Today Billboard is premiering a new video from Scott Bradlee & Postmodern Jukebox: a vintage New Orleans-Style reworking of Sam Smith‘s “I’m Not The Only One” (currently No. 11 on the Hot 100). American Idol alum Casey Abrams provides the vocals while also playing a standup bass. Check out the video for “I’m Not The Only One” below.
Bradlee’s project takes contemporary hits by Lorde, Taylor Swift and Robin Thicke and transforms them into tunes from a different era — a song could be redone in the style of “vintage 1940s jazz crooner” or even as “vintage grandpa.”
Postmodern Jukebox is a massive YouTube success, with over 100 million views in 2014 — and 70,000 new fans subscribing per month. After years of making his viral videos on the side, Bradlee is now able to devote himself to the project full-time. You can see Postmodern Jukebox on tour — or at a weekly residency in L.A. Pre-order their upcoming Christmas album here, and read on for a Q&A with Bradlee about the origins of PMJ and the relationship between jazz and pop.
How did you first get into music?
Like a lot of kids, I took piano lessons, and I didn’t really like them at first. I didn’t really get into the classical piano, and just the practicing thing — it wasn’t really for me. But then I heard the piece “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin. That’s a classical piece that has a lot of jazz elements, and I just remember really loving the sound of that type of piano playing. At age 12, I started getting old cassette tapes of jazz and ragtime and just teaching myself a lot of stuff by ear. You can imagine most of my peers were not really into that kind of music — they were listening to grunge and gangsta rap and everything like that. So something that I would do when I was in high school is I would take gangsta rap songs and make them into jazz or make them into ragtime. So I was experimenting with a lot of the same concepts back then, which later grew into Postmodern Jukebox.
Did you go to college specifically for jazz piano?
I wound up graduating with a degree in music management. But my intention was to go and become a jazz pianist. At that time, I wasn’t really listening to a lot of pop music. I think everyone goes through a time where they’re kind of a jazz snob — anybody that studies at a conservatory. Since then I became a lot more open minded about pop music obviously, and that led to this project.
Is there any reason you became more open minded?
Just having more perspective on things. I just realized that like it or not, pop music is extremely important to a lot of people. It’s relevant and it speaks a lot about our culture. Just the fact that it’s a reflection of our culture means that it’s significant culturally. When you release yourself from the music school dogma of only believing that certain types of music is good music and everything else is bad, it allows you to appreciate things a lot more.
When you’re picking the tracks to cover, what do you look for? Do you just pick songs that are big hits, or are these songs that you have a particular attachment too?
A little bit of each. It’s really looking for contrasts. That’s really what I want — when we’re at our best, we take a song that is envisioned one way, but then by changing the genre and instrumentation and everything and the arrangement, we reimagine it into something else. When we did “We Can’t Stop,” Miley Cyrus had been doing all this risqué stuff, there was a big hullabaloo about what she did at the VMAs. So it was funny to take that song, which was associated with that, and turn it into like a squeaky-clean doo wop ballad.
Do you hear a song and know right away what direction you want to take it?
Sometimes we do. Sometimes things just click. Most recently we did a cover of “All About That Bass” with Kate Davis, who’s actually on tour with us right now. I had been wanting to feature her in a video for a while, we knew each other in New York City. Then that song came out [“All About That Bass”] and it hit No. 1 and I was thinking, “This is perfect,” because she plays upright bass. And it changes the meaning of the song. And the rest is history.
Has there ever been a song too difficult to rearrange?
Sometimes there will be a hit song that’s on the radio that’s produced so well and already in that old-timey feel. That’s what makes it hard to cover Amy Winehouse for instance. It already has the throwback quality to it. In some ways the easiest ones to do are EDM — there’s no acoustic instruments, so it’s already a contrast by playing with acoustic instruments. But having said that, we do like to challenge ourselves. Something like “All About That Bass” already had a throwback quality to it, and we just gave it a very different type of throwback quality.
What drew you to covering Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One”?
That one happened spontaneously. We do this residency every Wednesday night as Hyde in West Hollywood. Our sax player is a good friend of Casey Abrams, and he’s like, “You gotta meet Casey Abrams.” And I’m a big fan of Casey, I think he’s an amazing talent — like what he does, no one else is doing it. And he’s only 23 years old, a phenomenal talent. I was so excited to get him down there to perform with us. He just came to soundcheck, and we were throwing out ideas for songs, and he threw that Sam Smith one out, and I was like, “Why don’t we make this into a New Orleans thing using that Bo Diddley beat? And get some horns, ’cause we have a horn section there.” Just make it into a fun New Orleans bluesy thing, because even songs that were sad in New Orleans had an uplifting quality to them.
When you’re rearranging, do you write the parts for all the instruments?
I generally do, but at the heart of it, it’s a collaborative thing. A lot of times we’ll all have a basic arrangement in mind, and I’ll have charts and everything, but then someone will come up with something and we’ll change things on the fly. Our drummer or bassist might suggest something that works really well. It’s definitely a collaborative effort in that sense, and I think that’s true in the best music.
There is a long tradition of interaction between jazz and popular music, especially in R&B. Do you see yourself as connected to this tradition?
Jazz has informed everything that I do, because jazz is so much about improvisation and so much about keeping things malleable and keeping song forms flexible. Even the remakes that I do that aren’t really jazz-based, they’re a little more bluegrass or something else, I still keep that spirit of improvisation and the tradition of jazz is still there. Back in the 1920s and ’30s, jazz musicians were taking popular music and making it into jazz — taking Broadway standards, which were pop back then. So this is a continuation of that tradition.
Do you do any originals?
We haven’t yet. I don’t want to say it’s completely off the table — I do some writing and everything. I treat these as my originals — originals that somebody else wrote. There’s a lot that can be done with these songs and a lot of them are really interesting to play around with. At the heart of it, it’s me making the music that I want to hear on the radio.
Have the songs gone over well on the tour?
Absolutely, it’s been beyond expectations. When we first got on tour back in June, I remember thinking, “I wonder if anyone’s gonna come to this?” I know that we get a lot of hits online, but I don’t know how that translates to real world fans. But then we’ve done a ton of sold out shows and seen everybody in the audience dress up in a vintage style to match our vibe. And everyone comes up and tells their stories of how they discovered us and what we represent to them. It’s been a really amazing, really humbling experience.