The rise of the singer-songfighter

Brendon Shields. (Roger Jardine)

Brendon Shields. (Roger Jardine)

There are plenty of things you can call Brendon Shields but, unless you intend on acquiring an instant enemy for life, "singer-songwriter" better not be one of them. Sure, the guy sings and writes songs, but the term comes loaded with such odious baggage – it somehow infallibly conjures visions of a wispy-bearded, doe-eyed minstrel plucking a lute on the lid of a chocolate box – that Shields, whose songs are the antithesis of sweet odes to bucolic bliss, can think of no insult more abominable.

A far better description of Shields is "singer-songfighter". The priceless term was coined by the inimitable Syd Kitchen, another composer of melodies and arranger of words whose style was more polemic than pastoral.
The magnum opus of the late, great guitarist and growler is, after all, called Africa's Not For Sissies and Shields himself has crushed anything rose-tinted under his bootheel by entitling his debut album Truth and Recession.

It's half the battle if you aren't Jack Johnson, James Blunt or any other purveyor of sentimental piffle: the moment you pick up a guitar and open your mouth you're filed under "folk" or "acoustic rock" and assumed to have recently returned from cleansing your chakras in the Knysna forest. The spurious association between "folk music" and "sensitive soul" so riled the progenitor of political pop music, Woody Guthrie, that every acoustic guitar he ever played prominently displayed a sticker reading "This Machine Kills Fascists", a legend inspired by inscriptions painted on the sides of airplanes used in the Spanish Civil War. So much for folk music being for sissies.

Brendon Shields is certainly no sissy: when you have dedicated yourself to carving out a career as a successful South African songwriter and providing for your wife and two young children whilst living in the little Eastern Free State town of Bethlehem you have most definitely stacked the odds against yourself. Furthermore, a cursory sweep of the recent history of talented, white, English-speaking South African singer-songfighters making a living via said talent provides little encouragement: Matthew van der Want is a corporate lawyer; Jim Neversink is somewhere in Sweden; Toast Coetzer is a travel journalist and Chris Letcher is a soundtrack composer and music lecturer.

And so I must ask Shields that most difficult question: how will YOU escape this particular fate?

"I just chose poverty," he answers almost indifferently. "I don't have a fallback position; I don't have a plan B. Poverty is a great inspiration for artistic endeavour – when your situation is one of constant desperation you're forced to create on a daily basis. You can't do that when your belly is full."

The sacrifice that is required echoes in the disarmingly ingenuous song Rockstardom where, just after he's checked the bank and there's no money left, he tells his wife: "I know the situation is a mess / When rockstardom is the only option left."

A dying dream
Evidence that Shields is the real deal and not an addled romantic comes in the form of one of the more remarkable scenes in Rockstardom: The Journey of a Small Town Songwriter, the gem of a documentary by Durban filmmaker Michael Cross. Shields has promised himself and his wife that he'll give himself a one-year ultimatum: "If this music thing doesn't pay off I'll chuck it in and get a real job."

With his last rands disappearing into his petrol tank he heads off to Cape Town to make his dream come true. The trip is a complete disaster. The situation finally reaches an absolute nadir: he's sleeping in his car and living on apples when, one evening, he watches the sun set over a leaden sea. This is it: the dream is dead. And at this exact moment, illuminated by sudden realisation, Shields goes to his car and writes the best song of his life. The beautiful, poignant chorus serves as stirring manifesto of his cause: "The tide will suck you in my friend / The moment you stop rowing / The fortunes of your enemies / Are going like a Boeing."

Not only does the song represent the point at which Shields was tested to the limit and had his resolve stand firm but it is also a thing of quite exquisite beauty: Going Like A Boeing opens Truth and Recession and it is no stretch to describe it as something anyone from Simon & Garfunkel to Sufjan Stevens would have been proud to see flow from their pens.

Speaking of other artists, it is this aspect of the music business that Shields has in his sights in order to render his career prospects more achievable. "I'm not gonna be another Jim Neversink," he says.

"My masterplan is to put enough pressure on the publisher by saying to him: you've signed this artist, now back him." Having acquired, crucially, a publishing deal (as opposed to a recording one) through Sony/ATV when, through imperturbable persistence, his demos caught the ear of Jay Savage, MD of the South African operation of the global music publishing giant, Shields is now on track to slowly put his masterplan into place.

Already a Shield-penned track entitled Superlove has been chosen as the single to launch new Sony signee Freddie Van'Dango while his own music has taken some intrepid new turns. Shields now works and tours with a full band; is experimenting wildly with music's labyrinthine electronic and digital dimensions and is trying to persuade Sigur Ros to play in a cave in the Golden Gate National Park.

Shields played all the instruments on Truth and Recession due to budgetary rather than artistic concerns: if he gets his way and the sophomore album comes out sounding more like The Flaming Lips than Woody Guthrie it's a safe bet there'll be a whole lot more truth and a lot less recession. And finally he'll be able to seal off that special place in hell for those who dare call him a singer-songwriter.

Rockstardom forms part of the Durban International Film Festival. On Tuesday July 24 at 8pm it is screened at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. The screening is followed by a live performance by The Brendon Shields Band. Visit www.durbanfilmfest.co.za

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