Astrid Jorgensen on Pub Choir

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

AJ              Astrid Jorgensen

 

AJ               The fact that we have this gift of an instrument. The one thing that stops people is that they feel that they’re not good enough to do it. But what a bad reason not to do something because you’re not the best at it. You are still worthy of joy even though you’re not an amazing singer. If singing makes you feel happy, you should open your face and start singing.

AL               Good day, and welcome to the Good Life. Andrew Leigh in Conversation. A podcast about living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life. Our society puts a lot of emphasis on smarts, but not enough on wisdom. So this podcast seeks out wise people who can share their insights on passion, grit, love, and empathy.

                   We’ll discuss everything from sport to parenting. And hear the stories of some of the world’s wisest souls. If you enjoy the podcast, let your friends know so they can share the insights. Now, let’s dive into today’s conversation.

                   Imagine 1 500 people, some slightly tipsy, all singing together Life in a Northern Town. Now imagine that instead of some awful karaoke exercise, they’re singing in euphoric three part harmony. Next month they’ll be back to singing We’re All in This Together or Truly Madly Deeply.

                   Pub Choir is the brain child of New Zealand born Astrid Jorgensen. Trained at the Queensland Conservatorium of Music. Astrid worked as a high school music teacher and choral director. In 2017 she and her friend Megan Bartholomew created Pub Choir, which exploded in popularity.

                   The start of this year saw Astrid taking the idea to the United States. Then Coronavirus, and all of the concerts were cancelled. From the shutdown came Couch Choir, which is in my view one of the great connection stories of this chaotic year we’re living through.  

                   Astrid, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast.

AJ               Thanks for having me. What a rap. What an intro.

AL               So, tell me about the role of music in your childhood. Did you have some kind of a Von Trapp childhood?

AJ               Well, I’ve only watched the Sound of Music once, and I thought it was far too long. But I’m sure that that’s not going to win me any fans to say that first. But I’m the youngest of five. And I would say I’m probably the only one of my siblings that continued on with music.

                   But I think that I was the beneficiary of all of their childhood music lessons. There was music in the house from the womb with me. And I feel like I’ve always been able to hear music in my head. And I didn’t realise that that was something that everyone couldn’t do until I got to uni.

                   And I don’t know, I was comparing what I would hear in my music exams with other people. And it just dawned on me that perhaps I could think musically. I found out the word for that is audiation, thinking in sounds. And it was a really cool, special discovery in my life to realise that that was something that I could do.

AL               So what does audiation mean? Because all of us, we think of favourite songs, and we hum them along. Does this mean that you’re able to hold different parts in your head at the same time?

AJ               Well, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a really good recall. So, I can hear a song on the radio, and then I could remember what it was like, and head over to the piano. It almost seems like magic, but just be able to pretty much nail it on the piano first go, or with a little bit of fluffing around. But then when I got to university, I actually started at the University of Queensland. And I had this amazing aural musicianship course.

                   It was run by a guy called Dr James Cuskelly who is a really renowned music educator. And I majored in aural musicianship, which is learning to think in sound. Learning to hone this skill of audiation. And, yes, it is like holding different parts in your head, thinking through more than one layer of music at a time.

                   I would liken it to being an interpreter of music. Like a language interpreter might hear someone speak in another language, and as they are receiving that information, they’re transforming it and speaking it out in another language. I feel like I kind of learnt to do that a little bit with music. Where I was hearing musical sounds, and then putting them into context in my mind. And then I learned how to write them out, or sing them back, or… To keep that information and put it in some context in the outside world.

                   I don’t know. That was hard to explain, I’ve never done that before.

AL               This is not at all the direction I intended the interview to go, but it’s too fascinating not to explore a bit further. Does music then help you organise other things? Do you attach musicality to other things you’ve got to hold in your mind? Like when you think about people, do you associate them with music or book concepts you want to remember?

AJ               That will be cool to say yes, but no. In fact, music is the only thing I can hear in my mind. I actually don’t have an internal monologue. I’ve been talking to my friends about this a lot lately. But I realise that everyone, or not everyone, but most people are going around with a dialogue in their head of thoughts. I found out my friends can think through conversations they’d had or go through their shopping list in their own voice in their mind. Like a narration.

                   And outside of music, I think my mind is absolutely silent. I’m not thinking through any other conversations. Music is the only audio emergent property of my mind. And everything else is mute.

AL               Wow! So you’re sort of blank but for the musicality there.

