Brendan Maclean and Jack Colwell have both been staples of the Sydney music scene for almost a decade. Brendan's music? Electric, fun, invigorating, unapologetically queer. Jack's music? Raw, vulnerable, introspective, unapologetically queer. For 10 years, these two have battled against an industry that wanted to exploit them for their sexuality, and use their sexuality as a way of pitting them against each other. They were boxed in, they fell out and, now after so many years apart, they have fallen back together again for a special joint headlining concert, 'Brendan Maclean + Jack Colwell: Together, And Apart', in Sydney later this month. As I sat down with both of them to discuss their friendship, their falling out and the forthcoming concert, I learned things about myself, and my queerness, that I'm not sure I would have otherwise.
But before we get there – let's set the scene. Brendan and Jack both join the Zoom interview in vastly different fashions. Jack stresses that he's made an effort, wearing a red bandana around his neck and sitting in front of a smorgasbord of music memorabilia, various guitars and tour posters. Brendan wasn't concerned with any of that. In fact, at the time he logs on, he's sitting on a bed playing Hades on his Nintendo Switch. It's clear from the onset I'm talking to two very different people.
And if that difference is obvious to me just seconds into our interview, it's bizarre it wasn't obvious to the powers that be a decade ago, when they were both starting out.
"In 2007, we met in a meeting in an office on Oxford Street for Bent Magazine, and we were both told that we were the next gay sensations," Colwell laughs.
"The music industry is the young person's game, in some ways, and I think when we were in our early 20s – same age, no physio appointments yet – we were really cast aside just because of our sexuality. That was the only talking point, like we were openly gay, and that was it. They were like 'You're openly gay, you play the piano, you're both like Rufus Wainwright' or something."
After years of being billed together – never on their own singular, well-earned merits – the relationship between the two took a massive downward spiral.
"We had a big falling out, that was a mixture of jealousy and not understanding the needs of the other person," says Colwell. "From the moment Brendan and I met, we were thrust into competition with one another, and made to feel like we were taking up each other's space."
Maclean echoes this sentiment, citing times where he was even threatened to be replaced by Colwell for certain bookings. "Bookers would sometimes say things like, 'If you don't pull your weight, we're going to cancel you and get Jack in a couple of seconds'," he says.
"We were so young," Colwell continues, "that we believed we were supposed to be pitted against each other. We had this hero complex, and thought that we needed an arch enemy to succeed. We thought we were the same, but we're so different."
Like the Bette Davis and Joan Crawford of the Sydney music scene, Brendan Maclean and Jack Colwell's feud had little to do with any of their actions, but spawned some real feelings of anger, hurt and jealousy.
"I was so jealous of Jack," Brendan laments, "and so worried he would take up my space. I told this to a friend of mine, Sarah Belkner" – who worked with Maclean on his debut album And The Boyfriends – "and she said, 'Why?!' What did you think was the same about you two?!'"
"I recently heard that jealousy is a useless emotion, and I think that's really great advice," Jack said.
That line – jealousy is a useless emotion – really stuck with me since our chat. As a queer – bisexual if you must know – cis man growing up in "regional" Australia (as regional as Newcastle is) my experience operating in wholly queer spheres is limited. There aren't whole streets here, for example, catered to the LGBTQIA+ community. Of my core group of friends here, I'm the only bisexual cis man. Sure, I have queer friends in other cities, but very few I can turn to in my direct physical vicinity.
It can be lonely and it can lead me to feel misunderstood. That, inevitably, turns into resentment. Sometimes, I catch myself resenting my heterosexual friends that feel completely comfortable in their sexuality and are able to flaunt it without, I don't know, being assaulted. At the same time, I catch myself resenting my queer friends in other cities who feel able to do the same, for possessing such self-assuredness and confidence to be who they really are. I feel out of touch with both circles, sometimes feeling like I hang in a strange limbo between the two.
But, back to our chat. Maclean and Colwell went on to detail how they made amends after the very industry they had broken into eventually broke them apart.
"I was sitting in a cafe, wrapping up things for my album" – 2020's SWANDREAM – "with Sarah Blasko, and Brendan walked in [unexpectedly]," Colwell said, looking to Maclean. "You had your Coles bag, and you were wearing a grey tracksuit. And you were really nervous".
"I was shaken," Maclean responded.
"You did make a real effort to come over and talk to us," Colwell continued, "and then he went away. To his credit, he sent me an email a week later, and I was being a little bitch so I said something to the effect of, 'I don't know why we should be friends'."
"But then I thought a couple weeks later, 'Maybe we should come together'."
Maclean was booked for the 'Together & Apart' show first, and was on the hunt for someone else to do it with. Inevitably, he realised the best partner would be Jack. "I just thought that I needed someone who would kick me up the butt artistically," Maclean said, "and when you look at the workers of Australia – Jack is a worker."
"I was always jealous of Jack's authenticity as an artist, when I come from this fancy, sheen, shiny background. I find it really tough to pin myself down and write my way through some songs. But doing it with Jack … you make me want to work harder."
