BRENDAN MACLEAN – A VAUDEVILLIAN CONUNDRUM

Brendan Maclean is a showman.

Listening cold turkey to his music, it’s easy to pigeonhole the artist: pop-synth melodies and chirpy riffs saturate his music and, if you’re not really paying attention, you could almost be forgiven for drawing false conclusions of stereotype and genralisation. But dabbling pinkies into tepid waters will never give you a consummate experience, and Brendan Maclean is a deep pool of aquamarine sparkles that you have to dive right into before you let the book cover lay judgement.

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Brendan is ridiculously talented, one of those prodigious characters who can illuminate any situation with their mere presence and entertain an audience with a pair of spoons and a cheeky smile. As a songwriter, he has distinctly chosen a pop-influenced pathway, but his music reaches so much deeper than the homogenised sounds of conventional teen-pop tunes.

“I came from a folk, story-writing background,” he reflects, “so what I try to do is make a pop song that has a purposeful story to it that means something. None of my songs are like, ‘at the clu-u-ub, dancing dru-u-unk…’ If I am at the club dancing drunk, I’m also having my heart broken at the same time and trying to dance it off. So it’s pop music with a folk heart.”

Brendan’s heart and influence lay in the cabaret of performance. This serves as inspiration and compliment to his music but also presents a lavish, exuberant live experience for his audience. Many artists can play a live show, play it exceptionally well, but essentially offer only their music. But with Brendan Maclean, you’d better be prepared to leave your inhibitions at home and brace yourself for sensory extravagance.

“I come from a theatrical career path. I started as a dancer first, and then went into acting, so by the time I figured out that I liked making music and singing I already had a lot of theatre in me. You can get stuck  in the cabaret, but when you think about it, big pop shows are really just cabaret on a giant budget, with money and pounding beats. I think, in Australia, everyone seems to be ashamed of doing cabaret pieces. We need to lose that shame and shoe-gazing mentality and embrace the cabaret. I want to be the vanguard of bringing campness into mainstream performance!”

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Perhaps a little of a contradiction to the more reserved observer, Brendan is one of this year’s headlining acts at the Woodford Folk Festival. But, with just a quick peak outside the box of conformity, his inclusion on the lineup makes perfect sense. His music may fall, in a very generalised sense, into the mainstream and bare little in common to Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel or even some of his fellow Woodfordians, such as Tim Finn, Matt Corby or Clare Bowditch. But the storytelling of his lyrics and the vaudevillian opulence of his performances make him as much a relevant inclusion as any straw-chewing, banjo-strumming folkster out there.

“The organisers of Woodford have just been fantastic,” he says. “I asked, ‘just how fabulous should my performance be?’ and they replied, ‘bring all the fabulousness you can!’ They asked what five things I would bring to Woodford, and I answered a unicorn shooting laser beams out of its butt or something like that. They replied, ‘there is certainly no illusion as to what you’ll be bringing to Woodford”!

Having toured with Kate Miller-Heidke and Amanda Palmer, Brendan has had some very rich influence in creating his on-stage persona. Costume changes, backing dancers and vibrant light shows are all in a day’s work for the born showman, but an expansion, perhaps a maturity in his performance has come about through his collaborations.

“What I learned from Amanda Palmer is to give the audience permission to fully immerse themselves in the experience, to get up there on stage and say, ‘come with me – this is your invitation to have the best night of your life.'”

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Brendan’s naturally flamboyant style, coupled with his exceptional talent as both a songwriter and artist, has lead to more than a few incredible experiences, but when the casting agent for Baz Lhurman’s recent on-screen over-indulgence, The Great Gatsby, came calling, things reached a whole new dimension.

“I wasn’t even in the running to audition for the role,” he recalls. “But an intern in Baz Luhrman’s office found a video of mine called ‘Practically Wasted‘, sent it along to Baz and said, ‘what about this guy?’. So then I got called in, I did a few auditions, I played the organ and showed off as much as I could and snagged the part! So, whoever that intern is, I love you forever!”

A defining moment in his career perhaps, but certainly not the one and only trick of this little pony. Woodford is going to be receiving an incredible Christmas present in Brendan Maclean, his shows promising to be a breathtaking melange of cabaret, pop, jazz and unreserved lavishness. But his performances won’t be limited to just his more recognised stylings. On tour with Kate Miller-Heidke when offered the Woodford gig, he asked the festival veteran how he should approach the event. “Do as much as you can” were her poignant words that have inspired Brendan to bring all the grandeur he can possibly muster, as well as taking on storytelling and other performances less familiar to the artist. But it is the vaudeville that holds is passion:

“I really get in to my shows. I do dance and I do really try to engage with the audience. I’m so excited to see how the Woodford audience will react to that – hopefully they’ll dive into the shows and really enjoy them. I don’t want to give anything away, but there will definitely be a few Great Gatsby moments in the set as well.”

Go to Brendan’s Triple J page for some sample tuneage.

– This article first appeared on Common Ground Australia on Nov 29, 2013

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