By Angelo Lynn/Addison County Independent
BRANDON — It’s been almost a year since local singer-song writer Breanna Elaine, 25, quit her day job and dedicated herself to becoming a full-time professional musician. Since last January, she’s made her living singing and playing her guitar at venues of almost every sort.
She’s done it as a single mom with her son, Eli, now 5, and from a background that was atypical in that she dropped out of high school at 15 — a self-admitted rebellious teen who was determined to do things her way.
And it’s going pretty well.
She’s developed a steady flow of gigs each weekend, including a couple during the week, and she’s releasing her new album, “Seedlings,” this January — a year to the date of her independence from the 9-to-5 day-job she wanted to move past. She sings of that moment in her single “I Don’t Care,” which is included on the album.
Her self-assured, risk-taking attitude is captured well in that song’s first stanza. It is a beautifully sung, passionate ballad of doubt in the day-to-day struggle, but belief in pursuing what is right for her. It starts:
How can I live my life the right way?
I’m bound to be homeless if I don’t work my days away.
Small town musicians don’t make a living wage
and our hearts are a bit different in many types of ways.
(Refrain:) Well, the days drag on and I sing my song,
And I believe in my magic,
so I wish upon myself, as I’m a shooting star.
I live on this music, it’s all that I eat…
So when the money is gone and the cupboards are bare,
I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care…
We sat down with Breanna to hear her story of leaving her job as a licensed nursing assistant to become singer-songwriter with aspirations of greatness — and a gritty determination to make it work.
Q&A with Breanna Elaine
Q: You were working as a licensed nursing assistant, supporting your 4-year-old son as a single mom (sharing those duties half-time with his dad), and you get this idea for a song that says “quit the job and pursue your passion.” That’s three months before you actually followed through and put your life in fate’s hands. Tell us about that moment.
A: “It just hit me that I wasn’t happy and I was wasting my life not doing what I wanted to be doing… At the time, I had just left my boyfriend and was temporarily living in a women’s shelter with my son. Well, for me to quit my job was, I didn’t know if I might be insane. But I was at a really… you know, when you’re going through trauma and terrible things, you’re more connected to the divine because you don’t have total control, and you’re just trusting things to work out.
“And so I could feel this energy of what I was meant to do, of what I was supposed to do, and finally I gave in. I was like, Okay, I’ll do what I am supposed to do because nothing else is working, or fulfilling me. So I listened to that inner voice. And I quit my job. And I worked really hard. And I’ve been fully booked every weekend ever since.
“The universe did not disappoint me.”
Q: Your songs, including the single “Belly of a Whale,” which will be released on Dec. 2 , are not always as hopeful and self-assured, but expose personal heartache. What’s the story of that song?
A: “Belly of a Whale” is a song about loneliness. It’s about the death of my father [when she was 21], emotional distance with my mother, I guess. And it talks a little bit about the partner I had at the time [two years ago] and how I just felt disconnected and lonely. At first, I thought I wasn’t going to play it [publicly], because it was just too personal, you know. I thought no one wants to hear this. But they do and it’s actually a lot of people’s favorite…
And it’s not like a happy song, which I understand is not for everyone, but, you know, I’m realizing art isn’t always happy. Because it’s a reflection of our life and our experience, and that’s not always happy.
You know, it’s telling the story of how I was feeling in life in that moment. Truthfully, and when I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking about other people hearing it. I write the music because I’m creating art from, you know, from my place for me, not because I’m writing a song that they’ll like.
Q: When did you start writing and singing your own songs?
A: I’m written and played music since I was maybe 8 or 10, but it wasn’t good then. But I kept at it because it just comes out of me. I’ve written hundreds of songs. But I didn’t keep them or play them in front of anybody until much later. I have lost so many songs because I wasn’t recording anything. So I started to sing and record some. And then eventually, when I was older, you know, people pushed me. And I was like, Okay, I guess I’ll do an open mic.And usually the response I get, I’m like, wow, okay, I’m good at this. People like this. Okay. Let’s see what happens if I, you know, tried to get a gig. And I got a gig. And I was like, this is going okay, let’s see what happens if I just quit my job, because it sucks, and I’ll just do this full time.”
Q: Did you remember when you first starting singing?
A: My mom says she always remembers me singing, even as a little kid. I think I was a music nerd, that’s just what made me happy. My mom played the guitar and she’s a good singer, and I hear my dad was really good on the trumpet and he would always be singing. I didn’t really hear him ever play the trumpet, but I was told he was a very, very good trumpet player. I’m not really sure what happened. He went a different way in life. But I was told he was very good.
But I guess my singing started in a church youth group. This guy, who was also our neighbor, was the youth group leader and he made a band out of us kids. I had been playing the violin. That was the first thing I played. They had violin classes in our elementary school and I didn’t want to be in band because, I thought, I’m too old for that, too cool. I’m not going to play oboe or anything and march in a marching band, so I got pretty good at the violin. But I eventually took up the bass guitar in the church’s youth group band…. so I would sing and play the guitar.
I also sang in elementary school. They had, like chorus in school plays and stuff. And the music teacher noticed that I was good at it, so he encouraged me… we had these school events when everyone would go to the gym and we would sing songs and whatever. And then once in a while they would have a kid be a soloist. And I did some of that, which was probably my first ever time to sing in front of other people, in that way, right? And then, you know, my friends would always be, ‘Oh, sing us that song,’ while we were out on the playground or whatever. And I would sing songs for them, because they would ask me to.
Q: You also play the banjo a little, right?
A: Right. I was house sitting, when I was much older, like watching my boyfriend’s dog as he went away on a trip. And he had taken the guitar with him, which I didn’t notice until afterwards. And I had a song in me and I had to get it out. I was tearing the house apart looking for the guitar, and it wasn’t there. But I found a banjo in the closet. And so I pulled it out and figured out how to tune it. And then I wrote my first major song.
