On Friday, April 21, 2017, power pop rock goddess Cait Brennan releases Third, her second album and first on Omnivore Recordings. It’s only been a year since her 20 year-in-the-making, Debutante, debuted to glowing reviews, radio play at home and abroad, and high ranking (let alone for a self-released record) on the Village Voice year-end Pazz + Jop critics list.
Cait’s life story is an epic one, a tale that Popdose covered in detail when we first met her. Her story is one thing, perhaps someday to be told in a New York Times bestseller. What matters most is the music. Debutante was packed with instantly classic singles that recalled Bowie, the Babys, the Beach Boys and Big Star, all kindred spirits in her nook at your local record store.
While Debutante looks like a solo record, Cait’s partner in musical crime is producer and multi-instrumentalist Fernando Perdomo, a madman musical genius who also found time in 2016 to release his own record and another of the year’s top power pop records by Ken Sharp. Speaking of The Babys, Perdomo joined them on stage at a gig last week.
Most artists take years between albums to muster up enough life experience and fresh creative juice to inspire new music. Brennan spent her 2016 recording two more albums with and without Perdomo BEFORE the opportunity came up to record at Ardent Studios in Memphis. For the uninitiated, Ardent is home to decades of classic recordings by the likes of Big Star and George Thorogood (multiple albums), the Replacements (Pleased to Meet Me), R.E.M. (Green) and personal favorites by The Raconteurs (Broken Boy Soldiers), The White Stripes (Get Behind Me Satan) and ZZ Top (Eliminator among a ton of their biggest records).
The Ardent sessions led to Cait getting signed by Omnivore Recordings. In addition to releasing jewel stuffed box sets covering every era of popular music, Omnivore is also an artist’s label with a sharp ear for genuine talent. Let the other labels find their next big things by scouring YouTube for prepubescent heartthrobs singing Bieber covers. Not that Cait couldn’t sing the shit out of ‘Let Me Love You‘ if she wanted to.
“I had been listening to Cait for a while,” Omnivore’s Cheryl Pawelski said as the album was being announced. “Serendipitously, I was at the show where Cait met Fernando, and noticed right away, they were the two most interesting people in the room that day. I kept an eye on how her career was going, and after hearing these songs develop into such a strong, unique and addictively catchy album, there was no question, it was obvious.”
The only way to properly ring in Third, is to listen to the music. Rock out to this, and then scroll down to hear some new tales when Popdose reconnects with our power pop crush.
You have crammed an entire VH1 “Behind The Music” career story arc into the last 12 months, let’s start with the critical and fan reaction to your debut, Debutante; what was it like to see this music released after so many years off the stage?
Debutante started with the most modest of intentions, just trying to record a few of my old songs for some friends and family. Fernando and I totally clicked in the studio, though, and soon we were off on a million new ideas. I released it on my own little label out of my house, and some health stuff complicated that process, and yet more and more people kept finding the record, sharing it, playing it on the radio. I was amazed and so grateful that it ended up being so well received, and obviously all that inspired me to keep going and do things I never dreamed possible. It’s not very rock and roll and may feel like an overstatement but it’s not: being able to make this music and share it with people has given my life meaning I never thought it could have.
In our first interview, we spoke at length about the impact both Bowie (who had passed right before we talked) and Prince had on our lives. At the height of Prince’s “genius era”, he was recording faster than Warner Brothers could release his records; triple disc masterpieces like Crystal Ball and Dream Factory never saw the light of day in their original forms; post Debutante, you recorded much of what was supposed to be the sophomore album, which quickly morphed into a third unreleased record, Introducing the Breakdown. What led to all of that hitting the shelf for the album that became Third?
It’s funny because Sign ‘O’ The Times is one of my favorite records of all time, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately; there are several songs on Third that make direct or indirect references or tributes to Prince. One of them is called ‘Stack Overflow’ which sort of calls back Prince’s ‘U Got The Look’ break, turned on its head a little bit.
