Cait Brennan has an amazing story. One of conquering incredible odds of gender identity, disease, abuse and homelessness, getting her shit together, rising up, becoming a stellar live performer and giving birth to not one, but two amazing albums with a third on the way. But that’s not why we’re here today. We’re here about the music.
Cait Brennan makes AMAZING music. Songs steeped in 50 years of music history that sound urgent, current and eternal. Songs that the moment you hear them, you can’t imagine how you lived so long without them. Cait Brennan isn’t some jaded hipster Millennial whose main currency is Instagram followers, she has lived herself some life – and that life is captured in her debut album, perfectly titled to document her coming out on an international stage.
Debutante, a sparkling album produced by Brennan and Fernando Perdomo, is right up there with the great “drenched in blood, sweat & tears, leave everything on the table, conquer the world” albums like Against Me’s New Wave, Guns & Roses’ Appetite for Destruction, Green Day’s American Idiot and Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish.
Needless to say, I did not see this coming when it first landed on my desk. It turns out, much like books, you can’t judge a CD by its cover — or an album title for that matter.
While Debutante, looks like a perfectly lovely piece of Lilith Fair fare based on the charming cover, the only way the artwork could truly capture the listening experience that follows is to envision Cait in a magenta wig, leather corset and flowing gown soaring out of the Gates of Hell on a two headed Phoenix, mighty axe flung around her back while belting into a giant platinum talisman of a microphone. Down below, Brennan’s army wages battle with against hordes of uptight, self-righteous Donald Trump supporters as Cait’s mighty songs shatter ominous glass skyscrapers up and down Wall Street and young and old, black and white, straight and gay, cis and trans dance in harmony to reclaim streets and leap into a glorious future. Throw a rainbow, some thunder and lightning, a Where’s Waldo-ian Ziggy Stardust appearance, a singed wall of right wing propaganda and you just about come close what is here to make love to your ears.
But since Debutante is already in stores, perhaps this royalty-free album art concept can grace the cover of Jinx, the sophomore follow-up that POPDOSE has already heard rough mixes of.
We tracked Cait down and sat her down for an extended interview. Well, as you’ll see, sitting down is one thing Cait does not do for long.
POPDOSE: Debutante is a once in a lifetime album, one that you say was a lifetime in the making, so why are you already talking about Jinx before Debutante has time to sink in, catch fire and take over the world?
CAIT BRENNAN: For me, it’s tough to separate the two projects because from my POV it was one big experience. I originally decided to record what became Debutante after getting diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I wanted to set down a few songs I knew friends and family and fans had loved over the years before I “inevitably” lost my voice.
I wasn’t on good PD meds/treatment and it felt like time was running out. So the track selection was more like a “greatest hits” mentality and did not have great aspirations. But as I got good medical care and felt better, and as Fernando and I discovered this amazing kismet collaboration rapport, it became something much more. That’s when stuff like ‘Father McKenzie’ and ‘Meet Your Remaker’ and ‘Harmony Lies’ started to happen.
So we wrapped and I was like “no, no, I’m healthy now and I have a billion ideas, I’m just getting started!”, and I went home without even a day off and started Jinx. I demoed it all at my house, went back to Fern’s and he just added some of his musical parts. So while to the world it’s two separate records separated by months, to me it’s more like one insanely huge album.
I’ll probably put it out in August or September because… yeah, I’m already working on a third. I started this week. Bowie’s passing and the experience of dealing with Debutante/labels/people/changes, it’s got me working through some stuff, so we’re off to the races again. So far its weirder and louder, but it’s early yet.
You were fully funded on Kickstarter in 69 hours and fans nationwide are posting pictures with their CDs when they arrive in the mail. Looks like Amazon sold out of it’s initial stock. In this age of streaming, it looks like you’re moving some units!
We had a big response on Kickstarter and sold a couple of hundred there and then a few dozen more through presales and the opening day or two – not, you know, not exactly Adele numbers but not bad for a completely new entity with zero label backing. And we’ve done a few more every day digitally, etc.
What’s exciting for me is the numbers of people trying it out via YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify, etc. Some people, mainly old-schoolers, look at streaming and illegal downloading and go “you’re stealing my money!” The fact is that 99% of the time, unless you’re Adele, those people were never going to buy your album or even know who you are, but maybe they’ll discover you now and hear something they like. Attention span is the one thing none of us have in abundance. If somebody’s willing to take two or five or ten minutes to listen to something new, I’m extremely grateful for that time. And lots of people have been listening by one means or another.
And as I’ve been preparing this piece, the reviews have been pouring in from all around the nation.
