INTERVIEW: Meet Cait Brennan, Princess of Power Pop
Songwriter Cait Brennan’s long and illustrious career has included music, screenwriting, a bit of acting, and, according to Curve, “almost [becoming] the first trans rock star.” Unicorn Booty recently spoke to Cait about her life, her first studio album, her Kickstarter, and surviving in the creative world.
On Her Life
Unicorn Booty: When and how did you get started?
Cait Brennan: I’ve been writing songs since I was about eight. I grew up in an unincorporated area north of Phoenix, my family worked in a seasonal horse business and we lived in a trailer, so I didn’t have any formal training—but I would sing my made-up songs into a little cheapo tape recorder. That’s where it started.
Then, as a teenager I began to perform live and write “real” songs, around the time that I was first coming out as trans, which was right at the end of my high school experience. I stopped for a while, though—didn’t get the greatest reception as a trans artist, and didn’t resume until about 2010 or so.
Unicorn Booty: What did you do in between?
Cait Brennan: Well, my sort of side career has been as a writer. I’ve worked as a screenwriter during that time. I had one feature that got made, which is a film I co-wrote called Love Or Whatever, directed by Rosser Goodman. It’s a gay romantic comedy kind of in the 1930s screwball-comedy style (though set in the present day). I also co-wrote a film this past year, directed by Nick Demos, called Policy of Truth, about a family dealing with Alzheimer’s. I’ve also done journalism, some music writing, just a lot of miscellaneous stuff. I was a teacher at a school for developmentally challenged kids, a record store clerk, the whole gamut, but no real “career” except perhaps the writing.
Unicorn Booty: How did you get into screenwriting?
Cait Brennan: I’ve always liked writing, and made a few short films as a teenager. When I was in college I took a screenwriting class as a lark, and my first screenplay won a prize in a state film commission contest. Later I won a fellowship from Outfest, the Los Angeles LGBT film festival. The brilliant Guinevere Turner, writer and actress of so many great things, was one of my mentors at that fellowship, and she connected me with the folks who directed and produced the films I co-wrote. I was very fortunate, and Guinevere’s continued to be a huge advocate for me, which I really appreciate.
Unicorn Booty: Were your parents supportive of your career and your coming out as trans?
Cait Brennan: They were! I was very lucky to have a lot of support in both those areas. I grew up mostly with my great-grandmother, and when I came out to her she said she had known the whole time, which made me smile—I thought I was being all secretive, but no. My mom has been a very vocal advocate for me and for LGBTQ issues. My dad passed away in 2005, and I can’t say he fully understood trans issues, but he was supportive in that he wanted me to be happy in whatever form that meant to me.
And, as far as music goes, my father was a professional musician, and my grandparents were as well, so I had good support there. They wanted me to get a good day job, which I never managed.
On Surviving in Music
Unicorn Booty: So you’ve mainly worked in the creative industry your whole life. Do you have any advice for people looking to get into writing or music professionally?
Cait Brennan: There’s so much I could say. For me, in terms of the writing, having good mentors and good people to bounce your ideas off of is key, and—although there are a lot of scams out there, there are also so many wonderful career development contests and fellowships that can help you develop your own voice. That’s the most important thing, I think, in any creative effort, is to have your own unique voice. You can learn all the tricks of the trade, you can produce professional level work, but only you can speak in your own voice about your own experience. When you learn to hear that and honor it, you’re doing something truly important. Speak, or sing, the truth of your life. That’s everything.
As far as music goes, I think it’s really even more true. Maybe you don’t have the perfect voice or the greatest technical skill, but if you sing or play with passion and heart and truth, you’ll reach people who value those things. That’s what matters. To me, anyway.
Unicorn Booty: Do you have any advice for supporting oneself financially while working as a creative?
Cait Brennan: It’s always a challenge. I’ve been lucky to be able to cobble together a variety of different jobs that have made it possible to keep going, and I’ve also had help from a supportive partner, so I’ve been fortunate. When I’ve been without those things, that’s when I wasn’t able to do much art, and I think a lot of creative people go through that all the time. It was a big part of why I took so long to get to the point of making my first album!
Unicorn Booty: How did you manage to balance your day job with your creative work? How did you manage to find the time and energy to keep at your music and writing while holding down a regular job?
Cait Brennan: Ah, too often I didn’t. At least, in terms of performing live and getting my work out there, I found it very difficult to find that balance, but I was always writing, always creating—it’s just something I can’t help. But being able to bring it to people, that took help.
Unicorn Booty: It seems like working in music can burn a person out pretty quickly. How did you manage to keep going all those years?
Cait Brennan: I think it depends on what you’re doing it for. It’s such a big dream for so many people, to be a rock star or whatever, but if you’re after fame and fortune it can be really cutthroat, so brutal. The expectation that if you haven’t made it by 22, it’s too late for you. But if you’re doing it because you love it, maybe because you can’t even help it, because it just has to come out, then I don’t think anybody can really stop you. If you can do something else with your life, you probably will end up doing something else with your life. If you just can’t do anything else, if you have to do it even if nobody ever listens or cares, then you’re probably in it for life.
Unicorn Booty: It looks like you’ve had a lot of success with the Kickstarter for your upcoming studio album. Any advice for artists who might want to use Kickstarter to fund their projects?
