Ian Brennan's Blog

Ian Brennan and Corin Tucker Make Sense of Themselves Through Music

The friends and collaborators catch up about the power and practicality of art.

By Ian Brennan
October 26, 2021

Corin Tucker and I have been allies since I invited Sleater-Kinney to perform along with Fugazi and Vic Chesnutt at Food Not Bombs’ 20th anniversary concert in San Francisco the summer of 2000. Following that, Corin was a special guest on Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s Grammy-nominated 2006 album, I Stand Alone, which I produced. Corin also collaborated on The Good Ones’ star-studded, third album, Rwanda, You Should Be Loved in 2019. Corin was even kind enough to write the foreword to my fourth book, How Music Dies (or Lives): field-recording & the battle for democracy in the arts (2016). 

My seventh book, Muse-$ick: a music manifesto in fifty-nine notes is being published this month by Oakland’s PM Press, and Corin just returned from an amphitheater tour with Wilco in support of Sleater-Kinney’s tenth album, Path to Wellness, which was released in June. Always generous with her time and talents, it was my pleasure to speak with Corin about the ways that music-making has changed since the 1990s, especially following the rise of digital distribution and platforms.

Corin Tucker: Let’s talk about this book. I think it’s really interesting. It really, really made me think so much about how music consumption in my lifetime has changed. I think that you are trying to get a point across about music consumerism in general, and how that does a disservice to the ability for every person to have access to being a music creator. I’m just curious if you think there are ways that we can foster music, creativity in all kinds of communities.

Ian Brennan: I think in general, the best thing people can do is close their laptops and shut down their phones from time to time, and free themselves as much as they can from that vortex. I don’t mean permanently. I’m not really anti- anything, but I think that accidents are the thing that the Silicon Valley fears. They want us all to be constantly occupied and distracted. If Mark Zuckerberg has his way, we’ll all be absorbed in the “metaverse” 24-hours a day. Yet, whether you look at scientific discoveries throughout history, or legendary works of art, the best stuff often happens totally by chance or in a vacuum — just having the space for a new thought to emerge. I think that’s what we’re lacking a lot, more and more. 

It’s always an issue of balance — meaning proportions. Nothing ever totally goes away, both good or bad. There’s always good stuff going on around the world musically. There is good music in every era. When people say that the music during such-and-such a period was bad — no, a lot of it maybe was suspect, but not all of it. And you know, today there continues to be great music being made. The challenge is that it is harder and harder for the quality stuff to be heard amidst the escalating volume of content, and certainly a lot of traditions are being destroyed along the way by consumerism.

But I’m not really invested in trying to preserve anything — meaning traditions. I’m interested more in individual expression. I think most of us are pretty complex in terms of our influences. It’s not as simple as, you know, so-and-so is from Italy, therefore he’s playing in a Neapolitan form. There’s usually a lot more going on than that. And I don’t think that most artists understand themselves or their process that well to begin with. I think we’re all just trying to make sense of ourselves through the art itself. So, you know, critics and musicologists come along and try to dissect the work. But half the time the artists is just trying to medicate themselves with music and find their voice and way. 

Corin: Yeah. I think for me, one of the things that I was really important to me was getting exposure to music in public school. I sang when I was growing up in school choirs and, you know, learned songs through public schools. I feel like that’s something that is really important and that if we don’t make that a priority, in terms of getting young people access to different kinds of music, we are kind of losing that richness for our own culture and the possibilities of fostering and giving opportunity to brilliant minds.

Ian: Yeah, when I was in public schools in California, the California public school system went from, I think, number one or number two in the nation to, like, the high 40s, just over the course of my journey from kindergarten to high school — which started with Ronald Reagan being governor of California and ended during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. 

They cut almost all of the art classes, then they cut almost all of the music. They closed our high school, and we had only one music class for 2,000 students. So, they offered just one music class and one art class, and they scheduled them at the exact same time. That was no accident. It was very clear that the arts were not regarded as something you should really be doing or taking seriously — art was not something that was a necessity, but was frivolous and extra.

I think that when people say something like, “You should study something practical,” and major in accounting or whatever, they’re completely missing that music and art and literature are among the most practical things there are, societally. Maybe not career-wise, but socially when you have people that are able to communicate and are emotionally-mature and are invested in something beyond themselves, that’s the greatest ballast any society can have.

And I think we’re kind of seeing the effects of not having that now. You’re seeing things splinter. Not that there’s ever been, or is going to be, complete unity or cohesion, but I do think that art promotes a level of humanity that isn’t really possible without art. I mean, that’s what art exists for, at its best.

