Pub Choir brings singing to the masses

It's five days before Christmas and Astrid Jorgensen is on stage at the Brisbane City Hall, dancing and singing, arms waving around in front of her.

To her left, a string quartet from the Queensland Chamber Orchestra plays Paul Kelly's iconic Christmas song How To Make Gravy.

Pub Choir's Waveney Yasso and Astrid Jorgensen perform at Brisbane City Hall with 2800 singers on December 20, 2018. Photo: Jacob Morrison

Pub Choir's Waveney Yasso and Astrid Jorgensen perform at Brisbane City Hall with 2800 singers on December 20, 2018. Photo: Jacob Morrison

To her right, a tutu-wearing Samuel Johnson - of gold-Logie fame and co-founder of charity Love Your Sister - sings into a microphone.

And in front of her, 2800 strangers are signing loudly and proudly. They follow her every move: singing, smiling, dancing, and drinking.

This is Pub Choir - the brainchild of Jorgensen and close friend Meg Bartholomew that has exploded across Australia, selling out shows and breaking down stigmas and misconceptions around choir.

Jorgensen says she'll never forget last year's Christmas show, which also raised more than $100,000 for Love Your Sister.

"Nearly 3000 drunk Brisbane locals smashing out Paul Kelly but with a string quartet - it was just insane," she says.

"I sometimes watch that video back if I need a pep-up to remind me that this is a good thing, and it's worth all of the work - that's peak life, I don't know what will beat that."

Anyone who's attended one of the events knows it is worth all the work. Jorgensen and Meg Bartholomew started Pub Choir in 2017 as a way to make music with their friends.

Samuel Johnson sings to the Pub Choir crowd during a performance at Brisbane City Hall on December 20, 2018. Photo: Jacob Morrison

Samuel Johnson sings to the Pub Choir crowd during a performance at Brisbane City Hall on December 20, 2018. Photo: Jacob Morrison

The 28-year-old had been working as a choral director around Brisbane for about five years, and was reminiscing with Bartholomew about their time at the University of Queensland, where they studied music together.

"And then it was basically 'just add beer'," Jorgensen says.

"We were just brainstorming about how we could convince our friends to make time for choir, because all the research is out there - it's really good for you to sing with other people.

"It just became a question of how can we convince them to do it, because I think once you're in the room and singing with other people, it feels amazing ... So alcohol, for better or worse, was the catalyst."

The two put a post on social media, created a Facebook page and managed to convince a venue in Brisbane to let them take over a bar so people could sing a song for 90 minutes.

Seventy people turned up for the first event - "A big number for a new thing", Jorgensen says. They now have 1500 regulars turning up each month in Brisbane, and are selling out venues in Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, Darwin, New Zealand and Adelaide. Earlier this month they were booked for Byron Bay's Splendour in the Grass festival.

Where it all began: Astrid Jorgensen sings with the audience at The Bearded Lady in Brisbane in June 2017. Photo: Supplied

Where it all began: Astrid Jorgensen sings with the audience at The Bearded Lady in Brisbane in June 2017. Photo: Supplied

And for the first time, Pub Choir will come to Canberra on May 13.

So where does this new wave of interest in choir come from? Surely it's not just the alcohol that has people paying their hard-earned money to sing a song with thousands of strangers?

I've got first-hand experience, after being given a gentle nudge by a friend to join a choir during a challenging time in my life. I had always been interested in choirs and enjoyed singing in the shower and on my own, but the idea of doing something regular, and committing to something, was a major hurdle.

Adjunct assistant professor Anita Collins, from the University of Canberra's faculty of education, says there's nothing new about singing in a choir, but believes the rise of Pub Choir is highlighting a number of both social and human things we need and crave.

Indeed, after finally taking the first step, I was surprised at how good I felt both physically and emotionally after singing in a choir. Hearing so many voices sounded good (to me at least). Posture was important, and it required a lot of focus and concentration.

And it's not just me. Collins says there are numerous health benefits that come from singing together. Singing is a non-toxic, non-addictive (although she says it can be "addictive" in a good way) way to engage with our immune system and make it stronger.

The physical benefits flow on mentally. "You're being part of a community, being connected to people that you weren't connected to before, doing something that you have previously feared doing," Collins says.

Astrid Jorgensen at The Triffid in Brisbane. Photo: Jacob Morrison

Astrid Jorgensen at The Triffid in Brisbane. Photo: Jacob Morrison

"It's like jumping out of a plane, you fear it and you come out of it elated afterwards, for the experience, and also because you have conquered a fear.

