I met Irish-born, Vienna-based singer songwriter Brendan Doran at a bar near Wien Hauptbahnhof a couple of weeks ago.
His name had been suggested to me by a fellow musician as someone I should meet. Particularly as he was in the process of restarting a music career he had let go of almost a decade ago.
A decade in which, it turns out, much soul-searching had gone on by Doran as to who he thought he was and why he had simply stopped writing songs one day. Stone cold stopped.
So the first thing I wanted to know was this. Why does someone suddenly stop writing songs? And not just anyone, but someone who, I had heard, was far more talented than many musicians who have been busy building themselves decent careers in the meantime. And not just stop writing songs, but stop performing as well?
Why did you give up on it?
“Because I stopped writing. I left Vienna, went to Helsinki, had a bad break up. A few different things.”
And then he stopped for a moment to think.
“I don’t think the break up was the reason why…no, you know, looking back it probably was.
I got loads of stuff from that relationship (songwriting-wise)…she was a good inspiration, you know. But anyway I got back to Dublin and I was like “F*ck her – I’ll get back to Dublin and I’ll record all these tunes”. And I did write a bit when I was home but then I just dried up.
And I was thinking “It doesn’t matter. It’ll come back”. And then a year passes. Then two, then four, and then people are coming up to you saying “Are you playing?” you know, and I say “No” and they’re like “Why not?” and I’m like “I don’t f*ckin know to be honest”. But I’m not. And then time just keeps passing.
And I was looking at an interview with Noel Gallagher recently and he said Paul Weller told him “If you ever have writer’s block, don’t chase it or it’ll run further away”. But I didn’t chase it though, I didn’t f*ckin chase it, so I’m listening to Noel Gallager and I’m thinking “Yeah, sound advice”. But I didn’t chase it, so what does that explain?”
And he laughed.
“For years afterwards, the only time I played piano was when I came home after a night out.
And I think the only reason I played then, at two or three in the morning, was because I’d let go of my inhibitions.
Because I taught myself to play the piano, so I never learned covers and so the song writing was …that’s all I did…writing my songs, playing my songs.
So when that dried up, there was no outlet, there was no Plan B where I could play with bands. If there had have been, songwriting would have probably come back after live experiences with different musicians.
But I just stopped writing songs and it didn’t come back. And any time I sat at the piano, it didn’t sound as good as, say, when I was 24 or 25.
Then, as time passed, the songs I wrote back then weren’t relevant to me anymore”.
And so what made you start writing again?
“A break up.”
Again? So a break up stopped it, and a break up started you back up again?
“Yeah, and I’ll tell you what’s great about being single again, you can really write what you want. But I can honestly say my songs now are better than what I was writing in my 20s. Even though I was just tunnel vision then – writing, writing, writing – I was just on a roll, like.
Back then, people were coming up to me and saying “I have a friend who has a studio and you should record there”, and my thinking then was “Why record, man? I’m gonna be writing a new song next week”, you know.
But looking back, the songs now, they’re much deeper. Much deeper. And, like I said, it’s great to be writing songs when you’re single, because I had to hide so many things when I was in the other room writing and in a relationship.
And I’d come outside and she’d ask “What’s that about?” and I’m like “What? Not you” and she’d be like “Are you sure it’s not about me?” and I’d be like “Nah, it’s not”.
I mean if I was with a girl and I met another girl, even if it wasn’t any sexual thing but I was just fascinated, I couldn’t write that if I was with someone. They’d be like “What the hell you doing, man?”.
I mean, come on, that’s lyrical cheating.”
And we both laughed at the thought of ‘lyrical cheating’, and how it actually is a form of cheating as innocent as it may be meant.
So you’re back to playing now? How often are you playing?
“The first gig I did after nine years away was in November. That was with Claus (Claus Kaputto of Vienna band Choke On Me), and that was great. He’s great.
But I practiced for a year before that, and I rarely practice normally, I just write songs and I leave them.
But that first gig, I was so nervous. After nine years not playing. And then the songs were so raw, so personal. So the whole time before the gig I was just thinking “Is this gonna work, man?”. You know? Am I told old for this, you know what I mean?”
How old are you?
“35”. (And I’ve course, I laughed, because he is still young).
“And now I don’t feel like that since I’ve been back because the reception I got has been great.
