One Question Quiz
Astrid Jorgensen, creator and leader of Pub Choir. (Photo: Claire Mabey / Design: Tina Tiller)
Astrid Jorgensen, creator and leader of Pub Choir. (Photo: Claire Mabey / Design: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureJanuary 31, 2024

Pub Choir is the most wholesome time you can have with a beer in your hand

Astrid Jorgensen, creator and leader of Pub Choir. (Photo: Claire Mabey / Design: Tina Tiller)
Astrid Jorgensen, creator and leader of Pub Choir. (Photo: Claire Mabey / Design: Tina Tiller)

What happens when 450 Wellingtonians squash into San Fran to learn a Crowded House song in three-part harmony? Claire Mabey finds out.

“If you can taste blood, dial it back a bit,” says Astrid Jorgensen about a third of the way through teaching 450 Wellingtonians how to sing Pineapple Head by Crowded House in three part harmony. The New Zealand-born genius behind Pub Choir is lobbing so many zingers that I feel I should be writing down. I have half a mind to take out my phone and start taking notes, but this is not the Pub Choir way.

Part of the charm of the experience is that we’re encouraged to live in the moment. “The only rule of Pub Choir is don’t be a dickhead,” Jorgensen says at the start of the show, pointing out the rules on her endearingly lo-fi slides peppered with Gifs and emojis. “Put away those phones. I don’t want anyone to sing into a screen for two hours. This show is about feelings and experiences.” 

Astrid Jorgensen explaining the one rule of Pub Choir (Photo: Claire Mabey)

My friend and I grin at each other. This is what we had come for. Full immersion, belting out a banger and getting high on the sound of the collective. We were here to become newly minted members of the cult. 

I first heard about Astrid Jorgensen’s phenomenally successful Pub Choir when a video of what looked like thousands of people singing Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ went viral. I couldn’t take my eyes from their smiling faces, clutching pints as they harmonised the latent hit while Jorgensen leapt around the stage with her expressive arms, and her fist-pump energy and her band with the guitarist that looks like Laura Dern. I wanted what they were having. 

When Jorgensen bounds onto the stage at San Fran with the pizzazz of an evangelist the Wellington crowd greets her with wild applause. This tour is the first time Pub Choir has come to New Zealand but the crowd, like my friend and I planted firmly in the centre-front, in front of the lady with a treble clef tattooed on her shoulder, are clearly followers of the rousing, pristine video footage on social media. The Laura Dern guitarist also takes the stage and is introduced by Jorgensen as Dana Gehrman. We also meet Paris Owen, the brilliant Pub Choir videographer who sweeps the crowd with her beady little camera and ramps up the nerves/excitement. 

The song we were about to learn is an unexpected, though not unwelcome, choice. ‘Pineapple Head’ (one of my favourite Finn songs) sounds to this untrained ear kind of complex and un-choirable. While we waited in the long and winding queue that formed before doors opened, I eavesdropped on more than one conversation that wondered if we were going to fuck it up.

Laura Dern lookalike Dana Gehrman (left) and Astrid Jorgensen announcing our song (Photo: Calire Mabey)

We needn’t have worried. Jorgensen has the fast-brain and deadly quips of a seasoned stand-up comedian and the unhinged focus of someone who knows she can take a rag-tag collection of boomers and elder millennials only just keeping it together at the tail end of the school holidays and make them sound powerful. While born in Hamilton (more wild cheering at this information), Jorgensen has lived in Australia for a long time, which has given her that Aussie kind of charisma: she is in full command throughout the full 90 minutes of what feels part fringe show, part secular church choir practise.

The structure of the show is essentially call-and-response backed up by ingenious slides of Jorgensen’s invention. The slides are like a super honed karaoke system (which can be edited on the fly when needed – we needed an extra alarm signal at one point). Each part is colour coded: high part blue, middle part green, lower part red. The words follow the notes so if words go up then you know your note has to as well. Blinking alarms remind you that your part has something new and different coming up, while janky little stick figures curling their hands in a curse pose remind you that your notes are now sliding into a creepy minor key. To teach the low parts, Jorgensen jumps onto a pre-programmed microphone that launches her voice down an octave and makes her sound like a joyously camp alter-ego (the crowd love it).

The last time I sang as part of a group was in my high school chorale where we trained for hours to perfect repertoire for the inter-school competitions. It struck me a few slides into Pineapple Head how much I’d missed it: not the training or the competition but the way voices sound en masse and harmonising, the way you feel when your voices blend and you start to think you could actually lift the roof. The sound makes your skin tingle and it focuses the brain in a way that nothing else seems to do. When I scan the crowd around me everyone is deep in it: we look just like the videos, sparkly-eyed and loud.

When it ends after our second full (and almost perfect) run through we’re all on a high. The energy in the room is crackling and there’s a rush to the merch table. My friend and I pour out of the venue into the thick, warm summer’s night and realise we’re buzzing but also tired in a novel way. We talk about how we haven’t concentrated our minds like that in years. 

Gehrman (left) and Jorgensen (right) at Pub Choir at the Tuning Fork in Auckland (Photo: Pub Choir Facebook)

By next morning we have an email from Pub Choir with the rough footage of our efforts. I press play with some trepidation. Did we in fact butcher Neil Finn’s timeless classic? There’s Jorgensen conducting us with unflagging optimism and there are all of us, sweaty, singing and actually sounding really fucking good. 

I spy my friend and I beaming at each other while squawking the lines “I will play you like a shark” and get a “majestic tear running down my cheek” (a Jorgensen line). I realise that it’s precisely this kind of squashy, wholesome, people-powered good time that Covid scuppered for so long, and still threatens. Such simple good times are now even more precious.

Jorgensen has created something truly necessary in the world. Once you’ve gone into Pub Choir and come out the other end you’re left in no doubt that singing with strangers is a balm for what ails you. It’s an uplifting couple of hours in which you blur into the collective and feel powerful together. 

Pub Choir will definitely be back. And in need of bigger venues next time, I suspect.

The final show in the New Zealand Pub Choir tour show is tonight at The Piano in Christchurch (sold out). 

Keep going!