Music Review: Pub Choir at Mercury Lounge

Pub Choir
Mercury Lounge, NYC
July 7, 2019

Think about all the times you’ve been in a bar, listening to a band play covers of your favorite songs and you want to sing all the words aloud. Or better yet, all the times you’ve wanted to jump up on the karaoke stage and belt out your own version of a pop rock classic. And now think about all the times you never did any of those things out fear of sounding bad and making a fool of yourself. Well, Pub Choir is here to cure all of your closeted singing fears.

Formed in Brisbane, Australia in early 2017, Pub Choir has embarked on its first tour of the United States and PCR was there for the kick-off show at Mercury Lounge. Keep reading to learn more about this unique musical experience, our impressions on the show, where you can see Pub Choir in person (which, you absolutely should), and our interview with Astrid Jorgensen, the group’s conductor and musical director.

“Everybody can sing, and Pub Choir is here to prove it.”

This simple sentence is Pub Choir’s mission statement and they prove the truth of it, show after show, to hundreds and thousands of fans. The concept is simple: split the crowd into three groups (high pitched ladies, low pitched ladies, and men), teach the “choir” a song in 3-part harmony in 90 minutes, and then record it for all the world to see. One song, one night, meet new people, and drink lots of beer.  The magic takes care of itself.

Formed in Brisbane, Australia, Pub Choir began as a way for its founders, Astrid Jorgensen and Megan Bartholomew, to reconnect with their friends and make music again. As Jorgensen put it to me, “[our friends had] just forgotten or something, or they didn’t want to make time for it.”  Jorgensen and Bartholomew, both holding university degrees in music, believe that anyone can sing and by making choir a more inviting, relaxed place than the strict choirs people are used to, Pub Choir would be their vehicle to bring people together again.

In the beginning, the idea of “choir” wasn’t enough to bring in the masses, however, so the enterprising ladies struck upon the missing ingredient in their new venture … Beer! Put it in a pub and the people will come.

In early 2017, Pub Choir was born and the people did come. Two years on and Pub Choir is a fixture in, not only their hometown of Brisbane, but all across Australia, regularly selling out their shows in minutes. As proof of their genius concept and meteoric rise, Pub Choir performed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in April 2018 and has been added to the lineup for the annual Australian music festival,  Splendour in the Grass, taking place July 19–21, 2019.

What is Pub Choir?

Meg Bartholomew (Photo: M. Caputo)

The show opens with Meg Bartholomew, drink in hand, warming up the crowd. Our MC for the evening, Meg wastes no time in setting the crowd straight — drinking is encouraged, saying “hi” to the strangers standing next to you is encouraged, but talking when she is talking is NOT encouraged. She’s an experienced teacher and she’ll wait until the couple of drunks in the back shut up. Comfortable on stage and with the crowd, Bartholomew is the perfect introduction to the Pub Choir experience. The foul language and playful scolding roll off her tongue easily and you realize immediately that she’s the exact kind of person you’d find yourself talking to in a bar. The one that convinces you to do things you’d never think you’d really do.

On stage the entire night is Waveney Yasso, guitar player and the third lady in the trio that is Pub Choir. She’s been with Jorgensen and Bartholomew since the beginning. After Meg’s introductions, Yasso introduces herself and her heritage reaching back to the native people of Australia. Recognizing the harsh treatment they’ve received by the modern population (Americans can very much relate to this with our own complicated history with Native Americans), Waveney performs an original song celebrating these people and Mother Earth. It’s a touching and personal way to connect herself to the audience.

Waveney Yasso (Photo: M. Caputo)

“Open your sound hole.”

The last to be introduced is the Choir “director,”Astrid Jorgensen. Jorgensen is the main face of Pub Choir; she’s the one that picks and arranges the songs for each show, and the one that breaks the song down in a way that even a few hundred drunk New Yorkers can understand.

Before we get down to work, Astrid warms up the crowds’ collective vocal cords. Tonight, we did “Aquarius (Let the Sunshine In)”; here is a little video:

Pub Choir succeeds because of Jorgensen’s ability to keep many plates spinning at once. With only a gif-laden PowerPoint presentation to aid her, Astrid teaches each  of the 3 groups their appropriate lines and notes, and keeps the song moving, never getting bogged down in one section too long.

