Brett Newski 2021
Photo: Kelly Bolter / Courtesy of Clarion Call Media

Dream Teamer Brett Newski Hoops It Up to Make “Varsity” for Winning Project

When life’s struggles get you down, singer-songwriter Brett Newski provides the perfect pick-me-up with his new book and accompanying soundtrack album.

It's Hard to Be a Person: the Soundtrack to the Book
Brett Newski
22 June 2021

Brett Newski is living the dream of Everyman in “Varsity”, the new music video that premieres today (July 21) at PopMatters. The Milwaukee-based alternative singer-songwriter’s quirky tune is part of Newski’s soundtrack album to his recently published book It’s Hard to Be a Person: Defeating Anxiety, Surviving the World, and Having More Fun.

Regarding his inspiration to write the song, Newski tells PopMatters in an email interview to coincide with the premiere, “I was channeling my life as a young person, thinking about how tricky it is to be a young person and figure it all out even though you have such little information. Just like most people, youth was tough despite my parents being amazing. Middle and high school were a social war zone. However, the struggle is key. And I’m glad I got my ass kicked physically and emotionally growing up.”

Through his book and music, the 34-year-old Newski, a shortened version of his birth surname Wisniewski, represents anyone who has suffered from anxiety and depression or was targeted by bullies while trying to beat the odds of a social misfit living in a sometimes cruel world.

For the music video, directed and edited by frequent collaborator Max Hauser of Liminal Vision Films, Newski uses the basketball court to play the game of life. As a former member of the New Berlin West High School basketball team, then the Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugolds in college, Newski loved the sport but disliked going to school. 

“I was always a role player, kinda slow-footed,” Newski recalls of his athletic heydays. “So I would hang out on the perimeter and bomb [three-pointers]. Our best player, Wes, did most of the hard work, which allowed me to chug lots of Gatorade and relax while he dominated fools. Kidding aside, we were honestly pretty good and only lost three games all year.”

Check out the video now (and wait for his shout-out to Mom in the bonus scene). Then, read on for more Newski news and, in a special edition of PopMatters PopQuiz, learn some intriguing facts about a multitalented, creative artist with a wacky persona who emerged from years of bottled-up feelings for “a person who spends too much time in his own head.”

The lessons I’m learnin are quickly forgotten /
I ain’t alright, I’m under siege / And I’m never ever getting free / There ain’t no room for me on the varsity

— Lyrics from Brett Newski’s “Varsity”

Newski developed the video’s concept with Hauser “to make fun of our lowest moments in high school; bullies, being scared of girls, social awkwardness and trying to fit in,” offers Newski, whose brand of identifiable, observational humor follows in the tradition of such glib singer-satirists as the Smothers Brothers, Tenacious D, Bo Burnham and “Weird Al” Yankovic.

“Basketball was the highlight of high school, so we wanted to make it the highlight of the video,” he contends. “My favorite scene is when the janitor [played by jumpsuit-wearing scene-stealer Matthew Rucker] dunks on the bully coach and the coach gets nuts to the face.”

Calling his director “a filmmaking beast,” Newski even sprinkles hilarity into his compliments, claiming Hauser “pretty much did all the work and let us plow Lays potato chips in the cafeteria during pre-production. I love Max … and I love chips.”

The biggest risk for the crew that included cinematographer Jon Kline involved them “climbing the rafters [and] hanging lights on 30-foot ladders,” Newski reveals. “Real scary. If someone would’ve fallen, I prolly would’ve got sued and then gone to hell. It was our biggest production yet.”

Possessing a raspy Dylanesque voice and a churning electric guitar, Newski and his regular bandmates — last-name-only Spatola (the bassist here who also plays drums/keyboards and handles engineering/mixing duties on the soundtrack) and drummer Steve Vorass — get prominent roles in the video. But the real stars are from a cast corralled by Hauser, who “sacrificed his body with coffee and cigarettes and Slim Jims to stay awake all night and find the actors,” Newski states. “Please give him all credit.” 

Only Dan “Danimal” Davies (as the Coach) was a professional actor, according to Newski, who reports, “Everyone else we pulled in off the street. I mean, they weren’t actually homeless, they were just my friends and we made them work for free :)”

Seriously, though, folks, Newski brings a heart of gold to his dual project, with eight new tunes on the It’s Hard to be a Person: Soundtrack to the Book, including his collaboration with Barenaked Ladies co-founder Steven Page on “I Should’ve Listened to Ferris Bueller”.

“They are songs about being trapped in your own brain and trying to get out,” notes Newski, who also opens up about his own personal battles with simple but heartwarming drawings in the book that accompany his sometimes humorous, often incisive and always entertaining written witticisms.

While Newski didn’t suffer from the lack of road stops like many musicians did in 2020, the global pandemic affected him in more positive ways.

