Interviewing the prolific Canadian artist who continues to cook and churn out great music
Introduced by the recent lead single and music video Weed & Whiskey Women (Distilled Mix), Pennan Brae‘s Cinema is the second album he has released this year.
Recorded at Blue Light Studio with producer Kaj Falch-Nielsen, the album is mixed by Kirk Kelsey (The Smashing Pumpkins). Mastered by engineer Adam Fulton at Mix Media HQ, in addition to the ace Weed & Whiskey Women (Distilled Mix), the brand new album signed by the incurable dreamer Brae also features the unmissable lead singles A Nightmare and Mississippi Love Song.
AN ALBUM TO KICK OFF THE SUMMER OF 2011 – So Pennan Brae crowns his love for screenwriting, bringing us an album with a laconically celebratory title: Cinema.
It couldn’t be otherwise. Music and film seem to be two inseparable factors of that trivalent bond that is formed when you add the Brae element to the formula.
Pennan was engaged from 2018 to 2020 creating and releasing two feature-length films which he wrote along with the corresponding soundtracks: The Astronot and 2 Below 0.
Both movies made their debut on the Amazon Prime streaming platform and participated in over 100 film festivals.
The Astronot Soundtrack gave Pennan the opportunity to work with 2 of his musical heroes: legendary drummer Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Eric Clapton, Duran Duran) and bassist Garry Gary Beers (INXS), who played in the two lead singles off the album, Walk With Me and Crashland.
“I grew up listening and watching these guys play,” states Pennan enthusiastically. “And now I have a chance to record with them? It’s a dream I’ve still not awakened from.”
Pennan co-wrote Crashland with Grammy-nominated artist Eric Alexandrakis, with the track mixed by Paul David Hager and mastered by Grammy-winning engineer Emily Lazar. The rest of the album was mastered at Abbey Road Studios by Grammy-winner Sean Magee. “To have my music worked on at Abbey Road; that’s hallowed ground to me,” comments Pennan. “A huge honor.”
The album was 1 of 4 which the film yielded with Gravity: The Astronot, a remix album, Speechless, an instrumental album, and the concept album titled Space Race being the other 3 releases. Moreover, Pennan has worked remotely with filmmaker Tim Cash on a number of lyric music videos for his YouTube Channel.
“These music videos have been really fun to make,” he exclaims. “It’s wonderful researching old film footage and; we can create them safely in the current environment. I’ve fallen in love with the medium. It’s really fun to clearly share the lyrical content of the songs.”
“I miss filmmaking,” Pennan remarked, “and I’d love to get back into it, but now is not the time for that. Perhaps late in 2021 or 2022, we can get back at it.” So while waiting to be back on set, what could this “cosmodromic” creator do if not make the Cinema album?
And so it was. Eager to learn more about the cosmos that revolves in and around this rich nucleotide, we sat down with Pennan for a new chat. So keep reading below to find out more!
Interviewing: Pennan Brae
So Pennan, seeing the sequence of material you have continued
to produce, it seems that the torpor of the pandemic does not
seem to have distracted you, nor have you been engulfed in its
apathy. How challenging was it to keep creating in this period?
Music is often a private & solitary activity in which you write, listen & review. I find writing lyrics a quiet process. So the physical isolation during the pandemic provided an extended period in which to work.
Which assists have helped you maintain a remarkable level of
Working with good people. Producer Kirk Kelsey did a wonderful job mixing ‘Cinema’ and the album feels very fresh and bright. Especially the 3 remixes Kirk created for the album. ‘Weed & ‘Whisky Women (Distilled Mix)’, ‘A Nightmare (Full Moon Mix)’ and ‘Mississippi Love Song (Riverside Mix)’ are 1980s and ‘90s-influenced pieces that wrap up the album. The trio is something sonically I haven’t done since the ‘Gravity’ album when Kirk created ‘Strut-1980s’ and alternate mixes of ‘Crashland’ and ‘Walk With Me’.
I also worked with great musicians at Blue Light Studio on ‘Cinema’. I recorded with producer Kaj Falch-Nielsen and we captured instruments that were new to me, such as harp and accordion. We laid down pedal steel guitar on the Southern Rock version of ‘Weed & Whisky Women’ and on the country-rock track ‘Mississippi Love Song’.
We also have a lot of violins and cellos on various tracks. The album features Vancouver Symphony Orchestra violinist Cameron Wilson; we worked together previously on ‘The Astronot’ soundtrack and he’s just wonderful in putting down harmonies.
In addition to the mixture of genres that connotes your style, this new album seems to have an even closer breath to the theatrical musical. It’s not just a matter of rolling out the storytelling along different tracks, right?
‘Cinema’ has a broader spectrum of instrumentation from my last
2 releases, ‘Lit’ and ‘2 Below 0’. Those are rock and roll records with a lean lineup of guitars, bass and drums. This is a more cinematic release and is more theatrical in orchestration and sound. We experimented recording different instruments and seeing what fit. Lyrically ‘Cinema’ was very fun to work on.
We know that the first seeds of Cinema saw the light in 2008. Speaking of the creative process, how did the rest of the album come to follow?
A couple of tracks are from my first album, ‘Shaded Joy’. I wanted to record ‘Anyways’ and ‘Cross Those Hills’ again with a much broader orchestration (‘Cross Those Hills’ was originally titled ‘Pennan Brae’ on my debut release after the Scottish village my grandfather is from).
The other songs on ‘Cinema’, such as ‘A Nightmare’, ‘The Poor Storyteller’ and ‘Taste The Pain’ evolved over a decade. They’d been missing a bridge here or lyrics to a verse.
