Phoenix Singer-Songwriter Cait Brennan Thrives in the Face of Adversity

Phoenix singer-songwriter Cait BrennanEXPAND
Phoenix singer-songwriter Cait Brennan
Michael Ging

Cait Brennan and I met in 1983 while taking Journalism 1 at Deer Valley High School. We shared a love of both the news and sarcasm, which remains true to this day. To give you an example of her charm, she wrote in my yearbook in 1985, after our first (and only) full year writing on the award-winning Skyhawk Flight together, "You dress like a hurricane hitting a dress shop," which was a backhanded compliment, so I taught her about the wonders of shopping at thrift stores.

Her story is an example of why we should be thankful for who we are, what we have, and most importantly, what we have to share with others.

One of the amazing things about human beings is their ability to thrive in the face of just about anything. Perhaps this is an overly optimistic sentiment, but it is not difficult to find stories of individuals who, despite being thrown the most difficult curveballs life has to offer, manage to create beauty, save lives, or raise the bar for the rest of us. Cait Brennan is one of those people.

To say Brennan, a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, has lived many different lives in less than a half-century is truly an understatement. She's a bit of wanderer, although often not by choice, and has written professionally for three decades as a journalist, screenwriter, blogger, and songwriter. An eternal music fan, Brennan also worked in the glamorous world of record stores, beginning her journey as a transgender woman in the late '80s and early '90s.

Brennan started her life as Michael Sortino, son of traveling musician Ron Dobbins and horse trainer Linda Parker but living primarily with a great-grandmother, Mae Owen. Like a moth driven to its musical flame, she first was attracted to the piano, but because her family often lived in a tiny trailer, there wasn't always room for a piano. So she started learning guitar at 8 years old.

"This was pre-Casio, and getting a piano into a 100-square-foot mobile home would have been hilarious," she says. "Whole thing tips over like Fred Flintstone's car and a side of Brontosaurus BBQ ribs. I got an electronic keyboard in about 1988, and now I mostly write on the piano."

These days, Brennan primarily focuses her attention on her upcoming record, Debutante, in and of itself an exercise in thankfulness. For Brennan, the album is in many ways a life's work that has taken bits and pieces of her first 46 years and given life to a dozen songs about love, loss, hope, identity, struggle, and survival. There is no glitz and glamour, really, in Brennan's story, unless you count the time in 2007 she ended up in a writer's workshop at the Chateau Marmont's most infamous bungalow.

The song "Showman" recounts the experience. "There was all this opulence and glossy, over-the-top showbiz chicanery," Brennan says. "We were laboring away on these scripts, and all the time I was thinking, 'All this bullshit ends in a room like this. You get successful, you get bigger and more celebrated and your appetite goes insane. You take everything you want and end up dying in this room, and nobody even cares.' I was a little dramatic then but I was kinda living in my car, so the irony of being that poor and being at the Chateau [Marmont] in the [John] Belushi bungalow kind of exploded my brain."

As she talks about her songs, often in a manner one would discuss a child or loved one, there is a well-developed sense of pride in not only surviving, but ultimately thriving on the adversity she has faced and continues to overcome.

"'Black Diamond' was written in Tacoma when I was basically homeless, squatting in this empty apartment with no heat, electricity, phone, and going through medication withdrawals. It was scary and that song bears the scars, I guess," she says.

Brennan, who was coming out of an abusive relationship at the time in the late '90s, was working for a theater company in Seattle when her car engine exploded. She eventually lost her job and her apartment. "Eventually, family was able to help me get back to Phoenix, and I started over, but there was a month or two where I had to improvise. I came home for a while and just started over. Took a while, but it led me to [her current situation], so it worked out," Brennan says.

As if she hadn't experienced enough trials and tribulations, Brennan was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2014, adding to both her struggle and the importance of Debutante's getting made now. Between a lack of funds, confidence in her own ability, and physical illness, the seemingly simple (in this day and age of recording apps on your smartphone) act of recording has eluded Brennan for one reason or another, even though the songs were there and had to come out.

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"The main reason I waited was because I didn't have the resources, or even enough knowledge to know where to start," Brennan says.

Some studies suggest that transgender people experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population. Though Brennan usually has found ways to keep a roof over her head, it has not always been easy, so finding an extra few hundred (or thousand, really) dollars here and there to pay for recording was a difficult proposition.

"Being trans severely limits your income and employment options, especially if you're some kind of principled jackass who's out and open about it," Brennan says wryly. "At least it did 15 years ago. Seems more popular now."

She continues: "There were some regrettable incidents when I attempted to play out in the '80s. That was all it took for me to basically write off the human race and go hide. Not proud of that at all. I did this thing with Laura Jane Grace [Against Me! singer/guitar player and noted transgender musician]. She interviewed me for her AOL TV series [True Trans], and after the Against Me! show, I saw so many people come up to her and thank her for being courageous. And I just think I should have done more. I did a bunch, but all I see is what more I could have done."

Thankfully, Brennan is doing more now, and as she found out with the process of making her first record, she does not have to do it all alone. On July 31, Brennan started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise funds to cover a portion of the recording costs, the cost of CD duplication, and a short run of vinyl records. Within three days, she met her goal, and by September 1, Brennan had received more than 150 percent of her goal.

For Brennan, the experience was life-changing.

"For someone who has been working in solitude creatively for so many years, to suddenly open the door and find so many people there to lift me up — it's very emotional. The Kickstarter [campaign] was a complete shock, and it enabled me to pay the rest of the recording and cover the vinyl and CD pressing. Nothing else, but it's a start. So, you know, I literally gave everything I had to make it happen, and my friends and family and a ton of people who don't know me at all also gave big. So it's my job now to live up to that leap of faith," she says.

"In all those dark times, when I felt most lost and alone, music was what got me through. Big Star's Third, Hüsker Dü's Warehouse, Nick Drake, the Undertones, Bert Jansch. That music kept me alive. Kept me from giving up. I like to hope that maybe the songs I've made might mean that much to somebody else someday. That it might help somebody else to get through, when they're in that place. In those moments when you feel most alone, sometimes music can save your life. It saved mine."

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