The reviews have been insanely gratifying. American Songwriter essentially said something like “now that we’ve lost that glorious weirdo, David Bowie, it’s good to know that a new one, Cait Brennan, is coming into view, which feels like solace for those of us who felt Bowie’s loss so keenly” and I’m sitting here reading that, thrilled but vaguely in shock, and going “yeah, no pressure there”. Sure, Greatest Artist of All Time vs. a sort of Deadpan Glam-Rock-Susan-Boyle, no prob. I’ve got this.
Read the complete American Songwriter interview and review.
I think back – I’m 15, I’m trans, poor, living in a trailer in a very conservative place, my body and biology are dragging me every single day into the opposite direction from who I am as a person, and I see no future for myself in the world. I just feel sad and scared and despairing, you know? There is no one and nothing around that speaks to the truth of my life. And I think – this pain is too much to bear, there is no place in the world for me, I hate myself and my life and I can’t go on, and this has to stop.
And then someone gives me this album called Ziggy Stardust and wait, ‘Lady Stardust’, is she a boy or a girl? And does it even matter? And this David Bowie person is on TV in makeup, singing about these things, fearless and free. And then there’s Big Star’s Third and Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet and Judee Sill’s Heart Food and Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration and Husker Du’s Warehouse. These singers are as alone as I am, hurting like I am, but surviving and singing it out and waking up the next day and going on.
In your sonic tapestry, probably the only thing I don’t hear is Carole King. ELO, The Sweet, Cheap Trick, Honeymoon Suite, Paul McCartney, Joe Jackson, Billy Joel, (Bends-era) Radiohead all swirl around in the mix. On one track I can see Bowie hanging ten with the Beach Boys. On another, it’s like George Harrison is fronting the Babys.
What bands and albums did you cling to growing up? I bring this up, myself as an unexpressed trans teen living in late 1970’s/early 80’s Ohio, Bowie, Prince, Stevie Nicks, Kate Bush, the Cure, Susanna Hoffs kept me alive — giving me crushes, idols and a world to escape and feel free. Suicide was never an option because I had to live to hear the next Prince or Duran Duran record.
Ah, I remember that feeling. A lot of the time I was attracted to records that were by weirdo loners who were already dead and gone, and/or dropped off the map so it was almost like — all these records were made as farewell notes. They felt like deathbed confessions. But I was a morose little thing at times.
Prince, I remember when he first arrived on the scene, and a big deal was made that he wrote, produced, sang and played all the parts on his albums. This completely amazed and intrigued me – like, how is that possible? Does he have a big machine with all the instruments connected, like a one-man band? I was 9… I’d heard of Rube Goldberg devices, but had never heard of multitrack, and, as you know, Prince had a … quality. There was a sense that, like, he was – like Bowie – Prince was not staying within the acceptable lines of gender or masculinity, and I had a keen radar for that.
I was a little scared of his stuff because it was so, so overtly sexual and I was essentially, like, Anne of Green Trailers – sexuality baffled me. But as I grew up a bit I completely embraced him. Controversy, 1999 and Purple Rain were as big as the Beatles to me, and even beyond that, at least through Lovesexy, I didn’t miss a second, obsessing over the stereo separation on ‘Pop Life’ and that one impossible-to-duplicate dissonant, hypnotic harmony note on “Sometimes It Snows In April”. He’s still tremendous, but like a lot of people I found it hard to keep up and keep track of his many twists and turns during the symbol years and beyond.
The first actual rock album that I remember loving as an album, oddly enough, was The Plan by the Osmonds, which is this kind of psych-pop rock opera about the theology/mythology/creation narrative of the LDS church. It’s fair to say it’s better than it sounds – it’s not very “churchy”, it’s not like a Christian Rock record with big, explicitly slavish praise to the creator, etc. It’s sort of Beatley, a little acid rock, think ‘Crazy Horses’, some ballads, some weird. I was four, I think, when we got it, won off the radio, but I stand by my four-year-old taste. Try ‘Movie Man’ from that album; it has this weird descending-chord structure and weird bells and whistles and a very catchy, haunting, carnival vibe. I think you can hear a lot of that in my music.
As a pre-teen I loved Nilsson and ELO and Olivia Newton-John – especially the Xanadu soundtrack. In the 80s as a teen, I loved all the sort of 1983 hits: Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, and Culture Club – wow, how that Kissing To Be Clever cover photo alone changed my life and opened my mind to the possibility of new ways of being in the world! I loved Stevie Nicks too. I appreciate her even more now, her style, her strength. Somebody told me they were sending her one of my songs a few days back and I almost died. Can you even imagine?