AJ               Yes, yes. I feel like all my resources are put into thinking about musical things. And then everything else is wordless. I don’t have any other sounds attached to my thoughts.

AL               So I’ve just gotten through reading Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, which you probably know. About all of these different patients he has who hear music in their heads. For some of them it’s incredibly disruptive because the music won’t stop. And there’s composers who suddenly start to hear schmaltzy music that only stops when they’re composing. Do you get random snippets popping into your head in that same way?

AJ               I do. I do. I recently read Paul Kelly’s autobiography. And I think he had a great line somewhere in there like, if I knew how to write a great song, I would be doing it every minute of the day. But it’s bit more mystical than that. There is nothing to grasp really when it comes to creativity.

                   And music does just emerge from my brain. Like I have woken up from a dream and had a new song in my mind that I’ve been able to go and write down for a choir or something. It is a little bit mystical. I can’t just sit down and create music out of nothing. It is a thought that emerges, and sometimes I’m lucky enough to be quick and write it down.

AL               When you say write it down, does that happen by recording through a keyboard, or does your thinking musically translate into being able to write a score? Because that was fascinating when I had Tim Minchin on the podcast, and he said he didn’t read or write music. And I’ve heard the same of Bruce Springsteen as well.

AJ               Yes. And I think there are a whole lot of names of really notable musicians who don’t read music. So obviously it’s not a prerequisite. I don’t write it down either, because it’s just too time consuming. I have a phone full of really embarrassing voice memos. If I don’t immediately capture it or sing it out loud, and record that, it will be gone forever.

                   And I mourn many songs that I will never remember again but felt like a good idea at the time. But I wasn’t quick enough with my phone or whatever. So, yes, if I die, I don’t want anyone to go through my voice memos though, because there’s probably 1 000 in there of just me mumbling really awkward ideas in my car or something. But yes, I record them, I don’t write them down because it would just… The idea would be gone before I had the time.

AL               Voice sounds pretty important to your notion of musicality. Were you always a singer, or did you experiment with other instruments as a kid?

AJ               No. I had a very Asian tiger mum musical upbringing. We all learned piano and violin. And I know that I was desperate for singing lessons. I remember asking my parents on so many occasions, I know I wrote heartfelt letters, and attached them to the fridge. I really wanted singing lessons.

                   And I think perhaps it wasn’t immediately apparent to my parents that singing was as intricate an instrument as say a violin. You can’t see your singing voice. And it’s something that everyone has, and I guess it… Learning to play the piano, you learn a series of patterns. Pattern recognition, you look at the notes and then you press the right key. But with singing it’s all a little bit more conceptual. And so I didn’t have singing lessons for a really long time until my final year of high school.

                   And then I tried to get into university on voice so that I could continue my voice lessons. But I didn’t get in, which I think is important to say. I was not accepted into a music course at uni. And I think after that I saved up my own money and had some singing lessons after that. But it definitely was one of my later instruments that I tried.

AL               So you went to the Queensland Conservatorium of Music to do violin, or was that after you’d made the transition to singing?

AJ               Oh, no. I did an undergraduate degree at UQ, and I did a Bachelor of Arts, I couldn’t get into the music course. But I did specialise in my arts degree in aural musicianship, that’s what I was talking about before with audiation. And I also did choral conducting as my second major. And I wouldn’t have done either of those things if I had of got into the singing course that I wanted to get into.

                   If you don’t make it into the Bachelor of Music, private lessons are not an option for you as a student. And so I had to explore other musical areas, and I am just so grateful for that kick up the bum, basically, to try other things. Because those two subject areas really shaped the rest of my life. And then after I finished that Bachelor of Arts, I did a teaching qualification at UQ, and then I did my Master’s at the Conservatorium finally on voice. That was my first really significant year of singing lessons.

AL               And what was it like when you finally got to do singing lessons there?

AJ               Oh, mixed reactions I would say. Of course it’s good to know technical things to make your singing, and any musical performance more efficient. Especially with singing, it’s a physical activity. So you can actually strain your voice, or you can approach it with perhaps a less sustainable technique. And you might not have a career for as long if you continue to stand in that way, or to use your voice in a certain way.

                   So it was really good to finally have some information about how to care for my voice, and how to explore different elements of it. But then I would also part of the discovery I also had in that year was that a lot of singing is really personal. Your singing voice is unique to you, and you alone. And no one can ever sing in the same way, and no one will ever reach singing conclusions in the same way that you do. I think that was a discovery that I had.

