Something is in the air in Cairns, FNQ: talented young artists appear to be sprouting on a regular basis, which makes for an exciting scene. Brealyn Sheehan brings something different to the tropics with her torch-song voice. Ahead of the release of her debut EP, I had the opportunity to chat to her.
I’d really like to start by asking you about your musical lineage, because I can hear Billie Holiday and I can hear other things too. So could you talk about your first musical loves, your influences and what you’re listening to now?
Sure. My first musical loves, I suppose, would have been more a kind of grungey type of music. I never really grew up listening to anything like jazz. Maybe a little bit of blues, but it probably would have been more male vocalists, and a little bit of Dad’s record collection, which was more of a mix of things like Eagles and Queen. I loved a bit of metal when I was a teenager [laughs]. These days I listen to quite a broad selection of stuff. I do listen to a bit of jazz now and obviously still a bit of alternative music. I love a bit of soul and funk and stuff like that. I like a lot of different kinds of music.
When you said you listened to metal – a lot of metal is the performing of it, and that sense of putting on a show. For you as a performer, has that had some influence?
Perhaps. I do like theatrical kinds of things – that can be quite impressive show wise. I’m not sure I’m quite as theatrical as some of the metal acts get!
It does say in your bio that you have a ‘sassy stage presence’.
Yeah, I would say that that’s fairly true. A bit sassy, a bit sultry, a bit emotional.
You hail from Far North Queensland and you live in Cairns now. I notice there’s quite a bit going on there – there seems to be a developing scene. Is that the case?
Yes, I think so. There have definitely been quite a few original artists in the position to record, I guess because it has become a bit easier to record than it perhaps was some while back. And there’s a lot of songwriters of all ages, not just young people but also people a little bit older as well. I feel like there’s a lot of female songwriters who are getting out there at the moment, which is quite inspiring.
By ‘easier to record’ do you mean because of crowdfunding, so you can access the funding more easily, or are there more producers working there and more studio space?
I guess it’s probably a mix. It’s become more affordable for an independent artist to record – of course, some people are doing their own recording. We’ve got Mark Myers in Cairns, who recorded and produced my EP, and he’s been working with a few people like Leanne Tennant in the last couple of years. So that’s a lovely thing for us to have someone like him in town. And there’s that combination of crowdfunding and there’s a grant program up here that’s supportive as well.
Do you find that the audiences are becoming more aware of what’s on offer? I guess it’s that chicken-and-egg situation: there’s more music going on because performers are doing more, and hopefully that translates to performers becoming more educated about different musical styles and being more willing to see different people.
It does feel a bit that way. We could perhaps do with a few more opportunities for originals gigs up here on a day-to-day basis. There’s certainly support there with festivals and there’s a few venues that regularly have people performing their own music. Typically in the past it’s been more expected to see a covers act and there are a lot of good covers acts, of course. But there are now people who are doing both, who are working as a covers act and also doing their original music, [and they] are starting to throw in some of their original music or let their original music take over their sets a little bit. So it’s creeping out there into places that maybe weren’t necessarily known as an original music venue before. Even venue some of the pubs that people might expect to have a crowd that would only want covers are sometimes surprisingly where you find people who enjoy that aspect of live music and they enjoy seeing a performer doing what they do and are really appreciative of it.
Do you enjoy performing?
I do. I was incredibly nervous when I first started but once I got a bit more comfortable being up on stage I love it – I love that interaction with the audience and communicating with them and hopefully making that connection that you hope to make when you’re writing songs … It can be surprisingly stressful sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I get more nervous when there’s an audience full of people I know who haven’t seen me perform yet, whereas you’d think you’d get more nervous in front of strangers – but maybe you think people who know you will have some expectation that you’re going to have to confront [laughs].
Your voice has so much richness and nuances in it, and one thing that people who don’t sing may not realise is that the environment and different conditions can affect a voice. Does the humidity [in Far North Queensland] do anything to your voice?
I guess I’ve got to be a little bit careful – I’m asthmatic as well and get some sinus problems, so I have to be a bit careful of things like damp air. And I’m allergic to hay, which I’ve discovered by performing in festivals – I have to make sure I dose myself up to protect myself when I go and play on a beautiful stage with a lovely hay seating area I don’t end up getting all stuffy and itchy.
It sounds like you might have found that out the hard way.