It’s a funny thing: Debutante’s sound is sort of firmly rooted in 1972, but that’s not me – I am so not a retro person. The retro guru is Fernando Perdomo, my co-producer and collaborator and dear friend. He never set foot in the 70s, he was born in 1980, but he is a true rock classicist whose idols are those giants of power pop and prog rock and so on, and he earned his chops living and breathing that kind of music.
But what I love about Bowie is not “wow, Ziggy Stardust sounded amazing, I’ll make my record sound like that.” Quite the contrary, what I love about him is that he always asked himself “how can I make this weirder? What turn can I take, what decision can I make, that will take this material and this moment and transform it into something new?” He was a remorseless consumer and appropriator of other people’s styles and sounds, but when you compare the things he swiped with what he did with them, his are always better, always different, transformed beyond recognition. So I try and take that same approach.
OK, we’ve skipped the Trans stone over the pond a lot so far. Let’s dive deep for a moment. “Trans” is all the rage these days thanks to a host of celebrities leading the charge and grounding the lightning. While trans themes appear in a few of your songs, I don’t see you ever being pigeonholed as a trans artist. At what point, as an artist, should you just be considered a rock & roller or power pop star first and beyond that, a woman. The thing about transitions, they usually have an end point.
Trans. Yeah. That’s such a huge thing to unpack. No pun intended.
Well, everybody who has this issue in their lives comes to terms with it in a different way. There’s no one way. For me it was very challenging because I was not able in any way to be a “boy”. Nothing boys did or said or liked, ever, made any sense to me at all. But I wasn’t at home with the girls, either, not exactly. They were more often my friends, and I felt more at home with them, but their social interactions were so coded and so complex and all jockeying-for-status and group dominance and – I’m not those things.
So at, like, 13, I began telling my closest friends and by the end of high school I was on illicit hormones, ticking the “F” box and signing my homework and tests with more or less the same name I use now. When I was 22 I’d gotten the legal/social transition handled and the rest took what time it took.
That’s when I first started to look at doing music again, but even in San Francisco (at the time) there was very minimal “tolerance” for trans lives. If anything, I got harassed more there than I had in Phoenix. A lot of gays and lesbians were not, um, progressive on this issue in 1989, 1992. So it was difficult and I was barely surviving as it was, so music once again kind of went on hold.
Editor Note: In the documentary, Harmony Lies Inside Your Eyes: A Film About Cait Brennan, Cait reveals she was attacked during a performance and didn’t take the stage again for 20 years. After surviving a long-term abusive relationship and a brief period of homelessness, she was invited to perform at International Pop Overthrow in Phoenix and then LA and the thus began her path forward to Debutante.
Trans has come a long way since those days and there is the concept of trans as its own identity, as a specific thing to honor and claim and be proud of, and I think that’s amazing and glorious and wonderful. And to an extent, I feel that too, because it is a unique perspective and experience and we are a community with tremendous strength and beauty and gifts. We face opposition in the political arena, so we truly must join together on that.
I am especially committed to helping young trans people find their way and have an easier time of it than I did. The other side, though, is when I sat there at age five crying alone in my room it wasn’t because I wanted to be “trans”. I understood to the core of my being that I was a girl. Not a trans girl. Trans is the circumstances, trans is the journey, girl is the identity, at least for me. Quasi-human female. That’s me.
But for me, it was never really about dresses, makeup, all that stuff–I like those things, but it wasn’t a motivator, so I was kind of an outsider among outsiders, you know? Most of my trans gal friends were so thrilled for that stuff and loved glamour and dance music and here I was sitting in the corner all indie-rock and Plain Jane like Enid from Ghost World, wondering why the boys never asked me out and being vaguely terrified that one might.
But I was done with it, emotionally and otherwise, a very long time ago. Transitions end, as you say. And when you have a trans history and you’re not embarrassed by it, you don’t hide it, some cis people, especially, want to talk about it. They want to define you by it and view everything through that lens, even if what you’re doing and who you are has basically like 90% nothing to do with it. The trans cultural-breakthrough moment was a long time in coming and I’m thrilled it’s here. And if one thing I do gives some trans or genderqueer or cis kid somewhere the idea that there are choices and options out there beyond the typical or stereotypical, then let me wave that flag as high as I can.
Laura Jane Grace helped introduce you to the world on her True Trans AOL series. Against Me’s last album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, set out to be the definitive modern trans rock record, and succeeded. I see Debutante as a much more universal album. Trans themes appear on a few tracks, but even those songs can mean a lot of things to different people.