Corin: Right, yeah. You talk about different kinds of music in the book, and about equality being very important. Do you think that rarer types of music would have greater chances of being supported if there were better access to audiences?

Ian: Well, I think streaming tells us a lot about what’s going on with consolidation and the centralization. I remember when there were seven major corporations controlling the distribution of recorded music globally and everybody kind of freaked out like, “Oh, my god, it’s only seven companies.” This was back in the late-’80s/early-’90s, and very quickly those seven became six. And now it’s three. I think it would be naive to not say that that trend means it will eventually be just two corporations. And ultimately, there’ll be only one. And the three major companies that are left are now controlling over 75% of the recorded music on the planet.

This isn’t good culturally, as almost all of the musical innovation of the popular music era arose from the working class people and were supported by indie labels — be it jazz, blues, tap, house, or heavy metal. The venture capitalists that have lately been gobbling-up the catalogs of aging superstars like Paul Simon, Neil Young, and Tina Turner have every intention of your future sounding exactly like the past or present. They are invested in stasis and actually are opposing natural growth, progress, and a truly even playing-field. I mean, Queen was the biggest grossing music act last year and their leader has been deceased for 40 years.

I think many people confuse probability with possibility — the possibility that some kid in Bangui is going to upload some song he made on his laptop or his phone, and it’s going to blow up and go viral and kids in Brazil and Canada are going to jump all over it. The reality remains that among the Top 100 selling albums for 2019, only one was predominantly in a language other than English. That was Bad Bunny, quite a ways down the chart at #43. And with the United States having more Spanish language speakers than Spain itself, it is hard to make a case that this constituted a “foreign” language artist for a significant swath of the populace.

But what’s been shown is that approximately 20% of the songs on Spotify are “ghost songs” that have never been listened to even once, by anybody. If the music is not designed to communicate and if people aren’t really receiving it and attending to it, then it quickly becomes just a self-indulgent, narcissistic fantasy. 

I think we’re all on a continuum. You look at somebody like Prince or Beethoven: Yes, you should listen to Prince’s music more than you should listen to me. Period. Nonetheless, everyone is musical and we would be best served listening to whoever is most musical at that moment. I think most people have one or two really great songs in them. And I think very, very few people have more than one or two really great songs in them. So… 

Corin: Yeah. I think from my perspective, in terms of looking at how streaming has affected music, it’s really turned the power structure over to these corporations. As a musician, you used to be able to at least make an actual physical record, right? One that you would work on for a year, two years, maybe longer. That’s a lot of time and investment and life that you have to support in making that.

And then once you make that physical object, you could go out and sell it to people. That was an actual income source in the ‘90s when I started making music, and that just doesn’t exist anymore for artists. This idea that people are making money off streaming — well, it’s not the artists that are making any money. Yeah, I mean, if it’s Taylor Swift, maybe. But honestly, nobody else. So the fact that we’ve kind of turned over the music industry to these three companies, it’s a pretty huge shift that I don’t really think people truly understand the economics of — just turning music consumption over to these giant corporations.

Ian: One guy I talked to at a major music corporation said, “Hey, we’re doing great! Better than ever, in fact!” They’re doing so well because of two things. Number one, they own a share in most of the streaming companies and make money regardless of who is being played. Number two, if you have a 100-plus years of recorded music, a massive library, you don’t care if something gets listened to once or a thousand times. If it gets listened to once, that’s another penny in your enormous pile. So they’re making all this money without the physical costs of manufacturing — virtually no overhead — they’re just raking it in and raking it in and raking it in.

One of the big things is the myth that the music business is shrinking or dying. But they’re actually making more money than they’ve ever made before. It’s a billion dollar industry — over 23 billion a year, and the profits are actually growing. The live concert industry is insane. Superstars like the Rolling Stones used to gross around $2-million for a year-long tour, and now you’ve got the headliners at major festivals making that much or more just to perform one show. It’s nuts, the scale of it.

Corin: There’s a great line about how consumerism presupposes that all output is dependent on input and that intrinsic and random elements cannot exist or prevail as factors. And this defies that nearly all music revolutionaries — and you list a lot of them — descended from non-musical families. So I was wondering, we have this tradition of kind of amazing people like Nina Simone, or Billie Holiday, that truly are able to take music to this other level of describing human existence from a perspective that probably most people wouldn’t have ordinarily heard from. Are there other modern day music revolutionaries that you’re inspired by today?

