GRAMMY Award-winning music producer and lauded field-recording trailblazer Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Zomba Prison Project, Ramblin' Jack Elliott) follows up an acclaimed recording career of over 50 albums with his latest, and most personal release yet, featuring the Sheltered Workshop Singers' debut release, "Who You Calling Slow?" (Release Date: September 18, 2020). Brennan is renowned for scouring the far stretches of the globe to document singers in an uninhibited, authentic fashion. From recordings in musically underrepresented regions such as Rwanda, Malawi, South Sudan, Karachi, Palestine, Ukerewe Island, Cambodia, and Romania, his new project brings him closest to home. For the first time, Brennan collaborates with his older sister, Jane -- who has Down syndrome -- along with her fellow workshop companions at a Bay Area adult-care facility.
In an aged strip mall tucked at the base of the foothills that stand as the final ridgeline before the enormity of the Central Valley -- though many miles beyond the Bay's basin -- resides a weekday program for dozens of adults with varying cognitive and ambulatory abilities. Sharing a parking lot with a diner, liquor store, gaming shop, and red-light massage parlor, the workshop employees spend their weekday hours leading the program. With Brennan's father on hand for this cherished experience as he battled stage-four cancer (and ultimately passed just two months after the recording was complete), an unparalleled recording session took place that the world now has the privilege to hear.
"Growing up, I'd witnessed my sister's discomfort -- eyes steered down sideways and hard, unable to contain her oversized tongue due to the shame -- too many times to not remain vigilant and braced for a lifetime," says Ian Brennan. "I had little option but to make the right choice: to always side with those marginalized. Jane was diagnosed as 'severely retarded,' just one step above the lowest denomination of catatonic and mute. Our main connection was through music -- joy expressed through dance, sadness and longing with melody. As her level of functioning has begun to diminish markedly in recent years, I knew the time was now or never to capture moments where music speaks volumes."
While Brennan enters each recording project prepared not to release it (with multiple projects shelved over the years), a miraculous epiphany transpired when the participant Janet began singing "I'm not afraid of anything" from her wheelchair. Brennan states, "It was when Janet sang of fearlessness by repeatedly declaring, 'I'm not afraid of anything,' that I felt the familiar surge during projects that is the telltale sign that what's being recorded will, in fact, result in becoming a record: tears. As she improvised those words, there was not a dry eye in the room -- not out of pity, but in admiration and awe of her courage and strength."
The instrumentation on "Who You Calling Slow?" mostly derives from the participants immediate environment -- a walker used as a bell, a yoga ball for a bass drum. A diverse group of over 20 people participated in "Who You Calling Slow?", ranging in age from early-twenties to sixties. Many were wheelchair-bound or utilized crutches, canes, and braces to walk. No one had sung before into a microphone or attempted to play a stringed instrument.
One of the great surprises came from a classmate of Brennan's sister since they were toddlers. Tom had always been a macho dude and a bit of an archetypal "bad boy" who pursued bodybuilding as a teen. But, the deep hurt that rose from inside his chest as he sang of his father was devastating. And when his peers sing of "bad memories" and heartbreak, one can only dare wonder to what interpersonal horrors they refer.
For a moment, step inside an often-misunderstood community of creators for a chance to peer into their world -- one that's immersed with passion, and melody. Listeners might just be shocked at their unbridled, emotional depth and willingness to share their hurt, love, and brave.