Cait Brennan: Kickstarter is a tremendous resource. I think it’s important to set a realistic goal, really present your project clearly and passionately, and offer great value for people’s support. I actually backed a large number of Kickstarters, both to support those artists and to understand what works.
I was really overwhelmed by the support I got. I guess I didn’t realize there were people there listening, people who cared, and it’s been very emotional to feel that support so loud and clear. I’m so humbled and grateful.
On Cultural Influences
Unicorn Booty: How has Buddhism influenced your work and your life?
Cait Brennan: It’s been so important. I am by no means a strict Buddhist but in general, Buddhist philosophy has helped me to get through the struggles of my life. Dealing with transition, with the conflict I felt between my assigned gender and my internal sense of self, and with my own very human desires for success versus the frustration and economic challenges so many people, trans or otherwise, go through. It’s been a great source of comfort and a reminder of what’s truly important.
Unicorn Booty: You’re a Whovian [a fan of Doctor Who]?
Cait Brennan: I give that an enthusiastic yes! I’ve been traveling with the Doctor, as it were, since the Jon Pertwee days, and haven’t missed one since. I actually wore a William Hartnell t-shirt in my Kickstarter pitch video, which probably didn’t hurt when Neil Gaiman was kind enough to tweet our link out.
I think people recognize my long term love for these things, even during the “lean years”. I’ve suffered with you, fellow Whovians.
Unicorn Booty: How has your love of Doctor Who and all other things geeky influenced your body of work?
Cait Brennan: I think, you know, there has always been for me this feeling of being kind of an outsider. I’m sure part of that comes from growing up trans in a very conservative environment, but I think I have even felt like an outsider among outsiders. Characters like the Doctor, like No. 6 in The Prisoner, like Neil Gaiman’s characters—they spoke to me, ironically enough they made me feel less alone. And a lot of my characters in my songs are aliens in their worlds. Plus there are a lot of references I sneak in for your Browncoats [Firefly fans], your Dr. Horrible fans, and even going back to stuff like Fantômas. On the second album there’s a song involving Fantômas and the Faust legend that also gets into early comic book characters and pulp detective stuff from the ‘30s. I am a proud geek and am so glad that so many of us have found our people in recent years!
Unicorn Booty: What are some of your musical influences?
Cait Brennan: The biggest one, I think, is Harry Nilsson. Harry’s been a huge part of my life and I owe him so much; I actually dedicated this album to Harry. But other big influences would be Sparks, Big Star, Iris Dement, Etta James, Roy Orbison. And the Mills Brothers, who were an amazing vocal group from the 1930s—their multipart harmonies are a big part of my own harmony vocals.
Unicorn Booty: Can you tell me a little bit about your songwriting process? What comes first—concept or lyrics or melody or what?
Cait Brennan: It really varies. Sometimes I’ll write lyrics and then try to come up with music that fits the theme, but more often, I’ll stumble across a melody or a fragment of words and melody together, and what I usually do is sing that into a voice recorder, much like when I was a little kid. Then I’ll play that back and refine it, or develop the music and adlib more lyrics. I’m obsessed with phonemes, with the way different parts of the words sound, and that drives a lot of my lyrical choices. I also do things like cutups, where I write down words and cut them up and scramble them. It’s a technique I totally swiped from Bowie, who I should have listed as a massive influence and just forgot.
Unicorn Booty: I have a question about one of your songs (one of the more popular ones at performances), “Madame Pompadour”. What’s it about? Any relation to the historical figure?
Cait Brennan: “Madame Pompadour” is one of the classic examples of me just going with whatever craziness comes out of my mouth when I’m ad-libbing lyrics. That phrase from the chorus — “lash me to the mast, Madame Pompadour!” — just came out of me and I had no idea at first where it came from. But it became, for me, a story about a sailor lost at sea, for whom Madame De Pompadour was his own personal vision of hope. The original demo had passages in French that kind of explained this, but neither I nor the audience could manage to sing them reliably. And I acknowledge a lot of influence from the Doctor Who episode in which the Doctor meets Madame de Pompadour and a sort of frustrated love develops between them. I’m a big fan of science fiction, fantasy, genre stuff, and it comes up in my work a lot.
Unicorn Booty: Can you tell me about your upcoming studio album?
Cait Brennan: The album is called Debutante and it was produced by myself and a wonderfully talented producer named Fernando Perdomo. Fern co-produced the comeback album by Linda Perhacs last year on Sufjan Stevens’ label, and he’s worked with Todd Rundgren and Emitt Rhodes and all sorts of amazing people. He is a huge fan of my songs, and vice versa, and we just hit it off. The songs come from all phases of my life, some from my early days and some as new as yesterday! I’d say it’s a mix of indie and psych soul sounds, a lot of harmonies, and my strange little stories and wordplay. It’s sort of a reinvention of 60s/70s pop for modern life.
Unicorn Booty: What are your plans for the future, beyond the studio album?
Cait Brennan: Right now my focus is just reaching as many people as possible with this music—whether through Kickstarter or regular distribution—and playing live shows, doing whatever I can to share these songs. It’s a lifetime of love and passion we poured into five crazy days and nights of recording—12 songs in five days. But we are already getting started on the second album and I very much hope this one is just the first of many. I can’t see myself ever doing anything else.
Disclosure: Cait Brennan is a friend of the associate editor of Unicorn Booty.