Toronto-based singer and songwriter Michael Brennan takes country music seriously — but his strong, distinct voice and his crack band put a sharp edge on the songs he writes. There’s sentiment in what he writes and sings, but hardly a trace of sentimentality.
Originally from Cape Breton, Brennan has released his second solo album: Anywhere But Here is a roots rockin’ country record with heart and soul, set in the middle of a big smoky, busy city — but with a clear memory of where he’s from.
The new CD, produced by David Travers-Smith, features the best crack rhythm section in Canada, Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (bass) and the astonishing guitar playing of Kevin Breit, best known for his recorded and touring work with Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, and Harry Manx.
Anywhere But Here is as big, as honest, and as real as the man who wrote the songs and sings them with the heart and guts they demand.
Michael Brennan: A big man who sings the truth
Anywhere But Here is a strong, rough-around-the-edges second album; country music with heart, soul and urban smarts.
Michael Brennan is a big man; slightly rumpled, like many people who teach for a living, have wives and families, and don’t drive late model cars fresh off GM’s production lines.
But, as the saying goes, don’t judge a book by the cover.
Michael Brennan is on stage, fronting his crack edgy country band, with some of the best musicians in Toronto. He’s in charge and suddenly the attention is on a voice that rumbles and trembles, and on songs that are as true and direct as the man who is singing them.
Now he’s released his second solo album: Anywhere But Here is a roots rockin’ country record with heart and soul, set in the middle of a big smoky, busy city — but with a clear memory of where he’s from. This is a place, sometimes, where you’d rather not be, if you had the choice.
Michael Brennan is the voice of REAL country music in Toronto. “Country” with edge, true stories, full of honest characters who’ve loved and lost more often than they’ve won. There’s sentiment here, but not much sentimentality. He’s seen a lot; Brennan is the sort of guy — like the characters in his songs — who’s been there and done that and survived.
Michael Brennan’s story: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia born and raised, moved from the salt air to Toronto’s smog, settled down, and formed The Wayward Angels. Four years of hard graft in bars and clubs, and, finally, one well-received and well-reviewed CD.
Six years later — with vitally important time in between to raise a family, dig into a teaching career (math is his specialty), and write more songs — Brennan came back with his first solo CD. Cautious Man was a collection of 11 of those songs, smoothly produced by Chad Irschick.
It didn’t change Brennan’s life; he is a cautious man, and he hung on to his day job, and continued to play his important role as a parent. He played more club gigs than he did before, did his annual summer tour to the Maritimes, and watched with a smile as the critics — from Toronto to Texas, the Netherlands to Nova Scotia — praised his work with enthusiasm.
“A gotta-hear artist,” said Roots Music Report, based in Texas. “A country-rock hybrid,” said the Toronto Sun, while the Toronto Star called it “a fine collection of new original (songs).” Others invoked the names of a coterie of amazing artists — Roy Orbison, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings, Neil Young and Nick Lowe among them in an attempt to put Brennan’s songs, voice and music in perspective.
Michael Brennan doesn’t let that sort of stuff go to his head. Instead, he sits down, and creates more songs, more lyrics that cut to the bone, and a new record.
And then goes out and plays ’em in clubs and at concerts and festivals, where he reaches, directly, the people he singings about and singing for.
The new CD, produced by David Travers-Smith, features the best crack rhythm section in Canada, Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (bass) and the astonishing guitar playing of Kevin Breit, best known for his recorded and touring work with Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Harry Manx, and his own bands, Sisters Euclid and Folk Alarm. Breit played no less than seven stringed instruments during the sessions for the record, including acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, banjo, mandola, mando-cello and dobro.
Other players on the CD include Rob Guzevs on organ, Rebecca Campbell on background vocals, Steve Dawson on pedal steel, and guitarist Steve Briggs — who plays with Brennan’s band on live appearances.
All the songs are Brennan originals, with the exception of a classic Townes van Zandt song, No Place to Fall, and Mystery Train, the Junior Parker rhythm and blues tune that was turned into a smash hit by Elvis Presley, and which opens the CD.
More importantly, all the songs all have the ring of truth. Anywhere But Here is as big, as honest, and as real as the man who wrote the songs and sings them with the heart and guts they demand.
For that alone, Michael Brennan deserves attention and applause.
