Brenna Whitaker is the hottest act in Hollywood. If you have caught one of her Sunday night shows at the W Hotel, you know that her theatrical performances include famous guest musicians who show up for the chance to sing with Brenna and are a New York like phenomenon. No one leaves early, the crowd sings along, and the show doesn’t start until 10 PM and ends at 2 AM with a standing ovation.
More than just a cover singer, Brenna Whitaker is a Kansas City born and raised star. Of her hometown she said, “the jazz community there is just spectacular…you can work every night in Kansas City and have a career and a really nice life and still be a jazz musician in Kansas City. It has more of an exciting Jazz scene than LA by far.” The oldest of four very creative kids, Brenna said her supportive parents—her mother is a playwright–exposed her and her siblings to music of all types. She has one sister Jessie whom is a singer songwriter, currently in a group akin to Mumford & Sons, another sister that works as a model and one younger brother that is a sculptor. She joked, “We’re all a bunch of crazy people pretty much from Kansas, like the Griswolds have arrived in Hollywood. It’s pretty hilarious.”
Now an LA resident for six years, Brenna said, “At first I hated it. Now I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else just because you can dive into so many different sorts of creativity…you have to be really creative about making it in the entertainment industry these days. You have to really bring something kind of that nobody else is doing in order to break any boundaries. So I just feel like I’m in the right spot.”
“I think I was born in the wrong time for the right reason maybe?” laughed Brenna as we talked about her being a throwback to a different time. The Hollywood Jazz and Blues singer has reinvigorated the younger generations interest in songs like “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man.” She has created a reputation both for her talent and the celebrity crowd she draws that has made her near three year residency at the W Hotel a smashing success. Even on the first Sunday night in January when most of the world was still recuperating from the New Year’s Eve—where Brenna incidentally headlined the surprise Hugh Hefner wedding at the Playboy mansion—Brenna’s lounge was standing room only.
She described her specialty as covering “obscure old R&Bs” and I couldn’t help but tell her that when I listen to “Since I Fell For You,” I find her to be a reinvention of 1920’s legend Eydie Gormé. “Oh..Thanks!” Brenna replied and shared, “I’ve seen her in Vegas. Her and her partner [Steve Lawrence]. They were great.”
“What did you listen to growing up that inspired you to become a musician and put you on this track?” I asked, curious as to what sent this young beautiful trendy blonde girl retro. “Well, I’m a theatre dork born and raised so I sort of grew up with all the classic composers like Gershwin and Irving Berlin… So, I kind of just gravitated towards the standards. When I was eleven years old I was working professionally and that sort of just started leading to recording and I just learned by watching. But, my favorite singers growing up were Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Ruth Brown is huge for me. So those kind of like showy showmanship type singers.”
Now firmly implanted in the Hollywood scene, Brenna’s close with Gene Simmons (Kiss) and his family who she said, “support me [and] come to my shows a lot. Which it’s always great when Gene Simmons just gets up on your stage and sings back up for you.” She laughed. I asked Brenna if the musician known for his hard rock music is into the swing music that Brenna loves or if she sings something different when he joins her on stage. “Yeah, he is. I have sat in Gene’s office at his house before and gone through YouTube clips. He’s a huge fan of Jackie Wilson so he’s totally just a music lover. And their family, Shannon, his wife is a really big music person. Their kids actually sit in with me a lot at my show at the W—Sophie and Nick—and they have great voices and great taste in music. They love anything from Jim Morrison to Etta James. They’ll get up and sing what they love which is what I love so we have a lot in common in that way.”
The wildly diverse crowd that Brenna draws led me to the conclusion that you never know what’s going to happen at a Brenna Whitaker show. “Yeah, you never know,” confirmed Brenna, “that’s what’s kind of exciting every week. I’m pretty selective on who I let get up. You know, in LA everyone wants to be a singer. I’m from Kansas and I like to be nice to everybody but there is a limit.” She made us both laugh and went on. “I’m a trained singer and I feel like I’ve absolutely paid my dues so I like it when other singers who I know have paid their dues—or like Stevie Wonder is a regular and I’m allowed to brag about that because it’s Stevie Wonder.”
Brenna went on to say of the musicians that come just to sing with her, “Everyone can sing but they’re embracing older music from a time where standards were made. ‘Cry Me A River’ or Nancy Sinatra ‘Bang Bang’ or ‘Big Spender’ by Peggy Lee these are all classics that will probably still be around twenty years from today. There’s a bunch of great music that Hollywood is embracing right now. I’m enjoying doing my take on covers…I want to do my renditions of my favorite old songs. I definitely think the music industry needs a little jolt with musicianship and showmanship.”
Brenna has jolted them alright. She has shaken up Hollywood and brought about a new trendy old time.
Charities that Brenna supports: Create Now and MusiCares
Brenna: “I work with a nonprofit called Create Now. I’ll bring three pieces of my band to a boys group home of like 15 boys that are troublemakers…I’m not gonna lie, I was one of them and music is what helped me get out of it and see the light so I feel like the more I can be around kids and do that then the more I’m doing my job. I’ve been doing it every week in December. I’m really enjoying it. I just went to juvie hall last week—50 boys. I just look at my band and my guys and they absolutely get so much out of it. It’s really cool to see them open up to the boys. I would say kids and music are probably the number one reason I do music in general. At the W it’s kind of cool because it’s a bar but I get Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen, these Disney kids, and they’re regulars at my show. It’s the most emotional thing to see a 19 year old kid responding to a horn section and you acting like a big dork on stage. It’s just really cool. So kids and music will definitely be my biggest form of charity. I’m heavily involved in music education.”
BRENNA WHITAKER ON THE WEB
WE ASKED BRENNA WHITAKER
Which song title most describes your personality?
A: Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Which album have you most recently downloaded?