Interview: Pennan Brae

Pennan Brae is a Vancouver-based musician, screenwriter, and actor. His music is classic rock inspired – taking a lot of influence from the 70s and 80s and his films, The Astronot and 2 Below 0 take place in the late 60s and late 70s, respectively. He’s been nominated and won awards for his music at the Mindfield Film Festival, Hollywood Music in Media Awards, Los Angeles CineFest, Creation International Film Festival, Barcelona Planet Film Festival, and more!

His breakthrough was 2018’s The Astronot, which is a diverse album in sound with a lot of different instruments like the violin, cello, and pedal steel guitar on it and from there, he decided to write a screenplay based on the concept of the album cover – a guy who wants to touch the moon.

His most recent release is the soundtrack for 2 Below 0, a movie that takes place in 1979 during the cold winter in the middle of nowhere. The movie tells the story of a man named Rusty whose fiancée left him at the altar and he decides to leave Minnesota for the middle of nowhere with his mannequin who is a stand-in for his fiancée. Life seems good, but then some locals spy on Rusty and get jealous of Alice. It was filmed in Bend, Oregon during the biggest snowfall in over a century – very fitting for the movie’s title.

The soundtrack fits right into the movie’s setting and is a fun, energetic rock and roll album with power pop and punk sounds. My favourite songs on it are “Synergy”, “Pay Dirt”, “Wiggle”, “Chase the Sun Risin'”, “The Love That I Got”, “Overdrive”, and “We’re Through”.

You can stream it below on Spotify:

We’re lucky to have Pennan on the blog with us to talk about his music and movies. If you want to learn more about him, keep on reading!

Angie Moon: How would you describe yourself and your music to new listeners?

Pennan Brae: I’m a singer songwriter influenced by music from the 1950s-90s. I love the original rock & roll of Chuck Berry & Buddy Holly right through to modern rock by the Red Hot Chili Peppers & Nirvana. I also love blues artists from the 1940s & 50s, such as Muddy Waters & BB King.  My music started as orchestral rock with guitars, violins & piano but it’s moving in a new direction of stripped down rock & roll with guitars, bass & drums.

Angie: How did you get into classic rock?

Pennan: My parents shared The Beatles, CCR, Bob Dylan & The Eagles growing up. & once you get your toes wet in that wonderful music, there’s such a depth & breadth to dive into; the artistry of that era is immense.  When I got into The Rolling Stones, I found some wonderful satisfaction.

Angie: What makes the 70s and 80s era of rock music special to you?

Pennan: The artistry of that era is excellent & the music is rich. The 70s have big classic rock themes and it was before MTV, so it was strictly auditory with what you heard on the vinyl record as music videos had not yet come into the mainstream. The 80s are such a colourful decade both musically & visually. You have a marriage of music & film with music videos which presented the songs in such a new way. Also the spread of synthesisers coloured up the music & created new songwriting & recording possibilities. 

Angie: How did you get started in music?

Pennan: I began taking piano lessons when I was 5. I really enjoyed playing sheet music of popular songs when I was a teenager. A turning point was when I entered college & a teacher showed me the blues scale. Those notes just grabbed and held my attention; I discovered a musical foundation I wasn’t aware of. I went in a different direction from that point, leaving the world of classical music in which you play what’s on the page & to a place of improvisation when you play what you feel.

Angie: How did you get into screenwriting and acting?

Pennan: I had just completed my 20th music video & wanted to tell a longer story than just 3-4 minutes. I had recently completed an album that would become ‘The Astronot’ soundtrack & it was very cinematic sounding; there were lots of sweeping violins & cellos with sparkling electrical guitars. 

I was photographing an album cover for the album & wore an astronaut suit for it; the goal was to stand beneath the full moon & gaze longingly at it as though I really wanted to get there, but was unable to. The photographer handed me a rickety, old ladder to represent my sole means of transportation to travel there. That evening, the term ‘The Astronot’ flashed across my mind with the above concept & I began writing it. 