Solo, Duo, Trio or Full Five Piece Band
Michael Brennan - vocals, acoustic guitar
Steve Briggs - electric and acoustic guitars
John Dymond - bass
Gary Craig - drums
John Sheard - keyboards
Anywhere But Here (2008)
Cautious Man (2006)
Two For The Road (2002)
Wayward Angels (1999)
Michael Brennan and the Wayward Angels (1992)
Anywhere But Here
Grow Old With Me
Get Outta This Town
Everything Has Changed
Hung Out To Gry
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Nominated for Country Recording of 2009 by Music Nova Scotia #5 Cancountry Album of 2008 COUNTRY...Nominated for Country Recording of 2009 by Music Nova Scotia
#5 Cancountry Album of 2008
COUNTRY MUSIC NEWS
“Brennan's new songs retell the quintessential Canadian story – about the journey from the desperate edges of the landscape to the gleaming urban heart ... – with all the passion and power that his true Maritimer's heart can muster. These are pure country songs, delivered with an emotional candour that makes the detached irony of many contemporary composers sound phoney and contrived.”
THE TORONTO STAR
“His full-blooded, clear and passionate voice brings to mind the likes of Roy Orbison and Raul Malo (of the Mavericks) ... It’s a voice you just believe and it brings credibility to songs that evoke a sense of restlessness and disquiet.”
“Overwhelmed! There is no better term. I am totally taken by this sensational new album by the Canadian Brennan...I do not have enough superlatives. 'Anywhere But Here' is an album you are not allowed and don’t want to miss!”
CD RELEASE AT THE CADILLAC LOUNGE
TORONTO, OCT. 16/08
"They don’t make ‘em like Michael Brennan any more! I’ve seen more than my share of artists at the Cadillac, but I’ve never seen it this crowded, or heard it rocked harder, than it was with Michael Brennan on stage. Brennan’s an old-school country singer, but with MUCH better songs, and a deep, rumbling baritone voice. A one-time Maritimer, some of his songs are about the rootlessness of displaced folk, and the ambivalence they feel so far from home, be they now in Fort McMurray or Toronto...rough-edged, fiery country music, all in one of the best honkytonks in town."
"Michael Brennan's new record "Anywhere But Here" contains authentic country roots songs, and with more than a hint of a personal history. The thematic threads unfold gradually over the 13 songs like multiple short stories - leaving economically depressed Cape Breton; goin'-down-the road to the greener pastures and economic opportunities in Ontario; returning home to face the loss of loved ones; and witnessing the further decay and deterioraton. Questions arise about identity and home. Brennan's powerful voice suits his strong writing. The record is well produced, with many interesting and subtle musical touches from multi-instrumentalist Kevin Breit."
Howard Gladstone, Executive Director-Toronto City Roots Festival
"Cautious Man" - #12 on the FREEFORM AMERICAN ROOTS CHART, November, 2006
3rd Coast Music, San Antonio, Texas
"Cautious Man" - Album of the month pick, EURO AMERICANA CHART, November, 2006
www.euroamericanachart.nl The Netherlands
'"Cautious Man'...The eleven well-crafted originals cover the gamut of rock ‘n blues and country with stellar playing from Roly Platt (Matt Minglewood) on harp and John Adames on drums among others. The music is alt.country with production polished enough for mainstream radio...Great writing, great singing and fine musicianship.
Scene Magazine, London, ON
"A 4 STAR RATING…his music is genuine and unaffected and his album, while something of a sleeper, is as comfortable as an old shirt.”
3rd Coast Music, San Antonio, Texas
"...a very fine album... and a strong contender for 'album of the month'... everything works perfectly on 'Cautious Man'. There are no weak moments, in fact and the whole album has a strong and solid sound whatnever the influences, from country to rock."
Massimo Ferro www.highway61.it Italy
"...an excellent CD "Cautious Man". With this album Brennan succeeds in linking a commercial sound to songs with considerable depth. Quite an achievement. He presents himself as a marvellous (far above average) songwriter, who finds all the appropriate ingredients in genres such as country, blues & rock 'n' roll. Besides that he brings comparisations to icons such as Tony Joe White (also because of the beautiful harmonica contribution of Roly Platt, a rather swampy sounding title song "Cautious Man"), Waylon Jennings ("Lights of Town"), Jimmie Dale Gilmore ( with a slight vibrating voice on the more traditional country sounding "Dreams Always Lie") and Steve Earle (with the catchy country-rocker "Honky Tonkin' Two Bit Affair"). He seems to have much more in common with the average Texan countryrocker than with the general Canadian act. A delightful surpise of the kindest sort."
