“NOTHING sexy,” says Clair Brennan of her look. “I don’t do high heels or anything like that. People would see me at gigs and say ‘I saw that video you did and you were wearing the same clothes, and I’m like ‘This is me! I’ve just put the kids in bed. I haven t got time to do my hair and make-up!’”
Clair’s the self taught single mum of three at the forefront of urban folk – a beacon shining in a concrete jungle.
Second album imminently to hit the shelves, her rise, even for the annals of the music biz, is unorthodox to say the least.
But hers is a powerful tale of what can happen when latent talent collides, finally, with inner belief.
An outcome few would have predicted when she plucked that first string.
“I was 23,” Clair, now a decade older, reveals. “I just taught myself on my kid’s little junior guitar.
“When I was at playgroup I was a bit bored. I thought ‘well, I’ll see what I can get out of it’, hit a few strings, got some melodies, and then started making songs from there.
“It was just a hobby for me at home – I don’t know how I play a guitar, I don’t know what key something’s in, I don’t know what chord I play. I’d walk around the house with a tune I’d got in my head, and then I’d come up with lyrics about how I was feeling at the time. My music’s like a verbal diary.”
The realities of a busy family life meant Clair’s guitar would, inevitably, find its way to the attic. However, when it re-emerged, her eldest children urged her to display her ability to a wider audience. In 2011, she entered Penkhull’s Got Talent. She didn’t win, but the experience encouraged her to try acoustic open-mic nights, and, at one such, she met producer Jon Aldersea – “it was one of those moments when you just go ‘whoa!’,” he says of her performance, “and you can feel the emotion building in your eyes.” He suggested an EP, but Clair is nothing if not prolific, and that soon turned into debut album Lemon Trees.
Meanwhile, more and more audiences were being struck by a woman, unstarry, self-effacing, with an innate ability to connect via the everyday.
“Relationships, road rage - I draw on everything I’ve experienced. And then I feel a lot better when people listen because they’re like ‘I get it’. That’s what creates a link between me and my audience. If it’s in the right setting, it’s really engaging. I get, not a buzz, but I appreciate the audience more, and they can appreciate what I’m doing.”
However, singing about such personal issues does of course invite attention – something she’s had to get used to. “It’s very difficult for people not to probe into my personality,” she admits. “When your songs are a verbal diary, you’ve virtually asked them to. So I had to ask myself ‘are you ready to open up?
“I said to Jon ‘I don’t want to be famous’. It’s difficult - the industry we’re in is so commercialised.”
The reality for Clair, though, is that revealing her inner emotions via song has always been a release – fame or nay, that’s not something she’ll give up.
“Writing a song for me,” she reflects, “to record it, play it, put it on Facebook, it’s done, it’s gone, that emotion is finished with, it’s out. If someone likes that song in ten years, that’s good, but at that moment that’s where I was. In getting it out, I’ve expressed it. I can think I’m happy now – I can go.”
So how is it then, dipping back into those emotions in public? “It’s tricky,” she admits. “There’s an element in each song that’s relevant to today, be it about me, family, relationships, whatever. And I start getting a bit emotional and overwhelmed. I’m very emotional! I go very deep!”
Indeed, for a woman who freely admits to being “solitary”, the whole experience of performing has taken no small amount of getting used to.
“I had no great intention to get up and perform,” she looks back, “my kids made me do it. They were 10 and 11, they loved the songs, and they were just ‘go and do it!’.
“It was incredibly nerve-racking – I was shaking. I still shake. I used to have to sit on a stool because my legs would be moving and trembling and I felt like I was going to fall down.
“I’m a control freak – if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right - so even though my legs are trembling, my voice can’t quiver, unless it’s intended. So I’m mindful of that, as well as trying to concentrate on who’s watching, who’s listening, don’t make a mess, constantly reminding myself of all these things that are going on, which in a way takes away from what I‘m doing, because I’m not concentrating on it – it took me a long time to adjust and zone out.”