In some ways, at least production-wise, the Dream Factory/Crystal Ball/Camille/Sign ‘O’ The Times progression is similar to what happened over the past year for me. I can’t claim Prince’s genius but I can claim his work ethic. After Debutante I went on an intense, 20-plus hour-a-day writing and recording spree; we had the original follow-up album, which was going to be called Jinx, finished and headed for mastering before Debutante even came out. But the night I sent the Debutante masters to the pressing plant, David Bowie died, which was devastating. Then a couple of months later I nearly died from a bizarre and ridiculous infection from a cat bite; I had to cancel a bucket-list Europe trip and tour, and it felt like all the progress I made with Debutante was lost. Prince died, tons of other heroes, and then, to cap off the year, Trump was elected, which felt like the apocalypse. Each of these things hit me hard and led to new and different songs. So suddenly this album we’d written and recorded a few months earlier felt very much of another world. The songs are great, but the times had changed. I needed to make something that spoke to where I am and where the world is right now.
Also, and this is as big as anything else, there was a pretty intense romantic relationship involved. Maybe romantic isn’t the right word, but I fell head over heels in love with the boy in question. I wish I could tell you that was mutual, but the songs would rat me out. It’s all OK now, and the fella in question was not at fault, just my dumb heart going where it shouldn’t. The songs tell the story and I think above all else, that’s what changed me the most, and what drove the creation of Third.
So the other albums remain in the vault?
You haven’t heard the last of those other projects; a new version of Introducing The Breakdown According To Cait Brennan will be out next year, and I would not be at all surprised if many of those Jinx tracks turned up on a reissue of Debutante at some point in the future…
How did the Third sessions come together at the legendary Ardent studios?
It was a weird coincidence, actually. I was in Los Angeles recording demos for Sire/Warner Bros for a deal that ultimately didn’t come to pass. While I was there, I mysteriously won two tickets to an event at the Grammy Museum honoring Ardent Studios’ 50th Anniversary. Fernando and I went; it was his birthday, no less. While we were there we talked with Jody Stephens who invited me to come to Ardent to record my next record. Ardent was very kind in helping to facilitate that and a bunch of folks helped chip in to make it possible, and in December we traveled to Memphis to cut the record.
We were in studio A which is the Big Star room, and ended up using Alex Chilton’s Hiwatt amp, and the Big Star mellotron, and Chris Bell’s cherry red Gibson 330. It was all incredibly emotional and meant a lot to us to be there, but we had to focus because time was short. I think I’m still sort of processing it all.
Did you see anything in Memphis during your time there?
We did. Our dear pal David Jenkins connected us with some wonderful Memphis-based musicians, Robert and Candace Mache, who took us two wayward strays in off the streets and looked after us during our stay. After the sessions, we got the full tour and got to go everywhere from Sam Phillips Recording to Sun to Graceland to the Stax Museum. I had never been to Memphis but my grandmother and really her whole family going way back are from Memphis and the mid-South, so her accent which I’d picked up as a kid came back to me in a big way, and it just kind of spiritually felt like home. There was a kind of supernatural bond I had with the place; it was otherworldly, but so am I, I guess, so it was my other world. Actual ghosts greeted me, I saw them with my own eyes. After I left, I dreamed about moving to Memphis every night for a month afterwards. Thinking about that one pretty seriously.
Did you record the whole album in your short time there? How did you rush through the sessions and still get such a quality record? You didn’t seem to have a full band to cut the songs live.
We have a loud, arena-sized band sound—I’m a singer, yes, and I write songs, but I’m about as far from a traditional singer-songwriter as you can get. When you throw in being a woman, people really expect Lilith Fair folk, and there’s nothing wrong with that sort of music but you should think of me more as the front person of a loud glam-soul stadium band. But with all that band noise, it’s actually just the two of us in studio, me and Fernando Perdomo. We split the production and performance duties, with him generally cutting most if not all of the instruments and me writing the songs and doing all of the vocals—lead, backing, high, low, whatever. I play some instruments here and there, usually demoing the songs on all instruments entirely by myself, but he’s the virtuoso and I can’t say enough about how amazing he is or how grateful I am for the passion he brings to the records.