Astrid Jorgensen Photo: M. Caputo)

An inexhaustible fountain of energy, I was impressed, and not a little awed, at seeing her go as strong 90 minutes in as she was at the start. Throw in a deep well of patience for the enthusiastic crowd and an equally deep well of polite and humorous euphemisms for bad singing (the phrase, “your own musical journey” was used frequently), and it’s hard to fight the good feelings flowing off the stage.

Astrid Jorgensen Photo: M. Caputo)

That Jorgensen, Bartholomew, and Yasso absolutely love what they’re doing is clear in every aspect of the show and from that, an infectious glee emanates from them to their pub choir students. Before long, the whole crowd was swaying and gesticulating widely as we warbled our way through Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” … and it was the most fun I’ve had in ages. Laughing and joking with complete strangers, it’s easy to buy into the program that Pub Choir is selling; the entire concept is built to make you feel at ease. Whereas you may never ever open your mouth to sing in public, here, you’re doing it within minutes surrounded by people you do not know and it’s all okay.

Here is the video of the Mercury Liunge singing “Time After Time”:

Millennials would call the environment nurtured by Pub Choir a “safe space.” Now, I’m no millennial but dammit, I wanted to sing “Time After Time” in 3-part harmony and I didn’t care who heard me! Like I said above, Pub Choir sets the table and the magic takes care of itself.

“It’s the immediate sense of community, the experience of making an emotional connection with strangers through song … that’s the power of music and the genius of Pub Choir.”

What is the secret to their success? It’s not really the beer, though it definitely helps to loosen up some people. Nor is it really the song, though who doesn’t want to sing Cyndi Lauper, amiright?!? No, it’s the immediate sense of community, the experience of making an emotional connection with strangers through song. That’s where the good feelings come from, which in turn, allows this audience of strangers to come together and make something together. One song, one night.  That’s the power of music and the genius of Pub Choir.

You’ve never experienced anything like Pub Choir and you owe it to your inner self to check them out. Have a beer (or two or three), open up your sound hole, and join the madness!

In a Post Script of sorts, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful videographer capturing the entire night on camera. Paris Owen, one half of Sleepy Mountain Film (Jacob Sosnowski is the other half), spent the entire evening silently weaving her way on and off stage, and through the crowd, capturing all parts of the song creation process on film. If you’ve ever watched the finished product that Pub Choir posts on their social media channels (if you haven’t, you should … go now), then you already know that Paris’ work is first rate and the finished product completes the event. The video is a lasting memory you can point to and say … I was a part of that magical night.

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 You’ve sold me, where can one see Pub Choir while they’re here in the USA?

Great question! After selling out the Mercury Lounge show, an extra New York date was added:

  • Tuesday, July 9, at The Bell House, Brooklyn, New York. 

After that, the group heads to the West Coast for two more shows:

  • Thursday, July 11, at Regent Theater, Los Angeles, California
  • Saturday, July 13, at Cafe du Nord, San Francisco, California 

Get all your tour date and ticket information here!

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After the show, I had the opportunity to sit down with Astrid Jorgensen, co-founder of Pub Choir and the musical director and conductor at the shows. Though she must have been exhausted from the 90 minute high energy performance and jet lagged from the 37 hour flight, Ms. Jorgensen was a gracious interview. Speaking with her, it solidified my thought that she absolutely believes in the mission of Pub Choir and loves that she gets to do this for her job.  Below is a transcript of our interview.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.*

PopCultureReview:  What made you think of this? Meg spoke on stage about it a bit but can you elaborate on where the idea for Pub Choir came from?

