Taking time out during their current touring schedule, Canadian music duo Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac discussed their experiences of the music industry and some of the troubling influences behind their songs.
FT: Your latest album, ‘Eleven’, Fair to say, It’s your ‘lockdown album?
BM: It certainly is (Laughs)When we got taken off the road, and all the tours were cancelled, it opened up a lot of time for us to get back in the studio, but of course, there were studios open we could go to, So Lisa found a, well Lisa you can tell the story.
LM: Well, basically I saw this ad for an Airstream’(American brand of travel trailer easily recognized by the distinctive shape of its rounded and polished aluminium finish) on Facebook, which once had a recording studio in it, and I sent it to Brenley, as I knew it was her dream, to own one. Within 48 hours, she had messaged the owner, driven to see it, bought it, and towed it back home to the farm she lives on to start work on gutting it, and building a recording studio.
BM: At that point, we didn’t have the skills set to really make an album as we knew we wanted it to sound, so we went back to the Berkeley College of music. We thought if we were going to do this record, we really wanted to know how to engineer it. We went back, and studied production and engineering.
LM: It was a really tricky process. We’ve always had a tricky time with this, You can hear what you want in your own head, but to be able to articulate that sound to someone else. Now we had the skills to create those sounds, and replicate what we were hearing in our heads.
BM: In the past, we worked with great producers, we kind of wrote the songs, played the songs, and kind of stepped out of the way, but this time, we thought, we really have to steer the ship ourselves.
FT: Do you write separately, or as a team?
LM: We do both. I would say the majority of all the songs that end up on our records, we have both had a hand in. Whether it’s just the melody or the whole lyric, we both contribute to 99.9% of the songs. Usually one of us comes to the table with an idea, or an almost finished song, but we will finesse it together.
FT: The sound of the band revolves around your harmonies, and the overall impact is quite a beautiful sound. Yet the content of the songs, can sometimes be quite dark, and complex? One such song on the new album, is ‘Time to Right the Wrong’.
It’s a fairly stark depiction of the sexual abuse your brother suffered at the hands of a priest in Canada, and it carries a real resonance here too, because of the issue of clerical abuse. It’s obviously a very personal song, and all the more powerful for being so.
BM: That song we wrote in L.A. We were due to go out to a show, and the song just started pouring out of me, the lyrics and everything, and it was all written in about 15 minutes.
FT: When you were writing it, was it in a mood of anger, or as an elegy to your brother? Where was your own headspace when you were writing it?
BM: I wanted it to be the radical truth. We had written songs before, that you can place yourself in, in this one you can do too, sadly, but I wanted it to be really real this time, because I wanted to talk about the priest, I didn’t want to brush over it. We did a song some years ago, ‘Crying’, and there’s some mention of it.
LM: But it was a bit more abstract
FT: ‘Wood Shop’ as well?
BM: Yeah. Having released the trauma of it all, but I think we held on to the story for so long, because I wasn’t sure if it was my story to tell. But he’s not around anymore, and I know for sure, that he was there, saying ’Yes, this is okay’!
FT: Is such a personal song, difficult to perform in front of an audience?
BM: It’s always hard the first time, Then when you’re playing it night after night, you get into the groove of it. Sometimes if we take a song like ‘Time to right the wrong’ out of the set for a while, and then play it, it feels like a vice squeezing my heart together, and I do everything I can, not to release those emotions in the middle of a song. Touch wood, I have yet to do that.
FT: In terms of songwriters, writing about such issues, are you simply raising the issue, or can you affect change?
BM: I think we can do both. I don’t know if we can promote change in terms of Clerical abuse? To stop that, you have to stop supporting an organisation that abuses and hides that abuse. I think other songs about other issues, we can definitely promote change.
FT: I suppose sharing the circumstances of your brother’s abuse, and starting the conversation with an audience, can create its own ripples, and help effect change?
LM: Yeah, I mean I have seen facial expressions in the audience, that tell me, that person has totally been abused, I have seen that transformation in people.
FT: I think it’s such a huge problem, and it’s brave of you to raise it in song. Another one of the songs that I think is very brave and honest is ‘All Over Again’, in which Lisa you say that you felt you let your brother down, in some way, when he came out as gay to the family. I think it’s brave also that you portray yourself in a negative way to the audience, and the guilt you felt at not being there for him. There is a fantastic singer Songwriter, called Hannah White based in London, who wrote an amazing song, called ‘Car Crash’.