Ian: Well, yeah. I’m inspired by your music. I will always be inspired by the late Vic Chesnutt’s body of work. I think that people like Tierra Whack and Idles continue to find new corners in musical forms that are quite codified otherwise. 

I’m inspired by a lot of the people Marilena [Umuhoza Delli, who does all of the photos and video for the records] and I meet and work with internationally. The Good Ones from Rwanda, who we’ve been working with for 13 years — I really am committed to the unwavering belief that Adrien is one of the great roots writer in the world in any language, and he just happens to write in Kinyarwanda rather than English. The Malawi Mouse men are similar. I think they have that mark of a lot of great bands, where it’s not centered around one person, but on many different members who are all vital — any of whom could have their own band built around them. 

And then someone like Ustad Saami from Pakistan inspires me. What Ustad’s doing is beautiful because he’s trying to embrace non-binary equations and diversity. He celebrates the entire musical spectrum. He sings all of the notes that have been thrown away and he’s trying to reclaim them and show: this is music. I think that the majority of people, unless they’re really, really sort of xenophobic or just can’t listen to anything in a foreign language, I think that they hear that what Ustad does is musical. They don’t even necessarily need to know that this person is singing across a 49-note microtonal scale instead of just from our five, seven- or twelve-note scales.

I think often the key missing element is love — the intimate connection between musicians. That is the opposite of calculated corporate pairings of pop stars for singles which are based not on mutual affection, but mutual aspiration. Whether it is a family act like The Jackson 5 or the Everly Brothers, or deep friendships like yours and Carrie’s or so many of the artists we work with who have sung together their entire life and literally taught each other how to play and sing, there is a power in those dynamics that can’t be duplicated otherwise.

I remember when you and I were working on the Ramblin’ Jack Elliott record together, your telling me that your father was a folk musician and that he’d played songs for you growing-up. What role do you think that has played for you?

Corin: I think it actually was a big deal for me, you know, because I was encouraged from a really young age to sing. And playing music with my family — I mean, we still go camping sometimes and everybody has to bring an acoustic guitar and, you know, it’s even a little bit competitive. [Laughs.] It’s just something that our family does — we play songs. I think that that’s a huge deal and that having those resources for people to try different musical instruments and try making music themselves, I think that’s extremely valuable.

For me, I was fortunate to have a family that played music, but like I said, music was also part of being in public school. I think we really lose a lot if we don’t provide those opportunities in our own societies and to our own young.

Ian: I’m a strong believer that everybody should try to write at least one song in their lifetime. But I fear that too many people do it now for the wrong reasons. You know, they do it for performative reasons or seeking glorification — they demand something external from the process. Instead, I think to make art unconditionally is very important. It’s not the only way to make music, but I think it’s freeing for people to write something that they’re not going to try to record, and they’re not going to try to remember or ever even play publicly for anyone else.

I mean, a lot of the people we work with internationally — especially rural artists — that’s kind of how it works for them is that. You know, they don’t have any way to record a song. So the strongest song wins. If it’s a song with a melody and a hook and some words that are poetic and beautiful, it’s gotta be strong enough to stick up there in their gray matter. And so, there’s a kind of a natural selection process that’s built into their artistry because of that.

What I see a lot with quote-unquote, “world music” is this emphasis on bloodlines and legacies. And I think there’s more than a little bit of racist undertone to that — this idea that talent is carried through the blood and not born from unique experience and insights. And since a lot of the artists we work with play acoustic music, people assume or insist it is “traditional” music. But it’s usually not traditional, at all. They’re instead making music and writing songs that nobody else does. It’s not coming from any tradition, but instead arises from their own individual experience.

We don’t have to go back that many generations and the abnormal thing was to not play music. Before television, if you were sitting around at night in a group of a dozen and there was one person that didn’t want to participate, they’d be the odd ball, you know? Now we’re at that point where the exceptional thing is people say, “Oh, my son or my daughter plays drums.” What the person usually means really is that they own an instrument, but are not necessarily all that connected to it.

Are your children playing music? Do you encourage them?

Corin: Yeah, definitely. I mean, you know, my daughter right now is 13 and she took piano before. I do think piano is a really good instrument to learn. I learned on piano first, too. Now she’s taking guitar lessons, but not from me. She really wants, like, nothing to do with me musically. [Laughs.]

Ian: Of course.

Corin: I mean, we’re lucky and fortunate that we found a great music teacher that she really gets along with. I think as a parent, I just wanted my kids to have the opportunity to learn an instrument. And they played, and can play in public school here in Oregon. You can try things. My son played the trumpet in school for a year. He didn’t love it, but he tried it. It’s not only good for adventurism — I think trying something that you may or may not be good at is good for the brain. It’s incredible, building different connections within your brain and your body. Being able to play something with your hands, that’s a whole skillset. I think modern society really overlooks that building those neural connections is really good for us.