“The pando gave me loads of information about myself. I found I wasn’t as obsessed with touring as I thought. It was the ‘holy shit’ moment that helped me prioritize my world; cutting out the things that make me feel bad and creating more time for the people I love,” reflects the vaccinated Newski, who adds, “Medically, the shot in the arm didn’t hurt at all.”

The world traveler has lived in Vietnam, toured elsewhere throughout Southeast Asia, and played at unusual venues in exotic locations from Europe to South Africa and Australia. Making connections while supporting major alternative acts such as the New Pornographers, the Pixies and Milwaukee’s own Violent Femmes opened doors in addition to providing other opportunities for the Freethinking Man’s Musician.

With his Dirt from the Road podcasts, Newski’s interview subjects have included a number of musical guests, from Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips (discussing how to keep vices in check) to the Verve Pipe’s Brian Vander Ark (on why it sucks opening for Kiss).

Through all those enlightening experiences, a perceptive point of view that some might also call eccentric continues to develop. Under the podcast section on his website, for instance, he offers followers a chance to “Donate a Sandwich” via PayPal

In the book, Newski displays a light touch while making helpful suggestions on serious issues like “Places to avoid because they may trigger anxiety” (Arby’s, the mall and his own high school reunion are among them) and “Ways to relieve stress” (illustrating different styles for smashing acoustic guitars). The Fargo wood-chipper is my favorite.

Among the three objectives mentioned in the book’s subtitle, “defeating anxiety” might be the most difficult to accomplish, Newski admits.

“I suppose one never defeats anxiety,” he believes. “It is always there, but we can use it for good. It’s useful energy. It must be kept at bay, but it also must be mined and used to create positive energies that weren’t there before. For example, anxiety is great for making art.”

Living proof of that, Newski adds a down-to-earth dose of reality to help lost souls find their own dream world.

Brett Newski Takes a PopMatters PopQuiz

Among your many creative talents (musician, illustrator, author, podcaster), which skill suits you best and is the most sustaining in your life (and why)?

Newski: If I could find a way to make a living solely off podcasting that’d be primo. I’ve found a fun groove with Dirt from the Road and have been able to talk to nearly all of my musical heroes. Some guests include Dashboard Confessional, Frank Turner, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Verve Pipe, Heartless Bastards, Juliana Hatfield, Cloud Nothings, All American Rejects, Guster and Barenaked Ladies co-founder Steven Page.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve experienced during your travels as a touring musician?

Newski: A man trying to sell me a grenade for $35.

How many guitars have you destroyed during your career, and which one do you miss the most?

Newski: I’ve never smashed a guitar in a cool way. But my first acoustic was such a piece of shit that it broke on its own from playing a B7 chord. My second guitar broke ’cause it was strapped to my motorbike when I lived in Vietnam. It was pure garbage and cost $40, but I wrote some neat songs on it.

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your life, and what did you learn from it?

Newski: Once, I wouldn’t let my brother listen to my rock CDs as a kid. It was a cool opportunity to show him some sweet music and for us to bond. My brother was cooler than me, so I was a lil’ emo kid. This is nothing I’ll go to hell for, but I always felt bad about that. Ahhh, to be a young POS. 🙂

Having seen much of the world already, where would you like to spend the rest of your life?

Newski: I could retire in South Africa. That’s been my home away from home. I’ve probably done six, seven tours there. My main best friend [and musician] Jon Shaban lives there.

After finishing the book and soundtrack, what future projects top your to-do list?

Newski: Leisure.

Upcoming Concert Dates

7/22 – Oshkosh, Wisconsin @ Leach Amphitheater
8/5 – Appleton, Wisconsin @ Mile of Music Festival
8./13 – Appleton, Wisconsin @ Fox River House
8/19 – Charlevoix, Michigan @ Charlevoix Concert Series
8/20 – Flint, Michigan @ Blackstones Smokehouse
8/21 – Davenport, Iowa @ Alternating Currents Festival
8/27 – Mason City, Iowa @ Mason City Brewing
9/3 – Normal, Illinois @ Desthil Brewing
9/4 – Cambridge, Illinois @ Ca d’Zan house concerts (solo)
9/10 – Wauwatosa, Wisconsin @ Tosa Fest
10/28 – Mexico City, Mexico (solo)
10/29 – Mexico City, Mexico (solo)
10/2 – Cleveland, Ohio @ Masonic Temple
11/10 – Cincinnati, Ohio @ MOTR
11/11 – Lake Orion/Detroit @ 20 Front St.
11/12 – Fort Wayne, Indiana @ Brass Rail
11/13 – Eau Claire, Wisconsin @ Revival Records
11/18 – Minneapolis, Minnesota @ First Ave.
11/19 – Milwaukee, Wisconsin @ Anodyne Walker’s Point
11/20 – Chicago, Illinois @ Golden Dagger
11/21 – Madison, Wisconsin @ Burr Oak
11/24 – Bloomington, Illinois @ Castle Theatre