In the song, she sings about being in the depths of poverty and depression and having to shoplift to feed her young child. She sings of her shame at the act, and yet it should be society that carries that shame in placing a young mother in such a desperate situation in the first place, that she has to steal for her child. Similarly, in ‘All Over Again’, the misgivings shouldn’t really be yours, they should be society’s and it’s treatment of LGBT people
LM: Yeah! The funny thing a couple of years later, Brenley and I were a couple, were so for 10 years. I was growing up in a small rural town of 330 people, I felt hurt by not knowing much, and the fact that he had to hide it as well. And that was on society. Society made him hide in the closet growing up.
FT: Had you come out at that time yourself?
LM: No. Brenley and I were in the closet together for several years. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment, like paying for an extra bedroom in an apartment for people to not know, we were a couple. There was years of that. I think we’re raising that and speaking out about it at shows. So many parents have come and said, ‘Hearing you guys speak, has helped me to talk to my son or daughter’. That has helped them to open up that dialogue with their family.
FT: Thankfully, times are changing, and yet just twenty years ago, You were faced with a similar issue, yourselves by your own management, in terms of not coming out?
BM: He was very specific, but his reasoning was he managed the Indigo Girls, and he felt that early on in their career, the LGBT community almost, wanted to own them, so he didn’t want us to feel pigeonholed.
LM: But I would not want anything more, than to be pigeonholed with that beautiful community of people
BM: Agreed, but I am certain he would never, ever counsel an artist not to be their true authentic self.
FT: So your manager was trying to protect you, from perhaps being seen as a niche act for the Gay community, and not really for the general populace.
LM: Yeah, he was wanting us to go straight into the folk/pop world
BM: And not make it about our sexuality.
LM: The thing is now, is that needs to be representation in music, be it by female artists, or by people within the LGBT community so there are young girls that look up, or for people within the queer community. Because representation matters.
FT: Even your love songs don’t reference ‘He’ Or ‘She’?
BM: It’s usually ‘You’ and ‘I’
LM: But I also find that relatable for someone listening to the song in the first person, so it’s easier to place themselves in the song.
FT: Going back to the new album, ‘Eleven’, there are a lot of great songs, with your trademark harmonies, but’ Sycamore’ is another song that really is quite personal too?
LM: That came from a time at the beginning of Brenley and I’s relationship. I flew over to London to audition for a band, before Brenley and I started our band, and had a pretty traumatic experience with a head of a record label. He basically said ‘Yeah you’re awesome, lose 25 lbs and you could be in the band’.
BM: He was a big song finder, he was one of those toxic masculine men who thought he could use his power.
LM: It completely put me off the rails for a good couple of years, I mean I ended up wasting away to nothing, I was about 20, and it’s amazing when you realise how powerful people’s words are. It took a lot of therapy to undo what basically had drilled a hole through my brain. Thankfully, I’m happy and healthy now, but it did take some time, and that’s what this song is about.
The conversations are difficult with your partner, because they don’t know what conversations can trigger you into a downward spiral.
FT: Is that song now therapeutic for you to sing?
LM: It took 23 years to write it. It’s funny we wrote, recorded it, put it on the album, shot a video for it, and started doing interviews for it, and then I felt, ‘I don’t know if I can tell this story’. I started to clam up, and I thought, I don’t know if I’m ready.
And now I am! It took me a moment, and then I realised, god it’s important. There are so many young and actually, people of all ages, dealing with eating issues. There is hope, you can overcome it, and you don’t have to live with it in silence. And that’s the thing, there is a lot of stigma around illnesses and ailments that you can’t see
BM: You asked earlier about collaborations between us. With this track, Lisa had come up with a full song, and we ended up rewriting some of the verses because we felt this song might be best suited to my voice and Lisa’s in the story, Lisa is battling this, and I have no real understanding. I could see her wasting away. You can’t make someone see something. They have to see it themselves. I had no real empathy I was like ‘Just fucking eat’! But you can’t handle it like that. It’s a disease.
FT: It’s an invisible disease
LM: There’s that stigma again, around mental health issues. Not as much now. I actually think the pandemic has opened up even more of a dialogue on mental health, because so many people have ended up with depression and so many other issues.
FT: It’s a great song, one of many on the album. So what’s next for Madison Violet
BM: We still have a lot of tour dates on the back of this album, It’s a lot of touring, and has been for a long time, so in 2024, we’re going to take a break off the road, we might do the odd show, here and there, but we’re really just going to take some time off.
LM: We’ve been doing it for 23 years, so we’re going to come back for a 25th-anniversary tour, but I think it would be really great just to have a year off, and re-charge the batteries, and just create what we can together and apart.
FT: Thank you for taking the time to talk tonight, good luck with the album, and the rest of the tour, and hopefully see you again in 2025?
BM/LM: Thank you, and we’ll see you in a few years. (Laughs)