Shane Hartman might have advised Lauren Hodge against Talking Heads.
David Byrne tears up “Once in a Lifetime.” But the song, with almost spoken-word passages, sets a high bar for a couple of hundred amateurs, some of them learning it the same night they performed it.
“I love that song,” Hartman said. “But I told her, ‘I would have talked you out of that.’ The song barely has a melody outside the chorus.”
Point taken. But live and learn, says Hodge, the founder of PopUp Chorus, which starts its new season Tuesday in a new home at the ArtsCenter with two classics: “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Karma Chameleon.”
The latter, a hit for Boy George and Culture Club, is “frothy,” Hodge admits. But it’s also catchy, a key to the success of the community sing-along that began at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall in 2014.
“I choose really well-known songs,” said Hodge, a former record company executive who is also behind The Community Chorus Project for young singers.
“I ask, is there a really good chance, whether you are 17 years old or 70 years old, that you will know that song,” she explained. “Inevitably that will make it an older song.”
And if you don’t know it at the start of the evening?
“You’re with 200, 250 people,” Hodge said. “You’re going to know that song so, so quickly.”
Hodge pulls a chair closer, leans in and talks with her hands, tucking her shoulder-length hair behind an ear every few minutes.
She’d make an enthusiastic teacher, and she did run an ArtsCenter after-school program years ago. But no, she’s never been a teacher, she said.
A singer then?
No, never a singer, she said. She studied dance and acting and has worked with bands like the Smiths, They Might Be Giants and the Violent Femmes.
“But I’m really a godawful singer,” she said.
“I make a racket in the shower, and I sing in the PopUp Chorus with great gusto.”
And that’s sort of the point, because something happens when a roomful of people of all skill levels sing, and sometimes dance in the aisles, together.
“What people really crave about the arts – and want in the arts – is to find a way to participate,” said Dan Mayer, executive director of the ArtsCenter.
“It’s about scratching that creative urge and making something yourself,” he continued, “whether it’s a pot or a song.”
Hartman played for PopUp Chorus last year, when he learned Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb, and couldn’t get the song out of his head for weeks afterward.
This season the bass player for The Old Ceremony and Dynamite Brothers is part of the PopUp house band and, ahem, helping Hodge select the songs.
“Oh man, I think it’s a blast,” Hartman said. “Going into it I expected it to be a little bit corny, but it’s so much fun. And the pressure is non-existent. Nobody cares if someone’s flat or sharp. It’s just about people having fun.”
PopUp Chorus is conducted by Amelia Shull, Carolina Friends School art teacher and founder of Girls Rock NC, along with musician Spencer Harrison, who plays guitar in the band, which also features drummer Dan Hall and Jil Christensen on piano.
There’s no audition, and no commitment, Hodge said. Just show up, pay a small admission to cover the band and other expenses, and sing – any way you can.
“PopUp Chorus embraces imperfection,” she said.
PopUp Chorus’ events at The ArtsCenter are on the first and third Tuesday of each month, with the fall season running through Dec. 6. Doors open at 6 p.m., and the singing starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students, and free for children 12 and under. To buy tickets go to nando.com/42n.