Astrid Jorgensen:  I don’t think there was ever an “a-ha” moment. I was a choir director full time. I had like 10 choirs I was juggling. And, I just tried getting together really great mates. We were sad that no one our age was at choir. I love singing with people. I have so many choirs on the go and they’re all the same demographic. It’s like a little bit of an older crowd in Australia. I think it’s really different here, actually; choir is a bit more youthful. But in Australia it’s a real old (laughs), old person thing. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

So we just chatted about how could we entice our friends. What would it take to get them singing together? Cause singing feels really good at any age. And they’ve just forgotten or something or they didn’t want to make time for it. So honestly, it was beer. (laughs) I also made a list of things I thought people didn’t like about choir. Like sheet music is very isolating for a lot of people. Attendance, having to go every week. Just make it real casual, you can drop in if you want or not. Those sorts of things. We just tried to get rid of things that stop people from singing together.

PCR:  How did you meet Meg?  It seems you’ve been together awhile.

AJ: Oh, we went to uni together, we studied music together at uni. Music and teaching. I’ve known her for ten years or something.

PCR:  In your Australia shows, you give a lot of money to charity, what drives you to do that?

AJ: We do it in our hometown. We’re from Brisbane.  We don’t do it on the road because we can’t afford it (laughs). In Brisbane, we can’t believe how successful it is.  And Brisbane shows sell out literally as fast as computers can work.  So, we have 1,500 people that come every month in Brisbane. And, it’s just crazy to me so we were like, “that community created our lives as they are now,” so I just thought it would be nice to use that platform to make our community better.

They all leave feeling so good about the world and working together and stuff. Then they go home and a month goes by and it fades. So, we just pick a charity every show in Brisbane that aligns with what we believe could make the world a better place. It could be really specific to Brisbane or stuff we think is important. We invite the charities to come along and pitch it to the crowd. Then we have the buckets at the end and we also donate a bit of ticket sales as well. It just feels like a nice thing to do in our home.

PCR: A few weeks ago, you received an award for emerging philanthropist in Queensland [The 2019 Queensland Community Foundation Emerging Philanthropist of the Year Award]. What does that feel like? 

AJ: I don’t know. It’s definitely nice to have some recognition but it sort of feels weird to me because the crowd gives the money. We’re the platform for them to access information about charities they might never have heard of … so I mean, it’s definitely nice to be driving that, but the people that come, sing together and then they give together. It’s nice.

PCR: How do you pick your songs for the shows? 

AJ: These shows [the US tour dates], we tried to pick American songs.  In Australia, they’re used to the idea that we can kind of do anything; they know what’s coming. But, for these first shows, we really wanted people to get the best version of it. People really do like to have songs that they know already. In Australia, we’re moving passed that a little bit. It’s fun to try new things and people are really open minded about it. But, for these first shows, I was like, American songs. New York, an artist from New York. We’re doing an LA artist in LA. Same in San Fran. So we’re trying to make it feel familiar for people because that really is the icebreaker. When they feel like they already can do it. “I already know that song, it’s fine. ” But, it can be anything. We can make anything work.

PCR: You’ve been doing this for over two years now. What made it seem like it was the right time to come to the States?

AJ: Actually, a fan in America suggested it. And we were like, I think as well we coined the term “Pub Choir”; there’s lot of choirs in the world, I’m not claiming that and there are lots of people that sing in pubs, but we literally were the first people to say, “this is called, Pub Choir.” And now, it’s a term and we’ve seen it cropping up around the world a little bit, which feels nice but also, we offer something really special and unique. And the show, I’m really proud of it so, there’s a few around America so we thought, this person invited us out, I thought, maybe we should just go and show people what we do so that they know, this is where it comes from.

PCR: The concept is great and seems to work for any size group. But, what do you do if you get a dud crowd? If that’s ever happened to you.

AJ: We’ve done hundreds of shows, and I think some are better than others for sure. That’s life. The ones that are more difficult are when people are too drunk. That’s actually the only thing. I reckon I can almost wrangle anyone who’s listening. Sometimes we even do corporate things, it’s in the middle of the day and they’re not drinking but I think I can make it work. It’s a pretty simple concept, “just copy me.” That’s the only thing where it’s difficult, when they’re too drunk. That’s a problem in Australia sometimes.

That’s a real tiring show. We learned that doing them on Saturday and Friday nights makes it a bit more difficult … because people just drink more on Fridays after work and Saturdays, they’ve got a whole other day of the weekend. Really, we just try and mitigate the risk a little bit. Honestly, I think if they’re listening, there’s not really any barriers. I’ll just explain what you need to do and you can try your best. It doesn’t really matter.

