We had the privilege of interviewing Brendan about his methods of songwriting, his influences, and his experiences in the music industry. Here is that interview.
BTS: What was the reason you started writing songs?
Brendan: I started writing songs because nobody told me to start writing songs. When you’re a kid everyone is telling you what to do. Your parents tell you what to do…your math teacher tells you to do math…your English teacher tells you to do English…Music was so fascinating precisely because I could make the autonomous decision to do it. That’s very empowering to a young person. I was also predisposed to making music my entire life…so that probably had something to do with it as well. Before I could play decently at all I used to sit in front of my little Casio keyboard and just bash away at the keys believing in some way I was writing something amazing. So it was always about “imagining” things. My mother was an author, so imagining things was a professional occupation for her as well. I think the thrill of creation was just as exciting then as it is now…it’s just that now I know what and how to “create”, whereas when you’re a kid you’re at the mercy of what your little child brain can come up with. But if you’re someone for whom music is inside and its itching to come out…then that’s all there is to it.
BTS: What was the first song you ever wrote about?
Brendan: The first song I ever wrote was called Gretchen. It was a sort of ska inspired song based on my experience with a girl that worked at the Payless Shoe Source. She sold me some shoes and I was quite taken by her. So I wrote her a song. I remember very little about her at this point, but she had voluminous amounts of dark red hair. At the time I only had a Yamaha PSR220 and a little program for my PC called MASTERTRACKS! I so fondly remember Master Tracks…of course I bet if I had to use it again it would make my head explode. Essentially for the greater portion of 10 or 15 years I wrote all my songs on keyboards, so all my sounds ranged from old school general midi to crappier Korg Triton patches a little later on – which made my “ska” songs sound…well…not so good.
BTS: What is your most current song written about?
Brendan: I am the songwriter and song producer on a show called Defiance on the SyFy network. So on any given episode I may have to conjure up anywhere from one to five songs in a menagerie of styles. I can work on anything from a prog rock tune to a jazz number to a 90s inspired dub rock song to an Irish punk rock tune in the style of the Pogues and Dropkick Murphy’s. When I’m not working on Defiance, or other projects, I write for my own band called Young Beautiful in a Hurry. My most current song that is released is called “Single Mothers”, and it’s an epic-Prince styled-arena-rock-mega-jam dedicated to all the single mommies out there…especially my own. My mom raised my brother and I more or less on her own, so I knew I had to write something anthemic for her. Couldn’t skimp on that front. That’s the first song I put a full live horn section on and it sounds massive. I have about 15 other songs in the works as well. It’s a lot to keep track of.
BTS: Where do you derive inspiration from?
Brendan: I derive inspiration from the same places that most people do; which is from their own experiences and their own lives. There aren’t many other places to get it from and still have it be authentic. But if I had to be honest, the thing that inspires me most is my struggle. Which is frustrating at times because the very same thing that inspires me can be the thing that burns my house down. I think every artist goes through a pretty debilitating tug of war inside themselves, and I am no exception. Another thing that inspires me is learning. Every song I write, every new gig I get not only calls on the stuff I’ve got in my toolbox, but also requires that I find or develop something new in order to get the job done. In this way I always find myself paving or carving away in some unknown terrain. It’s really all about the thrill of creation. Even if someone else discovered it 25 years ago, the beauty of art is that you can discover everything for yourself. It’s terribly exciting.
BTS: Who were your musical influences in the beginning of your songwriting?
Brendan: I grew up in a very cultured musical environment. Meaning more or less, there was little to no contemporary pop music being played. Nothing on the radio – which sort of bit me in the ass later – but that meant tons of Jazz, Classical, Soul, Classic Rock, Opera, show tunes etc etc was playing in the house all day long every day. A song would come on over dinner and my mother would bark at us: WHO WROTE THAT?! And we would blurt out: Cole Porter! Irving Berlin! George Gershwin! Rodgers and Hammerstein! My influences when I first started were extremely varied, but few rang truer then Queen and David Bowie. I’ve been listening to them my whole life. Paul McCartney’s solo stuff was always a mainstay in my house as well. I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that Aretha Franklin was usually blasting away…she taught me so much…I can’t quantify how important her voice and music has been to my musical heritage. Honorable mention must go to the Police and Pink Floyd…I don’t know how many hours I spent lying in front of my stereo in high school listening to those bands.