But it’s not just music, it’s life and fear. We don’t achieve stuff because of fear. Even on a daily basis. I mean I go into school in the morning (he’s a teacher) and I sometimes have a fear of how it’s going to go.
But another thing I’ve learned in the last few years too is that I never used to live in the now. Even when things were good. Pissed off about yesterday, stressed out about next Friday. Never lived in the now. Never enjoyed what I had. Never.
I never appreciated anything. Even when I was out writing songs all the time. Never appreciated it. Now I definitely live in the now, and I appreciate everything. I’ve got a clearer mindset.”
And so what about gigs since? How have they been?
“Most have been really good.
But I did a gig recently and I wasn’t happy with it. Because I had a time limit and so I started to think “What am I fitting in here to give it variety?” And so I lost touch with me, and why I was doing it.
But I learned a lot from that gig.
I had a time limit and, obviously, I know my songs well. So I was relaxed two weeks before but then, a few days before, I started picking songs to play and I just lost touch with why I’m playing. I got up on stage that night, and I was tense and I was shit.”
Why do you think that happened?
“The guy organizing it asked me “Where do you want your piano?”, and I usually play in front of the audience. But he said “Why don’t you play to the side, it might be cool?”
And I was like “Whatever you say, man. I’ll play upside down, doesn’t matter to me. Because I’m always willing to try something new”.
But then I got up on stage and I played one song, and I was like “I didn’t enjoy that”. Then suddenly I’m on the fourth song, and I’m not enjoying it at all.
When I play, I close my eyes, so I don’t normally give a f*ck what’s going on, but that night I did.
And it was a gig I was really looking forward to doing. It was a good gig to get, a room full of songwriters, and I knew my songs were up to standard. But it was horrible. At least in my head.
But if there’s one thing I learnt from that, and it’s a good thing, it’s to have the piano facing the audience. And because I didn’t, I just never switched on all night. Couldn’t get that connection with the audience.
Like any musician, I just need to get in the zone like I’m playing in my bedroom and, once I’m in the zone, I’m fine. Not that night.
Entirely my fault, though. I should have thought about the position of the piano beforehand. And I didn’t.
I didn’t get to sleep until 3:30 that night I was so pissed at myself. Then again everyone is going to have that one gig where they hate how it turns out.”
And then the conversation moved to the Austrian music scene, because I am always interested in which musicians other musicians think are worth something.
Especially here in Vienna, where the music scene sometimes seems to be all over the place. And in a country with some very good musicians, but musicians that don’t do well outside Austria for the most part.
Who do you like in the Austrian music scene?
“There’s a Swiss guy called David Howald. I clicked on his video and I thought “Holy shit”. I was blown away by what he’s doing. (And he’s correct. Just listen to him here because, Jesus…)
But a lot of the time, when I get invited to an Open Mike night, I click on the videos of the people who are playing and it’s often clichéd, and not very good.
And it’s not usually because they’re not talented. Just that you’re looking at them and you’re thinking “One, I don’t believe you. I mean, you’re listening to them on stage and you’re thinking “I don’t believe anything you’re saying there, man”.
To be good, there has to be passion, and I just don’t always see it here. And if you have no passion in what you’re singing, then how the hell is anyone going to believe you?
Like for me, I’m sure there are better piano players and better singers than me but…they have no passion. No balls.
And then sometimes they have the passion, but their message isn’t strong. They’re up there on stage singing about their sister teaching English in Taiwan.
I mean, anyone can sing about love. But you have to have an angle on it. Or, sure, if your sister teaching English in Taiwan is a hooker and held up a bank, then… (and he laughs).
One of my main influences in songwriting, though, is Ryan Adams. He sings a lot about love and break ups and shit but, when you listen to his music, he doesn’t sound like a broken-hearted songwriter. He conveys that feeling….you know like on that song ‘Come Pick Me Up’.
I mean, look at that lyric. That’s not an amazing lyric, but it’s the way he conveys it, the way he sings it, He’s longing for this girl, this girl that cheated on him with all his friends — “Come pick me up, man”. He’s down and out.
It’s the way you sing it. I mean, if someone is in a band and they’re just singing one line over and over, the line can be basic but, if it just builds and builds, then it’s in your head.
Elbow are great for that. Watch them live at Glastonbury and you’ll see. (And you can do that right here and, man they’ll give you goosebumps). Holy shit, man.
