When Brendan Maclean was 15 he was arrested at Stonewall — the high-schooler had crept into the gay club on Sydney’s Oxford Street with three friends.
“I had a really good 10 minutes before the cops showed up,” he tells SBS. “Dad got called into the station and I was sitting under a large golden banner that said ‘Queer and Lesbian Youth Services’.”
That's how his dad found out Brendan was gay, but he was only upset about him lying about going.
“You told me you were going to see a Ben Stiller movie?” Maclean recalls his dad saying.
“For a man who played A-grade football and was a coach for decades, he was more than happy that his son may not be playing for his team,” Maclean says.
29-year-old Maclean is now an unapologetically gay pop artist, but he admits it's taken him a while to be so confident.
“I started singing about guys in songs instead of singing ‘you’ or ‘them’,” he says. “As I stopped trying to please people, more people were pleased.”
His latest album, funbang1, is evidence of that.
The name was an accident, Maclean missed the shift key and the ‘!’ became ‘1’ – but he thought he’d go with it.
“My favourite part is that everyone is now waiting for a funbang2,” he says with a laugh.
The album is undeniably poppy and unashamedly queer.
'Free to Love' wouldn’t be out of place on a Timberlake album. 'Never Enough' could find a home on a MIKA album.
Those songs contrast with deeper pieces, like the lyrically bleak 'Undetectable', which covers frustrated intimacy in a HIV positive relationship.
But it’s the hardcore, graphic gay film-clip to the playfully retro 'House of Air' that’s made headlines around the world.
With the video going viral before being yanked by YouTube, Maclean has been fielding calls from Vice, The Hollywood Reporter and Rolling Stone from his dad’s farmhouse in rural Victoria.
“I’ve never had a reaction like this to anything,” he says.
For Maclean - who’s been struggling to break through for almost a decade - being a queer pop singer-songwriter has been a long, lonely journey.
Maclean was branded ‘gay’ by his classmates in primary school, before he even knew what it meant.
“It was when I was in high school and was trying to discover myself that other people calling you a poofter really starts to confuse you,” he says.
“They’re saying it as a derogatory thing, and I definitely don’t want to be that thing… but I am.”
He was beaten up regularly in high school. His academic performance suffered. His attendance record was appalling.
“I was terrified to go to school, it was a scary, scary time,” he says.
As soon as he could, Maclean fled the southern suburb of Cronulla for Sydney’s gay-friendly Inner West - and then he discovered songwriting.
“I was writing really bad poetry,” he says.
“I discovered the handy trick is that if you sing your bad poetry you can convince 10 people to listen to it at a time, and if you improve it maybe 50 people will listen to it.”
His early exposure came as a support act for artists like Kate Miller-Heidke and Darren Hayes, but it was his efforts to woo musician and producer Paul Mac that changed Maclean’s fortunes.
After Maclean slipped a demo to Mac, he agreed to go out for a beer.
With Mac's support and $21,000 in crowdfunding, the pair produced the chipper break-up song ‘Stupid’ alongside a single-shot video.
The clip went viral, making the front page on BuzzFeed. It was Maclean’s first burst of success.
The track (combined with a year of tweeting at Universal music) landed Maclean a five-year song-writing deal.
Stupid - Brendan Maclean
But Maclean's career has been a struggle at times.
“I’ve had many points that I thought I should pull the plug – that no one was ever gonna listen,” he says.
Even with his viral success, he found himself sometimes playing to small audiences at piano bars, wondering what the point was.
After the success of "Stupid" Maclean dropped almost $20,000 on a follow-up clip for "Winner".
“I think it’s beautiful, but the view count is low – admittedly low – and I thought 'That’s it, why did I make this?'”
Winner - Brendan Maclean
He says 'unapologetically gay' is an apt description of his approach.
“If you’re a queer artist, and you’re worried about straight people liking you, you will not sell a single record - unless you have a record label,” the indie artist says.
But he doesn’t judge others like Ricky Martin or Lance Bass, who have stayed in the closet - "they came from another era."
Maclean hopes that the future of LGBT+ music will be shaped by individuals who identify as queer—a shift away from traditional idols like Kylie, Britney Spears and Madonna.
Fellow Australian gay pop singer Troye Sivan is one example.
“He’s doing an incredible job,” Maclean says, admitting to a little envy of the young star.
“Watching him get up at the Arias and deliver his speech to all the LGBTQ kids I was like heeey, I wanted to do that,” he says.
“But if I’ve inspired a few kids, then he’s inspired millions – so all power to him.”
Maclean, who counts Daniel Johns, Ben Folds, Regina Spektor and Sampha among his influences, is currently hooked on 'A Seat at the Table' by Solange Knowles.
Later this year he'll feature in an ABC web-series which he describes as a "spiritual successor" to Josh Thomas' Please Like Me. He'll also be touring with Amanda Palmer and headlining an as yet unannounced show at the Sydney Opera House.
But after living more than two years out of a bag, he's currently lying low at his father's property to write (and to keep Universal Music happy).
“They love the PR from 'House of Air', but what they’d like more is more some songs from me,” he says with a laugh.