The fact that I was assigned a gender at birth that is different than the gender I am assigned now tells you nothing about my music or my art or my life. You’ve never woken up to the headline “TRANSGENDER FOLK SINGER RELEASES CD”. Let me be honest: I was way more offended by “folk singer”.
Well, as that Cracker song, ‘Teen Angst‘, once so eloquently said…
It’s great if you know I’m trans and even better if you don’t give the slightest of craps whether I am or am not. If you listen with your Radio Shack trans-detector on, you’ll go “aha, an ambiguously gendered rock voice!” and if you don’t, you’ll go “aha, she sounds a little like Melissa Etheridge!”
Before we leave the topic, since I am totally into all the girly stuff, does the dress in your new promotional poster really exist? If so, where can I get one? I would never take it off!
Yeah, I painted that poster digitally and sadly the dress is not mine and not real. Part of that character model is an actress called Maude Adams who lived from the late 1800s to the 1930s-40s. And that’s Maude’s dress from a production of “Joan Of Arc” as painted by Alfonse Mucha around 1905. And I am totally obsessed with Maude – she was the inspiration for Jane Seymour’s character in the movie Somewhere In Time which is all romantic and belle époque and time travelly, so right up my alley. And so that’s the dress, but people love that poster I did and of course I do as well, so I’m going to try and make the dress, because I need to have it.
What happened to the major label deal? This album deserves to conquer the world. Not that it can’t as a self-released entity. Macklemore certainly proved that.
I can’t say a whole lot about the label thing but it was going to be a really cool joint-venture thing between the major and a company headed up by a veteran music industry pro who loved my record and those of some other artists – but it ended up where the major wanted all of our masters and so forth as a condition of going forward. And maybe from their standpoint that made sense, but I was never going to do that.
So that delayed things by quite a bit but then I got back to the DIY grindstone. I’m absolutely ready for it to conquer the world and would love to have some kind of a partnership that would let me focus more on the music. We supply Amazon from my kitchen. The Kickstarter people backed Debutante at about 150% of what I asked for, so we recorded the entire second album with the money we had for one. I’m also going to be recording an EP at Emitt Rhodes’ actual house, with Fernando and Chris Price – and, we hope, a special guest – and that’s been covered from the original Kickstarter as well. We don’t exactly sound like the Minutemen but we do jam econo. A labor of love doesn’t really capture it. I’m giving everything I have to this in a very literal sense.
How is your health today? Can you play live? Do you have a band? Or are you going to record as many albums as you can while you can — like Johnny Cash’s American Recordings work?
My health is good. It – it was a gift, the diagnosis. It said to me “you know all that stuff you’ve been putting off, those things you’ve been afraid to try? Maybe you should go do those, now.” I’ll probably be kicking around causing trouble for decades, but it gave me the clarity of seeing that I have an opportunity now to leave everything out on stage or on the albums.
I’m beholden to nobody and I’m not in it for the cash or fame – so it can just be about making the best songs possible, being 100% whatever I am, and letting them get out in the world and reach people. I can definitely play live and love playing live; sadly I don’t have a full time band, so a lot of my live shows tend to be solo acoustic, and as I mentioned – yeah, I am not a folksinger. But if I had a full band we could probably crush the planet.
Having said that… Yes, I am planning for a long and full life of loud onstage touring rock and roll. But I am also keenly aware of the passage of time and of the possibility that things may not go as planned. I have got about 300 songs in the back catalog and I’m writing new ones every day. I’m kind of hoping we can do two albums a year for a little bit, if Fernando doesn’t get sick of me.
It’s important to me that this music finds a home. So I’ll do as much as I can for as long as I can. I don’t think it’s overstating it to say David Bowie kept me alive. And on the night that I uploaded the masters of my album to the pressing plant, he passed away. I’m listening to 6music on BBC and his songs are coming in, just as mine are going out. And I’m sitting there crying, and thinking about what it means to be an artist, a human, to have lived a good life. What is the nature of courage?
I mean, at some point he received a devastating terminal diagnosis. He could have then retired, spent his final days with his family. Or he could have told the world, and been alive to receive the tributes and adulation and just waves of love that we’ve seen since his passing. Instead he went to work, without a word to many of even his closest friends. He went back and made music, made art from his experience. As a gift, and as a guide for all of us, he made his art til the very end and greeted that end with courage and grace. That lesson is not lost.
Debutante, the debut album by Cait Brennan is available now on iTunes and Amazon. For tour dates, album updates and a VIP pass to the rapidly expanding global Cait Brennan community, connect with her on facebook.