By Art Martori, April 2016 Issue.
As far as debutantes go, Cait Brennan is a ways off from the Daisy Buchanan type – one of the last people you’d expect to see fanning herself by the punch bowl or fainting before a handful of admirers.
But then, that’s the point.
Brennan explains how she chose the title of her first album – Debutante, a 13-song pop homage – as she sips an iced tea on the patio of the The Main Ingredient Ale House & Cafe in midtown Phoenix. She wears a purple shirt emblazoned with (a Morrissey spoof of) the Incredible Hulk, and the quintessential rocker’s banded leather bracelet. No beer today. She’s been a little worn out lately, dealing with symptoms of her Parkinson’s disease and long, often 22-hour days of composing and recording music.
Still, there’s her trademark dark humor.
“It was intended to be a little tongue in cheek and maybe just the slightest bit sarcastic,” she says. “You think of ‘debutante’ as young, attractive, well to do, just making their coming of age. And here I am, 47, and not from a fancy background. Not young. Not particularly gorgeous. But none the less, still putting myself out there for the first time.”
A musician most her life, it wasn’t until January this year that Brennan, a transwoman, finally recorded a handful of the myriad songs collecting in her head for more than four decades. The flawlessly produced Debutante is a result of unleashing Brennan’s long-suppressed ambition, and a wellspring of financial and professional support.
Recording the album in Reseda, Calif., took only five days in the studio, guided by the experienced producer and multi-instrumentalist Fernando Perdomo. To cover production and distribution, Brennan raised about $7,500 in just a couple months via the crowdsourcing platform Kickstarter. Another $800 in seed money came from cashing in loose change Brennan’s grandmother had socked away over 40 years.
Before, Brennan played music mostly for herself. But now, suddenly, there’s a newfound accountability to the people who’ve supported her and to the growing number enjoying her songs.
“If you have ever lived in a space where you’re a little cynical about the world and the people in it, you can’t really do it anymore when people invest in your dream like that,” she explains. “All of the sudden, if you felt unloved, you don’t feel unloved anymore. You feel a responsibility to all those people.”
Making It Happen
Making it happen, Brennan says, is in large part due to her producer. She met Perdomo at the first show she played in Los Angeles, where she was slated to take the stage after him. Brennan remembers his large black bowler hat, matching black suit and the little toy piano he played. Introduced by David Bash, founder and CEO of the festival International Pop Overthrow, the pair quickly hit it off, and plans to record an album soon followed.
Speaking to Echo from Los Angeles, Perdomo praises Brennan for her musical ability and commitment in the studio, as vocals alone on some songs layer multiple tracks. Brennan has the unique ability to sing in all five octaves of the vocal range, and on many songs handles both lead and accompanying vocals. While her voice carries a Bowie-esque androgyny, her range is typical only of divas like Mariah Carey or Celine Dion.
“She’s a great singer. A great musician. I consider her an ace. She’s a wonderful lab partner,” Perdomo explains. “When we were creating, there was the right amount of seriousness and humor. We’re both very similar people. We have a similar sense of humor. Working with her was a complete joy.”
Brennan gives much credit to Perdomo, who she says not only engineered her supremely listenable sound, but with his superior musical ability also replaced some instrumental tracks she composed and recorded as placeholders.
“If you hear something very spectacular, musician-wise, that was him,” Brennan laughs. “If you hear something basic, that was me.”
Photo courtesy of Michael Ging/Michael Ging Photography.
She’s already teamed up with Perdomo to complete a second album slated for release later this year. Its title, Jinx, is another tongue-in-cheek reference, this time to the sophomore slump musicians often face trying to follow up on initial successes.
Like A Hurricane
Perhaps Brennan’s music remain locked in her head for so long because of the experiences she had growing up as a young person in Phoenix. She remembers starting her transition as a teenager, around the same time she began performing her music live. She says some people were accepting of her gender identity, but others responded with outright hostility.
“I didn’t do as well as I could’ve with the hostility,” Brennan says. “So I withdrew a little bit and focused on the writing and creating the songs, but I didn’t play them out much. I kind of became more of an artist who writes and keeps it to themselves for a long time.”
One of Brennan’s classmates at Deer Valley High School was Tom Reardon. Today, he writes music reviews for Phoenix New Times, and is the bassist and lead vocalist for the Phoenix-based band The Father Figures. Reardon remembers having a friendly rivalry with Brennan in high school, a time when he first discovered shopping at thrift stores. When Brennan signed his sophomore yearbook, she described his style as “a hurricane hitting a dress shop.”
“That was a perfect example of her looking at life in a way not a lot of people had,” Reardon remembers.
He recently penned a story about Brennan in Phoenix New Times, which looks back at his friend’s journey to the studio and also reviews her latest work. He recently told Echo that his opinion of her music was influenced not by friendship, but by his experience as a professional writer and musician.
