On November 22, the Gold Coast of Australia will be treated to a Cat Stevens tribute show called The FantastiCat Show at the Sheoak Shack. Performed by local singer-songwriter Glenn Brace, the FantastiCat Show has been winning over fans in the region. To celebrate the release of deluxe editions of Cat’s Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat, I asked Glenn if he could talk with us about The FantastiCat Show, his love for Cat Stevens’ music, and his own career. Glenn was happy to indulge me. As you’ll see, Glenn’s enthusiastic love of music is infectious, and his talent undeniable.
Click through for the entire interview, as well as an exclusive MP3 of Glenn Brace’s cover of Cat Stevens’ classic “Father and Son”.
Troubadour Tribune (TT): Thank you for taking some time out of your schedule to chat with us, Glenn. You’ve been playing the guitar since you were just nine years old. When did you make the decision to pursue it professionally?
Glenn Brace (GB): Gday and nice to meet you Corey. Gee… I started lessons at about 9 and finished when I was about 13 years and went straight into a Beach Boys Band singing the really high stuff (as my voice had not broken). I loved playing music with other older guys and I had just got my first electric guitar. I knew the band would not last as I like the songs, but don’t love them like I do other types of songs. My first gig was at 13 at The Frankston Yacht Club with my cousin both of us playing acoustic guitars (nylon strings). We got $50 for the night. Playing and singing out of one amp with 4 inputs all used. It was mainly Jim Croce, Bread, America, James Taylor, Carole King and some Beatles all night. I still have pictures of it somewhere.
TT: I first heard your name about three years ago when someone I knew from James Taylor Online mailed me a mix CD of three of your songs: “The Flame,” the instrumental “Friends” and “I Don’t Need You Anymore”. From looking at your website, GlennBrace.com, these appear to come from your second album Embraced, from 2002. In fact, you’ve been independently releasing your own music since 1999, and a fifth album, Totally Blue, is currently in the works. What made you decide to start recording your own music?
GB: The process of writing songs, poetry, rhymes and verse, to me are a direct result of how I am feeling. It’s a form of emotional expression that is otherwise lacking in general conversation and can, most of the time, be a better form of comfort and a way of delivering a message. No strings attached. I love what music does to me physically and emotionally and how it allows me to convey what I want to say to my listener.
For instance Totally Blue is the name of the record I am working on and the main song is a direct result of the separation I went through with my wife. After I finished recording it I came home to my new home and listened to it on my stereo and sat on my rug with the sound up really high and it helped me put some grief in a box and out of reach. I think there would be a few guys in the listening world that could relate to what I felt and it’s gentle enough to be easy listening material. So guys… if you felt the same thing I did let me know if I hit the right spot, I’d love to hear from you.
TT: What has the recording process been like for you, and how has it evolved over time? How does it compare to playing live?
GB: When ever I have booked studio time to do things it was because I had saved the money, learned the songs in my sleep, knew I had a budget, played the songs and road tested them, and was ready to give the maximum I could give them to make them sound good in a short amount of time. First record cost me $365 and I did 13 songs in one day. It’s still a record in that studio. Second one cost about $1800 and took longer and it shows in the playing as well and the end result. I was aware that being in the studio costs so it was in my vested interest to be in and out and a good result to take home and show the family.
I sold 5000 copies of the first record and that was cool. Some times I listen to the songs and I am back there knowing what I had eaten that morning, what I was wearing, and how I felt to record that certain song. Then when its time to re-introduce the songs and record back to the listeners and know I can hold my head up knowing I gave them a quality product and they can enjoy the different flavors on the record. Playing live is so much better when the people know what you are playing and if its an original written by you and they sing with you, that’s the buzz!!!!
TT: How has it been with an independent career? It certainly seems to be the trend in the music industry. Have you ever tried to get signed with a record label, or do you prefer it on your own terms?
GB: EXACTLY RIGHT!!!!! My Terms, My Set List, JUST ME. Yes I was on my knees in several office blocks begging and pleading for them to even listen to the tape and judge its merit and you know what… not one person got back to me but sure had to wait for them to give the tape BACK TO ME!!!!!!!!! In most cases I went back and demanded my work be returned and got it. So when I record my first tape I got 500 tapes made and stood in the middle of the road handing out tapes to cars as they waited for the lights to change. People listened and came to my gigs… and bought more tapes. Rather do it on my own terms and if a big shark wants to swallow me up and package and pigeon hole me… ITS GONNA COST HIM PLENTY!!!!
TT: Tell me about the FantastiCat Show. Where did you get the idea to do a Cat Stevens tribute?
GB: I went to your country in 2004 to play in a music get-together in Ozark, Arkansas (had a hoot of a time) and on the way back in the aircraft “The Wind” came on the in-house headset they give you and I love to write so I dragged out my notebook and jotted down a list of his work that really touched me and made me happy and I thought, “hmmmmm, what if?”