Benny Metten, ctrlaltcountry.be, Belgium
"Michael Brennan has made, with 'Cautious Man', a stellar album. One of the kind his American friends - within this genre - aren't nearly capable of making anymore. 11 outstanding songs, no glamour, no rural grit ......just somewhere in between, but very straight to the point. Country music at its purist, the way it was meant to be."
Rein van den Berg, realrootscafe.com, The Netherlands
BRENNAN'S DEBUT ALBUM SOLID LISTENING
"...strong, resonant voice and suburban, workaday lyrics... the album is ... reminiscent of Nick Lowe-deep, vibrant vocals hanging somewhere between a snarl and a croon, backed by upbeat, country infused pop rhythms. Solid listening for the adult contemporary set..."
The Chronicle Herald, Halifax, Nova Scotia
MICHAEL BRENNAN AT THE CADILLAC LOUNGE
"...Pure honky-tonk happiness! ... Michael can write hurtin' mainstream country songs perfectly; good tunes, great hooks, interesting lyrics...His voice reminds me of John Stewart, who started out with the Kingston Trio, but the Cape Breton accent works perfectly with the twang. If you're gonna catch an artist like this - honest, straight-up workin' man music - you should see him in a place like the Cadillac."
Richard Flohil, Seen and Heard, Toronto
"'Cautious Man' (is an) ...excellent album ...(Brennan's) a crafty writer; and he delivers the music with a bite and edge that is often missing in today's country recordings...Michael Brennan's vocal style can be likened to Hal Ketchum - there's a melodic swagger to the voice that carries a bit of extra mystery into each tune."
Country Music News
"'Cautious Man', a fine collection of new originals."
"A five star rating... Of all the CD's that Atlantic Seabreeze receives for review, there is always one CD that stands out once in awhile, and this CD,"Cautious Man", falls in this category."
“Brennan’s voice is one of the more genuine and intriguing to come along on the Canadian music scene in some time...you hear the touches of Neil Young, Waylon Jennings, Tony Joe White and Steve Earle in Brennan...it’s quite a mix and quite enjoyable.”
Country Music News
Toronto’s best kept roots-rock secret. Leaning towards Townes Van Zandt’s story-telling ability and Roy Orbison’s lonesome voice.”
“Authentic roots and rockibilly from a man who lives it.”
Michael Hollet's pick for NXNE
“Brennan... gives his songs an emotional punch and elevate them above the banal platitudes of much current country music.”
Awards & Grants
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Awarded a 2008 Ontario Songwriting Grant Awarded a 2008 FACTOR Independent Recording Loan for "An...Awarded a 2008 Ontario Songwriting Grant
Awarded a 2008 FACTOR Independent Recording Loan for "Anywhere But Here"
Brennan captures city life and country roots on Anywhere But Here
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Take a country boy with a rock `n’ roll heart and set him down for 20 years or more in the big city ...Take a country boy with a rock `n’ roll heart and set him down for 20 years or more in the big city of Toronto, and you might get a glimpse of where Inverness singer-songwriter Michael Brennan is coming from on his latest album, Anywhere But Here.
Brennan sure knows how to get your attention on the title track with its tale of a down-on-his-luck, hard-working man having trouble adjusting to the constantly changing economic times. It’s a song that Springsteen could be proud of and one that many people today can relate to.
While songs such as Get Outta This Town, Anywhere But Here and Stubborn are tough, no-nonsense tales about the hard life, Brennan’s Grow Old With Me wouldn’t even seem out of place in a wedding ceremony and Everything Has Changed expresses a softer side as well.
Anywhere But Here is Brennan’s second solo recording featuring original material and probably the one that comes closer to representing his roots than his previous release, Cautious Man, which featured Toronto producer Chad Irschick (Rankin Family/Matt Minglewood/Ron Hynes) at the helm. It tended to have a smoother and polished sound than the latest disc.
Produced by David Travers-Smith, Anywhere But Here also features the musicianship of many of Toronto’s finest musicians such as Kevin Breit (Norah Jones and Harry Manx) on everything with strings, guitarist Steve Briggs, John Dymond on bass, Steve Dawson on pedal steel and Gary Craig on drums.
Brennan is no stranger to Toronto’s club scene and Canada’s folk circuit. He’s been featured at the Mariposa Festival, the Winterfolk Festival on the Danforth, and has performed in many East Coast Music Award showcases as well in recent years.
