Tracy Bruen – Musician & Actress
Singer, musician and actress, Tracy Bruen has played Electric Picnic, Body and Soul, and released her debut EP, 'Outside the Lines' in 2014. She has toured nationally with Decadent Theatre company and is a member of Fregoli Theatre Company
Tell us about yourself
I was always involved with music from a singing perspective. I played instruments as a child but in my 20s, I didn't really do much of that at all. Then I got involved with My Fellow Sponges and started playing with them. I had been playing guitar sporadically throughout my 20s, I all but stopped playing piano and flute as well. When I started playing with My Fellow Sponges, it was to play flute and to play backing vocals, but I got a little more confidence in playing other instruments again through that. Then I started writing some of my own stuff. When I parted ways with the Sponges, I made the decision to go and start gigging some of my own stuff and to write more and it took off from there. That was in 2013.
What was that like, going out on your own?
It was scary as hell. In my head, I thought some of these songs are alright, but I didn't know if other people were going to think they were alright. I was playing guitar and piano and a bit of ukulele as well at the time, but I wasn't confident playing instruments, but I've definitely grown in confidence.
So you were gigging all your own stuff?
Yes, I remember doing my first gig and I was saying, 'I'm going to play seven songs for you. I'd love to say they're my best seven songs, but they're my only seven songs'. So it kind of grew from there and John O Dwyer - he's a double bassist who was also with the Sponges - he left around the same time so the two of us started playing together and the band sort of grew from there organically, picking up different musicians and asking them if they'd like to jam with us. We've solidified as a five piece in the last few months, which is really nice.
You've gigged at the Electric Picnic and Body and Soul. What's been your favourite gig?
Every time you do a really class gig, you say, 'That's definitely my favourite gig'. The Picnic was good fun, definitely. It's always a real buzz to get a gig like that and last year, we played Body and Soul for the second time and that was really, really fun. We got a great stage and we got the audience up dancing and that was just amazing. Other highlights have been releasing the EP. We did the most lovely gig in Nuns Island when we released the EP a year and a half ago and that was really special - it was just something different. There's been loads of highlights.
How do you manage your time?
The million dollar question! I'm a primary teacher in Abalta special school for children with autism and I took a break from teaching last year because music was getting really busy and I felt that if I didn't give it the time that it deserved now, I mightn't have the time to do that again. I think I really used the time to its advantage and I definitely got a lot done with recordings and trying to get more gigs outside of Galway. I've always been involved in theatre as well. I've been with Fregoli Theatre Company for donkey's years. I was approached to audition for Decadent Theatre Company - Andrew Flynn asked me to read for Vernon God Little. I got the role and we went on national tour, so that was the end of last summer. It was totally out of the blue. I had planned on maybe going back to teaching in September, but there was no way I was going to turn that down. It was just far too much of an opportunity. So music was put on hold for the couple of months that I was doing that. When I finished that, I decided that I might like to start teaching again, so since before Christmas, I've been teaching in Joseph's special school and I really enjoy it. but time management is of the absolute essence - trying to keep all of it going is...fun!
"I know talking to a lot of my generation of musicians, they feel that if there had been some sort of network to support them when they were younger, they probably would have been gigging and playing much younger than they were and they wouldn't have been as blind to what's going on around them."
So what are you working on right now?
I'm writing and gigging. Sometimes it's hard when you're busy day with work and you're gigging as well. It's hard to get that space creatively to get your head around writing, but every now and again I know when it's coming on when I have thoughts or ideas or lyrics in my head. I just have to take full advantage of that, because I wouldn't be the most prolific songwriter. I don't write every week; it takes me a while to craft a full song and so it can be ruminating there for a while. Then I'll just go with it when it happens.
A lovely mix of work you have..
I realised how much I missed the classroom when I was away from it. When you're away from something, sometimes it's good to take time to reflect on what's important and what's priority and I realised when I was away from teaching that I definitely missed it. I love working with people with special needs and I missed that side of it. Music would be of equal priority as well, so they're the two things I'd like to focus on,
Going forward, what would you like to see happening with your music and acting?
I'm doing a play called Mary Mary Mary for Fregoli for the Theatre Festival. I'm in rehearsals for that. Music-wise, I just want to keep playing. I'd love to get it heard more - that would be amazing, but as long as I'm able to keep writing and keep playing and keep people interested in it, that would be a major priority. Getting a manager would be absolutely incredible, obviously. Someone who could book these fantastic tours all around the country for me, because that side of it takes up so much time. The creativity and the rehearsal and the gigging is all the fun side of it. The sitting down sending emails and trying to get gigs and trying to get your name out there and trying to be savvy on social media -that's a whole other side to it that is nearly as important. Well, it is just as important and takes up just as much time.
And a completely different side of your brain...
A totally different side of your brain and you have to be able to employ both sides to get your music out there.
What's the drive for you with all of it?
I just really really enjoy it. I love playing. I love playing in front of an audience and I love sitting down with the band and rehearsing. I had a conversation about this with one of my bandmates - Is the drive to be famous and to really get out there and have everybody know your name? Or is it just to make sure you can keep playing. For me, I don't think I ever want fame, although I would love for people to know my music, but playing is a reward in itself. That's not to say that I want to do it all for free - it would be lovely to be paid. The creativity and the creative process is a deep reward.
When you write the music, when you play it to an audience, do you feel an extra connection to the people that you're singing to?