And then there are some bands where you don’t really need the lyrics, it’s the energy of the band.
But, I have to admit, I f*ckin love it when I see someone up there who is good. It’s amazing.”
So, back to Vienna. Who do you like here?
“A few people.
I like Mark Peters. He did a nice mellow little gig at a cafe at Brunnenmarkt recently (Wirr am Brunnenmarkt) where he played really well. And I really like Connie Dee’s voice (Choke On Me). She has something.
I know and like Stuart Neville as well. (A Scottish singer based in Vienna). He’s fantastic.”
And what do you think about songwriting when it comes to getting input from other people?
Because this is a subject that has come up for me in almost every interview I have done in Vienna. How there is a lot of collaboration between musicians here and how many Vienna-based musicians help others as much as they can.
“In song writing , I absolutely believe you’ve got to be honest. You might piss somebody off with your song or about their song. But f*ck it.
I did a two-year popular music diploma course in Dublin years ago and that’s where there were a lot of co-writing songs things I did. And, at the time, I found it massively beneficial.
But I don’t know, if I’m being honest, there’s also a lot of lick-arsing going on, ya know. People are afraid to say because they’re in a songwriting group, and they’re all supporting each other – which is amazing – but no-one’s going to say “Listen, that sounds shit”. And sometimes, they should, because the songwriter would benefit more.
But then here’s the thing about honesty. And lick-arsing.
During the first year on my diploma course, we were doing this thing where we played a concert and they videotaped it, then everyone watched it and commented on it.
And after an hour and a half, I just couldn’t take it anymore, because it was just loads of arse-licking.
I put my hand up and said “I’m sorry, genuinely, but we’re in this to make music that people buy and I can honestly say I wouldn’t buy any of the performances I’ve watched here. Including my own.”
And what was everyone’s reaction?
“The reaction was…silence.
But afterwards, people came up to me from the second year, the year above us, and said “You’re dead right, man”. Because it was all pally-wally and back-slapping, but it doesn’t help anyone if it’s not real.”
So of course, me being me, I told Brendan Doran that, from our conversation that day, he had really upped the ante on what I was going to think about him when I saw him perform live.
After all, in my experience, a lot of people who talk about others not always being up to scratch often tend to fall short themselves because arrogance gets in the way.
So I told him, “Well, then lets see if you’re shite when I see you next week”.
Irish singer Brendan Doran (forever now known as ‘Bob’ — private joke 😂), played at Tunnel last night along with Mark Peters and Fabian Natter (previous photo). And while Brendan looks a little bit ‘pained’ when he sings (swipe, please 😄), man, he’s GOOD. (Definitely not shite, Bob. 😂😂😂) His songs are beautifully written, just the smartest lyrics, gorgeous piano and a beautifully emotional voice. Very very impressed. I will have an interview up with Brendan on Leo Sigh next week. But what an awesome gig last night. One of best I’ve seen in Vienna. 😙 #BrendanFoster #MarkPeters #FabianNatter #Singer #Songwriter #Piano #LiveMusic ##TunnelWien #Music #Concerts #Gigs #Wien #Vienna #Austria #IgersVienna #IgersAustria And thanks for the shoutouts on stage, Bob. Truly impressed you remembered my name 😂😂😂.
A week later, I arrived at Tunnel in the 8th district to see Mark Peters with Fabian Natter on drums and then Brendan Doran perform.
And after a brief time where he seemed to be excited to see me but insisted on calling me ‘Martina’, (how quickly they forget!), and I kindly returned the favor calling him ‘Bob’, he got up on stage to perform.
And let’s just say, no, Brendan Doran isn’t shite at all. In fact, he is very very very good.
Which makes you think, is he that good because of his nine-year hiatus from the music scene and that is where all that soul-searching has now got him? Or was he always that good, and that nine years should never have been allowed to happen?
Either way, it doesn’t really matter. As Brendan Doran is back, and permanently it seems.
Let’s hope so. Because I have a feeling this guy has a very long, very successful career ahead of him.
On the 23rd July from 16.30-18.00 Brendan will be a guest on The Vintage Underground, a show that goes out once a month on Radio Orange. On it he will play a few live tunes and will talk openly about music among other things. Check out more about the show here and here.
You can also follow him on his Facebook account.
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