And from that list I went into StudioProof here on the Gold Coast and talked to Mark Watson about reconstructing a gentle well-loved show of tunes that mean so much to me and touch so many other kinds of people.
TT: Cat Stevens is obviously a great singer-songwriter, but I’ve heard you’re also a fan of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel and the Beatles, among others. What made you choose Cat Stevens?
GB: I can tell you have listened to his work too Corey and there must be a few songs that mean something to you as they do for me and so many millions of FANS!!!!!! I had so many really great moments in my life that went hand-in-hand with the music Cat Stevens wrote.
The Road to Find Out, Father and Son, The Wind, Oh Very Young and the list goes on. It was like he was singing to me and that was cool.
TT: What sort of format do you use for the show? Are you ‘in character’ as Cat Stevens?
GB: FantastiCat is a celebration of his work and no… I don’t put the beard on and mimic his every move and gesture. I sit and stand and tell stories about where I was when I heard a song, a little of his history and let my playing and singing rekindle feelings in the people there. It was amazing in New Guinea all the people there knew his work and when I sang “I’m being followed by a Moonshadow,” thousands sang back “MOONSHADOW MOONSHADOW”.
I won’t forget that.
TT: Are you trying to re-create Cat’s versions of his songs as much as possible, or are you taking liberties and presenting your own interpretations of his music?
GB: I stay as close to what he has recorded to honor what he did.
TT: Do you ever play with other musicians for these shows, or your standard live shows?
GB: I did all the tracks in the studio and dipped them in 2004 technology and played all the instruments on my backing tracks, and sit all by myself and do the solo songs without backing. I have approached a few musicians to work with me but they all want too much money so for the time being it’s a solo show.
TT: How does the FantastiCat Show compare to your regular concerts?
GB: Depends on the venue. If it’s a club and it’s stinking hot outside and you have people who just want easy listening music I relax and do originals, instrumentals and songs they would know, and maybe slip one or two in just for good measure.
TT: How did you first discover Cat Stevens? What about his music appealed to you, and what about it still resonates with you?
GB: My parents used to live in a court and would take my sister and I to all the parties that the people who lived there would have and when it was time for the kids to go to sleep, off we went into the master bedroom with the hats and coats and hopefully we would sleep. My sister always needed a light on so the door stayed open about 8 inches and into our bedroom would filter the wondrous sounds of the musicians of the day. I remember hearing Cat Stevens then and since I was learning to play at the time it only fueled my enthusiasm to learn more. I have two sons of my own and I am still reduced to tears when I hear Father and Son. His lyrics where never harmful or derogatory. He sang of children, love, and understanding. He always seemed to me to be searching for something more than what was around him. I never get tired of listening to him play and would rather listen to him than some of the music on the radio today.
TT: Glenn, let’s take a quick break for a couple of lists. First, what are your top 5 Cat Stevens albums?
GB: 1 Tea For The Tillerman
2 Teaser and The Firecat
3 Catch The Bull at Four
4 An Other Cup
5 Mona Bone Jakon
TT: And what are your top 5 Cat Stevens songs?
GB: 1 Father and Son
2 Wild World
4 Peace Train
5 The Boy with the Moon and Star on his Head
TT: Nice choices. How did Australia first respond to Cat Stevens and his music? How is he regarded now?
GB: I think back in the days when he first came onto the scene he was loved and revered all over the world and he did tour here in Australia some years back and the response to his shows only enhanced his popularity. Since the tragedy of 9/11 and the world wide fear that has been left in that wake of that senseless violent act the popularity of the Muslim religion has been opened to scrutiny, hatred and fear. I think that we can still love his music and respect his choice of religion because to me religion is more personal to the individual. I think George Carlin said it for me, “there is the 11th commandment thou shall keep thy religion to thyself”. Tough question to answer without upsetting people.
TT: What are your audiences like for your FantastiCat Shows?
GB: I have found that when I start to play and I hear the audience singing with me in the very first song all fears of upsetting anyone because he is now Muslim. They are all different ages that come to the show, moms and babies, dads and kids… it’s a mixed group.
TT: What did you think when, at the end of 1977, Cat Stevens converted to Islam, changed his name to Yusuf Islam, and a year later retired from the music business? And what did you think of his recent return with the album An Other Cup?
GB: I was upset that he wasn’t touring and playing anymore but that was his choice. Having spent quite a lot of years in the music industry I can understand why he did what he did. I still listened to his records and derive great comfort from all the music he has done. When I found he had recorded another record of his music I couldn’t wait. I waited till the record came out and read some reviews on it and finally I got the record and cried as soon as I heard his voice again. It was like greeting an old friend you hadn’t seen in ages and I loved the messages and chords that he put together and its on my list as being one of my faves.
TT: Glenn, thank you so much.
GB: Thank you Corey, it’s been a real pleasure to sit here and talk with you about this wonderful man’s music. MOONDANI (AUSTRALIAN Aboriginal word to be held and loved as family)
Glenn has kindly provided the Troubadour Tribune with an MP3 of his wonderful version of Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son”.