Brennan has often been compared to Texas songwriters like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Steve Earle and the late Townes Van Zant. Get Outta This Town is certainly reminiscent of Steve Earle. Brennan even closes his new CD with a lovely tribute cover of Van Zant’s No Place To Fall.
Anywhere But Here is Brennan’s most ambitious project to date, finding him with a band and a group of talented studio musicians that know seem to intuitively know how find the groove while accompanying him and bringing out the best in his material.
Brennan often includes a mini-tour of Nova Scotia venues on his annual summer vacations home to his Inverness cottage with his family. Those gigs often see him playing with friends such as guitarists Mike Tufford, Steve Briggs or Brennan’s younger brother, Tim Brennan (Joel Plaskett Emergency/Dave Marsh).
“I’ve already been getting a fair bit of airplay (with Cautious Man) in Europe, primarily in the Netherlands, but also in Belgium, France, Italy, Germany and Sweden. There’s an amazing network there dedicated to all forms of Americana Music,” says Brennan. “I’m very happy with Anywhere But Here. I think a lot of it is great, but of course, I’m a bit biased,” he jokes.
In Toronto, Brennan fronts the rockin’ country, roots and rockabilly band, the Wayward Angels. He’s also been a Sunday matinee fixture on the Toronto club scene at Graffiti’s Bar.
Anywhere But Here should now be available in many stores throughout Inverness County if you’d like to check it out.
Brennan gets Back to his Roots
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IT'S ALWAYS A TREAT to have Nova Scotia native Michael Brennan back in town. A pioneer of the ear...IT'S ALWAYS A TREAT to have Nova Scotia native Michael Brennan back in town.
A pioneer of the early independent music years in Halifax with his band the Lone Stars, Brennan has been in Toronto for over 15 years, performing with his band the Wayward Angels and building a reputation as one of the city's finest country-influenced singer-songwriters.
At the moment he's enjoying a family vacation in Cape Breton, but it becomes a working vacation starting on Wednesday night at Tribeca in Halifax at 8 p.m., followed by evening shows on Thursday at The Red Shoe in Mabou and Friday at the Inverness Arts Centre.
Reached by phone in his home town of Inverness, Brennan is still aglow after playing a few songs the night before at the Fisherman's Picnic with bassist brother Tim Brennan, formerly of the Lone Stars and, more recently, Joel Plaskett Emergency.
"It's great to have Tim up here for part of the summer," he says. "But he's not playing much anymore; doing five songs at the picnic once a year is about all the playing we do together."
For his upcoming dates, Brennan is bringing in guitarist Steve Briggs, who also performs with Prairie Oyster's Russell deCarle. He looks forward to having his friend along for a few dates, to reconnect with the East Coast crowd.
"It's a different kind of audience, a different kind of people down here. It's good for me to get away from that Toronto attitude, uptight and fast paced, work work work. You don't get that too much here, especially in the summer."
Heading home for a few weeks in the summer also gives Brennan a chance to get some musical inspiration; the song Spiritual Advice from his most recent CD Cautious Man was written during one such getaway to his Inverness cabin. But he says he's the sort of performer who has to take the inspiration as it comes, and can't always expect it to appear at will.
"I love to sing, and I love to sing in front of an audience. That really is it," he says of the desire that drives him to make music. "Luckily, I also like to write songs, but that really is secondary to performing. I enjoy writing, but it can be a real task, until you get another good idea. I'm always trying to keep at it, but it's a job to write songs, and I admire these people who can write so many in a year. It just seems to flow from them.
"I'll always love singing. There have been a couple of periods in my life when I tried to stop, but I just couldn't."
Even while holding down a day job, Brennan tries to get on stage as much as possible, with a regular gig at Grafitti's in Kensington Market for the past seven years, plus appearances at venues like Hugh's Room, the Now Lounge, the Cadillac Lounge, and occasionally outside Toronto, around the Golden Horseshoe.
"Toronto still has quite a good roots music scene, from country to rockabilly to singer-songwriter stuff like Justin Rutledge and Serena Ryder. All the offspring of Handsome Ned," he chuckles, mentioning the Canadian alt-country icon who died in 1987.
"They just did a big tribute night to Handsome Ned at the Horseshoe Tavern, for the 20th anniversary of his death. I was supposed to take part in that, but it turned out I couldn't make it. I think they're going to reissue his music on CD as well."
