Brendan Hogan

Brendan Hogan
DJ Turns to Performing: Hogan Spins and Sings

By John Weeks
December 2006

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Brendan Hogan might just be the coolest guy in town.

The 26-year-old Emerson grad who hosts NPR’s “Blues on WGBH” radio program is an American Studies graduate student at UMass Boston and has been making a name for himself as a solo performer in local bars and clubs.

“I’m keeping a lot of balls in the air,” said Hogan, who has been performing original material around town since February. “I hope they all pan out. I’ll make it work somehow.”

Hogan is fourth-generation Cambridge, a city filled with singer-songwriters and the venues that allow them to pour forth their music. His father bought him his first guitar at age 10 and Hogan has never looked back.

“That tradition of songwriting has been around Cambridge for a long time,” he said. “Since at least back in the 60s. It is a very encouraging environment. It has always attracted people who are interested in being a songwriter or a musician. It is very inherent to the city.”

But while many of Hogan’s songwriting peers were conceived in the summer of drugs, and attended their first Bob Dylan concert in the womb, Hogan’s roots are working class all the way. Hogan came from a long line of “police officers and butchers, undertakers and nurses,” and despite the guitar from his father, the arts were never the primary focus in his household.

“There were no writers in my family,” he said. “No poets. My grandfather was a police officer in Cambridge. My parents are the hardest working people I know. My dad ran a restaurant and my mom worked in the district attorney’s office. They put themselves through college. They had to earn their own way. No one helped them. They came from huge Catholic families and they basically grew up in the projects.”

As an adolescent Hogan said he craved the blues, incessantly sought the blues and even slept while listening to the blues. An easy going kid, the young Hogan immersed himself in novels, albums and art while other kids were into “bubble gum and gossip”.

“I went to Emerson to become a writer,” he said. “I got into radio on a whim. I loved music and I was pretty good at talking about it so I sent in a tape to WGBH and they ended up hiring me. But, I still wanted to put the writing to use and I found that songwriting was the perfect match. It melds my love for poetic verse with music.”

Over the years Hogan, who is single, spent time in several “proper” bands. But when it came time to nurture his own material there was no one around who was on the same page as him.

“I like being in a band but it’s just more fulfilling for me to go out and perform it my own way,” he said. “I get to be my own musical dictator. It’s just me and my guitar.”

Hogan’s music is very laid back, he said, not gruff like standard Delta blues.

“Blues isn’t even all I play,” he said. “But, it is very inherent in everything I write or play. Blues is more of a feeling than a structure to me. It’s life and yeah, love comes into it.”

Among his many influences, Hogan tips his hat to Bob Dylan, Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Townes Van Zandt, Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Sippie Wallace, Kurt Cobain -  and Jack Daniels.

“Townes Van Zandt, I really got into him in the past year,” Hogan said. “He was a big, bright, brilliant artist who drank himself to death.”

Despite the stature of these legends, however, Hogan says he is “mostly swayed” by current performers such as Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, Lloyd Thayer, Danielle Miraglia, Ryan Montbleau and Elam Blackman.

“It is the players out performing today, whom I see develop and create on a very intimate level, that serve as the most immediate influences on my own songs or playing techniques,” he said.

Going from the security of the radio studio to the vulnerability of the stage hasn’t always been easy.

“I had to get up the courage to go out there and do it solo,” Hogan said. “A lot of people say the hardest thing to do is get up on stage by yourself. I’ve been building my comfort level for being on stage alone. There are things that I’ve learned. When you get up there, your job is to entertain. That’s your purpose. You have to realize that you are putting yourself in that position. You have to expect the unexpected, especially when you don’ t have a reputation.”

For Hogan, the hardest thing to deal with is the feeling that, “nobody is paying attention or nobody cares.”

“It’s hard to gauge the reaction of the audience,” he said. “You may feel awful about your performance but then they rave about it. You are terribly exposed. You need tremendous confidence. If you let your insecurities through it’s just a downward spiral. People will start to believe you don’t believe in yourself.”

Hogan said he loves connecting with even just one audience member through his performance.

“I played one place and there weren’t many people there, but there were these two barflies basically comatose at the bar,” he said. “I opened with this old Dave Van Ronk song, “Cocaine Blues”. The way I played it was pretty recognizable. It woke them up, and in their drunken haze they started heckling me in a nice way. That’s a good thing, if I can wake them up.”

Hogan enjoys throwing down with his interpretation of classic songs such as “Cocaine Blues” but said performing one’s own material is what it’s all about.

“There is a lot of street cred given for writing your own material,” he said. “Interpreting is still cool. It’s good to keep all those old songs alive. But digging down and coming up with your own material is something every artist needs to do.”

Hogan hopes to start playing venues in Maine, Rhode Island and New York City, but at the moment is happy to be building his fan base in Boston. He’s even begun getting paying gigs.

“One of my dreams is to get out on the road,” he said. “I’d spend my life on the road. I’m envious of people who do. Right now I’m basically anchored here.”

Hogan also hopes to release an album in the near future, and has some of his home recordings available on his Web site (www.brendanhogan.net). Thus far he has resisted the urge to play his own songs on the radio show.

“I feel it’s more appropriate for me to feature other artists,” he said. “I do tell people where I’ll be playing next though.”

If you care anything for the current state of blues, then Brendan Hogan is a name you should know. And with his hard work and focus, it’s a name you won’t be able to keep from knowing.

www.brendanhogan.net

www.wgbh.org

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