BTS: Who are your musical influences now?
Brendan: My influences haven’t changed much if at all, really. I’ve added to that list though. Jeff Buckley is huge. Last summer I started collecting vinyl and a whole era of Prince discovery began, which blows my mind in so many different ways. I must say, her music doesn’t ordinarily influence my writing (at least in an obvious way) but Bjork may have escalated to my favorite artist of all time. A newish group that I can’t stop listening to is Major Lazer. I literally can’t stop listening to them.
BTS: Do you have a method of writing, place, vibe, setting, instrument you prefer to write on? And why?
Brendan: My method is pretty simple…find something that inspires me…a chord or a chord progression, a drum loop. a synth patch. a guitar riff, a lyric, etc, and then build from there. And that’s true whether I’m working on Young Beautiful in a Hurry stuff, or Defiance. Once you have that little catalyst, the rest is just throwing paint on the canvas. The ultimate goal is that all that paint throwing just looks and feels fantastic on your first go round and it just works. Of course it doesn’t always work out this way. Sometimes songs need tons of revisions and then they become unlocked, sometimes they need a different producer to come in and shed some light on it. Other times the song just might not be good enough and it gets returned to the earth to hopefully grow a new song later. I wish I had more to it then that. I’ve spoken to other writers and producers and they have a system. They get up at six in the morning and write down all their thoughts or what have you. I just sort of sit around until I explode…its not very efficient. But I do good work once that spark gets ignited.
BTS: What are the elements you think contribute to the making of a great song?
Brendan: I really don’t know what the elements of a great song are. There’s a millions of great songs out there and about a gazillion more crummy ones. And what’s crummy to me might be genius to you. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this recently, and I find its’ sort of a fruitless endeavor. We all excel at what we do and how we do that particular thing. If I had to say one thing about this…I think it would be: purity of intention (honesty) x skill x originality.
If some mixture of those variables comes together, some kind of great song or painting, or story, or mixed drink, or whatever will come out of it. Without those things…you’re just creating noise in the universe. A true artist will know the difference. Half of becoming anything at all is learning when you’ve passed that threshold.
BTS: How do you push past writer’s block?
Brendan: I can’t recall the last time I had writers block. I’m not sure it’s a real thing. Especially when people are relying on you or there are legitimate deadlines…or your getting…PAID! Those types of things are huge motivators. On Defiance, I most certainly do not have time for writer’s block. The simple truth is if you’re having trouble writing…best to go do something else. Virtually anything else. Sitting around feeling miserable for days on end is a better expenditure of time then forcing yourself to be creative when it’s not happening. Eventually it will explode or trickle out of you…but never if you force it.
With regard to my own personal projects, I have forced many songs out, but they all sort of died on the vine. That said I’ve cooked up some great riffs that have stayed with me for years during a time of perceived writer’s block and those are just waiting to find a good home!
BTS: What would be your advice to a beginner songwriter trying to make their way and trying to express themselves musically?
Brendan: My advice to a beginner is simple: discover yourself. This may in fact be the meaning of life. When it comes to the budding artist however, this can be quite the tumultuous affair. To begin with, most everyone is downright awful when they first start out. However if you for one moment thought that you were awful, you would quit. So a certain amount of self delusion and possibly the delusion of friends and family needs to be at play so you can attain escape velocity, and break through the atmosphere of being awful…and into the wide universe of being good at what you do. From there I would suggest that the new artist buckle in and get ready to spend at least an additional 10,000 hours floating around out there before you really get your footing.
If I could go back and give myself another lesson it would be this…have fun. Don’t take it so seriously. Just enjoy making music. Something I’m still trying to learn after all these years.