                   I think I spent a lot of my life, because I hadn’t had maybe formal singing lessons, I had just wanted to copy the sorts of singers that I heard and that I liked. And I felt very inferior not sounding like them. And I think that year was a year of discovery learning that there are opinions about everyone’s singing voice. But it is just a matter of opinion. There are lots of famous singers whose voice I perhaps don’t think is very beautiful, but they sell millions of records around the world.

                   So, I just came to the conclusion that singing is a matter of opinion. And I thought that that was very freeing to discover that, because then it became about trying to just hone in with what is the best way for me to present my own unique singing voice that only exists for me. And what is going to make that feel the best for me.

AL               I grew up in the 80s, and I remember it was quite a shock when I first heard Australians singing the American rock music that was all around us in an Australian accent. I was just used to everyone, all of my mates, anytime we sang American songs, we’d sing them in American accents. And that idea of making the voice your own is… It takes a bit of getting used to.

AJ               Yes. It does. And I had the same discovery when I was in Year 12, when I became interested in singing, and Missy Higgins released her first album. And for me, it was the first time I had heard a female singer really just leaning into their own Australian accent. And I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. It was very inspiring.

AL               So, tell me about your experience starting your own group. You headlined Astrid & the Asteroids for a while, how did that fare?

AJ               I feel embarrassed talking about it, but…

AL               It’s such a good name.

AJ               Well it was a good name. It’s a good alliteration. It was actually for a uni assignment while I was doing my Master’s. And it was course work, and they said to… The final piece of assessment for this vocal degree was to actually produce a CD to showcase your vocal ability and put it in real world context. And a lot of people in the course were doing… Actually Dami Im was one of the people in my course, so I try not to feel too bad about the different paths that our lives have taken.

                   But a lot of people were recording covers, and just very different sorts of songs to show off their vocal abilities. And I thought that I would try and write some songs. Because I realised that there was all this music bubbling away. And I’d never tried to get it out before. And it actually was surprisingly easy to extract a CD’s worth of songs.

                   And I just asked the nicest musical friends that I had, because I’d never sung in a band or anything before. I wanted the people to be very friendly and gentle. And so I got this lovely group of friends together. And they helped me record this CD for my assignment. And I just thought it would be nice to continue doing that.

                   It felt really amazing to put down my thoughts into songs, and to work with other musicians of a very high level. It was the first real ensemble music making that I’d ever done. And it felt amazing to collaborate with other people. And I’ve been making music ever since.

AL               You’ve also spent some time working in high schools. So what did you take away from being a high school music teacher?

AJ               A lot of grey hair.

AL               You’re not that old.

AJ               Yes, well, you’d think looking at my hair. No, I knew that it wasn’t for me, actually. Honestly when I say that, I just mean it was too hard. I have just the most respect for high school teachers. My dad’s one, and he specifically said to me, you shouldn’t be a teacher, I don’t think that you will enjoy it. And of course then that spurred me on to go and do that one thing he advised me not to do, and I didn’t enjoy it.

                   But I think I’m too haphazard to be a school teacher. I think you have to be a very calm person who can deliver beautiful behavioural soliloquies to children. And I felt like I was frazzled all of the time. But I did learn how to explain concepts to perhaps unenthusiastic ears. I feel like it was the first time I had to learn how to explain myself.

                   And that skill I’m very grateful for, because I feel like with a crowd of drunk strangers at the pub, it’s similar to teenagers in Year 7 or Year 8 with their attention spans. And it’s good to be able to break down information into bite size chunks for people.

AL               So let’s go to those tipsy strangers. So, 2017, you and Megan Bartholomew created Pub Choir in Brisbane’s West End. Where did the idea come from?

AJ               Well I had been working already as a choral director. I had retired from school teaching, but I was still working in schools with choirs, and doing singing lessons. Meg was a really great mate of mine from the course that I did. And she had just founded a poetry slam in Brisbane. Brisbane’s first… I don’t know if you’re familiar with slam poetry. It’s very cool, it’s a very underground sort of scene where people, regular people are embraced into the poetry world. Which can sometimes seem a bit stuffy from the outside. Similar to choral singing.

                   And Meg had been doing that for a number of years, and so I knew that she was amazing at building communities and running events. And so we excitedly discussed this idea of singing with our friends.

                   I had just come back from a year in Townsville where I had been in charge of a whole school choir. It was a compulsory high school choir where every single student in the school had to participate. Which was really full on, but the most exciting job I’d ever had in my life.

