Ian Brennan is an American music producer from California. He is a Grammy winner, has authored four books and lectures internationally about violence prevention. The SOLAS Festival (UK) calls him, "...one of the most respected world music producers working today."
He was born in Oakland, California to James Brennan, a railroad engineer, and Marilyn Brennan, a nurse from a tiny town in eastern Kansas. He grew up on the Pleasant Hill border in the same suburban home his entire life. He and his older brother and sister have a mere two-and-one-half year span between the three of them. This is due in part to his sister, who is the middle child, being born more than two months premature with Down syndrome.
At age five, he began playing drums and switched to guitar at age 6 - which he taught himself to play.
San Francisco Bay Area
At age 19, his poetry was published for the first time in an anthology (Fineline Thunder) curated by his adult-school creative writing instructor, Professor Betty Solomon. He was published again that same year in the Berkeley poetry journal, Agape.
At age 20, he self-released his first solo album and went on to produce eight more. He reflects now that he was his "own worst enemy" and made some of "most horrible albums possible" due to his obsessive-compulsive, autocratic approach.
Beginning in 1996, for five years he hosted a free, mostly acoustic music show in a San Francisco laundromat. He would perform solo and feature a different local band each week. He documented the shows as field recordings and these resulted in three Unscrubbed compilation releases.
He also regularly organized benefit shows for social and/or political causes during this period—most notably presenting Fugazi, Vic Chesnutt, and Sleater-Kinney for free in Dolores Park to honor the 20th anniversary of Food Not Bombs, as well as staging Green Day for free on the front of the steps of San Francisco's City Hall on the Sunday before George Bush's election as president.
Two of his Grammy nominations were for producing albums in the Traditional Folk category (Ramblin' Jack Elliott 2006, Peter Case 2007). The Ramblin' Jack record features Lucinda Williams and members of Wilco, X (American band), Los Lobos, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In 2015, his semi-autobiographical novella, Sister Maple Syrup Eyes, was published, after working on drafts of it for over 25 years. It deals with the aftermath of the sexual assault of a partner, a trauma he experienced at age 21. Readers+Writers journal praised it, "A beautiful book. Achingly beautiful." And Louder Than War states it is, "….alive with the energy of an eye-witness." Small Press Picks noted, "In vividly re-creating Kristian's personal journey, Brennan offers a layered and moving exploration of the truth…"
In 2009, he and his wife, the Italian-Rwandan filmmaker, photographer, and author, Marilena Delli, began traveling the world in search of countries and languages that were underrepresented internationally. Amongst others, this has resulted in releases from Rwanda, Malawi, South Sudan, Cambodia, Kibera, Tanzania, Romania, Vietnam, and most notably, the Zomba Prison Project.
In 2011 he won a Grammy for the Tuareg band, Tinariwen's "Tassili" album, which was recorded live in the southeast Algerian desert just months before the Arab Spring erupted and war swept through the area. The album features members of TV on the Radio, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and guitarist Nels Cline.
In 2015, he scored his fourth Grammy nomination for the Zomba Prison Project, a story which was covered around the world including on the front-page of the New York Times and featured on the television program 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper reporting.
Brennan also has produced many of filmmaker, John Waters' live stand-up comedy shows since 2001 at venues like The Fillmore and the Royal Festival Hall (London), as well as festivals such as Coachella, Bumbershoot, and Bonnaroo.
Due to the encouragement of his wife, he wrote a book on music, How Music Dies (or Lives): Field-recording And The Battle For Democracy In The Arts. The foreword was written by Corin Tucker. The book explores concerns related to the continuing domination of English language media across the planet, and details how recording technology can lead to more lifeless results as well as centralization of content. LargeHeartedBoy calls it "…one of the most thought-provoking books on modern music that I have ever read."
Brennan is known for his "fly on the wall" style of production and is often compared to Alan Lomax. He states that relationships and emotion are what interests him, not technology. He advocates for embracing imperfection as a partner and prefers to record outdoors and 100% live, without any overdubs.
Mental Health background
At age 20, in need of a way to support himself, he began working in locked psychiatric hospitals as a counselor. He continued to do so for another fifteen years in psychiatric emergency rooms in Oakland and Richmond, California.
In 1993 he was asked to develop a curriculum and teach his co-workers in verbal de-escalation at East Bay Hospital in Richmond. This request was based on his having regularly demonstrated skill at de-fusing emotionally charged and violent situations. Through word of mouth, he began teaching full-time at hospitals, clinics, jails and schools in the Bay Area and greater California. This teaching eventually led him around the country and then the world, having now taught in Africa, Southeast Asia, Europe, Australia, and the Middle East, at such places as UC Berkeley, the Smithsonian Museum, the Betty Ford Clinic, and the National Accademia of Science (Rome).
In 2010, he wrote a book for publisher W.W. Norton on anger (Anger Antidotes). A follow-up, Hate-less, was issued in 2014.