“I was just blown away. It was one of those moments,” he says of the first time he listened to Debutante. “With music made by friends, you’re always inclined to listen with a kinder ear. But I was so impressed. I can genuinely say that if I didn’t know Cait, I would love the record.”
So what’s next for Cait Brennan? She acknowledges her late start, paired with managing her Parkinson’s disease, means it’s unlikely she’ll be able to maintain much of a touring schedule. But instead of dwelling on the what-ifs, it seems she’s fixed very much in the present, and through sharing her music is finally enjoying the connections with people which eluded her for so long.
“For me, it was the beginning of something that has not stopped, at all, from the minute we started recording,” Brennan says. “I’ve been renewed. I don’t think there’s a day that’s gone by where I haven’t written a new song since then.
To stay up to date with Brennan’s music and local shows, find her on Facebook at facebook.com/planetcait or on Twitter at twitter.com/planetcait.
Cait Brennan shares the significance of the songs on her debut album
“Good Morning And Goodnight”
I’m a lifelong night owl, but lately I’ve been up early at 4 a.m. The barrage of daily morning “news” shows is unbelievable – the phony scandals and celeb dish at like 300 decibels at 5 a.m. Then in my former home, San Francisco, I saw how the tech giants are basically shoving all the poor people into the sea – the Google Bus is a real thing, the wealthy have their own transit system. It’s bread and circuses and I just wanted to roll over and hope it was a bad dream. The barely audible voice of truth we all ignore buried by the sweet harmonies of what we want to believe.
As a kid, my friends’ parents called me “the ringleader.” I was the kid who asked the questions you weren’t supposed to ask, who never met a “do not enter” door she didn’t sneak through. I’d go home and the kid would ask their horrified parents how Noah got two of every animal on earth on a wooden boat and what the implications were for inbreeding. So this is a song encouraging my shy friends to be themselves and express themselves, in art, sexuality, gender and life – no matter what anyone else thinks. It’s me trying to seduce you into living a little.
I try to tell stories in my songs, not just pummel you with my life experience and “special feelings” and this one, I thought, was something about a sea captain who was never home when his family needed him, and eventually he was lost in a Nor’easter. Later it became obvious to me that it was in fact about my relationship with my father, who passed away in 2005. It’s his soul that’s sailing on the ocean, and me calling out to reach him across the void.
This probably sounds like a Bowie-esque love song, more conventional than usual for me, but it’s not about that at all. It’s about a child I lost many years ago, and wondering if after all the changes I’ve been through, would that child even recognize me now? I honestly don’t know.
“Once Upon a Nevermind”
This is a song I wrote when I was very young, inspired a bit by Iris DeMent and sort of intended for Emmylou Harris to sing, even though it actually references Husker Du’s “She Floated Away” more than once and zero Gram Parsons songs.
“I Want You Back”
Oh, those people we love that we know are bad for us, yet there’s something there we crave. We need therapy, that’s what. My vision for this was Buzzcocks/Nirvana, but Fernando heard the Buddy Holly rockabilly drums and away we went, happily.
I was in a screenwriting fellowship with a bunch of people who were very career focused, let’s say. This was at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip, a posh and very notorious Hollywood haunt. And I soon realized we were working in the very bungalow where John Belushi had died, and no one knew or cared. And that struck me: here’s everyone at the beginning of their journey and here’s where it could end, forgotten. Whatever crowds you draw in life, you have to face the final bow alone.
Loneliness and isolation are themes that keep coming back to me. This one imagines someone struggling to live in a world where he’s obsolete, where his personal code bears no relation to reality, and wondering if there isn’t more to life than self-deprivation.
“Meet Your Remaker”
People ask me a lot if my trans history plays a part in my music and of course it’s one of the many things that makes me who I am. The “remaker” here is a shaman, a con man, a mystic, a flim-flam man who may yet have a miracle or two. The story continues in “Harmony Lies” but this is a song about surrender, a leap of faith for the faithless.
Your full-on glam-rock Broadway showstopper, this one is all Queen guitar hooks and staccato lyrics and throwing down the gauntlet. I won’t deconstruct it, it means what it means to you, but to me it’s about overcoming something, paying the price, and ultimately my ability to start over, which I do a lot.
“All in Love is Fair”
There are breakups and then there are splits that break you up into tiny pieces. This one is an accusation, it’s name and shame, and of course it’s about Dave Coulier. Dave, call me.
When I get a melody I like, here’s what I do: I turn on a recorder and I sing whatever comes out. I don’t pre-censor and I don’t try and make sense of it, and sometimes it’s weird. So it was with “Lash me to the mast, Madame Pompadour. Makes no sense –or does it? Maybe it’s a sailor lost at sea thinking of the woman he loves. Maybe it’s a craigslist ad. You be the judge.
A black diamond is used in the world of skiing to denote a particularly risky or challenging run – and this song is about a time in my life that was very difficult indeed.
– Cait Brennan