Postmodern Jukebox Founder Scott Bradlee Shares a Quote
Bradlee founded Postmodern Jukebox, which has amassed 1.2 billion YouTube views and has over 4 million subscribers.
Scott Bradlee is the founder of Postmodern Jukebox, also known as PMJ, a musical collective that is known for producing viral videos covering pop songs in unexpected genres. Examples include vintage covers of Radiohead’s “Creep” and a 1920s Gatsby style rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”
Since 2013, Bradlee’s PMJ performances have received over 1.2 billion YouTube views and 4 million YouTube subscribers. Before Bradlee’s career took off with PMJ, he was a struggling musician in New York with a passion for jazz, ragtime, and doo-wop styles. Today PMJ has toured 6 continents and performs in excess of 300 shows per year. Bradlee authored the 2018 memoir Outside the Jukebox: How I Turned My Vintage Music Obsession into My Dream Gig which Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth described as “Candid, hilarious, and wildly fun” and it’s “the book I wish I’d had when I was getting my start in theatre.”
Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?
Scott Bradlee: It’s this Miles Davis quote that resonates with me. The quote is,
“Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.”
Can you tell us about Miles Davis? I take it you’re a fan of his.
He’s one of those hugely influential jazz musicians not only because of his technical ability or his composition skill but because he was just so authentically himself. Whatever interested him, he just went for it.
He started as a bebop trumpet player in the Cool School, meaning that he didn’t play super loud or high notes. Then he got into modal jazz. He made some beautiful albums, like Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. And, then as time went on, he went into a completely different style than he started with. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, he got into what Jimi Hendrix was doing. He used pedals and delays. He went electric!
Through it all, Miles Davis kept experimenting. Even when the jazz critics were harsh toward him, he didn’t pay them any mind. He just did his thing. That’s such an admirable quality for any artist to have.
You could have chosen a quote by any number of musicians. What was it about this Miles Davis quote that resonated with you?
It speaks to a universal truth about being an artist, and the process you go through to finding what your art is. I know it definitely applied to me: When I was a kid, I was really into jazz and ragtime. That seems weird for a 12-year-old to listen to that music. But it was the music that spoke to me more than the pop music of my time.
In high school, I started focusing on other genres of music that my friends liked a lot — rock and rap-even though I really preferred the 1920s and 1930s stuff. For a while I adopted this indie rock style and was unsuccessful at it.
Somewhere along the way, I convinced myself that it was impossible to make a living as an old-school ragtime pianist. So I went to college and studied modern jazz, and tried to work as a jazz pianist in New York. But after graduating, I just wasn’t having any success with modern jazz. Nobody really cared about what I was doing, and I wasn’t getting hired. I was almost thirty, and it was hard to pay the rent. So I came to this crossroads where I realized I either needed to find a different way to live a life in music or go back to school and find another career.
That’s when I discovered YouTube. These were the early days of memes and going viral. I thought it was fascinating, but I didn’t think it was very professional. In a way, I felt I was too good for YouTube. I thought: I have a music degree. Why should I record in my tiny apartment? But it occurred to me that I wasn’t really working as a jazz musician, and so I didn’t have much to lose.
When I first started putting out content on YouTube, I actually did something I would have done much earlier in life: Taking classic 80’s hits and turning them into ragtime! That first video was super low-budget using a cheap flip camera. I put it online, and it went viral. More people watched that video in a single day than had seen me play in my entire life. I had no idea what the next step would be, but I realized then that there was a kernel of something that worked in there. People were writing me comments with suggestions about other songs to do in ragtime! It was exciting because until that point nobody had been interested in what I was doing musically.
For a long time, I had tricked myself into believing that ragtime and older styles of jazz weren’t marketable at all. But after that first YouTube experience, I started seeing things in a different way. I thought maybe I should pursue what I’m authentically interested in — what I’d enjoyed since I was younger — and just give that a shot and see how it goes.
And that led to your founding Postmodern Jukebox, which has millions of YouTube subscribers and has toured the world. I think your 12-year-old ragtime-loving self would be proud of what you’ve accomplished! But Miles Davis says it takes a long time to sound like yourself. Can you tell us about that process for you?
I think my 12-year-old self would definitely be proud that I was featured in Nintendo Power magazine! He’d be especially stoked about my ragtime version of the Mario Brothers theme.