I imagined screenwriting would be a dull process as it was just words on paper & there was no music to colour things up. But I quickly found it an extremely exciting process to be involved with. And once I was done writing, I wanted to act in it as well, as I knew the story very well. Acting was a different type of artistic rush & challenge; I loved the creative satisfaction of it.

Angie: What movies inspired you the most?

Pennan: I love movies that move me emotionally & have big themes; I’m not too much in the big explosion/special effect films. I really like Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 film; being a fan of space history made it an extra fulfilling piece for me. I also loved the Stephen Hawking biopic, ‘The Theory of Everything’. The musical score was beautiful & the acting by the cast was amazing. The story of both these films was inspiring & true!

Angie: What inspired the music for The Astronot?

Pennan: ‘The Astronot’ album was interesting in that I had written it before the idea for the film had come into existence. It was my first album to really branch out sonically, recording all sorts of new instruments like pedal steel guitar, the cello & new types of percussion.  When the album was complete, it felt like a big cinematic soundscape & in the end, it happened to fit well with the visuals & cinematography by director Tim Cash in ‘The Astronot’ film.

Angie: How did you get interested in space?

Pennan: When I was a kid, there was a lot of space books laying around the house involving the moon landings of the 1960s & 70s. I found the pages fascinating; the photos were incredible & the adventures were captivating. It made an indelible impression upon me & I feel the same way as an adult.

Angie: What inspired the soundtrack for 2 Below 0?

Pennan: The ‘2 Below 0’ film is set in 1979 which is an interesting era musically as you have this confluence of rock, disco & punk vying for supremacy on the club scene.  The music on the ‘2 Below 0’ album feels reminiscent of that era, especially in the rock & punk territory. The soundtrack consists of a stripped-down band of guitar, bass & drums ripping it up, circa the late 1970s. 

Angie: What was recording the soundtrack like?

Pennan: It was a blast.  There was just 3 of us for the majority of the recording process; drummer Edward Whelan, bassist Kaj Falch-Nielsen, and myself. I prepared the guitars at home first and we amped these tracks in the studio. Then Ed came in to do his sessions; he’s such a beautiful drummer & paints so many lovely musical arrangements on his drum kit. Lastly Kaj laid down the bass with his Fender; it feels nicely locked in with the drums. On some songs, singer Alison Jenkins came in to do background vocals.  We recorded the album at Blue Light Studio in Vancouver. 

Angie: Do you usually come up with the music first or the story first in your movies?

Pennan: I usually have the music ready.  I went through a period a few years ago when I was recording a lot, so I have some songs not yet released which can fit into future films.  At some point though, it might be the other way around!

Angie: What is the difference in the creative process in music versus movies?

Pennan: Music is my home base so I feel most comfortable in that arena, playing around & trying different things. Songwriting & screenwriting have many parallels; it’s all storytelling. Acting is an exciting playground to be in. I fortunately worked with wonderful actresses in the last 2 films; one was a veteran of Broadway plays. I learned so much by watching them; it’s a beautiful process watching a talented actor or actress do their thing on set. 

Angie: What is your proudest accomplishment?

Pennan: I had both films screen at a film festival in Vancouver and my parents and friends attended. That was a very special moment for me. Another high was having legendary drummer Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Duran Duran & Eric Clapton) & INXS bassist Garry Gary Beers play on 2 tracks on ‘The Astronot’ Soundtrack.  They recorded on ‘Walk With Me’ & ‘Crashland’.  It was a dream come true.

Angie: Any words for your fans?

Pennan: I’m just very grateful for anyone’s time should they have the chance to listen or watch my work.  That means the world to an artist & I’m very appreciative of that.  Hopefully, I can keep making music & films that others might enjoy.

You can follow Pennan Brae on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and his website.

Shoutout to my friend Patrick for supporting the blog!

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