When a musical project starts out in someone’s basement apartment, it usually either evolves into a rock band or a one-man electronica/programming extravaganza. What it typically doesn’t turn into is a rotating ensemble of vocalists and musicians that takes current and classic pop songs and recasts them in vintage musical styles. For example, a quick browse through the YouTube page for Postmodern Jukebox, the aforementioned basement-born musical project in question, will reveal a Motown-style cover of Beyonce’s “Halo,” a Gene Kelly version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” (complete with yellow raincoat-clad tap dancers), and a vintage-jazz cover of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.”
PMJ is headed up by pianist and arranger Scott Bradlee, who filmed these videos DIY-style in his living room. Within those tight confines, he groups horn players, upright bassists, his own piano, and a series of talented vocalists dressed to the early 20th-century, jazz-diva nines. There are also occasional appearances by Puddles the Clown, whose saloon-song version of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” is an exercise in giddy, theatrical depression. The result is a catalogue of songs that have been seen and heard over 100 million times.
It might seem like a novelty — some young hipsters in vintage duds redoing pop songs — but it’s a lot more than that. Bradlee is a self-taught jazz player with a genuine affection for legends like Fats Waller and Art Tatum. He’s a musician whose life changed at age 12 when he heard Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first time. At the same time, Michael Jackson’s Bad is the first album he ever loved. Perhaps there’s a kernel for the idea behind Postmodern Jukebox somewhere in there.
There are some who say that Bradlee is educating listeners about these older forms of music, though he says that’s more or less by accident. “That’s just a nice by-product of what we’re doing,” he says. “This really is about exactly what it sounds like: taking pop songs and recasting them and taking them back in time. But by doing that, we’re also doing a number of other things. We’re reviving a lot of these older styles of music and maybe encouraging fans of ours to check out our inspiration, where all these songs came from. But we’re also providing a platform to showcase new talent and emerging artists.”
That group of emerging artists includes a stable of versatile vocalists, from the soulful Mykal Kilgore to the sassy Miche Braden to, improbably enough, former American Idol contestant Haley Reinhart. They’ve also been joined by renowned sax player Dave Koz and featured on Good Morning, America and NPR. It’s still a bit overwhelming for Bradlee, given PMJ’s humble beginnings. “I had all this studio equipment and microphones and stuff, and I had this idea to combine new songs with vintage styles,” he remembers. “And I invited my friends over to show them the arrangements and help me record them. It started very organically, and it’s stayed that way, too. It’s spread through word-of-mouth and friends of friends.”
Interestingly enough, Bradlee’s inspiration often comes from the words to the songs, not anything he hears in the music. “The lyrics a lot of times are my primary focus when I’m doing the arrangements,” he says. “For example, we did ‘My Heart Will Go On’ as ’50s R&B. When you look at the lyrics, it could easily be a 1950s song. That’s the kind of language they use. And that was the case with ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ and ‘Sweet Child O’Mine,’ as well. In fact, when we stripped down ‘Sweet Child O’Mine,’ we discovered that it was a pure blues song. You could hear it being sung by a Bessie Smith or someone like that. A big part of our success for me is having people hear one of our songs and think, even if it’s just for a second, that this could conceivably be from another era.”
That success has led to increasingly popular live shows. “What would it be like if you went back in time, hung out with the Rat Pack, and went to a New Year’s Eve party in old Hollywood? That’s what our show is like,” Bradlee says. “It’s a variety show. We have an MC that narrates the evening. We have a phenomenal tap dancer that performs, a full band with a horn section — we bring the party.”