“I was so scared of you, Jack Colwell. I thought you were going to walk up to me one day and say, ‘You’re a fraud, Brendan Maclean’.”
In a few weeks time, Australian gems Brendan Maclean and Jack Colwell will join each other on stage for a long overdue celebration — honouring 10 years of their careers, 10 years of music, and 10 years of their friendship (and rivalry).
It’s been a winding 10 years, of course, and, as they explain below, not all of them have been rosy. They’ve ridden the often-sketchy wave of musical success in Australia, releasing sparkling and groundbreaking music like Maclean’s gleaming pop works of ‘House Of Air’ and ‘Tectonic’, and Jack Colwell’s quietly devastating SWANDREAM. They’ve also dealt with the shittiness and homophobia of Australian media, and the frustration of being constantly being pigeonholed as a “gay artist” as opposed to, you know, just an artist.
So who better to discuss their careers, their music, and their tense rivalry turned friendship than Brendan and Jack themselves? We asked the pair to sit down and chew the fat about it all — and here’s what happened.
Jack: Okay, 3, 2, 1! Hi Music Junkee, this is Brendan and Jack Colwell.
Brendan: We’re in bed doing face masks with rosé.
Jack: Brought to you by Melbourne’s Intigiro Vino Rose Frizanti unfiltered. Brendan, cheers.
Brendan: Cheers, baby. 10 years. Now I think the first time this gig had any chance of happening was I was walking down Enmore Road…last year.
Jack: No, it couldn’t have been last year. It could have been 2018. That’s when I finished recording. I was recording my debut album, SWANDREAM.
Brendan: And I just completed my second-ish/first-ish record. But I just finished And The Boyfriends, and I saw you in Newtown at Shenkin café and you were sitting next to your friend and producer of the album, Sarah Blasko. And I dashed to the counter and got a coffee. I think I saw you, but I, did I wave at you?
Jack: You stopped and talked to us.
Brendan: Yeah, five or 10 minutes. I was so nervous at that time.
Jack: Yeah, you did seem quite nervous and I mean you were carrying your green shopping bag because you like to reuse and recycle. I think you had some non-glamorous laundry.
Brendan: And I think I was feeling a little bit nervous to see you and jealous that you were near one of my heroes. And I think that was the first time I thought about the distance of time…
Jack: Because it had been a really long time.
Brendan: There had been no reason for us to talk and no excuse and there you are, sitting with my hero at my local café. So, we met up there, we emailed a little bit and now we’ve found ourselves here, looking back and wondering why on earth we stopped talking for so long.
Jack: Do you know how old we were when we met?
Brendan: No, do you?
Jack: I’ve worked it out. I was 17 and you were 19. I was finishing my HSC when we met and you were… still working at Luna Park, going to UNSW, and using their practice rooms.
Brendan: Long history. So looking back, if that’s the very end point, then let’s flash back to our first interview together.
Jack: Do you remember what the magazine was called?
Brendan: Bent Magazine…it was this young, gay… were we queer then or just gay?
Jack: We were just gay. Queer was still a term that was sinister, or being taken back in smaller circles. That was seen as…
Brendan: I don’t remember it being a good thing.
Jack: No, being called a queer was like being called a faggot. It was still not embraced by a community.
Brendan: Openly gay artists Brendan Maclean and Jack Colwell.
Jack: And that was the shtick.
Jack: You were 19 and I was 17. I felt like when I met you, I remember walking into that room, as I said it was the very first thing I’d ever done. I’d never done anything. You were wearing a beautiful blue zipper top. And when I walked into that room, you were very good-looking — you still are — and you were very intimidating and you were very confident and…
Brendan: Real confidence though or was it see-through confidence?
Jack: Well I was 17, you don’t think about that then, you think, I’m meeting somebody at a magazine article, this is how they are and this is how they’re operating, therefore, they must be something. You were intimidating.
Brendan: I thought you were intimidating.