Yeah, definitely. I also sing in a cover band The Copper Trees - I love that and it is amazing. From a musical perspective, it has definitely helped my playing massively where you're playing covers and it has to be tight. It's a really good buzz, but when you're performing your own music, there is something special about that and about that connection with the audience. With my music, a lot of it is driven by the stories I tell prior to each song. I know from feedback I've gotten from audience members after gigs, that's a particular aspect that they really enjoy. I'll tell them a story about my Nana or my Grandad, who a couple of the songs are about. They're funny stories - it kind of draws the audience in a little more. That connection between stuff that you've written and sharing that with other people- it's very fulfilling - it's deep.
Do you feel nervous before you sing your own music?
You know, nerves can hit you out of nowhere. For the first six months of gigging my own stuff, I don't know if I could say that I enjoyed a single gig because I was so nervous. Then you get to the point that you feel that there is something there and the stuff is strong - there are people who want to listen to it and you're tighter at playing it. So those nerves go, but they can just hit you out of the blue and you've no idea why.
I played an absolutely amazing house concert in Galway a few months ago - it's one I've been wanting to play for a long time. The house was full, and there was maybe two feet between me and the audience and I was so nervous. Even though I knew it was going to be a really warm and welcoming environment, there was nowhere to hide - everyone was right there. Also, I knew the audience members go to gigs all the time, they're well informed and there was no room for messing up. This was what was going through my head with it. So I could go on stage and play in front of a couple of hundred people and not feel those nerves, but put me in front of 40 people that are right there and there's that immediacy and I mean, I was shaking. The guys in the band could tell as well - it took me a few songs to settle into it and then it was magical, but it did take a few songs and a few stories - the stories really help to bring the audience in and make them feel part of it. I guess they can identify with some of the songs more when they know what they're about.
Any mentors, or anyone that's influenced you along the way?
Off the top of my head, if I think back to my time with The Sponges, I really developed musically through working with them - hugely. Stephen Sharpe was a massive support for me - myself and Steve are very good friends. We actually host the open mike night on a Sunday night in the Roisin Dubh together and we go way back. He would have been the first ear for some of the songs because I knew that he would tell me honestly where they were at and having his support was massive. Tara Stacy was involved hugely at the time as well - just listening and giving me the encouragement when I needed it. Having John O'Dwyer there at the start; he's not playing with me at the moment, but he was another driving force that just went, 'It's alright, you're doing good here. The music is good - keep going'. Now I play with Padraig Joyce - he plays with the Rascals and Four Men and a Base. He's a massive support for me, because sometimes I think I just need somebody to go, 'You're doing alright'. It's really important. I would turn to Joycee quite a lot and say, 'What do you think? Is this a good idea or a bad idea?' and he'll tell me straight. It's so important to have somebody that you trust like that who will be completely honest and sometimes will tell you the things you don't want to hear either. I've been very lucky to have people like that - people that have been really talented, but also supportive and open to helping me out.
"It's so important to have somebody that you trust...who will be completely honest and sometimes will tell you the things you don't want to hear"
What is it that you like about being in Galway? What keeps you here?
Where do I start? I went to college in Galway and people say you always return to the place where you studied first. I studied in Edinburgh as well and in Dublin and travelled in Asia for a few years throughout my 20s, but Galway always brought me back. Why? Definitely friends that are here, Fregoli were here - they were just setting up as I came back to settle in. I've never lived anywhere else that has the vibe that Galway has. It's really hard to describe what it is about the relaxed way of life. I mean, the standard of living in Galway that I have is just fantastic. Yeah, I work hard, but I'm living in town, my rent is alright, I have so many friends around the place and I have the space to keep a day job and a creative pursuit going. I'm not sure that other cities would facilitate that. I lived in Dublin for a while and it's very difficult to do things in the evening. You have to make very concrete plans to go places; you can't just spontaneously decide, 'Actually guys, could we jam tonight?'. That regularly happens here, where people are like, 'Yeah, I'll be in town anyway'. So it's relaxed and it's creative and it looks so beautiful.
I live in the West End and the sense of community that has developed over the years in that side of town is quite magical. I definitely feel like I'm part of that community and I wouldn't change that for the world. And of course, my love lives here as well.
What would you like to see happening in Galway?
I've been quite involved in meetings and plans for Galway 2020 and I would absolutely be over the moon to see the Galway 2020 team succeed in getting the bid for European Capital of Culture. I just think that would be absolutely amazing - they're a great team. I've really enjoyed the process of meeting people through some of the preliminary meetings that we've done there. One of the things that I worked on with the 2020 group is developing a vision for young musicians in Galway. That's something that I have an interest in because I work with young people and I've started organising and hosting an underage open mic that runs about once a month during the day on a Sunday in the Roisin. I can just see the amount of creativity that is in the underage music scene and there really aren't many places for them to play or opportunities for them. These guys and girls are incredible musicians and I would love to be a part of any sort of initiative that tries to foster and support that for the future. Because I know talking to a lot of my generation of musicians, they feel that if there had been some sort of network to support them when they were younger, they probably would have been gigging and playing much younger than they were and they wouldn't have been as blind to what's going on around them.
On a personal level, I would love to see a shift in Ireland where musicians get paid for their work. It's very difficult for original musicians to get paid. The amount of times that I've been asked to do gigs for exposure is just unbelievable. We're caught in this trap. There are a lot of musicians out there who have said under no circumstances will they do a gig for nothing because it devalues their work and I respect that. But I found it very difficult to get my music out there without doing any number of free gigs and I would still do free gigs because I love playing, so there's that thing where I really love playing but I'd also really like to be compensated in some way for the effort. It is a job. I think that there are a lot of great people out there organising gigs and they do their utmost to pay musicians and that is commendable, but I don't think its enough. I'd like to see more of that.