"If you had asked me to do a show with Brendan a year ago, I would've said, 'That cunt! I would never play a show with him'," Jack laughs. "But after the year we've all had – if you can't make amends and forgive people, you're a fucking loser. One thing I've always known about Brendan Maclean is that he puts on a show. A great show. He works so hard at whatever he does to be the best showman and musician he can be. He's a terrific showman, which makes it really easy to perform with him."
"At the time of our first real rehearsal, Brendan and I hadn't sung together for 10 years. But, we immediately started singing together. I haven't shared this, but it has been the most healing and beautiful experience for me. This will be like church – a big, queer church."
Forgiveness, I think, has been a big part of my queer experience. Becoming a teen in the mid-00s meant attending high school where the entire vernacular was determined by Carl Barron, Chris Lilley and Eminem. Especially in my early teen years, I was called gay – and all its derivatives – pretty incessantly. I rejected them at the time because:
- I was 12, I ultimately had no clue what I was.
- I was being insulted, so I deflected.
- There was a fear – what if they were right?
Of course, now I know there was nothing to fear, even though they really weren't right. But becoming an adult has also shown me the way to forgive kids who didn't know any better either. Hearing Jack and Brendan talk about forgiveness, it also made me realise that I ought to forgive myself for being so resentful of myself.
I'm younger than both Jack and Brendan (neither of whom will be happy with me saying that). Speaking and listening to them feels like I'm talking with two superiors in the business; the business of being queer cis white men. And, as it turns out, both of them are already prepared to help the next generation of queer performers.
"I suppose for us," Maclean says, "we can continue to make brilliant shows and brilliant work that tell a deeper story. If your minority being pinned on you is something of concern, then you just need to press stoically forward and make beautiful art."
"Here's a chance for us to come together and to help each other," Colwell says. "And maybe say 'This was our experience' and I really hope that we can offer something to whoever is next."
Each generation of any minority faces certain types of discrimination that align with the time period they're living in. The struggles Colwell and Maclean came up against when they began their careers, even though it was only a decade ago, aren't exactly the same that burgeoning artists in 2021 face. Make no mistake, though, the visibility of LGBTQIA+ leaders like Colwell and Maclean are still all too necessary. Just two days before we spoke, a homophobic protest was staged at a queer music event in Sydney.
"The pendulum swings to and fro, doesn't it?" Maclean says. "You think you'll never see this stuff again, but it can always come back … it goes much wider too – the culture of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) doxxing people now and the very real consequences of what those troll groups look like or end up being, whether its discrimination or white supremacy or whatever it is."
"What I see is that whenever queer people are creating joy for ourselves and for our community, that's when the biggest reaction comes. People don't like seeing as being joyful together. So, we have to create more joy within each other and create safe spaces. We have to take care of ourselves and remember there's not as much reality online as we think."
For all that it's worth, Jack and Brendan seem like they're taking care of one another just fine, and using their talents to create something truly special and unique. A joining of musical forces might seem strange between these two very different artists, on paper at least. Both Maclean and Colwell stress that – despite their sonic differences – this will not be a standard co-headlined show, partly in thanks to their musical director, Oliver John Cameron.
"The greatest thing we've done is bring in Oliver John Cameron," Maclean says. "It gives us an outside perspective of what's going on. Whether it's taking one of Jack's songs and just focusing on the synth section so it can lend itself more to a pop track. Or me taking out the kicks and trying to find rhythm in a different way that works better for Jack, who is really incredible on keyboard. Then there's myself, and I can really get a bass moving and can also play bass guitar and several other million things."
"We're really, really working together," Colwell continues, "that's why it's called 'Together & Apart'. It's not like where I perform some of my songs, Brendan comes out and does some of his, and then we do one together. We're really challenging ourselves to work together and dismantle these songs and put them back together in a way that feels real and cohesive and right."
That right there – dismantling something to put it back together in a new way – is my biggest takeaway from my chat with Jack and Brendan. Part of what I said about jealousy is my fault. I don't immerse myself in the queer spaces that are available to me, and maybe that's because deep down there's still that fear that some 12-year-old will call me the F word. But, my queer story doesn't have to be relegated to whatever trauma that's been thrust upon me – by others or myself. My queer story doesn't have to be my struggles in finding a place where I belong. My queer story can be whatever I make of it, as beautiful and as special and as queer as I want.
Brendan Maclean and Jack Colwell's narratives were prescribed to them as soon as they entered the industry. They were gaslit into thinking that story was the story, and any diversion from that would mean failure. Real jealousy and bitter emotions were birthed from that, and they fell out. But, by extending mutual olive branches and coming back together, they're reclaiming their own narratives. The story of their partnership doesn't have to be one of fighting when it can be one of triumph. It doesn't have to be one of bitterness when it can be one of love.
From what they've shared, 'Together & Apart' is a show about reconciling differences and making magic. If Brendan Maclean and Jack Colwell can turn their differences with one another into harmony, there's no good reason I can't do the same with the world around me.
'Brendan Maclean + Jack Colwell: Together, And Apart' is happening on Friday, March 12 at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company's Eternity Playhouse, as part of The Darlo Sessions. Tickets are available now.
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