We recorded thirteen songs from scratch in three days. This sounds like a lot, but Fernando and I have a special rapport that often goes beyond words. We get each other and riff on each other’s ideas; there’s not much need for discussion. We get out of each other’s way and let it happen.
This time out we had some friends along; the great Adam Hill of Ardent was our engineer and really added a new dimension to our process, and we also had guest appearances from former Continental Drifter Robert Mache, who played lead guitar on ‘Collapse,’ and the power pop legend and longtime Ardent/Memphis genius Van Duren, who played guitar on and helped us rework ‘Shake Away’, which I wrote in a major Janelle Monae/Prince vein and which Fernando and Van managed to bend somewhere between reggaeton and 70s-era Hall and Oates. We tend to end up in places few would be crazy enough to go, which is exactly how I like it.
One of the songs we recorded was an instrumental entirely written and performed by Fernando; it’s called The Angels Of Ardent, and he released it as a solo single. It’s really beautiful. I’d originally wanted to put it on the record, but it wasn’t logistically possible, so we recorded “LA/Amsterdam” at Fern’s studio in California and added it to the album. It was stolen from my next record, Introducing The Breakdown, and fit so well with the Ardent stuff we just had to include it.
What’s the first single from the album going to be? What tracks should radio look out for?
‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ is probably the most obvious single, between the subject matter and the catchy chorus. I just hope it doesn’t hurt the feelings of my real-life boyfriend Andrew Garfield. ‘Shake Away’, ‘Stack Overflow’ and ‘The Angels Lie’ are the big glam/soul stompers. ‘A Hard Man To Love’ is probably the most hooky, contemporary radio-hit on the record, and probably my favorite. ‘He Knows Too Much’ and ‘Bad At Apologies’ both have a bit of FCC-unfriendly language here and there; we may have to do a “clean version” before they’ll be blaring out of your car radio.
Let’s skip back to that Sire/Warner Brothers deal. Prior to getting signed to Omnivore, the legendary Seymour Stein signed you to a demo deal. How did that come together and what became of it? What was he like in person?
Seymour is a lovely person and has exactly that legendary record-exec vibe you’d hope for. He discovered Debutante through a mutual friend, and a courtship ensued; I cut demos with Fernando and the great Andy Paley for Sire/WB, but ultimately going forward didn’t make sense for any of us; they had no idea what to do with me – country was discussed as an angle – and I’m too independent and muleheaded to fit into a system like that. But it was an honor to have been asked to cut those demos and a real learning experience. James King from Fitz and the Tantrums played on one of the tracks; perhaps it’ll see the light of day at some point.
How did the fine folks at Omnivore come to discover Cait Brennan?
Before I started recording music, I’d done some music journalism, and I started noticing all these beautiful, thoughtful, meticulously restored and gorgeous reissues of my favorite albums, which I noticed were all coming from one label, called Omnivore. After the first few reviews I noticed the trend and started trying to review anything they sent, and this led to me striking up a friendship with the folks at the label, who as far as I could tell cared about one thing and one thing only, which is releasing great music. As I got drawn deeper into the music world, I knew I could count on Cheryl Pawelski and my Omnivore friends to give it to me straight—if they liked what I was doing, I knew it was decent, and if they thought it sucked, I’d know to go back to working the night shift at Denny’s. Omnivore has deep connections to Ardent via Big Star, so when I recorded there, they were especially interested in hearing the results. I still believe they’re the best label on Earth and I can’t imagine having signed with anyone else. They’re not generally focused on breaking new artists, but they are the most artist-focused people I know. I love them.
Which labelmates would you love to tour with? Is touring even an option; see next question…
The Muffs are probably my ideal choice. I’ve loved their records since the 90s. I’ve performed on bills with Chris Price on several occasions; he’s a great guy and an amazing talent. Cindy Lee Berryhill’s new record is stellar, so it would be great to be on a bill with her too. But really, Omnivore’s focus is reissues, which is as it should be. I’m definitely looking to tour, preferably with someone whose glam or soul sensibilities are a good fit—Foxygen, Diane Coffee, St Paul and the Broken Bones. I love the Wondaland Arts Society artists and would do anything to work with them—Roman Gianarthur, Deep Cotton, Jidenna, St Beauty, Janelle Monae herself. That’s been the most interesting music to me over the past decade or so.