Finally, they came together.
Listening to the various tracks of Cinema, each of them seems to be designed to maximize its musical potential. Was it instinctive inspiration, a growth-development process, or what else?
It was a combination of the above. It was growth and evolution in the music studio recording new instruments. Kaj and I began discussing about adding banjos, accordions, and trumpets. It was new experimentation for me and very fun and exciting. We tried to fill in and flush out every part of each song so there’d be no lulls and instead something musically stimulating in each space.
Three tracks also appear in remix versions. The umpteenth proof that a song composed with all the trappings can be declined in different forms without losing a shred of its spark?
All these remixes are producer Kirk Kelsey’s genius. He took the original versions, washed & turned them inside-out into something brand new. A song is very versatile & can take on many forms. But it takes someone with imagination & ability to fully create them while still retaining a connection to the original. Kirk is such a creator.
As with your previous productions it seems that you have been able to spend great good times with the legendary names that appear in the making of Cinema. From the series: something special that adds to the special?
It was just a nice opportunity to revert to a broad musical spectrum on this album. The experience was like going to a restaurant and thinking, ‘I’ve never tried this spice or side dish; tonight’s the night for that.’
And so we just kept experimenting with organs, harp, pedal steel, trumpet and strings until we felt the dish was complete.
Violins, harps, accordions, strings, refined modulations, touches of psychedelia: from the compositional flair to the parallel narrative, does the story of the boy who wanted to touch the moon seem anything but over?
Thanks very much for noticing that; there is a degree of psychedelia and ‘60s spirit in the recordings. The instrumental arrangement has a lot to do with that, along with the final production mix.
This album is an auditory exploration for me with the new instruments. I think the tracks could serve as a soundtrack for a future visual; it’d be nice to pursue that.
Filmmaking is something that belongs to you. Due to the difficulties associated with the lockdown you had to stay away from the set. So, is this album perhaps a thread with which you wanted to stay close to your love for cinema?
Most definitely. I wanted to broaden sonically on ‘Cinema’ and the soundscape harkens to soundtrack elements for film. I miss filmmaking and ‘Cinema’ has the potential to paint a picture visually.
I’d love to utilize it for a future film project. The album cover artwork by photographer Dan Jackson captures that filmmaking theme.
In addition to the love for filmmaking, many tracks seem to suggest an even stronger bond: with your roots, your origins, your family?
Yes. ‘Cross Those Hills’ is an ode to my grandfather who emigrated to Canada from Scotland. He used to ship cattle from Aberdeen to Argentina in the 1920s. One day he decided to set sail for Montreal. As a kid, he’d tell me stories of riding the rails westward to Saskatchewan and BC. I was quite close to him; he eventually settled in Toronto. The track has my favorite lyric on the album, ‘Share the laughter and smell the cashmere, as you press me tight against my tears.’
‘Vancity Blues’ is about life closer to home in Vancouver. It describes the dreary, wet weather we often encounter in winter. The song is a 12-bar blues which I’ve always wanted to record. I recorded with Venezuelan guitarist Yonny Vizcaya. He also laid down the solo on ‘Anyways’. Yonny is a tasteful guitarist and I was really fortunate to record with him. We share many musical tastes; most notably Ronnie Wood of The Rolling Stones.
Yet despite the importance of these roots, listening to the entire album there is not a single track that pushes the lever of “protagonism”. We just have to hear how the backing vocals are an essential element of the songs themselves, just like the lead vocals. Not the stories of one, but the stories of many?
‘The Poor Storyteller’ on the album implements the multiple story theme in which the male and female singer trade verses and come together on the chorus. I’ve always enjoyed songs like that, such as ‘Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around’ by Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks.
Vocalist Tianna Ireland and I traded verses and sung the song from one another’s perspective. It was quite fun recording and storytelling that way. Tianna lays down lots of lovely harmonies on the album. I was also really lucky to record with vocalists Rebecca Lam, who sang on ‘Weed and Whisky Women’ and ‘Vancity Blues’ and Alison Jenkins on ‘Mississippi Love Song’. She also played accordion on that track.
Now let’s talk about the truly saving positive approach you have put here. Let’s look at how you treat frustration in Taste The Pain for example. Is it the yearning that feeds the sun?
‘Taste The Pain’ for me is about overcoming a hurdle. The lyrics are a tad self-pitying, which we all need from time to time; just as long as we don’t wallow too long. The words ask for patience and understanding as well for everyone has a story which we may know nothing about nor have experienced. The song is therapeutic for me working on my personal challenges.
We say this every time you release something new: you have outdone yourself again, while remaining true to your genesis. Perhaps we more properly feel that you are expanding your horizons as you dig deeper and deeper?
I just hope this album offers a different listening and emotional experience and there’s a song on there which people connect with and enjoy. ‘Cinema’ harkens to the orchestral arrangements of ‘The Astronot’ soundtrack which has ballads and an occasional country-rock flair. I suppose it’s a bit of a second cousin in that way. I especially like the harp and string arrangement on ‘A Nightmare’ which kicks off the album.
Cinema is your umpteenth great album. So tell us, what do you have in store for the future to amaze us once again?
Thanks a lot for sharing ‘Cinema’; I’m very grateful for that. I’m currently working on a double album, the first half of which I’d like to release this winter; the 2nd half next Spring. It’s a concept album called ‘The Garden Series’ (Vol. 1 and 2). I hope people will have a lot of fun with it. It’s a leaner album of guitars, bass and drums with classic rock influences.
Listen now to Cinema, the latest album by Pennan Brae, available in streaming on all major digital platforms. You can find your favorite one via pennanbrae.com/music/
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