Jack: Well, I’m surprised, but thank you. I guess, I don’t know if I should say thanks about that. You were so confident and you’d already had this list of achievements that you’d done. And when you haven’t done anything and you meet someone who’s even done a little bit of what you are so desperate to do with your life and what you want…You’re like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so lucky to be here’. I guess at the bottom line, we all want to be taken seriously…
Brendan: It’s our number one need, as humans.
Jack: Yeah, and you desperately want to be seen. And we’ve discovered over time that we have both had a lot of similar darkness in our pasts, where we’ve both been rejected by a lot of people and overcome things. We’ve both have songs about domestic violence on our debut albums and said some things. I think there’s a need to want to be accepted and embraced by your peers and by other people and I think when you’re 17 and 19.
Brendan: And I was scared of you because I had built up this bag of tricks, this confidence, kind of built of nothing. I’d only done music since I was 17 or 16. It really wasn’t a part of my life, so I think I was hit with this Nick Cave-esque boy who really knew his shit.
“You let the music talk for you and I’ve always been very jealous that you have that ability.”
Jack: I’d done music forever.
Brendan: That’s right and I hadn’t, so the fear started bubbling up inside of me that someone was going to find out I was a fraud. I’m not a real musician or not a real performer.
Jack: Well, to be honest, I’ve never had those fears about myself, but I really feel that I don’t have that same bag of tricks that you do. We did a photoshoot earlier today and I feel like I really, I struggle, even now, to pull that out of the bag. I feel like I struggle to perform in front of people in the same way that you are such a natural showman. You’re a trained dancer and everything, whereas I feel like I basically sat behind instruments my entire life and I feel very confident in that way, but it is hard for me. I always feel less than.
Brendan: You always let the music talk. You let the music talk for you and I’ve always been very jealous that you have that ability, whereas I feel I really need a lot of collaborators and I need a producer in the room driving it. I don’t have that pen-to-paper drive. My music is very much based on the performance, but it’s not what I thought of myself when we were being introduced by Bent Magazine. I was a Daniel Johns in the making, ready to bleed my heart all over the world and everyone will think I think really deep thoughts. And what’s so amazing about really deep thoughts? If our differences were my ability to put on a pop show and your ability to write the songs…
Jack: Well, I desperately wanted to be taken seriously.
Brendan: Did you want what I had?
Jack: I wanted the shiny success and I’ve definitely had moments where I’ve watched on from afar in your career and been jealous of that from time to time. As I’ve recently been taught, jealousy is a useless emotion.
Brendan: I suppose this story had wonderful twists in it. Iconic techno, disco, pop producer Paul Mac invited us to his studio. I don’t think I knew you were coming. I don’t know why we both ended up at Paul Mac’s studio at 3am taking Xanax and listening to his soon-to-be-released album.
Jack: I had gone through a break-up that day and I was really drunk.
Brendan: And then we slept with each other. We did. I think Paul told me he just recently changed those sheets for the first time in 20 years.
Jack: It was on the floor on a mattress.
Brendan: Didn’t we just leave the next day? It was like, bye.
Jack: We went for breakfast. We tried to be normal. We then got asked to do a show together that we had to do some premiere for. I had to do an interview for The Brag and you tweeted me that The Brag should ask about how we slept together.
Brendan: Oh no, I’m sorry.
Jack: I think I was pretty petty and I said that it didn’t mean anything to me, that it obviously meant something to you because you kept bringing it up.
Brendan: Yeah, I wonder why I was so in need of your attention.
Jack: I was like really rejected by this person that I had been seeing that I… I just couldn’t think of anything else. I was just in a world of pain.
Brendan: It’s interesting that we both circle around very similar people. I always get worried that they’re going to get Jack Colwell to do the real, good art and they come to me to do the shit version. I just think that about every move I make.
Jack: You always talk about your career in such a disparaging way. You’ve done so many amazing things.
