Being a musician is really an amazing life. This is perhaps so true because it’s so simple. We’ve all seen it in movies. Buy an instrument, spend a couple of weeks learning how to play it, write a couple of songs which everyone loves, and start appearing on TV to throngs of fans. You’d better buy a truck to haul all of that cash that everyone’s going to give you. Okay, the sarcasm is pretty thick but the point being made is that what most of the public believes the life of a musician to be is a far cry from the reality. Truth be told, you only pursue and persist in the life when it is a calling. Musicians have been at the forefront of those who have had their livelihood affect by digital piracy, resulting in further affirmation that those who make it their life’s ambition to create and perform music for the rest of us are the most committed of true believers; those like Brenna MacQuarrie. This Edmonton Alberta native is one of the most captivating and talented performers in Canada. She proves that a true performer is one who is not only an incredibly talented musician but one who also knows how to cross pollinate genres and read the crowd to adeptly gauge her performance to fit them. In a modern world, musicians like MacQuarrie are carrying the torch for live performers in particular, proving that the real evidence of talent is in one’s ability to exhibit this in a live venue.
Brenna’s parents say that she was singing as soon as she could talk. Singing lessons, choir, and theater performances followed at an early age as they do for most who are interested in the magic that music possesses. Mega talents Christina Aguilera and Celine Dion were early inspirations and influences on MacQuarrie as she locked herself in her room attempting their vocal styles. The true difference between Brenna and her early peers is that she never considered any path feasible except for that of music. Talent, hard work, and determination was the Kool-Aid that she drank as far back as she can remember.
Brenna is well known for her incredible performances at venues like The Red Piano, Aussie Rules, International Beer Haus, and others. While most musicians focus on rehearsing and presenting one solid set of music which they have mastered, MacQuarrie has instead focused on mastering the art of presenting any music. It’s hard to overstate the encyclopedic knowledge of music that she has amassed over her career. Yet, at the same time, Brenna has become an amazing improviser (or “faker” as she would call it). Many of her fans come to see her based on her ability to recreate any song based on almost no knowledge of it. Taking requests from audience members, Brenna recreates songs and sometimes asks the requester to join in. The uncomfortable nature of this, her willingness to be vulnerable, and the astonishing ability to pull it off has made her a sensation in Canada. MacQuarrie admits that years of long sets have essentially taught her that most modern pop music follows a similar template. Even with this knowledge, the task isn’t easy. Brenna comments, “The hardest part to get used to about this job for me is being ‘on’ for five hours. To smile and be hospitable for that long while singing some of the most challenging songs over a microphone is wildly taxing on the body. I have had to learn a lot of maintenance tricks to keep myself in shape. These tricks include: regular exercise, strange eating hours (I cannot eat past 4pm on show days, which means I do a lot of intermittent fasting), seeing an ENT (Ear Nose Throat specialist) at least every six months (I’m lucky to have one I’ve been seeing for years who will squeeze me in if I have concerns - he understands the complexities of my work), drinking as much water as possible, and managing stress. The hardest part is finding ways past the adrenal fatigue (if that’s what you call it) because running seven years on this kind of schedule means you work your adrenal system down very quickly.
If you have seen an artist perform but didn’t question how “into it” they were, it means that they were doing a good job. While you might be able to spot bad acting when it’s not believable, bad performing by a musician may be somewhat more difficult to define. It’s a facet that Brenna cares deeply about. While there are always new songs to attempt, the old ones may lose their excitement for her; but she understands that they still need to be exciting for the audience. For the songs which she may be less enthusiastic about, she finds the complexity that may be contained in the songs as a way of challenging and entertaining herself…a show within a show if you will. Sometimes the lyrical content or the contrast of Brenna singing a song that was obviously not penned by her is what endears it to her and the audience. She explains, “There was a year when Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’ was on top of the charts for weeks. Everyone wanted to hear it. I had learned the song inside out and would stand up on the pianos to deliver the rap. People would see me on the street and freak out like ‘OH ARE YOU THE MACKLEMORE GIRL?!’, which was odd. Even when I left the city this happened. One night I played a first set at the club and then travelled to a remote gig we played at the Hotel MacDonald in Edmonton; it was a wedding. When I arrived, the bride excitedly greeted me and begged me to get on stage and play that song immediately. The whole wedding party crowded onto the dance floor as I began and had their hands in the air. It was so exhilarating to have all that energy coming towards you…and it’s not even me they’re excited about…it’s the song!”
While MacQuarrie is known for her ability to create or recreate any song with just piano and her voice, she is not opposed to augmenting this; in fact, she has often embraces it. While preferring to use only what she and her fellow performers create in real time she notes, “There are times when it’s appropriate to use tracks. The tracks can be both good and bad. On the positive side, they really gave each song immediate recognition. It can make it easier to build the energy up. When the crowd wants to hear a song like ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’, when that beat drops they go crazy; it’s instantly recognizable and powerful. On the down-side, it cast a lot of doubt on our abilities as players. I often received ‘challenge requests’ from people who thought we weren’t actually playing the pianos. I sure enjoyed proving them wrong, but I’m certain that some people went home disbelieving.” In a less automatic use of technology, Brenna is known for using a small electronic pad to play what she calls “finger drums” to sometimes achieve a more contemporary sound when the song calls for it.
In spite of the years of hard work and the challenges, Brenna confirms that choosing a career as a musician is the best and only decision for her. Spending her energy creating with other people and for other people is the type of positive influence she wants to put out into the world and receive from it. She tells, “The people can be so supportive. When you find good collaborative energies in the industry it’s irreplaceable. You have to make art for the purpose of making art or else you’ll go crazy. It seems to come down to that. And I love making art. This career has given me a sense of autonomy and adventure. It requires you to give up the assurance of a house, a family, a reliable income but it gives you incredible freedom at the same time. The sheer number of wildly talented artists out there is so exciting to me. I just want to see more of the world and I want to meet/work with more people who are doing what I do.”