It was my pleasure to interview Far North Queenslander Brealyn Sheehan when she released a single a few weeks ago. Now, the EP from which that single was drawn is out. Temptation’s Door is not country music – as sometimes I take some licence with this blog, but only if I really, really like someone … Brealyn is a real talent, and this time I had the chance to ask her about seducing an audience, writing music for a music box and other stuff.
Were you pleased with the reception for ‘Forbidden Fruit’, the single off your EP?
Yes, definitely. It’s been surprising in a good way.
I suppose it’s your first single so you’re not sure what to expect.
Exactly. When it’s your first release you have no idea what can happen next. So it’s been really, really wonderful to get so much airplay on the community [radio] stations around Australia, and a really positive response from the audience as well.
Given that it is being played around Australia, can you work out where it’s being played because suddenly people start following you on social media or they’re contacting you in other ways?
Sometimes you know from the radio stations themselves, or people who are using it through the airing services. Sometimes it’s from getting a message from somebody far away who is letting you know that they’ve heard the track and they’ve enjoyed it.
The themes of most of the songs on this EP seem to trend towards love and desire – not all of them, but a lot of them. How difficult is it to capture those themes and those feelings, not just in lyrics but in tone?
I guess the tone’s quite important for me and I like that to come across with each song. I get a feeling when I’m writing it that I want it to have a particular sound to it to emphasise what the lyrics of the song are about. I went in with a lot of notes about that kind of thing when I went to record, and the producer was pretty understanding of what I wanted, which was fantastic. I was nervous going in to my first recording wondering whether I was explaining myself well enough or whether I’ll be able to translate what’s in my head into the right words to tell the producer. It turned out [to be] pretty much what I had in my head, so that was fantastic.
Sometimes as a singer there are times when it’s just not coming out the way you want it to – it’s that mystical thing about singing that there can be something else blocking what you really want to do and you don’t know how to fix it.
Yes. It’s one of the challenges with the writing process as well, when you know that you’ve got something that’s starting to form and maybe you’ve got to spend some time on something else, and you’re kind of stuck and you know you’ve got to spend time on the song. Or something else is interfering with your thoughts about whatever the subject matter of the song is. It can be quite distracting. I choose at the moment to live by myself so I have limited distractions at home when I’m writing.
Do you have any tricks or techniques when that happens? Some people might go for a walk or they might take ten breaths.
Sometimes I find it helpful to put it down and walk away, whether it means I leave it for an hour or ten minutes, or whether I need to go right away from it for a while and let the idea develop a little bit more in your head, or just give it some space. Some of the songs come quite easily, I suppose, and others I need to sit on for a bit longer and figure out what the story’s really going to be about and develop it a bit further.
Some of the songs are about an ‘other’ – there is a character, for want of a better term, who is not you.
[Laughs] There’s a second party.
Did you write those ‘others’ literally – you’re thinking of a particular person – or are they idealised others?
Sometimes it is a specific person when I write but I have heard other performers announce on stage, ‘Oh gosh, I have to do this song but it’s now about somebody I hate.’ I guess what I prefer to do is not to attach a permanent feeling to a song – well, the songs that I’ve written so far have been fairly positive stories anyway, so there’s certainly nobody that I ate who’s been [an inspiration] in these particular circumstances [laughs]. But something that I’m a little bit conscious of is not letting that other character take over my feeling towards a song if it was a negative situation – but they’re all positive situations. And a lot of the time it might be a specific person or situation that’s inspired a particular song but I think you draw on other experiences as you write – at least, I do. So it might have started with the seed of one particular situation or one idea but I might start thinking about other things that aren’t specific to one particular situation might have continued the story.
And I suppose that’s the art of taking your work to a broader audience – realising that there are experiences that we all have in common as humans, and making sure that you’re transmitting what’s happening to you personally in a way that everyone can relate to.
Yes, I think so. Songs can mean different things to different people. I know I’ve heard songs and thought, That song is about me! I know exactly how that feels. And then your friend might be sitting next to you and say, ‘This is exactly like what happened to me.’ And if you were to tell each other the story of why you think it’s about you, they could be two very different stories. I think it’s interesting the way people interact with songs and lyrics, and what they mean to them.
The way you sing – and I am sure you have heard this because you have that torch-song quality to your voice – it sounds like a seduction. If the song has an ‘other’ then it sounds like a seduction of that other, but there’s also that thing that happens with a singer, that the audience is necessarily involved. I hesitate to say that it’s a triangular seduction …
But there’s an element of seducing the audience. Every time you’re performing – and especially, I would think, when you’re recording and there’s no audience there – how do you summon that?