Brendan: I think there’s a reason behind that because I get nervous about being a pop musician in Australia. [That scene] doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist for gay men. It doesn’t have that UK, sort of block party section, where you get to have rock, pop. There’s not enough of an audience. I can’t do the Rufus Wainwright thing like you can. I can’t…
Jack: I can’t sing like you can, so there you go. We’re putting together this show and actually, we’ve had to talk to our musical director about what we can sing and what we can’t and I have to say, ‘Well, these are the three keys that I know my voice works in, just D, G, and B-flat will work for me.’ I think a lot of musical knowledge really counts sometimes but when you can sing anything, does it really matter?
“I was like really rejected by this person that I had been seeing that I…I just couldn’t think of anything else. I was just in a world of pain.”
Brendan: But the ass end of that makes me not believe that I’m doing it right. I don’t like making merch, I don’t like touring. And you really seem to thrive in that, whereas I’m have set up an environment where I turn up and I have the songs arranged for me and I sing a ridiculous note and everyone goes, wow, wow, you’re amazing. I came to your album launch and I remember sitting there going ‘I can’t do that and I’m no longer angry’, it’s beautiful that I’m not turning up and watching this other version of me. As we get older, we are so vastly different.
Jack: I was so different. I don’t even know why I thought we were so similar. There was actually an article that was like, we were the next wave and we were going to take Australia by storm as these new…
Brendan: We didn’t have a generation before us to practice off, really — we had Darren Hayes and Sam Sparrow. And they just didn’t stick around in Australia. God bless you, we love you, but you didn’t stick around. So looking around this country, directly, it was us, at that time. I’m sure Courtney Barnett was playing at the same time as us. But in Sydney, it was just us. You were the only other person that I could look to and people were comparing us to each other, so I thought you were taking my space.
Jack: Diversity is now accepted but when we were making music the punchline was that we were openly gay and that was it. And it wasn’t like our music could be conceived in any other way. It was just openly gay music, whatever that means. Did you ever want to be an openly gay artist?
Brendan: Yeah, no.
Jack: Or did you just want to be an artist?
Brendan: Yeah. How many of those interviews turned into mild grooming?
Jack: I did an interview with DNA that was when my EP came out. So this is like 2015. It was the most disgusting interview I’ve ever had. Well, no not even that. So I was really struggling with my weight at that time and I remember the interviewer was on Skype and he’d only seen press photos of me because you know they get sent that or whatever. And he opened the interview by saying, ‘I’m really surprised that they’re putting somebody like you in the magazine because you don’t look like the sort of person that we normally feature in DNA Australia’. And of course, as soon as he said that, I knew exactly what he meant.
“He opened the interview by saying, ‘I’m really surprised that they’re putting somebody like you in the magazine’.”
And I was lucky enough to be picked up off the cutting floor and pasted in. And then the interview featured on my music for maybe for five or 10 minutes before they began to ask me whether I had a partner and if I was seeing anybody. Then when I did, the interview was kind of wrapped up but because I wasn’t seen as being sexy, either by this person on the other end. For all descriptive purposes, a very generically attractive gay man. That was kind of the crux of the way that I was treated. And I remember when I sent photos in, they asked whether they could Photoshop them to make them look more attractive for the magazine.
At the time it really [broke my heart] because it seemed as though I had been built up to be an openly gay artist by the media. Even though that’s never what I wanted, I just wanted to be an artist. My idol was Tori Amos. I wanted to make emotional music that spoke about my feelings. And then when I entered the music industry, I was openly gay. That was what I was given and then the media that I had to follow. Because other media wouldn’t take us seriously. That we weren’t being played.
Brendan: Triple j never played us.
Jack: They never played us, they didn’t take us seriously and then I kind of thought well… I was just this weird, kind of goblin, that would people would sometimes take an interest in. I should feel lucky that somebody would dare to speak to me, basically. That’s what that situation was.
Brendan: That taught us to sell ourselves on this gay-based thing.
Jack: Yeah you were always in DNA and Star Observer, they loved you.
Brendan: I had this hangover body from being a dancer and it was a hangover in a good way. But I revelled in it, and it was amazing how quickly the bottom fell out from underneath that. It was so far from being a musician. Not to mention, when you’re throwing my sneeze-length entry in Gatsby and things like that. I never get to talk about music in interviews at all. Which is why I really love this gig, because it’s deeply focused around our music.
