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Interview with Bill Brennan
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
Music has been a huge part of my family since I was a child. My Dad was a great singer and my Mother played a bit of piano, and my Aunt Bridie taught music. I have six brothers and sisters, and we all took piano lessons and played a band instrument. And in fact, we had a family singing group; we use to perform on variety concerts, at old-folks homes and on benefit/charity events. So, music is in my blood. And I had several terrific teachers along the way who were great inspirations. From the age of 13 to 18 my percussion teacher was Don Wherry, a major force in Canadian New Music and improvisation. He turned me on to so much music – Stravinsky, Steve Reich, Miles Davis and lots of very contemporary improvisors, like NEXUS and Cecil Taylor.
If I had not pursued music, I think I could have been a good lawyer. That’s what my wife tells me anyways.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I like to watch films and mini-series. I often listen to how music is used to intensify the narrative. I’m intrigues by this, and thus I find this helps my creativity. I remember watching the film “American Beauty” and being amazed by the score, which was by Thomas Newman. He used primarily percussion instruments including marimba to help drive the story line. Totally cool!
How long have you been making music?
I have been making music since I was 8 years old. So…I guess that means over 50 years!! Yikes!
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
I am based out of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. This province has rugged beauty, and it is filled with colour, majesty and magic. In its appreciation for layers of space and patterns, my work harkens to this place, in that I endeavor to weave together fine fabrics of sonic tapestries and microcosms that are established within a landscape of rhythmic complexity, bold melodic language, flexibility of musical style, and harmonic elegance.
Tell me about your most memorable shows, if you haven’t played live what is your vision for a live show?
Vocalist extraordinaire Andrea Koziol and I have been making music together for almost 30 years, and only in the last few years have we been co-writing together. We had a mini-tour of Ontario last summer and our first time performing our co-written compositions was an evening performance in Toronto at Sellars and Newel bookstore on College Street to a sold-out audience, and the following evening at Stratford Summer Music Festival. Performing with Andrea is my favourite thing in the world, and to be co-writing with her has been like food for the soul.
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
One of my favourite places to play is Massey Hall in Toronto. When you walk out on that stage you can feel the history of that place – where the greats have performed – Charlie Parker, Miles David, Kathleen Battle, Gordon Lightfoot, Paul Simon. I performed there with Eartha Kitt and Dizzy Gillespie and it was magical.
I would like to perform more across Canada and in Europe. I have played quite a number of festivals in Europe, and I think my music would be appreciated in Scandinavia, and other more northern European countries. I played in Bergen, Norway once and that is a truly beautiful city.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
Oh my – if I could play in a band with Esperanza Spalding on bass, Stevie Wonder on keyboards, Larry Gouldings on organ, Steve Gadd on drums, James Taylor on acoustic guitar, Kevin Breit on electric guitar, and the great Canadian saxophonist Alison Young on sax; that would make me very happy.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into making music and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
Here’s some advice for those getting into the business – always be prepared for every rehearsal; be on time ready to play or sing for every rehearsal and show; return phone calls, texts, emails promptly; and be nice to people.
Advice for my younger self – make time for yourself to find your own voice.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
Nostalgie is definitely special to me. I find it to be an emotional work (I don’t play it very often); I played it at my Mother’s celebration of life service in 2004, and I think of her when I play it.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
I like playing the trio pieces from the record. The other two musicians on the album, Rob Power and Étienne Gendron are great people and terrific musicians. It was really fun to record Kaleidoscope, Belo Horizonte and Vinyl Café Waltz with them. The piece that gets requested the most is Au Revoir Les Enfants, named for a wonderful film by French Director Louis Malle.
What is your creative process, and what inspires you to write your music?
I typically write at the piano; I often start improvising and then listen for phrases or rhythmic ideas. Often when you allow the mind and heart to follow a musical line, you’ll end up with more material. And I might record fragments on my phone. And when I listen to them a little later, I’ll develop them – perhaps add a second, contrapuntal line; or harmonize the initial phrase. It a process of addition and subtraction, reflection – looking for ways to expand and contract – kind of like breathing.
I am inspired by being able to find beauty and deep connections in music.
Do you have messages that you like to get across in your music, if so please tell me about them?
I am not sure if I have a message in my music, but I try to express who I am, and at the same time, I am continually exploring who I am. It’s a fascinating world of discovery.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I have a couple of records coming out! The first is pretty much ready to be released. It is an album of original music written with my friend Andy McNeill. The music is mostly written for gamelan instruments from West Java – bronze pots and gongs, with which we have added electronic music textures, and some acoustic instruments. We are both really happy with the result. I think people will really like it. It’s pretty groovy with a splash of psychedelic.
In November my musical partner of the last 30 years Andrea Koziol, and I are going to record an album of co-written material. Andrea wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music. We are both really excited about this record – we have performed together for three decades, but it is only this past three years that we have been composing songs together. It has been very inspiring and super fun!
How can your fans best keep up to date with you, any socials you want people to check out?
I am very current with my facebook page (www.facebook.com/BillBrennanMusic) and instagram profile (www.instagram.com/billbrennan2) and my website is a great place to visit for upcoming shows and information (www.billbrennan.ca).