Working with Jon, and new musicians, has also allowed Clair to see other elements in her output. “Jon has put the romance in the music,” she declares. “If I did my songs acapella they’d probably sound ‘cut your wrists’, but with the music that Jon hears, it’s lifted everything. It’s an honest take on what’s going on.
“I like poetry, period dramas,” she reflects, “the whole romantic life I suppose. It’s just that what’s happened in my life isn’t as romantic – that’s the reality of it.”
It’s the past two years that have really seen interest in Clair take off. Her songs have received radio play, online videos received six-figure hits, gigs grown in size. There’s talk of progressing to larger labels, and even an entry, with her second album, The Rising Of The Phoenix, for the esteemed Mercury Music Prize. And yet you feel this is a woman who will never allow herself to become something she isn’t.
“It’s exciting,” she says, “but at the same time I still feel isolated. I need my own space. They say all musicians are temperamental, but I’m not a musician, I’m a songwriter, which is even worse probably, because I’m so emotional. And obviously having kids adds to it, because I’m also maternal as well.”
That family has been the backbone which allowed her to stand and deliver. “A really good support network is important,” she states. “For me I only really had my mum and my kids, and so she’s been through everything with me.
“But she’s not the conventional type of mother. She doesn’t do tea and sympathy, she does ‘right I’ve empathised with your situation’, gives you a cup of tea, a kick up the backside, and says ‘go and sort yourself out’.
“I was raised to be independent. I was cooking Sunday dinners at the age of 13. We didn’t have it difficult, but we always had to do things. That’s why I say I don’t need a man. My mum’s always said to every man who’s come along ‘there’s nothing you can do for her – nothing you do will ever be good enough, because she can do it all herself’.”
With two teenagers and a four-year-old, that determination has had to be her constant companion. “It’s difficult, very difficult,” she says of the challenge of combining her musical career with the commitments of family. So does she see herself as an inspiration?
“I wouldn’t say an inspiration,” she ponders, “but if I inspire people to write a poem about how they’re feeling, great, because you have to vent it somehow. If you like ice-skating, go and do some loop the loops. Whatever you do, try to better your last attempt.
“When I entered Penkhull’s Got Talent, I didn’t think I’d get anywhere, but to have my kids watch me, it was like ‘I’ve shown you that you can do it, because I can do it’, and it all just escalated.
“I hope, if people listen to my music, and have been through a similar experience, they get a little bit of faith lifted. And I hope to put a little bit of hope back into people’s lives, because it is hard raising kids on your own.”
From those early acoustic open mic gigs at venues such as Stoke’s Glebe to now, Clair, from Penkhull, can see the change in herself. “At the time,” she says, “I was leather jacket, biker boots, don’t speak to me, I don’t want to know.”
Now she communicates with audiences of all ages, all social mixes, like an old hand. “It’s not an easy thing to do to make a connection with people,” she admits. “It’s nice that people relate to me. It’s giving them a little bit back.”
And the gear’s changed too – well, a bit. “I don’t mind dressing up a bit,” she says, “as long as I can wear my boots. I’m not a heels girl, I can’t play a guitar and wear heels – I’m going to break my neck! As long as I feel comfortable, I feel like I can perform.”
Of course, this is a tough business – the critics, the rivals, the backbiters, they soon line up. But Clair’s tough enough to take the brickbats as well as the plaudits. “It’s a bit like if you hear Adele,” she explains, “you know it’s Adele, if you hear Madonna, you know it’s Madonna, it’s just one of those voices. It’s a bit like Marmite, you either love it or you hate it. And I don’t mind if you don’t like it, because I’m not doing it for people to like it.”
But like it they do. Urban folk ‘tis on the rise. “In these pockets of urban grey,” notes Jon, “you have people with special talents who make things look colourful – great people who shine.”
And Clair is one of them.
The Rising Of The Phoenix and Lemon Trees are on Goldphone Recordings.