Jack: [We became] the openly gay spokesmen for a lot of things in that time. In Pedestrian TV and Channel V and…
Brendan: And I felt kicked out of the music world, until maybe funbang1 happened.
Jack: So funbang1 was the turning point for you?
Brendan: Yeah because I took my pop seriously. I stopped waiting for somebody else to go, this matters. It was an EP, it was seven tracks. I was like, hang on, this is great music that makes people feel something. It’s not quite, it’s not going to get on Kylie and Jackie-O. It’s not going to get on triple j. But I liked it and then the internet sort of happened. I could show my videos and I didn’t need the local media anymore to say I was openly gay because my audience was just gay or becoming queer. Did you have a moment like that?
“I felt kicked out of the music world, until maybe funbang1 happened.”
Jack: Well after my bad experiences with gay media, who basically treated me like this unattractive hobbit that couldn’t be deemed to be spoken to… it was actually Rolling Stone Australia who took me seriously and they put out my music and they wanted to talk about just my musicianship and my history and what I liked. They didn’t really care that I was gay. This was 2015, Rolling Stone has different ownership now — Rod Yates was the editor at the time and he took me really seriously.
Brendan: The opening sentence didn’t say, openly gay artist.
Jack: It didn’t say openly gay, it just said Jack Colwell is a classically trained musician that you need to hear. He’s got this EP. At the time, that felt affirming in a way that nothing else had before then. Back to something that I read as a teenager, that I had a subscription to that was solely music faced, solely music based, they are saying he’s a musician worth your time. It was having someone validate you in a way that you always wished that you would be and taken seriously and not get asked any weird, sexual questions or things that brought up trauma.
Brendan: I must have been 17 or 18 [in this interview] and it was like, ‘Did you bottom before this? Did you douche before this interview?’ I was just like, uh huh, uh huh, uh huh. I watched that back and I was just watching this child trying to figure out what was going on. Looking for a point in the chat to say, I wrote this EP called White Canvas and it never came up. It never came up. So no wonder neither of us felt particularly inspired or confident.
Jack: I think gay media is better now, on the whole. I think queer’s a much better label. I probably, if I’m really honest, deep down, I probably still identify as gay. Because that’s the identity that I took on — I came out when I was 12 and when I came out I was gay. And so for the largest part of my life and for the last few years, I have identified as gay. And maybe that still identifies my life.
Something that you’re taught is that you need to write from your perspective. Obviously, my perspective is that I write with a queer, gay, same-sex view for some of my work, not all of my work. Not all of my work is queer-leaning, but some of it is. It’s put out there. It’s kind of sad that maybe only queer-leaning people would want my work. But that’s something that I kind of struggle with sometimes, because I think, well why shouldn’t my point of view or things that I sing about kind of appeal to more people. When we were growing up we didn’t even really have other points of view. I listen to Elton John, but it’s not like Elton John was making queer-related music.
Brendan: That’s probably what made us go… ‘My work only applies to these people and you’re taking up that space’. As a go-getting teen I wanted to be famous and successful, no matter what. So the fact that I was really spiteful and angry that you were taking my audience away…makes sense. Because I’d been told, ‘You’ve got this pigeonhole to fill and this many people are going to come to the gigs. And you know every person in the audience personally. Because it’s the Sydney gay scene. And so if they were at your gig, well they’re not going to come to mine.
And so this young Brendan is like, oh god, it’s Brendan vs Jack Colwell. And that was the initial problem. But what was the reason that Jack Colwell and Brendan Maclean stopped talking to each other?
“I was really spiteful and angry that you were taking my audience away…”
Jack: I think we felt pitted against each other by other forces and I think that we had a very different view of each other. I was intimidated by you but I looked up to you and really kind of yearned for a friendship or that kind of companionship in a world that felt really lonely. And because you saw me as threatening, we wanted different things from each other.
Brendan: Did I ever say anything directly to you?
Jack: You did send me an SMS once. You told me that if I made a one-take video, like you did for ‘Winner’, that you would kill me.