                   And I had come back with all this enthusiasm where in that year I had realised that singing is really for everyone, and you don’t have to be competitive in music making. You can just sing because it’s good for you and it feels good. And I had learnt that lesson very well in that year.

                   So when I came back to Brisbane and I talked to Meg I was so full of energy for choir and for sharing singing with a bigger audience than just those who had choral inclinations or had grown up with singing lessons or something. And I really wanted choir to be for more people. And Meg booked the venue, she just made it happen.

                   She called up a little dive bar in Brisbane called The Bearded Lady, and she managed to convince them to close off the bar so that we could host a choir rehearsal. Which I think is no small feat to tell a bar on a weeknight. Yes, and they did. And it was so cool. 70 people came. And it already felt like a good idea, honestly, at the time it did feel like a good idea. But I didn’t realise how much people would like it.

                   And almost since that first show in Brisbane, it’s been sold out ever since across the country. So, we’ve gone from having 70 people on the first night to pre-Covid, every month in Brisbane there was 1 500 people coming to our shows in Brisbane, and selling… But the tickets sell out in five minutes. We were having trouble keeping up with the demand.

                   It’s a bit of a relief to have a break from those live shows, because it was just the appetite was absolutely insane. It’s a nice problem to have. But yes, the show really exploded over the course of three years. Ended up being my full time job. And allowed me to travel the world and to meet incredible musicians and novices alike. It’s been amazing.

AL               What makes a good Pub Choir song?

AJ               I think everything’s pretty doable, to be honest. I think people probably get a little too hung up on what the song is. Because even if you knew it really well, it’s going to be presented to you in an unknown way. Because I arrange a new song for every single show. So even if it’s your favourite song and you know every lyric, you’re not going to perform it in that way. It’s probably almost a bonus to not know a song, because you can approach it with really fresh ears.

                   But some of my favourites, and I think some of the crowd’s favourites are songs that have a really good jump tempo. You can mosh. You wouldn’t think that there’d be mosh pits at choir, but at Pub Choir every now and then there is a choir mosh pit if we’ve got a song with the right tempo.

                   You mentioned Life in a Northern Town in your intro. And I think that is the single best jumping song we’ve ever had at Pub Choir. 1 500, let’s be honest, mostly middle aged women absolutely moshing, hands up in the air at the Tivoli while they’re singing three part choral harmony. That’s pretty cool. So I guess tempo might be one of the main things. But other than, I reckon most songs are prime for the pub.

AL               And there’s something people who’ve attended Pub Choir tell me about the experience of being there that just doesn’t get replicated from watching it afterwards. That notion that you’re both audience and performer at the same time. It’s unique, right? We’re normally one of the other.

AJ               Yes. I do think it is unique where you’re transformed from a consumer to the one producing the music by the end of the show. And people are genuinely sceptical when they come. And I think then genuinely so surprised and so proud of themselves by the end of the show. I say it all the time, but I genuinely believe that everyone can be taught to do something, to contribute musically.

                   It doesn’t mean that everyone that comes to Pub Choir learns to sing well, that’s not a promise that we make. And most people sing pretty averagely. But that’s all that is required I think. The most exciting thing about Pub Choir is learning to be a small part of something bigger than yourself. And sharing a goal with strangers and working towards that shared goal. And celebrating in the achievement together is such a cool feeling at Pub Choir.

                   And in those videos, a lot of people, not a lot, but sometimes people are sceptical and say, oh, is this real, or whatever. But those faces, and that performance, it truly is a real thing that everybody is capable of doing if you just give them the right encouragement. And I think Pub Choir does that.

AL               It also seems to lower the bar to some extent from other choirs. Even then the ones that aren’t entering eisteddfods are often leading up to some performance for friends and family in which they’ll put their voice on the line. You don’t seem to have that level… Yours is the most low-key choir in Australia in some sense.

AJ               Yes, I mean there’s no auditions, there’s no membership, there’s no sheet music, or solos, or anything. So yes, it is a very low pressure choir. But I don’t think we’re lowering the musical bar. I think actually that that’s one of my favourite things about Pub Choir is that just ordinary people are shown a high quality music making experience. It’s not passive. If you come along to Pub Choir, we’ll yell at you and tell you what to do. And by the end of the show, you will be performing in harmony. It's no small feat.

                   But I really time and time again am proved by the audience themselves that everybody is capable. If we had higher expectations of one another for doing things averagely but with lots of enthusiasm, I think we could achieve a lot as a society. Because Pub Choirs shows that experiment every single show. Yes, so the bar is musically high, but yes, I try and keep everything else as low pressure as possible for sure.