How is your body keeping up with the pace? I imagine Parkinson’s, aging in general, travel and long nights take their toll.
It’s funny because on paper, aging should be an issue, but it really isn’t; I’ve been lucky to have inherited some pretty good genes in terms of aging, and I’m also just ruthlessly disinterested in the past. It’s a little ironic because Fernando is quite a bit younger than I am but has the classic sensibilities of somebody who grew up in the 60s and 70s; he’s probably never heard a Rhianna song, at least not voluntarily. Myself, I have absolutely no interest in hearing, let alone replicating, a bunch of old music everybody’s heard a trillion times and deified for 50 years. I’m living now and I want to make music that speaks to this life and this moment. So we’re constantly having a tug of war with me wanting to burn all the guitars and use beats and electronics, and him wanting to erase the electronics and use only the rock pantheon instruments – which he’s brilliant at bringing to life. He’s very rock/powerpop/prog, I’m very soul/R&B/contemporary pop. But we have lots of overlap and I think it’s the battle, the combination of those elements, bent and shaped into something new but still with the language of the classics underpinning it, that makes this work.
I do have young onset Parkinson’s, which requires me to think about and plan my time and use of energy. Shows are great, actually; it’s the one time I feel absolutely free from any kind of discomfort or physical limitation whatsoever, and I wish I could play one every night – and I will if I get the chance. There are accommodations that have to be made—I can’t spend 12 hours riding in a van from town to town—but I can still travel to shows and as long as there’s an audience who wants to see me play, I’ll be there to play those shows. I’m lucky to have a great team that looks after my treatment and keeps me moving in the right direction. But I still try to create and record as much as I can while I’m able, because I realize that may not always be the case.
We have a full touring band now and are ready for whatever comes, tourwise.
I hear you’re already thinking of a follow-up; how many new tunes have been written?
We’re playing a release show for Third in Los Angeles at Molly Malone’s on April 22nd, and then traveling to Memphis for a release show at Bar DKDC on May 9th. While we’re back in Memphis, we’re going back to Ardent to finish up recording the next album for 2018. It will be Introducing The Breakdown According To Cait Brennan, and will be a few new tracks as well as some reworked versions of what was originally going to be on Jinx, etc. The previous two records have been 13 songs, I’d expect the same from this one. All I can really say is that it’s good and different and I hope people will like it. I’m definitely excited to make it. As different as they are, or will be, these three albums are so closely related, so interdependent and came from the same impulse; in a way they’re really almost a trilogy. I’ve started writing songs for a fourth album sometime in the future, and they already seem very different. These three are sort of family. I hope there will be many more to come, but if they’re all I ever do, I can live with that.
Pick up Third by Cait Brennan on April 21. Pre-Order it today on Amazon or directly from Omnivore. Trust me, this is one to own, and cherish, on CD. Find yourself a really good stereo so tracks like the hard rocking ‘Angels Don’t Lie’ (ideal for cruising down wide open highways), the handclap stomper ‘He Knows Too Much’ and the blistering one-two punch of ‘Bad at Apologies’ and ‘Stack Overflow’ can really strut their stuff.
Visit Planet Cait — the official site of Cait Brennan.
While you’re on the Omnivore website, stick around to discover a ton of amazing acts including terrific new albums by Game Theory, Cindy Lee Berryhill and Bangles bassist Derrick Anderson (featuring a deep bench of all power pop stars including all three Bangles — Susanna Hoffs, Vicki Peterson and Debbi Peterson — Matthew Sweet, Pat Dinizio of the Smithereens and more).
And let’s end this with a trip to the not so recent past, 2016, a time when Obama was President and Prince was alive… good times will be back someday soon. Until then, let’s just rock the hell out.