PCR: You’ve done your first US show, congratulations, what’s your hot take on the difference between a US audience, or even a New York audience, versus an Australian audience?

AJ: The accents blew my mind. We knew, I knew, you have different accents but, to hear it en masse. I was singing. I just sort of forgot about it for a second, I sang, and then it came back totally different. I was like, that’s, that’s what the song sounds like anyway. It was better that way. That’s better than what I am asking you to do so do that. It definitely blew my mind. I was so excited.

I thought it was so good. That makes me feel really excited to go to different places in the world. Because everyone will sound different. It’s super nice. So that was just so exciting for me, personally.  Other than that, you’re just human beings that like singing too. It’s the same kind of human experience. But with different shells. It’s pretty universal.

Here is a clip of Astrid reacting to hearing US accents come back to her for the first time …

PCR: Is there anything you’re looking to do while you’re here?

AJ: It feels a little bit overwhelming to be real with you. There is a lot going on in New York. There is a lot going on here … I’m a bit of a home body, actually. (laughs). I know, ironic that I run a pub choir but I do like to read a book and look a tree so I really enjoyed going to Central Park. It felt cool to see the city with a green backdrop. It was amazing to see.

I don’t know, I’ve just been eating a lot and doing our work. We hope to come back and take a more chill look around but so far, its been like, everything is here. Just think of what you want to do and then Google how to get there.

PCR: After conquering Australia and doing the big cities in the US, what’s next for Pub Choir? 

AJ: I’m not really sure. This is out first major international thing. We’ve done shows in New Zealand but, they’re like a our next door neighbors. It’s very similar. We’ll see how it goes. I feel good about tonight.

It’s really far away so it’s only worth it if you can really fill the shows out. Otherwise, it’s 37 hours to get here … we can find 20 people at home. But, this did feel like a step up for us. A fresh audience that, pretty much no one had any idea of what was going to happen. It fills me with confidence that we will probably do more international stuff. Especially since, as I was saying, you can see  “pub choirs” popping up around the world but I feel pride in that. We feel proud thinking of these words as a concept so I think maybe we’ll just spread out a little bit and be like, this is what we made. And be proud of it.

PCR: Does it ever get old, selling out shows in seconds? Have you gotten used to that yet?

AJ: Nooo, no. In Brisbane, I have come to suspect that it will sell out because, without fail, it really goes. It’s crazy. I don’t take it for granted. And, around the rest of the country, it’s not the same. We sell out everywhere we go but in Brisbane, that’s the one where, it’s going to happen. But every time, it’s crazy.  I’m like, does everyone know it’s just choir?!? It obviously appeals to people so, it’s something else.

PCR: Give me your best moment as the ringleader of the circus. Not counting tonight, which obviously was the best show ever (laughs).

AJ: Not counting tonight as the best show ever (laughs). It sounds weird and it’s not just a recency effect but two weeks ago in Brisbane. I think it was my favorite performance ever. We did a song called “Life in a Northern Town.” It’s the one that’s, “aa o ma ma ma”(sings). I found this community taiko drumming group. These big Japanese drums that are like on the side. That video … that’s the closest I’ve come on stage to getting emotional. It’s powerful. It’s so dramatic. Watching the video back, it was the first time after a show I sat back and straight away in the dressing room, pressed play on the recording to listen back. And I was like, “wow.” Usually, I need a day to get over it.

There was another one in Brisbane, we had 3,000 people for Christmas and we raised a $100,000 for a cancer charity. We had a pretty famous actor [Samuel Johnson] come on stage and we had a string quartet from our best symphony orchestra came along.  This is beyond what I imagined my life would be like. That was the most epic and then the song the other night was the most moving.

PCR: Astrid, thank you and thank you so much for taking the time. I am sure you’re super wiped.

AJ: Thank you!

Here is the video of the “Life in a Northern Town” performance that Astrid referenced:

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For more information on Pub Choir, head to their website here and follow them on Facebook.

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