Scott Bradlee And Robyn Adele Anderson Of Postmodern Jukebox On Covering Psy's 'Gentleman' [EXCLUSIVE]
By Jesse Lent | January 14, 2014 05:15 PM EST
What does a jazz innovator look like in 2014?
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From the art form's earliest days, its pioneers have always taken the contemporary songbook and remade it in their own image, shattering conventions and creating a new musical sound.
In this way, the members of Postmodern Jukebox, the immensely talented New York City collective of musicians led by ragtime piano wiz Scott Bradlee, are jazz innovators in the truest form, taking pop songs that most people over 18 had dismissed and turning them into something timeless and even classic.
Less than a year after forming, the group has racked up over 34 million views for their stylistically reimagined versions of songs like Miley Cyrus's "We Can't Stop," done as a doo-wop song and "Royals" by Lorde, performed by 7-foot-tall clown Puddles Pity Party.
Postmodern Jukebox's cover of "Gentleman," reinvented as a "Great Gatsby"-era 1920s swing tune, was this publication's pick for Best K-Pop Cover of 2013.
The clip has received nearly 2 million views on YouTube.
Last week, as temperatures dropped to record lows in Manhattan, I made my way through the eerie yet elegant set of "Sleep No More," the interactive staging of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" at Chelsea's McKittrick Hotel, to the Manderley Bar.
This is where Bradlee, who is the musical director for "Sleep No More," also performs in the show.
With a couple of hours to kill before the performance, we were met by Robyn Adele Anderson, the main vocalist of Postmodern Jukebox and Bradlee's longtime girlfriend.
It was Anderson who first had the idea to add "Gentleman" to the group's arsenal of contemporary pop singles.
"I really wanted to do a song in another language," she said.
"There are obviously not too many in the US that reach the height of the Billboard charts. I thought it would be a perfect opportunity."
"I thought it was an amazing idea to cover Psy," Bradlee added. "Obviously, that would be out of our comfort zone."
So what was the most difficult aspect of covering "Gentleman"?
"The biggest challenge is taking a song that has zero organic instrumentation to it, a song that's purely made from MIDI tracks and synthesizers, and to put real instruments to it," Anderson said.
"And there was almost no real melody on top of that, so we had to do a lot of work on that one."
Work that included Bradlee arranging the keyboard parts for clarinet and trombone and creating a chord structure that didn't previously exist.
"I started with that main riff, the synth riff that's in there and I arranged that for horns," he said.
"It almost sounds a little Klezmer, because of the clarinet."
"It was really just adding in chords that were more idiomatic of the 1920s. And then Robyn and I would kind of create the melody to go over that."
With "Gentleman," as with all of the songs she sings with Postmodern Jukebox, Anderson explained that the end result is the result of both individual work and live collaboration between the musicians.
"Usually we kind of do our own thing and then come back together and try to put it together," she said.
"Scott will do the piano arrangement and the horn arrangement, and then if it's a song that doesn't have a melody [like 'Gentleman'], I'll do my best to make up a melody. And then we'll kind of come together and put the two together."
"My part is mainly to learn the words as best as I can," she added with a laugh.
"I make up a melody if it's necessary or alter the melody either to make it more interesting or more stylistic. And then at the end we just make little changes here and there, where necessary. By the end we have this beautiful finished product."
Yet, "Gentleman" presented Anderson with the additional challenge of learning Psy's, mostly Korean, lyrics.
"I basically looked up several different transliterations of the lyrics, and of course there are many different versions, and tried to listen," she said.
"But in the end it was easier for me to kind of combine the transliterations I thought probably matched the best even if they weren't 100 percent accurate. There are also some sounds that are hard for me to reproduce as an Anglophone."
And there were the usual time constraints.
"We're always pressed for time. We'll think of a song and we'll say 'okay, we have to do this in 10 days. Figure it out,'" Anderson said.
"I would have like to have sounded more intelligible, slightly more authentic. But in the end, it was a lot of things to think about at once, so I'm sure it suffered a little. I've heard praise from Korean people saying 'I can understand some things.' And then other people are saying 'I don't understand anything. This sounds like gibberish.' I think they pretty much just appreciate that I tried. It was a very humbling experience."
Yet according to Bradlee, 100 percent accuracy was never the goal with Postmodern Jukebox.
"We go for a degree of authenticity, but it doesn't necessarily dominate the whole thing," he said. "We want to put our own stamp on it."
After devoting his life to mastering 1920s New Orleans-style piano at the age of 12 when he had a profound experience hearing George Gershwin's "Rhapsody In Blue" for the first time, Postmodern Jukebox is Bradlee's effort to give the people what they want, in his own distinct way.
"I became a became a professional jazz pianist, where I played jazz gigs all over, when I came to New York City, but I felt kind of limited in what I was doing," he said.
"I love jazz. That's the thing that got me into music. But I was hearing so many different elements and seeing that people were moved by so many different types of music. The pop thing was huge and I had never really listened to much pop. But I started to listen to the radio more and see what was out there. I was kind of imagining a fusion of these things, 'how would these songs sound if they were done in a style that I would of liked when I was 12 years old?' Where there isn't a genre, I tried to create one."
"In Postmodern Jukebox the idea is that it's an alternate universe," he added. "You're hearing all of these songs but they're not tied to a particular genre. They're malleable. They can kind of change."
And some major artists have reportedly taken note.
Although this publication's requests for comments from Psy's management regarding the Postmodern Jukebox cover of "Gentleman" received no response, Lorde recently called the group's cover of "Royals" her favorite and the band Nickelback has praised Bradlee's "A Motown Tribute To Nickelback" on Twitter.
Dave Grohl is reportedly a fan.
Anderson, who never considered a career in music, instead spending her days working for the nonprofit organization Ansob Center For Refugees in Astoria, Queens, seems both shocked and tickled by her sudden Internet fame.
"Scott said 'how would you like to make a video? How would you like to do your first music video with me?'" Anderson recalled of their first YouTube offering together, a ragtime version of Macklemore's "Thrift Shop."
Posted to the site back in February, the clip has received nearly 4 million views.
"I was thrilled and just thought, 'okay, yeah I guess, sure' and I had absolutely no idea what to expect from it," she said. "It was fun."
"None of us expected a million hits," Bradlee added.
"And none of us had played it together before," she said. "We all just showed up at Scott's apartment [where the videos are shot], ran it a few times and had fun with it."
Watch Postmodern Jukebox's cover of Psy's "Gentleman" RIGHT HERE
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