At summer’s end 2009, Brendan Shea emigrated from his hometown of Buffalo, New York, his latest self-produced EP, On This Casual Decline in hand, to take a stab at a legitimate songwriting career in the legitimate music town of Austin, Texas. He frequented open mics and cobbled together a gig or two on Sixth Street, but mostly resigned himself to playing coffee shops to his small circle of friends and their significant others. In the twilight of his misguided youth, Brendan rode into the hills of Travis County idolizing the brooding, bothered and boozy anti-heros of Ryan Adams, Rhett Miller, Elliott Smith and Conor Oberst songs … of Hemingway and Kerouac and Tennessee Williams stories. He made up his mind early on that he would cast himself as such a character; that his darkness would most certainly be his draw. The problem was he committed to this role too effectively. Between the day job he’d secured in order to survive, and devoting his nights and weekends to attaining spectacular levels of inebriation, he forgot all about making music. For Brendan, Austin became something of a creative wasteland. Over a 20-month span in the world’s “Live Music Capital,” he only managed to write one song he thought was pretty good, and a small handful that were garbage. It was time to move on.
Next stop: Seattle. Brendan arrived in 2011 and caught a much-needed second wind. He got to work writing about his Austin experience, and connected with other transplanted musicians who would help him record his full-length debut, Brendan & the Strangest Ways, which he adopted as his moniker to make music in the years that followed. Drums and bass were tracked in a community theater space on the north side of town, located directly beneath a weed dispensary. Tracking took place over, around, and through the “thump-thump-thumping” of partakers excitedly scaling the staircase that ran above the live room. When it was time for guitars and vocals, Brendan sought the help of an Austin buddy and songwriter he admired, D.B. Rouse, who would eventually become a regular collaborator and touring partner. D.B. had locked down a side hustle as a resident field hand on a horse ranch just outside of Austin, and generously offered use of his guest bungalow and recording gear for Brendan to complete tracking, which he did over the course of 10 or so days. He could never be fully sure of how many magic, “that-felt-like-the-one” takes were ultimately spoiled by the crowing of roosters or buzzing of low-flying planes, but in the end, Brendan returned to Seattle with solid performances he hoped would elevate the album above its modest means of production. He spent the year that followed obsessively editing his own work on a laptop while falling back into old habits, allocating much more time to drinking than creating, still believing he would somehow, someday be discovered and appreciated for what a spectacular mess of humanity he was becoming.
Brendan & the Strangest Ways was released in January 2016. A few months after, Brendan would embark on the most ambitious undertaking of his career: packing up and hitting the road in a 26-foot motorhome to crisscross the contiguous US playing venues of all shapes and sizes. He called it the StaRVing Artist Tour. The ensuing summer saw him pounding the pavement from the Pacific Northwest to Western New York and back again, until the personal and professional partnership the tour was based upon ultimately fell apart. With no money, no apartment, no vehicle or job, autumn 2016 took Brendan right back to where he began: Buffalo.
But this was not the same Buffalo Brendan had left seven years prior; the weathered, working class town whose best days were far behind it. While he was away, Buffalo had undergone a monumental cultural and creative renaissance. Brendan was delighted by the discovery of shiny new Americana venues with state-of-the-art sound systems, and summer music festivals featuring local artist stages. People kayaked on the river, and there were food trucks and craft breweries and pedal tours downtown. The static in the air was contagious. Brendan wrote prolifically, further sharpening his “lyrical flourish” (Twangville) as he dug deep into the existential whirlwind of betting it all and losing on the RV tour. He gigged locally, backed by a revolving door of warm-bodied bandmates. He put together regional tours from the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest to the desert to the Gulf Coast. In spring 2019, he took what he considered his strongest batch of songs to date on a trip to Nashville’s County Q Studio, where he presented them to a group of session players. Six hours later, they had presented him back with the foundation for his sophomore full-length release. He brought the tracks home to add his voice and guitar, mix and master. But away from the studio, the personal demons which traveled alongside him for a decade were dragging him down to all-time lows. One morning in August 2019, it finally became clear that no one was ever going to appreciate him for being a self-destructive, drunken mess. To the contrary, most people he knew even casually just thought he was a huge asshole. So he immediately entered a detox, and committed himself to an outpatient rehab program. Though it would develop into a years’ long struggle of hopping on and off the wagon, Brendan remained hopeful he would one day achieve lasting sobriety.
