Ian Brennan has traveled the world to collect sounds and turn them into music. From Rwanda to Palestine, his work has taken him across the globe. But for his latest project, the Sheltered Workshop Singers’ debut album, Who You Calling Slow? the Grammy-winning music producer didn’t go far. In fact, he stayed close to his heart, collaborating with his sister and his late father to create an album that is the most memorable of his award-filled career.
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“Growing up, my sister Jane and my main connection was through music — joy expressed through dance, sadness and longing, with melody,” Brennan tells American Songwriter. “She taught me a different kind of listening. Not so much with the ears, but with your spirit, your entire being.” Brennan’s sister, Janet, who has Down syndrome, attends a Bay Area adult-care facility, where dozens of adults with varying cognitive and ambulatory abilities take part in a weekday program.
Brennan captured his sister and over 20 other participants, some in their twenties, others in their sixties, in a unique recording session — one where unabashed emotions were conveyed through whatever instruments happened to be on hand: a walker used as a bell, a yoga ball as bass drum. First-time musicians have a depth Brennan doesn’t see in other musicians. “I think the best music comes from within rather than outside of a person,” he says.
His goal is to find commonality through specific voices and stories — wherever someone may be, whether that’s homeless, in prison or in a living facility. “The Sheltered Workshop Singers reaffirmed what I have steadfastly long believed — that there is music in all of us, that music is everywhere. We don’t have to travel to ‘foreign’ lands to find it. The Oakland Homeless Heart record we recorded last year on the streets with the homeless community in West Oakland proved that to us locally,” says Brennan.
He believes there are great gifts within people if they are given the chance to share them. “Those that are non-verbal — as many of the individuals featured on the Sheltered Workshop Singers album are — often prove particularly adept at vocal communication. The depth and candor of that expressiveness can be breathtaking.”
It’s in the voice of Grace, who reportedly consoles herself by singing alone in a room for hours on end. “If ever I’ve witnessed someone who has tapped into the eternal stream of melody, it is her. The intricacy and unpredictability of her melodic lines are stunning,” adds Brennan.
It’s in the voice of Janet, singing “I’m not afraid of anything,” from her wheelchair. “I felt the familiar surge during projects that is the telltale sign that what’s being recorded will in fact result in becoming a record: tears. As she improvised those words, there was not a dry eye in the room — not out of pity, but in admiration and awe of her courage and strength.”
Having Brennan’s father, Jim, who passed away from cancer just two months after the recording was completed, made the project even more poignant. He had helped Brennan with various music projects over the years (from lugging staging for a free Green Day concert to making PB&J sandwiches for The Good Ones when they were on tour with Glen Hansard) but had never traveled overseas with him and been present for a field recording. “There was a deep history with the workshop community since my father has known many of my sister’s colleagues for decades,” says Brennan. “On the album, my sister sings a song telling our father goodbye and that she loves him. There is a certain poetry in a daughter, who was sent home to die as an infant (at the doctor’s direction), being the one who, fifty-five years later, helped her father make peace with his own death.”