A lifelong singer and songwriter feels the pull between his passion and his livelihood
When Terry Brennan strums his guitar, the music seems to spill out of him – tunes of love lost, love found and life lived.
He’s an old-fashioned folk and roots musician who critics call a master craftsman of songs. He records on a simple home studio in Langford using tape cassettes. His Gibson J-200 guitar, once first love of his life, “is now my second,” after his wife Kate.
For a guy who has hung out with Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and who has written hundreds of songs, many to great acclaim, Brennan has found fame – or at least commercial fame – painfully elusive.
At 63, Brennan has been working gigs for 45 years, since the days of sneaking into clubs in Yorkville area of Toronto as a teenager. As a youth he was on a path toward high-level baseball, but folk and blues music of the late 1960s was his calling.
“My dad wanted me to play second base for the the New York Yankees,” Brennan says laughing. “I was well on my way when Bob Dylan ruined all that.”
Brennan moved to the West Coast in the late 1960s to seek out adventure, becoming a cowboy on a ranch in Merritt, and a miner in the Yukon. It was there in the north with a girlfriend he was shot at by a jealous estranged husband – fine fodder for future songs. “I remember a crazy laugh in the night,” he says. “I was lying in bed when bullets came through the wall.”
He has always kept one foot in the folk and blues scene and the other at a regular, steady job. Being a vagabond starving artist didn’t sit well with the self-taught guitar player, who has been at everything from a restaurant manager to a handyman to a gardener.
It’s a decision he’s wrestled with throughout his career as a singer and songwriter. With a voice and song writing sensibility somewhere between Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot, Brennan consistently won music writing contests in the 1990s and earned accolades as a performer, but he put more time and energy into crafting music than self promotion.
In the 1980s and 90s, he performed off and on at music festivals based on reputation and recommendations from other performers. These days the competition is fierce, plentiful and from around the world – and folk fests are books years in advance.
“You can make a good living between being a pop success and where I’m at,” Brennan says. “I’m not headed toward stardom. These days I’ve got more modest goals.”
Married and living in Langford for six years now, he works at GardenWorks in Colwood, but with the help of his wife as a promoter and manager, Brennan is tackling the Western Canada folk circuit with renewed energy.
“It’s been six years since I’ve moved to Vancouver Island and I’ve worked way more,” he says. “There’s better venues, better audiences. I like playing for audiences who really listen.”
Beyond smaller venues around the Capital Region, this weekend he is performing at the Vancouver Island Exhibition in Nanaimo. Next year he’s aiming for folk fests in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. He’s also performing with friend Roger Plant, a performer “who completes the musical picture.”
“From the get-go he fit in like butter and jam. We’ve still never rehearsed, it’s effortless,” Brennan says. “Using my original songs and Roger’s fingers, we’ll get some sweet gigs.”
Playing his guitar and writing music – Brennan has a repertoire of some 200 original songs and hundreds more of works in progress – remains his passion. He still agonizes over every chorus and every word, although it’s easier to craft music when times are tough, not when he has a happy, stable home life.
“I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights over one word. I’m a stickler for a well written song – it should sound like it fell out of the apple tree. They don’t have to be complicated, but they have a lot to say.
"You should never have to fight to know what a song is about. They’re about love lost, love found and about resolving things, a spiritual journey.”
For more on Terry Brennan, see radio3.cbc.ca/#/bands/Terry-Brennan. He his perfoming at Saanich Music in the Park in Rudd Park, Aug. 23, 6 to 8 p.m. and at Mattick’s Farm, Sept. 4, 1 to 3 p.m.