'Music Was Our Language': Grammy Award-Winning Producer Turns the Mic on His Sister
Speaker 1: 00:00 Musician, Ian Brennan made a name for himself. Recording live shows and a San Francisco laundromat. In the 1990s, he went on to become a producer, working with Lucinda Williams, rambling, Jack Elliott and others. He then turned to field recordings of musicians around the world like prisoners in Malawi and survivors of genocide in Cambodia. Now he's made an album with his own family, his sister, Jane, who has down syndrome and her companions with developmental disabilities at an adult care facility in Contra Costa County, here's California report magazine, host, Sasha Koka with their story. They're calling themselves the sheltered workshops. Speaker 2: 00:55 [inaudible] Speaker 1: 00:55 Tell us about Jane. What was it like growing up together? Speaker 3: 00:59 Well, it was great growing up together. Uh, Jane is, and was one of the biggest factors in my life. The most significant individual, uh, growing up really in my whole world was her we're only 14 months apart. Music was our language of communicating with one another. Um, I was verbal before my sister was verbal though. She was older. You know, the, the day I walked, I walked before she did, she walked the next day. You know, she wasn't about to see her little brother walking, you know, without being able to do it herself. So, so our destinies were quite entwined and, and she taught me how to listen. She taught me a way of listening to listen, not to the words, but to listen to the spirit. And the beautiful thing about her is that she is mostly nonverbal, but she knows the words to every song. She just makes them up. As she goes along, Listen to each other more carefully. We learn and we have so much to learn from each other. And this is what I learned from my sister is that she may be developmentally delayed and yet her emotional intelligence, her IQ is higher than almost anybody I've ever met. Speaker 1: 02:22 Well, there's one track. I know that you can hear her singing quite clearly on in this album. It's called farewell father. I love it. Speaker 2: 02:33 [inaudible] Speaker 3: 02:35 Well, my father, um, was 85 years old and, uh, we, we had had an idea about doing a recording with Jane and her peers. For years, we realized that if we're going to do this, we need to do this. Now, my father had been diagnosed with less than a year to live. And, um, Jane is now 55 and, uh, the life, unfortunately for her population, her generation with down syndrome is 60 Speaker 2: 03:08 [inaudible]. Speaker 3: 03:09 We did the recordings with three generations with my three year old daughter with my father present and with Jane and her peers, many of whom I've known their entire lives. And, uh, so that is Jane singing to my father and telling him goodbye. And in fact, he passed away two months after Speaker 1: 03:31 You were nominated for a Grammy for your recordings of music by prisoners, inside SOMBA prison in Malawi. And you won a Grammy for best world music album for your recordings, with Tanara, when musicians who have roots in Mali and Algeria Speaker 2: 03:52 [inaudible] Speaker 1: 03:52 And now coming back to California and turning your mic on your own sister, I wonder what that was like for you to do something so deeply personal, and also what you think this project has in common with your other projects. Speaker 3: 04:05 Well, I mean, it felt like literally coming home and it really came full circle musically because the music for me really started with, with her. And, uh, it's, it's been deeply rewarding, uh, to hear those voices. And again, to see that there are no way musical people, music is everywhere it's necessary for survival. And I think that the voices here are unlike any others. And the things that are expressed are real. This record is comprised of instant compositions with people that had never written songs before, uh, you know, song into a microphone before or, or played instruments before nonetheless, uh, the results were, were stunning. And, uh, so it was a leap of faith. Speaker 1: 05:04 Well, tell us about the instruments on this album, you know, in your field recording around the world, you've often had people use instruments that are improvised, like glass bottles or, you know, bicycle spokes. What were the instruments like on this album? Speaker 3: 05:19 Well, we used, uh, some of the individual's own devices. Uh, the wheelchairs, the, the, the canes, there was a yoga ball. This 100% live what's you're hearing is something that half and most recordings nowadays, what we hear is something that never happened. It's a simulation of an event that never actually occurred. I am invested in trying to represent a place in time and a moment in time that can connect people to reality in such a way that they can hear better. And I think that if at the end of a song, you don't feel differently than you felt at the beginning of the song. And that song has failed. Speaker 1: 06:13 I'm thinking about that song, that Janet, one of the participants sinks, I'm not afraid of anything. Speaker 3: 06:26 Janet is in a wheelchair and she's middle-aged, and I'm suddenly in the midst of the improvisation. She began as a mantra, almost saying over and over again, I'm not afraid of anything. It just seemingly came out of nowhere and it was very moving. Speaker 1: 06:45 No, no, no, no. Speaker 3: 06:52 Here are those boasts. So often in our culture, you know, a lot of macho boasts about, I'm not afraid of anybody. I'm not afraid of anything. I'm a strong person. And then to see somebody saying that very matter of fact, but very clearly owning it and meaning it was so powerful and moving, I'm just in awe of many of the people on the record and, and, and true strength and true grit. Speaker 1: 07:18 There's also a song that I found very moving, called bad memories by Tom. Speaker 3: 07:32 Tom is another individual that has difficulty with ambulation, as well as being intellectually or developmentally delayed. He has to wear a helmet through the seizures. And, um, he, again, in the midst of an improvisation began talking about bad memories over and over again. And it was chilling to think what he might be referring to when you know that their population is literally statistically, the most vulnerable population, the most abused population of any in the world. Uh, some estimates say that as many as 90% of them are sexually abused and, or physically abused at some point in their lives. So to hear him talking about bad memories was, uh, was staggering and chilling. Speaker 1: 08:25 What message do you think that these songs have for us in a time when there's so much anxiety and fear and isolation in the world? Speaker 3: 08:34 What I've always learned from Jane and her peers, uh, throughout my life is, uh, is perseverance and tenacity and acceptance that it's not a surrender, so to speak, but acceptance of limitations, and then working with them and beyond them, there's a woman grace on the album and she reportedly goes and sings and consoles herself by singing often for hours at a time. And she makes up these incredible melodies. They're very intricate, [inaudible] unique and complex. Some people have heard them and they say, well, what language is that in? And it's, it's, it's easy. It's in the language of music. It's the universal language. There are no words to those songs. So people are trying to find the meaning and the meaning is embedded in the music itself. These lives have value and they may be overlooked, but they have incredible value. That might be a greater contribution to our society than, than some people might have ever considered or, or recognize Speaker 1: 10:05 Musician and producer. I, in Brennan talking about his new album, who you calling slow, featuring the sheltered workshops singers, and that was California report magazine, host, Sasha, Coca.