AL               Enthusiasm’s so important. And I’m always struck by the frustration I feel at the lassitude of goth type teenagers who somehow think that they can successfully get through life by being unenthusiastic about everything. I love being around enthusiastic people for whatever flaws they’ve got.

AJ               Same. I think everyone as a teenager goes through the unenthusiastic stage. But I know that from… When did I graduate? Probably 12 or 13 years ago from high school. You really do come to learn as an adult that cool people are smart people, or enthusiastic people, as you say. That’s a phase. At Pub Choir it’s definitely more cool to be enthusiastic than to sit back. Because you’ll miss the whole show. If you don’t participate, you don’t get to reap any of the rewards of the shared achievement at the end.

AL               Good metaphor for life. And you’ve occasionally had the songwriter themselves along as part of the event. You had Paul Kelly along to one. What’s it like when you’ve got a star on stage?

AJ               Well Paul Kelly’s a peak, let’s be real about that, that was pretty cool. I don’t know. Obviously it’s amazing to have access to such incredibly talented musicians, which in my previous life before Pub Choir I would have never been able to rub shoulders with people like that, or Ben Lee or Ella Hooper, or Meg Mac.

                   But I will say that I think it’s special for them too. I don’t want to speak on their behalf, but the feedback that I got, say even from Paul Kelly, he sent me a really heartfelt email after the show that we did with him. Just saying it felt like a musical revelation to see all of these regular people working together so well, and actually achieving something musically good. It wasn’t just a laugh, it was actually at the end the product is exciting for the musicians themselves.

                   I think probably if you’ve been playing the same sorts of songs for a few decades, it would feel really special to hear them reborn in this very raw way that only exists in that moment. Because of course, then the next show we will do a different song. So, just for the people in that room, that’s a special thing that we get to share. And I have observed from a lot of the artists that we’ve worked with that it’s special for them too. That’s pretty cool to be able to facilitate that experience.

AL               Absolutely. And so different from what they must be used to in their concerts. So people singing along badly, trying to do what they are doing on stage. But by definition, doing it less well. And then you had this idea of taking Pub Choir international, and you’d done a couple of small overseas concerts. But you were on this amazing US tour, and you were actually in the United States about to start some of your concerts there when Coronavirus hit, right?

AJ               Yes. It was a very wild time to be in America in March 2020. A strange window into almost like an alternate timeline of seeing how Coronavirus unfolded there in the very early stages. Pub Choir was on the way to South by Southwest in Texas, which is… That’s a peak for a lot of musical artists. That’s a big deal to get on the line up there. And we were really surprised to be on the line up as a choir experience. But it was so exciting.

                   We had a couple of other shows booked on the way. Los Angeles and San Francisco, and New York. We only managed to get the LA show done. And actually, it was right on the cusp of being possible. America hadn’t shut down anything. But the streets were empty, and there was something really spooky and eerie about the vibe in America.

                   It was similar in Australia where there was a moment where it dawned upon us all that this was more serious than a flu season. And we were in America that week. And so you could walk down the main street in San Francisco, and there were no cars. And all of the restaurants were closed. And we realised we should really go home. And we had to forfeit that tour. And in the end it wouldn’t have been possible because restrictions then came in that would have stopped us from even doing the shows.

                   But we knew already that it wasn’t right for us to be there, and that we needed to get home in case the borders closed. Which of course they ended up doing. But yes, I’m not grateful for having been in America at that time. But it was a really interesting experience, and I am so grateful to be able to return to Australia. And it did give me an appreciation of how safe it is here, and how good our healthcare system is, and there’s a lot to be thankful for.

AL               Yes, for my part, Nick Terrell and I, we spent the last year writing a book called Reconnected. And in our first draft we just talked about Pub Choir. We looked on your website, saw all these upcoming concerts, which would have been done by the time the book came out, September 2020.

                   So we wrote a big passage about how you’d gone international. And then of course we had to go back into the book draft and rewrite it. Not only to take out the international stuff, but also we then added a big passage in Reconnected about your extraordinary initiative, Couch Choir. So tell us about Couch Choir.

AJ               I can’t wait to read your book, Andrew. Yes, on the way home from America, actually I was on Twitter, I was on my phone on Twitter as we were making our way back to the international airport from San Francisco or LA, I think it was. Any I was watching all of our shows be cancelled one by one, basically.

