THE DANGER OF FAILURE MAKES SUCCESS SO THRILLING
Jeremy Brennan is a gifted music producer, accompanist, arranger, songwriter and, now, solo performer. His favourite thing to do is “just go nuts at the piano and let other artists shine”. Those artists have included both Minogues, Tina Arena, Paul Capsis, Trevor Ashley and Matthew Mitcham. But in lockdown, and waiting for gigs to return, he’s turned the spotlight on himself and released an EP of original material, Actionality; five quite stunning songs. He spoke to Ian Horner for DNA.
DNA: Like back-up singers who are the proverbial “20 feet from stardom” you’ve work closely with some big names. You get closer to them than most of us – have you ever seen something you wish you hadn’t? Jeremy Brennan: [Laughs] Mostly, performers in their underwear! I get to witness hours of rehearsal and intense planning. It takes a lot of work to make a performance look effortless – whether it’s nutting out the arrangement or phrasing or whittling down a set list to tailor it to an audience, debating one song over another. I enjoy that, curating the musical fragments into a unified show. I also get to see a lot of pre-show rituals.
Things can always go haywire in live performance, right?
Yes! More often than not it’s forgotten props, mistimed sound cues and random fire alarms. I’ve survived a bomb scare during the run of Cabaret with Tina Arena, lighting rigs falling from the ceiling and people in the audience suddenly needing critical medical attention. What was Cabaret with Tina Arena like? Amazing! Tina can melt away the world when you hear her sing. One of my all-time on-stage highlights was a spot playing tenor sax while she sang Maybe This Time with me riffing along – all sadness and sultry Berlin. An offstage highlight with Tina was a crazy evening filling beanbags in her apartment – we’d had a few wines so it wasn’t the neatest operation but she was just as dedicated to her work as she was to her relaxation time. It was a good lesson to learn at that point in my career.
You’ve worked with artists who’ve had to sell a completely new side to their public image; how did you turn Olympic diver, Matthew Mitcham into a musical performer?
I’m often asked this, and it’s probably because
people don’t realise that Matthew Mitcham is innately musical – and so fucking talented he can do anything! He’s incredible to work with. I didn’t turn him into a performer – that came naturally to him. He taught himself ukulele while he was in bed with a broken back. Can you believe that?! I’m in awe. I guess all the years of drilling those diving routines instilled a work ethic that’s tireless; he’ll practise and practise until he gets it right, and then practise until he can’t get it wrong. And best of all, he keeps it fun. He’s got a mischievous sense of humour.
What do you look for, or listen for, when you’re supporting someone in their performance? How do you recognise when they need to give something specific?
It’s about you being present in their moment, listening, watching and responding to how they’re vibing in the song. For instance, Paul Capsis and I have this deliciously swampy version of Proud Mary. We don’t rehearse it, we just let it evolve and morph as we do it. Some nights it goes for an extra couple of minutes as we jam and riff – that’s the flow of great collaboration. I learned that from a New York artist named Joey Arias. He never rehearses the ending of a song. Live performance is a high-wire act: the performer can fall at any moment. It’s live. It’s visceral. It’s the danger of failure that makes success so thrilling. It’s truly exciting when you don’t just walk on the high-wire together, you dance all over it and make it across to the other side. You’ve worked with Paul Capsis a lot, including an Opera House streaming concert during lockdown.
He’s such a great talent. I love our times together. The streaming show was just the two of us covering Lou Reed, Nina Simone, Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse. The time before, my fingers were bleeding, but I was looking forward to the blood this time ’cos this lockdown had already been waaaay too long. Why was your EP Actionality such a long time coming?
I used to give out CDs at gigs and some of these recordings hadn’t made it online yet. My first lockdown project was to get these songs onto streaming services because I have a raft of new music to release and I wanted to show these songs as part of my timeline.
One song on the EP is Loyalty. Ever been knocked out by an act of loyalty?
Faye Reid, she’s a legend in rock in New Zealand, was the sound engineer for Sydney venues and heard me play at El Rocco in Kings Cross and literally bundled Marc Kuzma, who was then running Slide, into her van to come see me. That’s how I got my first gig at Slide. I ended up being manager of live entertainment at Slide.
There’s great imagery in Loyalty: “I’ll take my time like honey flows.”
So glad you said that – I’m quite proud of that lyric. I initially wrote the song to pitch to Shannon Noll. I thought he’d be my first money-maker but it felt so personal I just couldn’t part with it. There’s a range of styles and emotions on the EP. True Companion is a tender love song, right? Who was it about?
Ah, sorry – it’s not a who, it’s actually a love song to my piano! A touring musician’s lament. It came about because I’d been spending a lot of time away from home; life on the road is a necessity of the job, so I wrote a song imagining whether my 88-keyed faithful friend would remember me when I got home.
Action is at once erotic, pulsing and threatening.
Yup, that sounds like a song about my sex life! Jokes aside, it was never going to get recorded ’cos I thought it was a throw-away idea but once I heard Christian Young’s bass line, I knew immediately we had a dirty fuck song in the making!
F.Y.O.M.S. (Fuck You Outta My System) is so angry! What was going on that made you write it?
It’s the ultimate revenge porn, isn’t it? Triumphant revenge pop should totally be a music category. The idea came as I was stomping down the street, stewing over a heartbreaking deception and I saying to myself,
“I just gotta fuck him outta my system.” And I fucking did!
After this damn virus, where to from here for performers/composers like you?
It’s uncharted territory, and that’s really the only certainty. Not that it’s new for me – this business is reliably unpredictable at the best of times. It’s just that parameters have now been busted wide open. Over the years I’ve become more adept at rolling with the punches but I’m still finding it challenging to accept the uncertainty of if/when live-performance will ever resemble pre-isolation. For now, I’m taking stock, using this time to refocus and re-emerge after the silence. It’s a life-after-death moment. Lazarus is a common theme in my music lately. I’m working on a collaboration with visual artist Gareth Ernst exploring the idea of life after covid. Plus, I’ve written lots of new music for a full-length album. I’ll call it Lazarus Rebooted. I’m also in pre-production on a web series with me chatting to guests about their favourite songs and the stories behind them. It’s music that gets me through my lonelier moments. You know, saving the world one song at a time.
I said to myself, ‘I just gotta fuck him outta my system.’ And I did!
Jeremy and Paul Capsis recording a digital show at Sydney Opera House for lockdown.
MORE: Find Jeremy Brennan’s Actionality on iTunes or your preferred streaming app.
Steven Oliver and Courtney Act with Jeremy Brennan.