I try to think about what I was writing about, whether I’m attaching a particular person to the song or not. I try to think about the emotions that are involved in the story – I try to draw on that as much as I can. I think I’m fairly emotive when I’m performing and I’ve been known to shed the odd tear in a sad song. I think I would feel really weird if I stopped connecting some kind of emotion to a song. It would be harder for me to sing. Even if I decide to sing a cover I would want to choose a song that means a lot to me, that I can emotionally relate to, otherwise there’s too much disconnect – unless it’s something for fun, I suppose.
Especially if that’s what your audience becomes used to – they know they can have a certain type of experience with you, and if you weren’t having that yourself it’s not a betrayal of the audience but certainly they’d be disappointed.
I think so. It’s something I had comments on fairly early on when I started performing, about things like, ‘You’re quite emotive’, or ‘You have a way to connect with people by sharing emotional stories with people’. That emotional connection is a big part of who I am as a performer.
Listening to you talk I’m thinking about the creative life of a performer and songwriter, and what you need to summon each time you perform. It could be quite an isolating lifestyle, in some ways. Do you feel sometimes not that you’re alone in the world but that it’s your creative path to tread and yours alone sometimes.
It can feel that way. Writing alone feels sometimes like, ‘Oh goodness, this is just me by myself’. But I do get to perform quite often in a trio, and they’re used to me getting a bit emotional in rehearsal. It can feel alone, and the extra things you have to do around the writing and the performing – which, obviously, is why we go into it. All the other business that you have to do around it can be what feels the lonely part. But I’ve been fortunate to have some people give me some good advice and I have support from musicians who I play with, and a bit of help from a few key mentoring people.
And the other side of that is that music is an irresistible force – if that’s what’s in your life, and you feel that you need to obey it, there’s not a lot of choice there.
No. It’s something I always wanted to do but I was very nervous about doing, and from the moment that I did get up and sing something in front of a crowd – which was a cover – from that first moment I had a really strong sense of, Wow, this is what I want to do. And even though I still felt really nervous about it for some time, I guess I felt that this was becoming who I am, if that makes sense. As soon as I started writing probably even more so, I guess. It’s been quite a life-changing journey for me. It’s very exciting.
I’ll go now to the nitty-gritty of musicality. On ‘Wayward Girl’ you use a music box and on ‘Weight of Gold’ you wrote a trumpet part because you used to play trumpet. You have your voice as an instrument and you’re writing the songs – are you intrigued by the idea of adding these other instruments?
Yes. I know that my voice is my best instrument. It’s certainly the one I’m the most confident using. I do love instruments generally – I wish I could magically be able to play every kind of instrument but obviously that’s going to take some time. But I learnt piano as a child and did a little bit of clarinet and some trumpet at school. Now when I perform I’m mostly playing acoustic guitar or just singing if I’m with the trio. But I guess it’s something that I find very interesting, thinking about what else I’d want to add to the instrumentation on a track, whether it be for a recording or when I get the chance to perform with a bigger band. For my EP launch there were eight of us.
And I bet your voice was still the dominant intrument.
[laughs] I imagine so. Having a big voice, I’m conscious of allowing space for other instruments to shine through.
I don’t think of your voice as a big voice in the sense of it’s booming, but there is a rich tone that would go across other instruments.
I think that’s a good way to describe it.
If you learnt piano, clarinet and trumpet when you were younger, I’m guessing you read music. So my question it: when you’re writing music, do you write it as music or are you inclined to just note chords or something like that?
It depends a little bit. With some songs it’s chords. With the music box song I started off with guitar and piano, and then to write the music box part you have to transpose your sheet music. So it’s a little bit writing out sheet music except you’re punching holes in a special card to wind through the music box. In that case, it’s definitely about the notes. It [also] depends on the situation. When I was writing trumpet lines, because I’m relearning the trumpet still I’m not very quick at thinking what notes I’m playing, so sometimes it’s a matter of recording what I’m playing and being able to look at it later or, in the case of the EP, I had a trumpeter – Cameron Smith from Brass Knuckle Brass Band in Canberra – come and play, so I was able to pass him the couple of parts that I’d worked on myself, instead of trying to write out sheet music for everything. I’m getting a bit rusty in that department! [laughs]
You are thinking of touring to support this EP – when’s that going to happen, if you do it?
It should be later in the year. At this stage I’m looking at the last third of the year. We have to nut out a few things before I can lock it all in. I have to get a bit of time off work. It won’t be quite as cold then for us poor little north Queenslanders.
Your voice could be affected by the cold, I guess.
It can be because I’m asthmatic, so I find that the cool can sometimes get me a bit wheezy, so I have to be conscious of rugging up properly if I go somewhere a bit colder and making sure I take a bit of care and look after my instrument, I guess.
Temptation’s Door is out now.