                   We had a big Enmore show booked for the Sydney Comedy Festival, and that was cancelled. And then ten minutes later, the Melbourne Comedy Festival. And our whole calendar fell apart on the way home. And that was a lot to grapple with. Because I think it was a good 20 000 tickets that were refunded within that 24 hour period when we cancelled our American tour. We had then also lost everything at home.

                   You’re not connected to the internet on the flight home. We had cheap flights. It was a good 40 hour transit. And there was a lot of time to think about what happens next. And my crew is amazing, and we all felt still enthusiastic about getting something done. And the idea of Couch Choir formulated on that flight home. Just thinking, well everybody’s going to be sitting at home in isolation anyway. And we’re going to be connecting via the internet, so why don’t we meet people where they are, which is online.

                   And then it was just about how do we run a choir session without seeing the people in the room. And the way that Couch Choir has worked out is that rather than interacting in real time with people, I video instructions of myself performing their parts. And if you want to be part of Couch Choir, you watch my instructions, and you copy me as best you can. And you video that and send it back. And we compile all of those submissions.

                   And the end result is surprisingly much like a real choir. It feels like a big choir of people working together. Because it is really, it’s just that they did it in isolation from one another. But I’ve noticed that actually people are singing a lot more gently in Couch Choir. Pub Choir, because you’re in a room of 1 000 people, it’s very loud, and everyone’s at 130% capacity of their vocal ability.

                   But in Couch Choir it’s… You record alone, or in your home with your family. And so, yes, people are being more thoughtful, and singing more carefully. And I think it’s a really beautiful result. And I’m so proud of every single one. And it’s been just really one of the big joys of my life is receiving these submissions from all around the world.

AL               Yes, Couch Choir is more poignant than punchy. But I really would challenge anyone listening to the podcast who hasn’t seen what it’s like. Go on YouTube, check out Couch Choir doing David Bowie’s Heroes, or Stevie Wonder’s Love’s in Need of Love Today. And try and watch them all the way through without crying at some point.

AJ               Or you could watch The Killer’s one, because you did it. And actually, Andrew, you were very sneaky about it, because you didn’t announce that you had submitted a video.

                   And actually my amazing video editor, Paris Owen, who, for all of her skills, I would say she’s not particularly interested in politics, she picked up your video as a feature. Not because she knew it was you, but she was like, oh, there’s a really cool family. The dad and some boys, and we’d like to show men singing. I think that men need a little bit more encouragement sometimes.

                   And so you had made the cut… And then I saw it, and I was like, that’s Andrew Leigh. So, you were picked up for talent. I hope that you know that.

AL               Well the boys really viewed it differently, right. They loved that notion that this was not just a fun song, but a performance that they were part of. And I guess that goes to the heart of what you’re doing with Pub Choir and Couch Choir. And I use the economic language there that you’re both a producer and a consumer. And there’s something pretty special about that in the world. Do you hope to change attitudes to singing? Do you think most people are a little too reticent to sing?

AJ               Absolutely we are. I mean I bang on about it all the time. Everybody is capable of singing. And I mean that literally. You were born with a free instrument, and what a waste not to use it. Singing is the same mechanism as talking. Everyone feels fine talking to each other. I mean I’m not advocating for just only communicating in singing. That would be very annoying.

                   But I think that the fact that we have this gift of an instrument, it costs you nothing to sing. And the one thing that stops people is that they feel that they’re not good enough to do it. But what a bad reason not to do something, because you’re not the best at it. Doing something averagely is fine. You are still worthy of joy, even though you’re not an amazing singer.

                   If singing makes you feel happy, you should open your face, and start singing. If cooking makes you feel good, and your meals don’t taste amazing, you still deserve to cook, and to eat, and to have that experience. I don’t know why we’ve put musical ability into this weird category of the haves and the have nots.

                   If you feel like singing, you should go and do that. And it’s a physical skill. And maybe the first day you do it, you aren’t very good. And if you did it every day, and you thought about it, you would probably get better. But you don’t even need to worry about… If you just want to stay at this level and sing because it makes you feel happy, then you deserve that experience too.

                   And I think that Pub Choir is slowly convincing people that it’s okay to join in because it makes you feel good, not because you want to be the best.

AL               In that sense, is Pub Choir the antidote to Australian idol?

AJ               I don’t know. Maybe. I watch reality TV, I’m not saying I’m above this experience of music presented in that way. But I do think it changed our opinion of, yes, talent being some magical concept that is bestowed upon some of us, and most of us not. Music is something that you can get better at.

