“Everyone can sing,” says Pub Choir founder Astrid Jorgensen.
“We’re not all necessarily good at it, but it feels really nice to do. And it’s universal – singing is something we do in every culture.”
Jorgensen, described on the Pub Choir website as “the crazy one flapping her arms out the front”, is trying to explain why she thinks an event that sees hundreds of strangers come together to learn a song in three-part harmony and then perform together has grown into a national phenomenon that sells out almost everywhere it’s presented.
It all started innocently enough. A couple of years ago, she and her friend Meg Bartholomew, who studied music together at university, were discussing how they missed making music with their friends and wondered what it would take to encourage them – and others, especially young people – to join a choir.
The answer, for better or worse, was beer.
They launched Pub Choir in pubs, but it is now presented in a wide range of venues, many of which are much larger. At the Adelaide Cabaret Festival next month, there will be two shows in the Famous Spiegeltent – the first is sold out and the second is close to capacity – after which the Pub Choir will present a performance (also sold out) at Byron Bay’s Splendour in the Grass.
“I’ve had bands before and it’s really hard to get people to come to original music shows, but with Pub Choir it’s the complete opposite,” Jorgensen tells InDaily.
“It’s insane – people just go nuts for the tickets. We do a monthly show in Brisbane, where we’re based, and we just sold 1500 tickets in four minutes … people thought the site had crashed.
“It’s exciting to go to different cities and bring that fever – people just really love to sing. It’s super-cool.”
For Jorgensen, who studied choral conducting and arranging at university, Pub Choir is now a full-time job.
For each performance she arranges a single song in three-part harmony. On the night – with Bartholomew as MC and “guitar wizard” Waveney Yasso as accompaniment – she teaches the assembled choir members each part, line by line, after which they sing it twice and have the performance recorded on video.
The important thing, Jorgensen says, is that anyone can – and should – have a go, even if they don’t rate their singing voice.
“Honestly, you just have to turn up and do what you’re told … it’s a kind of fail-safe formula. At the end of it, if you follow the instructions, you will be performing a beautiful three-part harmony arrangement of whatever song it is.”
With at least 50 participants at most shows – and sometimes up to several thousand – no one needs to feel abashed about being in the spotlight. In fact, Jorgensen believes that the sense of community created by the event is part of the reason for its success.
“People don’t know each other when they come to Pub Choir but they all work together towards a shared goal.
“It only takes 90 minutes and you’ve got a piece of art at the end of the show.”
Previous Pub Choir events (watch more videos here) have seen participants perform a wide range of songs, including Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy”, Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”, Franz Ferdinand’s “Take Me Out”, Hunters and Collectors’ “Throw Your Arms Around Me” and The Cranberries’ “Zombie”. Occasionally, there is even a guest appearance by an artist whose song is being covered.
Jorgensen says song choice is less important than people might think, although she always bears in mind that the tune must be achievable for a large group including novice singers, some of whom might be drunk (Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, apparently, is not).
One of the most successful shows, at The Triffid in Brisbane, saw around 800 people perform Chumbawamba’s “Tub Thumping” – aka “I get knocked down, but I get up again”.
“I think it was one of the best nights we ever had because there was so much room to play and to make it work. It was one of those magic nights where everything just fell into place.
“It was a really good lesson that you have to trust the process a bit with Pub Choir; that is what art is like – you create something new and it should go against your expectations.”
The song is usually revealed just a day before the show, so participants at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival events are in for a surprise.
“I can say that we are working with an artist from the Cabaret Festival, so that’s really exciting – it’s like Pub Choir plus.
“I think Adelaide is going to be awesome.”
Pub Choir will be presented over two nights in The Spiegeltent at Adelaide Cabaret Festival; the June 15 show is already sold out and limited tickets are available for June 16.
See the full Adelaide Cabaret Festival program here, and read more about the 2019 line-up here.