Robyn Adele Anderson was never the lead in a school musical at Bethlehem High. She barely ever made it through the audition process.
But it’s not like she needed the experience.
Today, she performs on stages around the world, sometimes at places she’s never even heard of. She’s been to New Zealand. She’s touched down in Prague. And she feels welcomed back during homecomings at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall and Palace Theatre.
Anderson has used her golden voice, which somehow didn’t land her a gig in a school production, to see the world, playing nostalgia-evoking covers of modern hits with jazz collective Postmodern Jukebox. The group has amassed well over a billion views on YouTube of its jazz renditions of otherwise non-jazzy tracks, and Anderson was there the moment the group took off overnight in February of 2013. Still, her early life was one of trial and error, opera camps and learning how to be comfortable onstage before she eventually became the vocal jazzhead she is today.
And it all started in Glenmont.
‘Kind of’ to ‘definitely’
Anderson remembers singing and playing the clarinet in school choirs and groups. She was involved in as many “singing and band activities” as she could be once she realized, in sixth grade, that she had a gift.
The revelation came when she auditioned for a “special, audition-only choir” at her middle school, which was something new for her.
“I was definitely not comfortable singing in front of people,” Anderson said.
But she did. And the moment her choir teacher told her she made the cut, she realized she could, in her own terms, “kind of sing.”
As she progressed in Bethlehem’s school groups over the years, that “kind of” turned to a “definitely.” She became involved in an opera camp in her junior and senior years of high school, but Anderson didn’t yet see herself pursuing music as a career, and instead hoped to become a Foreign Service Officer.
When she graduated from Binghamton University in 2011, her diploma made that even more evident, as she majored in political science and Arabic. She then moved to New York City to take a telemarketing job upon graduation.
That’s when jazz found her.
Finding her voice
Anderson’s friends took her to a theater show “Sleep No More” during her first year in New York. It was the first time she heard the music she would soon fall in love with. At the show, she met musician Scott Bradley, who asked audience members to request pop songs for performers to turn into jazz standards. They immediately hit it off.
“He opened up this whole world for me,” Anderson said.
Bradley already had a YouTube channel on which he would record jazz renditions of pop tracks with friends, but his collective, now known as Postmodern Jukebox, wasn’t yet completely established as the movement it would soon become. At least not before Anderson lent her vocals.
Two years after meeting Anderson, Bradley asked her to sing a cover of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop,” a new song that had just taken off. The song had already been covered numerous times on YouTube, but this wasn’t just any cover. It was a ragtime cover. The concept was so bizarre — and the result so unique and charming — it caught on immediately.
“It went viral overnight. I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Anderson said.
In just a week, “Thrift Shop” earned over a million views on YouTube. Today it has over 15 million views and is widely considered the group’s first hit.
Bradley, Anderson and others started “cranking out” covers from that point on. For the next few years, she sang some Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry and even Linkin Park, all laced with doo-wop or ’50s-style jazz. Some became hits — others, not so much. But Anderson realized they were discovering an “untapped market” in music: older and younger audiences who wanted to either hear their favorite songs in new styles, or wanted to relive the golden years of jazz.
The covers brought Anderson on trips around the world in six continents, and the group even did a residency in Los Angeles for a few months. Anderson decided to head back to New York once the residency ended, unlike her other band members, and found herself unable to cover tracks with the group given the distance.
So she decided to use the same homemade, self-arranged and jazzy format for herself.
On her own
Anderson began recording covers of her own with friends in her basement, just as Bradley did with PMJ. Her most popular of those, System of a Down’s “Chop Suey,” has earned her more than 10 million views. She soon realized her audience loved the music she enjoyed as a kid during her “goth” and “emo” phase, so most of her work is geared toward the audience’s preferences.
Some covers, like Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” and a few tracks by Meghan Trainor, have earned her nods from the original artists, something she is blown away by.
And while she has yet to venture far into original work, Anderson is most proud of putting together her own arrangements for covers. Outside of her experience in school groups, Anderson’s arrangements are created only from her experience working with other musicians, so she feels proud each time she pieces together something of her own.
“For me, personally, I never thought I was capable of doing it,” Anderson said.
She’s grateful for the kind messages she gets from fans, although YouTube comments tend to be hit or miss, and is looking forward to eventually working with professional pop producers to give them a taste of her own lyrics.
“I have a loyal and supportive fan base,” Anderson said. “Without them, I couldn’t make these videos.”
Anderson said she still gets to live out her original goal of becoming a Foreign Service Officer in her spare time on tour. Ironically, traveling the world has allowed her to use some of the same conversational skills. But nothing quite compares with coming home for shows, seeing friends and feeling welcomed by family.
“It’s just really cool to revisit that for me,” Anderson said.