                   If you wanted to run a marathon, which I know that you do, well I… You can correct me if I’m wrong, because I’ve never run a marathon. But I would imagine that it would take quite a lot of small sessions of building up your endurance. And you probably wouldn’t be able to run a marathon the first time you ever went for a run. But if you worked at it in little steps, and gradually increased your endurance, you would be able to do that by the end.

                   And the same is true for singing or musical ability. Maybe you’re not good the first time you try it, but why would you be? This is the first step, and you can stay there, or you can hone your skill and get better at it. Because every skill is something that you can get better at. I don’t know how else to say it other than, you can sing. Join me. Relax. It’s fine.

AL               Astrid, what projects do you have on the horizon? And what are your long term goals for how you might reshape Australia’s attitude to singing?

AJ               Well, Couch Choir has taught me that the show Pub Choir was always more accessible, it’s just that we didn’t care enough to make it so. Which was a really good reality check for me, and a good thing to reflect on. And so when you join Couch Choir, you can leave a submission note, if you want to. And a lot of people do.

                   And it’s been this really great almost confessional where people are telling us sometimes really personal things. But also a lot of stories of accessibility saying, I live really far away from the city. And I watched your videos online for a few years and I knew I could never come to your show, but suddenly I have a front row seat. And that’s really cool. I feel really honoured to have found a way to be more accessible.

                   And so I think, maybe not as regularly, but we will continue to do Couch Choir, or some iteration of that online space. Because our audience doubled from just mostly Australians to now a worldwide audience. And that’s really special. It’s a lot more diverse now that we’re online. So I think the future holds more Couch Choir in it.

                   I really can’t wait to be back on the stage with Pub Choir. I really like reading faces and responding in real time to reactions. And I think that’s a skill that I have is shaping a show around what I can see is the experience of the audience. So I really miss live performing, and I can’t wait to get back to it. I don’t know when. So I guess in the meantime, lots of online things.

                   Couch Choir is even doing corporate work privately for some companies. Lots of businesses are working from home now, and employees are feeling really isolated from one another. And it’s hard to keep that sense of team. So we are doing a little bit of that too, which is nice to pay the rent. But yes, I don’t know.

                   I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky person. And opportunities seem to present themselves when you’re really enthusiastic and work hard. Obviously there’s a lot of privilege wrapped up in that. But I am privileged, and so it’s nice that when I keep enthusiastic, and I keep creative, and keep sharing my love of singing, opportunities seem to walk by, which is really nice. So I’m just keeping a really open mind to the future.

AL               Astrid, what advice would you give to your teenage self?

AJ               I guess it would just be every step along the way offers something to be learned. I felt really bad not getting into the music course that I wanted, but it ended up being the exact thing that I needed. Doing teaching didn’t feel like… It felt like I had launched into the totally wrong career after studying it at uni. And then it actually ended up arming me with the skills that I need to then go and do this other thing that makes me feel really happy.

                   So I guess I would just tell my teenage self, they feel like setbacks, but embrace the opportunity to learn something about yourself, and put it in your toolkit so that when the right thing finally comes around, you’ve got a whole range of things that you have learned to do. And it will all make sense.

AL               What’s something you used to believe, but no longer do?

AJ               I guess I used to believe that there was only one way to sing. And that there was an acceptable way to present your voice, and then everybody else just fell into the not good category. But now I really believe it, I’m not saying it for a business point of view or anything, I really believe that everybody can sing. And everybody can learn to sing well.

                   And I think that every voice is a good one. Even ones that are really out of tune or come out very wonky. I believe that there is beauty in every voice, because it is so unique to each person that has made it. And I really, really believe it. And I hope that if you’re listening, and you feel embarrassed about your singing voice, I hope what I’m saying is chipping away at that self-doubt, because yes, your voice is the only one like it, and it’s good. It’s a good one.

AL               Has Couch Choir taught you different things on that dimension? Because you must have this extraordinary opportunity where suddenly you’ve got 1 000, 2 000 audio tracks you’re blending in together, and you’ve got the choice of taking the most beautiful, or taking some of the quirkier ones, and dialling them up a bit.

AJ               It has been the most significant musical learning experience of my life. Actually the first one, we did Close to You by The Carpenters. And we didn’t know what the response would be, but I think we had 1 500 people around the world join in. And it was really overwhelming.

