Brendan Maclean is many things – he’s a musician, songwriter, actor, ukulele maestro and, if you get him on the dance-floor, you’re bound to have some serious shapes thrown your way (Looking at you, Adelaide Fringe Festival Artist Bar).
I first got to know more about Maclean was back in 2012 – he was stuck in an airport in Namibia, having spent a week in Africa with good friend iOTA who at the time, was filming Mad Max: Fury Road. He was on his way back to Australia, where a role in John Curran‘s Tracks awaited. Though being in Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby had brought Maclean solid attention, that first chat introduced me to an individual who still remained effortlessly funny, humble and very self-aware.
Fast forward to this week – I reconnect with Maclean who, once again, is overseas, this time in London. He’s been out in Europe and the UK writing and performing, but is now looking to be returning home in just under a week. Admittedly, the trip hasn’t been your typical whirlwind European getaway; having five EP releases to your name and a publishing deal doesn’t equate to instant shows and studio time upon arrival.
“It’s served me up a pretty cold dish of, ‘Get your shit together Maclean.'” he admits. “I forgot that I’m an independent artist; maybe I was expecting too much from my publishing contract? I mean, they’re not a record label, they do administrative duties and that’s about it. When I arrived and no one could get me in a studio (for three months, mind you) I was pretty disheartened. I shut down and remained depressed and stoned for two weeks.”
“Flash forward to me losing my phone, wallet and passport and crying inside an oven, I got out a book and just wrote, ‘Who is on tour? Get the support slot. Record something. Make a video.’ I’ve done that and I’m ready to come home.”
On the Australian front, 2015 and 2016 kept Maclean on the road consistently touring through multiple venues with the acclaimed stage production of Velvet. The ARIA-nominated show saw Maclean star as the central character alongside the likes of Marcia Hines and a cast of impressive burlesque, acrobatic and physical theatre performers – returning to his own music once the tour cycle wound down was a relief for Maclean, though he notes the experience wasn’t without its upsides.
“We did approximately seven million shows of Velvet. I’m done. Positives? It has improved my vocal ability to no end and now I call Marcia Hines one of my family members. I mean, listen to my range on “Stupid” and then listen to “Never Enough”. I’ve got Velvet to thank for that. Although they did replace my character with a straight dude and I was like, ‘Um.'”
Somehow, when he wasn’t on the road with Velvet, Maclean orchestrated the release of a brand new EP in funbang1. The seven track record is a perfect pop snapshot of the writer and performer Maclean has become over the past few years; at its most upbeat, the EP is unashamedly celebratory and even at its darkest, funbang1 remains an intoxicating listen. Charting solidly on the iTunes charts, not to mention the AIR Independent Charts came as a surprise for Maclean, but indicated that yes, people were ready for this type of record to be made.
“The initial charting was a surprise.” he admits. “It popped up the #4 on iTunes, #2 in the Carlton Independent Charts and even jumped into the ARIA charts for a hot second; something lame like #89 overall, but #19 on the Digital Sales Charts, which is cool. That legitimises my decision to make a pop record in some way. I mean, naturally, it got next to no radio play and absolutely no record label interest, but does anyone expect me to ever get that?”
Most recently, we’ve seen the latest funbang1 music video revealed; another stunning clip directed by Josh Harris.
“One thing was,” Maclean adds. “People are like, ‘Where was the tour?’. To be frank, touring the record was never apart of the plan; after Velvet, I was done with spectacles and backing tracks, so I just went straight back to the drawing board. That doesn’t mean I’m not about to finish a video for every song on funbang1!”
While Maclean has remained proud of the level of work reflected on funbang1 and the support it has received, he’s still open about the state of pop music in Australia, particularly when it comes to independent artists and the genre. Having now been able to experience how pop is perceived in the European and US markets, Maclean opens up about how Australia differs.
“We don’t have a pop music industry in Australia,” he says. “Or if we do, everyone is embarrassed by it. I mean, Christ, I don’t want this to be another, “[blank] says they are proud not to add alt or indie in front of the word pop” articles, because I’ve read 800 of them. But let’s be very clear, the stigma around me isn’t that I make pop music, the stigma around me is that I’m a very outspoken queer artist.”
“Labels and touring agents basically need me to hand them a full capacity venue and a Number One charting record that has already succeeded overseas to be comfortable with me. Yes, there is the, “But Courtney Barnett and Troye Sivan can do it!” – well sure, but they did it by themselves; Courtney by working with Jen Cloher on their own label and Troye by creating fucking great content online for over a decade, releasing a song by himself that went to Number One. Then the labels swooped in and would probably like us to believe they were always there. I’ll find my way, but you can bet I’ll never be swept up and represented by any established label here; I’m certain if I do break through, it will be via New York, San Francisco or London.”
“Perhaps there is a shift happening,” he says of a perhaps more widespread acceptance of unashamed pop music in Australian circles. “But this fear of pop isn’t really a fear of a ‘genre’, it’s that they are afraid of being seen as gay or, further to the point, emasculated because they see pop as something a woman does which they think is degrading; in the words of Madonna, they think being a woman is degrading.”
Exposure to the way musicians and other writers operate overseas has been an experience Maclean has learned much from, as well as realigning his perspectives on creating music and what lay outside the Australian bubble for artists who might want to do things a little differently.
“Travel will set you free.” he says. “It’s all perspective. I really stopped worrying about Australian radio play the day I landed in New York. I worked at triple j at the time and was bragging; no one had any idea what I was talking about. No one knew a single artist in our top ten charts. Nobody knows about the ‘conspiracies’ of the ‘Richard Kingsmill Monopoly’ and pay-for-coverage sites like MusicFeeds or ToneDeaf are redundant on your poster. In that sense, it’s taught me to focus less on worrying about our industry and more on enjoying the ride. That’s a lesson Paul Mac and Jonny Seymour passed on; if you are making music to ‘beat the system’ in Australia, you’ve missed the point.”
“As Australians we have a beautiful, strange, unique identity that we should use to create beautiful, strange and unique music – not just to stand around wondering why your latest track isn’t getting played on Home & Hosed. Like, get over it, no one cares.”
Looking ahead to his return home and the end of 2016, Maclean’s already starting to get things ready for some exciting shows and new music in the very near future. He’s been cast in a new TV show and will be popping up on the summer festival circuit but for Maclean’s fans, you’ll be happy to know he’s getting back into producing some new sounds.
“[It’s] time for me to produce my own work again,” he says. “Lately, I seem to be consolidating the production values I’ve come to enjoy but blending in more layers of actual, ya know, instruments! Crazy. Oh, and I want to yell a little more – think Arcade Fire meets Fiona Apple meets Brendan Maclean.”
“First up is Woodford [Folk Festival],” Maclean reveals, looking at the final months of 2016. “I’ll be popping up at a few different festivals including my first headliner in Perth! Sorry that took ten years. Someone has also foolishly cast me in a television show. I can’t say much about it but to my friends in Adelaide, crack out the welcome sign because Papa Maclean is gonna be hanging around for awhile!”