Luckily I figure it out while sitting watching an act rather than while I was performing. But I did have to ask some people once – it was the last night party of a festival, sort of the closing party, and people were sort of frolicking in the hay, rolling around and throwing it in the air, and I did have to say, ‘Hey, guys, can you give it ten or fifteen minutes without doing that?’ [laughs]
Now we’re talking about the first single from your EP, and the EP has a few tracks on it. Are these tracks that you’ve written yourself? Have you worked with other writers? How has the EP come together?
They’re all tracks I’ve written myself. I’m looking forward to hopefully doing some collaborative writing but so far I’ve just been writing by myself, which I guess seemed like a good place to start at the time when I first had the inspiration of ‘you have to write this song right now’. And it was a good learning process to start writing by myself. I did actually write half a song with a friend who had written half the lyrics and the melody already and asked me if I’d think about writing the other half, but that’s about as close as I’ve come to properly writing a song with someone else.
I supposed everybody has their method – some people want to play nicely with others and some people just want to play in the sandbox on their own!
[Laughs] I really enjoy working with other people and there’s definitely that kind of excitement of what would that other person come up with that you could work on together, bouncing ideas around and seeing somebody writing in a totally different style to one you’d approached yourself. I reckon that could be quite a lot of fun.
I haven’t heard the whole EP but it sounds like the tracks cover a range of musical styles. Given that you have access to different styles, when you’re writing a song do you write the lyrics and then think of what sort of style might fit it, or do you start with a general idea of how the song will sound and then you kind of work on it together with the lyrics and the music?
I probably start with the sound first. A melody tends to start things off for me, and sometimes that could be something I think of when you’re at work, at the day job, or on my bicycle. Sometimes I’m just jamming around with my guitar trying to rehearse something else and I get an idea. Usually I have an idea of the feel once I start playing around with the melody, then often the lyrics will start flowing after I’ve got the melody down. Sometimes it happens all at once so I quickly press record on something trying to get whatever comes out and try to work on it later to refine it a little bit. I don’t think I’ve ever written the perfect song from the get-go – yet.
I don’t know that anyone does. Even people who bang out a song quickly are probably refining some element of it later on.
I imagine you’d have to – it would be something of a miracle otherwise [laughs].
Your debut single is called ‘Forbidden Fruit’ so I thought I’d ask you: what is your forbidden fruit?
Hmm … that’s a good question [laughs]. I suppose I would stay away from anything that belongs to anybody else. [laughs]
[Laughs] That’s a good answer. I thought you might take it literally and say, ‘Mangoes’.
Oh well, that could be another angle.
You mentioned in the press release that you never thought you’d get a chance to pursue music – did you think it was too big a dream? Or did you not think the circumstances would arise?
It did seem like a crazy dream as a child when I first thought, It would be amazing to be a singer one day. You can get weighed down by worrying whether your sound is going to be something somebody else wants to listen to, having a voice that’s maybe not typically what you hear every day. I never really knew if it would find its audience. I was so nervous starting off but from the first time I sang in front of a crowd I got a really positive response, which was encouraging. I think each step of the way there were the moments when I thought, Okay, I’ve done it now – I’ve done enough. I’ve sung in front of people, that’s enough. I’ve sung a song that I wrote in front of somebody, that’s enough. But there was always enough encouragement and enough passion – I don’t think I’ve ever felt as strongly about wanting to do something as I feel about wanting to pursue music. So I guess that’s drive me to keep going. But it’s all happened in a short period of time – I only started performing about three and a half years ago, doing a few covers at open mics, and writing just over two years ago. It’s been a bit exciting.
So was it having the open mic opportunity present itself that you thought, I’m just going to give this a try?
I got some let’s say gentle nudging. I said to somebody who asked if I could sing or play, ‘I sing, but not in front of other humans’. And they said, ‘Right – tell me something you want to sing and I’ll play guitar for you’. So we jumped up and did a couple of songs, and I don’t think I opened my eyes for a moment during that whole performance, and maybe not a few of the successive ones as well. Then I took it from there. When I started writing I was already performing, doing some covers with a friend, which was great for performance experience. Then once I started writing I realised that that was really where I was putting the best part of my passion into things. So I thought, You’ve got to try to make the most of it with your music and put some focus into it and hopefully record, and that’s what I did last year.
With the EP coming out – you mentioned the day job, and obviously a lot of musicians have those. Does that mean you have time to tour for the EP release?
It’ll probably be a little bit later in the year. I’ll do a bit of local stuff up here but [anything else] will be later in the year, to fit in with work commitments. And there’s a few festival things that you cross your fingers to hear back from, and you have to fit in with that as well.