I don’t really play it that often, but I do have eight to 10 songs on the banjo… I’ve always heard it’s harder than the guitar to play; maybe like the rolls and stuff, if you want to get fancy, but I don’t get fancy.
Q: You said you dropped out of school when you were 15. Why?
A: I liked music and, English and writing, but the rest of it, I just didn’t have a great time with. And I was just a rebellious pain in the ass, and I didn’t want to do anything that I didn’t like. And that was it.
Q: So, you got your GED since dropping out, and you’ve had day jobs as a LNA, and you’ve been singing with various groups and on your own for the past several years. Where do you practice and how’s that going?
A: Well, most of my gigs, probably 95%, are solo…and my guitar, singing at events and during the dinner hour at restaurants and bars, that kind of thing. But I also have a band, and George Nostrand, at The Sound Space in Rutland, which is a rehearsal space, he’s counseled me a lot on the business aspect of things. Like a mentorship, and that’s been really helpful…
Also, I’ve played at the Underground Studio in Randolph and the owner Vincent Freedom has been super helpful in a lot of ways and as the studio engineer for the “Seedlings” album.
Q: Any particular place you go to get your inspiration?
A: Well, dumping your boyfriend is good for creativity. So I do it every once in a while, just for fun. [Laughing.] So, boys beware. But honestly, you get some songs when you first start dating, like love songs. And then you get those angry songs at the end… I like the angry songs. It’s more emotional. I like the grit, the edge. Where do the songs come from? I don’t know, I just have it. It’s an overflow. It’s like a well. You keep dipping in your bucket, but more comes up from somewhere. There’s always been water in the well within. I like the metaphor of the garden, the seeds you plant. That’s why the title of the album is “Seedlings.” I really don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve got this endless creative energy, and I’ve had it my whole life. It never runs out.
Q: So, you’ve been on your own for a year as a full-time musician, your new album is coming out in January, you’re living in an apartment in Brandon and you say that songs are still flowing out of you constantly. What’s the key take-away for you in those 25 years?
A: I used to party and be wilder, but today, I just focus on myself. I think when you work on yourself, and you’re in a good place, you attract the type of people that you want to be around. So I work on myself and connections happen organically.
Q: Where did you learn that?
A: Well, I learned it from being an unhealthy person and seemingly attracting the wrong types of people. And then I realized what you put in, you get out. So if you’re in a good place in life, good things will happen because you’re putting out good energy. If you’re unhappy, you’re putting out bad energy, and people who are also in a negative space are going to be attracted to that. It’s the way I learned a lot of things in a really short amount of time, actually, but at least I can use that to my advantage now.
Q: When did you start learning those lessons?
A: Well, when I was a kid, things were not all peachy keen… The things I’ve been through in my life create a certain space from which I write that maybe a lot of people haven’t experienced or have no idea about. So, maybe I’m able to write more because I’ve experienced a lot of stuff.
Q: What else have you learned?
A: Well, I used to be like, Oh, everything sucks. Why did this all happen to me? But now I’m glad everything’s happened to me. Because now I am this person. And I can see things in a certain way. I can use all my experience — good and bad — to my advantage. And I can also use it for my art. I am just naturally very emotional, and, you know, “artist brain” I call it. I’m unstable. And I like it. I don’t really want to regulate it that much because a little insanity makes good art.
Q: How would you describe your music and your voice?
A: It’s hard for me to describe my own music or my own voice or to connect down to certain adjectives. Also I have multiple voices. I could sing a classical sounding song. Or I could sing punk rock. So it really depends on my mood and what type of sound I’m going for. But my natural voice and style is kind of an earthy, gritty, folky sound. That’s what comes out naturally.
Q: Did you do voice practice or training?
A: Well, I once went to, a summer camp that my music teacher suggested when I was little. It was, a few weeks of summer camp. And they did some sight reading and vocal exercises and stuff like that. Other than that, no.
I didn’t used to even warm up. I was like, Warm up? I don’t need to do that.’ You know, because I didn’t take care of anything. I was like, oh, yeah, I’m fine. Just go sing it. But I also used to smoke cigarettes and stuff. So I was like, rock and roll. Let’s go!
Q: Do you smoke now?
A: No. Before I would like to shotgun a beer on my way to the show. Now, I don’t do anything like that. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink at all. I eat very healthy, and I do lots of yoga. And of course, I warm up my voice before I sing. Because it’s good for the voice and I want to make it last. And if I’m going to make a career of this, I need to be protecting my voice.
Q: What’s next after the album?
A: I’d like to do more edgy type music, but it’s stuff that I can’t really play at restaurants while people are eating with their families. But I do have that. And I think after I release this album that I might go back to explore some of that kind of music and record it. And now I’m starting to play different places, like Off The Rails, which is like a bar, and the Angler Pub, and Charlie O’s in Montpelier — places that are a bit rowdier. So, I’m like, Okay, now I have to shift from playing Country Club dinner music for people and their families to nitty gritty music I’ve been missing. And so I’m kind of expanding my repertoire more with covers and also bringing back some of the songs I used to play when I was a teenager at open mics and bars.
Q: What’s your dream?
A: I want to play on stages where people pay to see me. Restaurants and bars are fun, but I want to be at a venue where I’m putting on a show, and people pay to come and see me because they want to see me, not that they stopped for dinner and I happen to be there. And I think that’s what every artist wants. And, eventually, I am going to be rich and famous, and I’m gonna play at huge stages, like Beyonce or Jewel, and it’ll be great.
I don’t really know. I’ve got a lot of sides to me, and a lot of music that I still have inside.