The following (Pandemic) summer, Brendan released Are We Sure The Dawn Is Coming?, and thanks to a chance re-connection with the lead guitarist from the first band he fronted as a teenager, was now backed by a troupe of seasoned veterans of Buffalo’s Alt-country scene. This iteration of the Strangest Ways helped Brendan elevate his live performances to the best they’d ever sounded, and the band played some of Buffalo’s oldest and newest iconic venues through the end of 2021. But for the ever-restless soul whose creative well had always been most amply replenished by a change of scenery, it was once again time to move on.
Nashville was the obvious choice – East Nashville specifically, where Brendan, his wife of five months, and their two cats arrived after a harrowing, snowy pilgrimage in February 2022. They felt instantly at home among the artists, intellectuals, and general weirdos inhabiting the neighborhood. As predicted, Brendan began writing new songs, exploring the local venues, and toying with the idea of whether he might try to carve himself a slice of the Music Row pie. Midsummer, he decided to take a leave of absence from music altogether to face fully and for good the longstanding tormentors of substance abuse and untreated mental illness which had held him so far back from where he wanted to be. As of August 2023, Brendan will have been one-year sober for the first time in his adult life.
One of the greatest realizations during that year of self-discovery was that he no longer wanted Bruce Springsteen’s career. He no longer even wanted Jason Isbell’s career. He simply wanted the career he’d been on the verge of having all along, but had been too busy getting in his own way to completely manifest. All he wanted now was to make music for himself; songs that felt transcendentally healing to sing and play and listen to. If in the process, he helped somebody else through a personal hardship the way his favorite songs had always done for him, then that would be about the greatest honor he could imagine.
Brendan’s is the unlikeliest of redemption stories, where the underdog, stumbling along a drastic downward trajectory, somehow manages the unthinkable and comes out ahead of where he started. He might not be the kind of guy everybody wants to root for, but rather than bend over backwards to win anyone’s approval, he’s decided instead to embrace those who have been and will continue to root for him. For those people, for all the experiences good and bad, for the places he’s seen and the stories he has to tell, he will always feel incredibly fortunate.
Lo-Fi Way or the Highway: Best of the Early Years (2017) compilation
Brendan & the Strangest Ways (2016)
My Favorite Ancient Myth (2014) digital EP
Taylor Road Sessions (2011) digital EP
On This Casual Decline (2008) EP
A Good Distraction (2006) EP
Just a fun bit of trivia … during my journey living and playing in different cities, I managed to somehow never miss a rent, utility or car payment by doing all of the following, in alphabetical order:
App-based courier on foot (got stuck in a secure elevator holding a stack of eight pizzas)
Auto parts delivery driver
Auto parts distribution center stocking and shipping
Banking data entry
Barback/line cook at an iconic music venue
Booked ocean transport for an international moving company
Chain café delivery driver
Customer service desk at a university bookstore
Ecommerce order picker
Hardwood flooring delivery driver
Insurance document processing
Liquor store delivery driver
Package delivery driver/dispatcher (Three nonconsecutive terms with three different subcontractors)
Party tent assembly and disassembly
Photograph and blown-glass vendor at a landmark artisan market
Retail florist delivery driver
Rideshare driver for groups of insufferable barhoppers (completed two rides total)
Some kind of scheduling for a regional logistics company (I’m still not sure exactly what my role was)
Telemarketing for a car dealership
Vendor for a neighborhood sporting goods tycoon
Wholesale floral delivery driver
ADDITIONAL CREATIVE ENDEAVORS:
Engineer/producer: Saffron and Snickerdoodles culinary podcast (2020 - present)
Engineer/co-producer: A Million Rabbits Looking For Their Feet by Paper Mules (2021)
Editor: D.B. Rouse's first three self-published novels:
Time Bucket (TBD)
Stabbin' My Way To The Top: The Autobiography of Stabby The Hobo (2017)
Co-writer: “Be Kind” and “2 AM Rooster” (2023) with TK Rose
Guitar/vocals: Cantwell Function (2019-2021)
King Pears (2011)