. We didn’t ask anyone to watch it or post it. Just Reddit. Reddit is what we need to make something go viral. If it makes the front page of Reddit, it goes viral; if it doesn’t, it won’t. And it has to be within 24 hours of posting the video… Someone else actually posted our video before us and it kept getting up-voted…
[“Thrift Shop”] was a really new, popular song at the time and it was a silly song. And we took something that was rap and made it into the opposite genre. So those factors made that song super popular. But we’re still trying to figure it out. The first two songs went viral, but the last two did not and we’re trying to understand why…
The Swedish House Mafia song was my favorite [we’ve done so far]. I sounded the best, it was perfect. But the song was too old. We had to wait until we released our album before we could release the video. By then the song wasn’t as popular anymore, so it didn’t get shared as much. Same with the Justin Bieber song. We’re hoping with the next one though it will be popular because it is so new and people are still going to be searching for it on YouTube.
One of the keys to their videos is the simplistic setting: a simple white background, three instrumentalists, a singer, and the microphone. No crazy visuals, no insane storyline, no fancy editing, just a band performing a cover. There is a frankness to their videos that draws you in and brings your attention to the quality of the sound: the musicians and singer have nothing to hide because their talent is real and the concept is fun. In fact, Robyn explains how they made the videos:
We do the video all in one take, but it takes us a few takes to get it right all the way through. We just keep doing it until it’s perfect. There’s no editing, no Auto-Tune, nothing like that… They’re pretty accurate [as a representation of our live show].
SR: Do you spend a lot of time practicing or rehearsing before you get together and record?
Robyn: For the videos, we all do our own thing. I learn the words and change the melody. Scott can make a song in a second. And once we get our friends together, Scott will have charts ready for them and they’ll figure it out in about half an hour to an hour and then we’re ready to do it. Because they’re all so talented we don’t really need to practice.
SR: How do you feel about all of this quick celebrity?
Robyn: I still can’t believe it all happened and it’s still happening… It’s hilarious. Like now Ke$ha is now on the Jazz Charts because of that song. It’s weird… In high school I was never the lead part in plays because it was so political. I was always the backup prostitute or something like that (laughs). I tried out for all of the a cappella groups really and I didn’t make it into them, I guess I wasn’t quite “good enough.” But it was kind of a good thing in the end. Everything happens for a reason… I’m getting to do now what I’ve always wanted to do, despite not getting to do it in college… It’s not forever and it’s not like I’m getting recognized on the street, but it’s cool to see [our video] out there. Because of the internet, anyone can be famous.
SR: Do you get any fan mail?
Robyn: I get a lot of fan Facebook messages. I wish I got letters! I get a lot of friend requests, messages, even posts on my wall. I do get that occasional stalker who messages me every day (laughs). I do accept as many people as possible as a friend on Facebook because I want to get our name out there as much as possible…
SR: Have you done any live shows?
Robyn: We played one time last week at the B.B. King Lounge because Scott’s band A Motown Tribute to Nickleback was playing so we opened for them… We would love to do more live gigs, not just videos… We’ve been asked to do a few a private gigs so far… I’m hoping to do more local NYC stuff though… Next week we’re releasing [on our YouTube channel] a Great Gatsby-themed 1920’s ragtime-style of “Gentleman” by Psy.
SR: What kind of direction do you see the group going in? Should we expect any changes?
Robyn: I’ve started asking if we could do a harmony with another girl. I want to sing with other girls again, even though in college it obviously didn’t work out. I would be singing with actual professional singers, so I’m much more humble around them. I really look up to them for advice and inspiration, so I’m much more willing to work with them and see what I can learn from them. I’m honored to sing with them… I know nothing of jazz music really. It’s a work in progress, I’ve been learning a lot.
When you meet with Robyn Adele Anderson, you can really sense her humility and down-to-earthness. If you watch the YouTube videos or the band’s livestream, you can hear how talented a musician she is: she has a solid sense of melody, pitch, and beat and her voice is strong and full. It really is a relief to hear someone who has gotten a first glimpse of fame to still have to humility to recognize that she has a lot to learn still and that she has a passion to learn. It is this frankness and simplicity that has caused their videos to be so successful and the fact that it is so genuine in the performers just makes you want to see them reach their success that much more. The band is so frank and forthcoming that they are willing to put it all out there for you live Scott Bradlee’s livestream website Emote Ctrl where you can put in requests for song mashups as well as post your questions. Follow Scott’s Facebook page to find out when they are doing a livestream: they will post about it a few hours before performing. They have their latest video covering Psy’s “Gentleman” releasing on Tuesday, May 21! You can find it on their YouTube channel once it releases.
Update: Here is the latest video from Postmodern Jukebox!