I took piano lessons as a kid, and I hated it. I just couldn’t be bothered to practice and my piano teacher told my mom that she was wasting money. That changed when I heard George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody and Blue.” Prior to that, I didn’t realize you could play the piano in a way that made those kinds of sounds.
So, I started playing the piano in that old jazz style. I’d go to the library and check out cassettes and CDs from all these jazz artists. I’d listen to a phrase and try to play it back on the piano as close as I could. Early on, I was mimicking all of these pianists that I’d heard. The process is like childhood: when you’re first learning to speak, you’re mimicking.
Later on, I began to improvise more. Then it was learning that I could adapt other types of music into jazz. If I took a pop song and I did a different left hand, new chords, and a different rhythmic displacement on the figure… then I could turn it into jazz. That was a game-changer for me.
After high school, you went to a music conservatory. But you tell young musicians to be very cautious about going to college for music.
That’s because it’s very expensive. You don’t think about all of the debt that you’ll accrue when you’re a kid. The value of college for me was to be around other musicians. For me, it was like a laboratory — after class, I’d take advantage of being around other musicians and pull them in to try recording a song together. I’m grateful that I was able to go where I went and make those relationships. But to be fair, you can find a community of musicians without going to college.
So I just want young people to think long and hard before going to a very expensive school. Because those loans are not fun to pay back! I was fortunate that I was able to pay off my loans after several years, but that’s not something you can count on. Just make sure you know the facts before going in. Because every music college is going to give you the glossy brochure and play up the success stories.
Before you were so successful, you played a lot of smaller venues like bars and restaurants-the idea, basically, was that you were the background music. And I’ve always wanted to ask: How did it feel to be in the background like that? Did you ever wonder if people were listening?
Well, no matter what the gig is, you have to give it 100% effort. I put as much effort into those background gigs as I do into anything today. The big difference, of course, is just how many people are listening. Back when I played at restaurants, maybe two or three people would be listening. And honestly, if I had one person who was really engaged and applauding after every song, maybe requesting songs, then I would just latch onto that. I’d think: This is a good night.
Then again, I played a lot of wedding cocktail hours and nobody seemed to be listening. Everyone would be drunk and talking too loudly. And I’d get feedback like, “You sound great, but can you play a little more quietly?” You get used to that as a jazz pianist.
The idea is to just focus on the handful of people that are listening because they are your audience. That’s been a valuable lesson for me because a niche vintage music project like Postmodern Jukebox isn’t for everybody. It’s not at all mainstream. So, I’m not trying to win over 100% of people. Instead, I’m trying to win over the percentage of people who would be interested in this kind of thing and go from there.
I learned very early on that not everybody is going to be your audience. You can get by with just a few. (By the way, there are great hors d’oeuvres at those wedding cocktail hours. If you play your cards right, you can get a doggie bag and eat at home for a couple days!)
Over the years, you’ve covered many artists, ranging from this Motown Tribute to Nickelback to a Doo Wop cover of Miley Cyrus. Is it possible to cover other artists while remaining true to your own voice?
Yes. We sometimes think of a cover song as a replica of the original. But if you go back further, jazz musicians took popular Broadway tunes and completely changed them into jazz standards. It’s the same with PMJ: We do covers but we’re also a tribute band paying homage to these other traditions. Motown, doo-wop, 1920s jazz…
We treat cover songs seriously without any hint of irony. To give you an example, we did a rendition of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses. When we dug into the lyrics, we saw that it was almost a folk song. Think about it: The phrase “o’ mine” rather than “of mine” is rather archaic. If you strip away the heavy metal and Axl Rose’s voice, you could easily interpret these lyrics in a different genre. We wound up doing it as 1920s Bessie Smith Blues with this phenomenal vocalist, Miche Braden. In the old New Orleans jazz style, it became an entirely different song in its own right-a song about a mother singing to her child, perhaps.
You audition a lot of musicians who are interested in joining PMJ. And Miles Davis says it’s important for a musician to sound like themselves. Is that self-understanding something you’re looking for in new PMJ band members?
Absolutely. It’s this quality of unforced uniqueness. You see someone performing and you think: This isn’t acting. This is really them. They’re not trying to be Amy Winehouse or Ella Fitzgerald. They’re just doin’ what they do, and it’s natural. That’s the mark of somebody who’s gone through the process of becoming an original.
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Originally published at https://notesonquotes.com.