Brendan: Okay. If I’m saying I’d kill you then I don’t think I was too serious. There would have been an element of seriousness to it.
Jack: And then I saw you at some show that you were playing two days later. I think you were really high and you came up to me and apologised. I think that was kind of maybe the beginning of the end. I think time heals most things. I think that there comes a time after your Saturn return, or during, where you go into this period and you realise that youth is beautiful and wonderful but we’re not in our 20s anymore. You can’t sweat the small stuff.
Brendan: Those trite sayings, they end up being real.
Jack: I know, I know. When you’re 20 you’re like, who says things like that? It is actually true, you can’t sweat the small stuff and we are so different, and once we thought we were so similar. The thing that’s similar about us is that we were both treated really badly by a lot of people. That’s kind of what has brought us back together. And we’ve realised, what’s the point of being, of not working together when we could actually help — and not just heal each other, but heal other people. That’s really powerful.
Brendan: What do you think will have changed about Jack Colwell in 10 years, when we do our next gig together? What do you want from that?
Jack: Well, I’ve already got pretty strong glasses so I don’t need the prescription to go up.
Brendan: I’m going to get Botox.
Jack: We’re both already having physios. Maybe I’ll get onto a better private health fund, so I can save a bit more money from the shows.
Brendan: Do you still think we’ll be around in 10 years? Still making music?
Jack: I hope so. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I love music. I love singing. I wrote a new song recently, that I will be playing at the show. Plug by plug. I know I love music because when I wrote this new song, I got so excited about it and that excitement never goes away. It reminds me of being 16 or 17 in my bedroom and writing a song there, like, oh my god I made something myself and it’s mine and it came from my brain and I love it and I own it. It’s a piece of me and it’s something I’m desperate to share with everybody.
I think we need another bottle of wine.
Brendan: Yeah, true. We should probably wrap this up. Let’s attempt two different wrap ups. This is my attempt and you can go on. I think that the journey that you and I have taken represents our love for performing, our passion that pushed us so far that it pushed us apart. It means so much to us. Is that not the deepest point of this all? Our music or our art, who knows what part, maybe it’s writing a piano part one day, maybe it’s singing, maybe it’s lyrics, whatever. The musicianship and the creation of songs, means so much to us.
Opening up my world to Jack Colwell, made the Brendan Maclean world better. And this is all I hope that two young, queer people sitting next to each other, maybe working in Melbourne, one’s on the north side and one’s on the south side, look at the other person and know that as you lift them up, you will be lifted too. If you work to lift each other up, you can’t not succeed.
Jack: So Brendan at 19 years of age, what would you say to yourself?
Brendan: There’s room.
Jack: There’s room for other people. Yeah.
“I was so scared of you, Jack Colwell. I thought you were going to walk up to me one day and say, ‘You’re a fraud, Brendan Maclean’.”
Brendan: I was so scared of you, Jack Colwell. I thought you were going to walk up to me one day and say, ‘You’re a fraud, Brendan Maclean’. I think I was a lot more bitter than you and a lot angrier.
Jack: Your solo stuff is incredible and you have real fans. You have people. ‘Stupid’ got 100 million views! People love you. People love you. And it actually makes me sad that sometimes when I talk to you…You’re in the Great Gatsby. I know that you feel like you should have got more screen time but you did do that. That was amazing. Everyone in the world knows you were in that film, not to take that away from you. You do make great music that is yours and you have performed on the Opera House stage countless times.
We are putting all of our differences aside — our early 30s is actually a wonderful thing because we’re not going to be the last two people to have some kind of feud or competition during their early 20s.
Brendan: As we’ve learned and moved forward, I love you more and more. For the exact same reasons that I hated you.
Jack: Brendan, it’s good to set aside our differences and I’ll see you on the stage on March 12th at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company. There’s still some tickets available but they are selling quickly. Shall we leave it there? Shall we leave it there? Are you done? Are you done?
Jack: All done.
Brendan Maclean and Jack Colwell will perform their ‘Together And Apart’ show at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company on March 12. For tickets, head here.
All photos supplied.