"And that comes back to singing - people fear singing. We like singing, but don't want to have anyone else hear us. But when you've got a beer in your hand and you're in a pub and you're being taught in a really specific way that guarantees success, guarantees it's going to sound good, that's what leads to that mental health being improved."

Collins is a neuro-musical educator - "I teach people about music and the brain" - and a self-confessed fan of Pub Choir.

"It's a need to find connectivity and be connected within our community," she says.

"Meeting in a place where it's perfectly acceptable to sing - we've got this really bizarre cultural thing in a lot of western countries and very particularly in Australia where singing is seen to be this elite thing, some people can sing and some can't and it's a born thing, and it's not - it's a learnt skill. We've got to overcome that culturally.

"With Pub Choir, they choose the right repertoire, they've got amazing musicians who back up the choir in such a way that it's all about the singing and not about the band, they've got fantastic singers who are actually teaching."

Pub Choir is in the capital for one night only, but for people looking to make a more regular commitment, Canberra's choral landscape is healthy. There is a range to choose from, including choirs for the gay and lesbian community, women-only choirs, a capella and gospel choirs. There are also several more traditional, auditioned choirs such as the Canberra Choral Society.

Mixtape Chorus perform at Gorman Arts Centre. Photo: Supplied

Mixtape Chorus perform at Gorman Arts Centre. Photo: Supplied

Mixtape Chorus was formed in 2015 and now has more than 100 paying members. It's pitched as an "inclusive, community-focused, fun indie-pop choir for people of all ages". They meet every Thursday night during school terms, and pause for supper to give people an opportunity to chat to people and meet new friends.

Ellen Henshall took over as president about three years ago, and says during her time she's seen hundreds of people come through the choir, whether for just one night or three years.

The choir holds a come-and-try night at the beginning of every term - the next is on May 2 - and Henshall says there has never been a greater interest in Mixtape Chorus.

"There are a lot of choirs in Canberra, but many of them are audition-only or they sing the more traditional choir song, and that doesn't necessarily appeal to a lot of people, but the idea of being part of a choir does," Henshall says.

"I think singing in a group really gives people a sense of belonging and a sense of community, that it almost accelerates that feeling of community - you're doing something all together and being part of something bigger than yourself.

"People can feel quite isolated, and Canberra can be a bit of a difficult place. A lot of people who join Mixtape are new to Canberra and are looking for their own little community. Part of the reason we do it is because of the positive benefits to mental health from choir singing, and we donate a percentage of our membership to local mental health charities."

Jorgensen agrees that one of the best things about singing in groups is the sense of community. Even at Pub Choir, with its ever-changing, never-the-same crowd of people, Jorgensen says singing side by side with a stranger and working together is "magical".

"There are so many people there with so many different motivations, but I like to think that there's a sense in the community that we are becoming more disconnected to each other, so it feels really magical to work together with strangers that you don't necessarily know or agree with in life about other things," she says.

"We can all agree on working towards this performance, and everyone can share in the outcome.

"I think especially as well, a lot of people don't necessarily get a very creative output in their day-to-day life, so it's something really special for most of the people that come along, they get to work with strangers in their own community and create a beautiful piece of art. I think it's really special."

So what can we expect from Pub Choir's Canberra show? Well, for a start - a big crowd. Demand has been so high for tickets that for the first time, Pub Choir has had to upgrade capacity before a show. There is a limited release of tickets available.

At more recent events, Jorgensen has been joined on stage by local musicians. Members from bands such as The Living End, Ball Park Music, Killing Heidi and The Cat Empire have all graced the Pub Choir arena. But can we expect a Canberra musician to jump up and sing?

Probably not, says Jorgensen. And that's part of the glory of Pub Choir - every show is different and unpredictable. Having been in bands before her choir life took over, she says life on tour would start out exciting and fresh but could fast become a little routine.

Not the case with Pub Choir.

"Part of me wishes it did get old. But every single event is different and we do a different song everywhere we go on the road.

"I can never, ever sit back and relax at any Pub Choir event because they are all so different.

"Me flapping around with my arms in the air is very real, because I too wonder what will happen at the end of each show - it's living in the moment for sure and it's really exciting.

"Singing is for everyone - it really doesn't matter your experience or your gender or your ... I don't know .. confidence. It's something that if you're just willing to give it a try I think everyone can get something out of it."

  • Pub Choir: Monday, May 13 at the Kambri Precinct, ANU at 8pm. Tickets available at moshtix.com.au