DNA Magazine - - FEATURE -

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.

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