We’ve lost that. So much in this society is where we’re just on our phone all the time. Obviously, people’s mental health overall, it’s not doing so great right now, you know? So, yeah, I think playing an instrument is incredibly good for mental health. It’s like the biggest stress release I have in my life, playing music. It’s the thing in my life that is and feels really good. I just think that if we don’t value that and give as many people as possible that opportunity, we’re losing something.

Ian: My sister has Down syndrome and she’s now physically disabled as well. We did a record with her and her community [Sheltered Workshop Singers, Who You Calling Slow?] right before my father passed away, which was just pre-COVID in February of 2020. There was an extraordinary amount of freedom and honesty in what the singers did. I’ve known some of them since they were three-years-old — for my whole life — and it was really a beautiful experience. It was multi-generational — our daughter who was three at the time was there. My father was dying of cancer, and he was there with my sister, and we were all together with these folks we’d known for decades.

Sadly, my sister is now bedridden. I went to see her when I was in the states last week, and she was pretty much comatose — couldn’t use her limbs and didn’t really seem to recognize me and my brother. And so the staff were kind of trying to usher us out the door, and I was like, “No way.” You know, I didn’t come this far just to leave her like this. So I decided I should try just acting like her little brother, you know? So, I picked up a pillow and I started hitting her with it — a good old fashioned, pillow fight — and she came alive and, very appropriately, got kind of a bit pissed off. 

I’d sent her a CD player and a bunch of CDs earlier in the year, and they seemed to have gone mostly unused. So I plug in the player and I start putting on these CDs of music from her childhood. Those neural connection are so strong, you know? So we put on Tony Orlando & Dawn, who she always loved. Tony Orlando also had a sister who had Down syndrome and my sister, Jane, loved him in the ‘70s when he had a primetime program on television every week. I read that he learned to sing and communicate due to his sister, who was nonverbal. I always thought there must be some kind of layer there as to why my sister responded to him so strongly.

And so we put some Tony Orlando & Dawn songs on, and I started singing and dancing, and my sister starts moving her left hand — just faintly. And she starts singing non-verbally, and the staff that worked there, they were losing their minds, they were so shocked and overjoyed. They started getting out their phones and filming. So then we put on the Village People and Jane starts moving her right hand, too, and she’s singing louder and louder. Then she starts laughing and clapping. And then we put on Springsteen and I’m dancing and singing “The River” and “Born to Run” to her — just full-on making a jerk of myself. But she totally came alive and was completely back with us for an hour. It was like a resurrection. And I knew that might be the last time I’d ever see her. 

But just moments before it had seemed as if having her be that present wasn’t ever possibly going to happen again. It was the music that did that. It sparked something deep in her brain and for the length of those tunes, she was back. And then we gave her a book and she grabbed the book with her left hand. She hadn’t been able to grasp anything for a while. And then she grabbed it with the other hand also. It was miraculous — all the physical therapists, doctors, and medications couldn’t do what a few shitty pop tunes could.

It reaffirmed what I believe about music, the power of it. And when my wife Marlena and I travel, it’s sort of the same thing. Almost always, when visiting more remote countries like Comoros or Djibouti where we don’t know anybody and have no idea what we’re going to find, not only is there wonderful music everywhere, but the music usually is even better than I could’ve ever imagined. It transcends.

So, yeah, music. I believe in it.

Corin: I do too. I mean, it seems like a cliche, but it actually is 100% true that music is a bridge for people, you know? And response to music is one of the last things we lose in our brain as we age, or as we develop any kind of problems with our brain. Music is way down here in the stem, very fundamental to who we are. And it’s a fundamental way that we connect with other people. It really is true that you connect with all kinds of different people through music. Being a musician, there are so many of those connections, these friendships that you make with people who are completely different than you. Music is that bridge, I think.

Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums. He is the author of four books and has worked with the likes of filmmaker John Waters, Merle Haggard, and Green Day, among others. His work with international artists such as the Zomba Prison Project, Tanzania Albinism Collective, and Khmer Rouge Survivors, has been featured on the front page of the New York Times and on an Emmy-winning 60 Minutes segment with Anderson Cooper reporting. Since 1993 he has taught violence prevention and conflict resolution around the world for such prestigious organizations as the Smithsonian, New York’s New School, Berklee College of Music, the University of London, the University of California–Berkeley, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome).

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