The idea was to put a new spin on popular songs. Hits from the ’80s like Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” and recent songs like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” were arranged into something classical, jazzy, unexpected. Scott Bradlee then took his idea and joined forces with a roster of rotating singers and performers under the name Postmodern Jukebox, and covered everything from “Ice Ice Baby” to “Call Me Maybe.” But these are cover songs like you’ve never heard them before.
He calls it the Postmodern Jukebox effect. “Hearing something that’s so familiar, in an unfamiliar way.”
Bradlee’s idea to put a vintage twist on modern hits took off like wildfire, and Postmodern Jukebox has played to sold-out crowds across the globe. They’ll be stopping at the Paramount Theatre in Rutland at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16.
“Traditionally, when people do covers they try to do something that’s kind of a replacement of the original version, where they are either trying to copy the original singer or the original arrangement,” Bradlee told AXS in a 2017 interview. “We do the complete opposite. We never do anything like the original artist. We aim to try to change them completely and do a very different genre.”
Once a week Postmodern Jukebox would post a new video to YouTube with a new arrangement of a popular song — everything from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to Taylor Swift’s “Me!” Each one draws millions of viewers.
“What I like to do is take a song that’s familiar to a lot of people, and then I kind of pick apart the song,” Bradlee said. “I look at the lyrics. I’ll give you an example, I might take a song like ‘Sweet Child of Mine,’ everybody knows the ’80s rock version by Guns N’ Roses. But when you pick apart the lyrics, you see that it’s really just a blues song. So with the right singer we can really do that style convincingly and build a whole arrangement out of it.”
Postmodern Jukebox currently has a roster of about 50 rotating performers on tour, but the idea started small when Bradlee was in high school and his friends weren’t into the kind of music he liked. They were listening to the Chili Peppers, Notorious B.I.G. — the opposite of the George Gershwin songs Bradlee liked. So he started taking their songs “and turning them into jazz.”
“I was kind of an old soul growing up,” Bradlee said. “I loved all this classic music, stuff like old jazz and Motown, and all my friends were listening to pop music. I would take the songs that they loved and I would put them in the genres that I loved. It was kind of a fun party trick, and people were always interested in hearing how the songs that they loved sounded in these earlier genres.”
He started taking piano lessons when he was nine. But a strict teacher discouraged him and, after a few lessons, the teacher told his parents that Bradlee just wasn’t into it.
“I wanted to do anything else,” he recalled. But the piano teacher’s comments worked like a bit of reverse psychology, and soon after, Bradlee heard George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first time, and was so inspired that learning that style became an obsession.
“This was a piano style I could do,” he said. “It was brash, it was fun. I later found out it was jazz.” He would set up a CD player, listen to a piece of music, and then try to figure it out on the piano.
“So, the way I learned was by listening, imitating stuff and, when I felt more comfortable, improvising,” Bradlee said, and that became the essence of Postmodern Jukebox and the secret behind its success — “Take a melody, turn it upside down, twist it.”