                   We thought maybe we’d have a few hundred. Because it seemed like a lot to ask of people to sing alone in their homes, and then send it to some strangers online. The internet doesn’t always feel like the safest place for everyone. And yet, all of these people were trusting us with this very personal information.

                   And so, I started out, my strategy was to pick the best voices. And I started my mix, so I picked, I don’t know, maybe 100 voices. And I mixed them in together to see what it was like. And it sounded ridiculous. It sounded really bizarre, and not at all real. And I in that moment learned that the reality of humanity is that we are really different. And the more voices I added in, the more real it sounds. And some people sing early, and some people sing late, and some are too sharp, and some are too flat, and when you put it all together, it’s very full. It sounds complete.

                   I love the way the Couch Choir sounds. It does really replicate what it’s like to be in that room of people of all different abilities showing us that the sum of the parts… The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, whatever that saying is. Yes, that was a really good learning experience for me too. And it actually just reinforced to me what I had been saying all along that every voice is welcome, every voice is important, and it’s good enough.

AL               Astrid, when are you most happy?

AJ               I am most happy when I’m on the other side of something that makes me feel nervous. I guess that means taking a small risk. Sometimes at a show it might be I’ve only had a few hours to pull together an arrangement, and I do them from memory. And so I walk onto stage, and I have this real nervous feeling that I might not remember how everything goes. And if I get to the other side of that successfully, that’s when I’m the most happiest. When I’ve taken a risk, and I’ve made it through. And I feel like I level up every time I do something like that.

                   So, yes, I embrace the feeling of nervousness these days because I know on the other side of that is probably a really good success.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

AJ               I’m mostly an indoor person. So I’m not going on big hikes or anything. But I do like doing yoga or Pilates most days. I’m a very bendy but weak person. If I’m being honest, it’s the only exercise I’ve ever been able to really commit to in my life. Mostly because it’s indoors, and there’s a lying down bit at the end. But I do find that on the days that I do something physical, even gentle yoga or a Pilates class, I do really feel a lot more grounded, and able to concentrate a little bit more.

                   Music and stuff makes me happy, and friends. But actually just making sure that I’m caring for my body in a small way does really… It’s important for my mental health.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

AJ               Oh my God, my entire life I feel is a guilty pleasure.

AL               Oh, how wonderful.

AJ               Well I feel like I live by the idea that everything in maybe moderation. I try not to impose rules on myself. I don’t have these big restrictions. If I feel like doing something, I’ll probably do it, but I won’t do it to excess, I hope. I think that’s within me, I reckon I could really go… I feel like I might have an addictive personality.

                   So I think to keep tabs of that I just… If I have a really strong urge to do something like watch TV when I’m supposed to be working or go out and hang out with friends and socialise, or eat something that is not nutritionally valuable, I’ll probably just do it. But I’ll try and stop after I’ve satisfied that urge. And I think that helps keep me a little bit even keeled sometimes.

AL               And finally, Astrid, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

AJ               My parents are social justice legends, I feel. It was such an important part of our upbringing. The idea of justice, and social justice, and others. And my mum has worked for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services for decades. And I think, I hope I say it correctly, but I think she’s the only youth defendant for young indigenous kids in the Brisbane area. So it’s a big job. And she takes it in her stride so much.

                   And my dad is very involved with refugee advocacy. And literally just had two refugees from Sudan in his home on the weekend, because that was the safest person to call in that situation. So my parents are really social justice minded. And it’s very inspirational.

                   I am not a grain of salt on that, but I find them really, really inspiring people. And I think me and all of my siblings have really taken that on board that we are part of a bigger whole than ourselves. And we are really lucky and privileged in our lives, and it is our responsibility to share a little bit of that wherever we can.

AL               Well I certainly think in your work in connecting people, you’re carrying on that social justice tradition. That notion that society is better when we’re a community of we rather than a community of me. So, Astrid Jorgensen, choir director and audiating audiophile, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on the Good Life podcast today.

AJ               Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed talking at you. Thanks so much.

AL               It was wonderful. Thank you. Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of the Good Life, Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed the discussion with Astrid Jorgensen, I reckon you’ll love past interviews with Lyn Williams, Carl Vine, and Tim Minchin.

                   As you might have heard in the conversation, I have a new book out at the end of September. It’s called Reconnected and co-authored with Nick Terrell. You can pre-order it on the Black Ink website now.

                   We appreciate getting feedback, so please leave us a rating or a comment on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find the show.

                   Next week we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier, and more ethical life.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.