You can hear samples of Brennan's music on his website, at www.michaelbrennan.ca , from the Cautious Man CD, which received airplay across the U.S. and in Europe, as well as far flung places like Uruguay and Australia. This fall, he starts work on a follow-up, with producer David Travers-Smith, who's recorded with acclaimed artists like Jenny Whiteley and the Wailin' Jennys.
But right now he's focusing on next week's shows, and who knows? There might still be a few Lone Stars fans in the crowd.
"About four years ago, someone asked me for Dying Town, that was the last time. And I did it, although I have no idea how I remembered the song, but I was glad I could do it. It's always nice to know that the Lone Stars' name still rings a bell with people."
by Stephen Cooke
He's a Family Man
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Brennan's album reflects his new reality as husband, father. Michael Brennan left Cape Breton for...Brennan's album reflects his new reality as husband, father.
Michael Brennan left Cape Breton for Toronto many years ago, but there's no denying its continuing influence on his music -- an urban country-rock hybrid with echoes of the kitchen parties and front porch strumming sessions of his East Coast youth.
Brennan first came to the attention of local country music fans in the '90s with his band The Wayward Angels. Their self-titled debut was full of songs about the difficulties of leaving home to work in cold hard Toronto.
But six years have passed, and the songs on Brennan's long-awaited followup, Cautious Man, reflect a new reality -- his busy Torontonian life as a husband, father and teacher.
"Yeah, newer ones like Time For A Change and How I Missed Ya are definitely different," Brennan said in a phone interview last week. "Unfortunately, there's not a lot of Cape Breton in there. But my life is different now.
"There are times when I'm writing in the basement, and the kids rush down. I try to keep going, but I don't get a lot done. I pretty much have to shut myself away. The song Spiritual Advice was started a long time ago, but I didn't finish it until I had five or six hours alone in a cabin. It was nice, but those chances are few and far between."
The songs mix traditional country with rockabilly, pop and blues, anchored by Brennan's rich voice and the able playing of his band -- Dave Tufford, Dennis Pinhorn and John Adames.
Among the highlights are the old-fashioned Dreams Always Lie, Lights Of The Town and Tender Love, a nostalgic memory of his family's musical nights.
"That's about my grandfather," Brennan explained. "He was an amateur part-time singer in Cape Breton. I'd sit on the front porch with him, with the uncles and the grandkids, and he'd just break into song."
Brennan tested out the songs at his Sunday afternoon Graffiti's residency before going into the studio with producer Chad Irschick.
"He's a great musician with a great ear and a real sense for getting the best out of the band," Brennan said.
"There were a few songs that he edited and tightened up. Plus, it was the best time I've ever had recording my vocal. And he suggested bringing in the harmonica player, Roly Platt, who played with Matt Minglewood, one of my heroes."
Brennan has already played two CD release shows with different lineups this week.
Tonight at the Rivoli is your last chance to catch him with the full band, plus keyboard player.
By MARY DICKIE,
Toronto Caper back in town
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Michael Brennan spent the past several days in his spartan cottage near Inverness, Cape Breton – no ...Michael Brennan spent the past several days in his spartan cottage near Inverness, Cape Breton – no power, no water and no distractions. It’s an annual summer return home for the rootsy songwriter.
The cottage is a far cry from his hectic life in Toronto, where he’s lived for 17 years, splitting his time between teaching school and playing music.
Brennan gets a taste of the big city (it’s all relative) this weekend, when he comes to metro for a pair of shows. Tomorrow night, he plays Stayner’s Wharf, then heads up to Bearly’s for a Saturday matinee. He’s bringing along guitarist Steve Briggs and upright bassist Sam Petite – “they’re my Tennessee Two.”
Brennan and his brother Tim were the driving forces in Halifax seminal roots-rock band The Lone Stars, which pre-dated the early ‘90’s explosion of indie bands here. (Lone Star drummer Michael Belitsky now tours with the Sadies and Neko Case, and Tim Brennan often plays bass with Joel Plaskett’s Emergency.) Just as the so-called Pop Explosion blew, Mike Brennan relocated to Toronto. He’s been making music ever since.
With a strong sense of lyrical story-telling and a love for roots country, Brennan slid easily into the blossoming alt-country scene in Toronto with his band The Wayward Angels. Their self-titled debut in 1999 kicked out the single You’ve Been on My Mind which edged into the Canadian country Top 50. He recorded Two for the Road in 2002.
Brennan is soon to release his latest album, Cautious Man, produced by Chad Irschick.
There are no upcoming dates at this time.