Harvey McGavin listens in on her quest for pop glory
An upmarket club in London's West End. Music industry types, radio executives and PR people are lounging on the leather furniture, sipping free wine and swapping small talk. A video plays silently on a giant plasma screen above the ornate fireplace as a petite, straight-haired young woman mouths a love song about a relationship on the rocks.
But the laid-back atmosphere at Five Cavendish Square, a luxurious Georgian town house and favourite hang-out of pop stars, belies what is at stake. If these people like what they are about to hear, they can make, break or - in this case - transform a person's career. The hubbub subsides and a middle-aged man in a leather jacket introduces the woman from the video: Tracey Brennecke. What he doesn't say is that on any other Wednesday afternoon she would be getting ready to teach Year 8. But today is her shot at the big time.
Flanked by a three-piece band and two backing singers, Tracey straps on her bass guitar and launches into "First To Know", a melodic, piano-driven ballad that is her first single. After "Pretty Wonderful", a song getting its first airing, the showcase closes with the country-tinged pop of "Alibi". The assembled tastemakers applaud enthusiastically, then it's all over.
Two days later, in the much less glamorous surroundings of William Ellis secondary school, an all-boys comprehensive in the London borough of Camden, 29-year-old MsBrennecke is philosophical. "On Thursday morning I had to teach double Year 9s, so I was down to earth with a big bump," says the newly qualified music teacher. "I've got my feet firmly on the ground."
Whatever happens, Ms Brennecke is not about to abandon her roots.
The youngest of five, she was born and brought up on the Kiln Place estate, a few minutes' walk from William Ellis, and many of the pupils live there too. And she went to "Parly" - Parliament Hill girls' school - next door.
"This area is very diverse," she says. "I teach children whose parents are architects or barristers and children whose parents are in prison for drug dealing. You get everything in Kentish Town."
Another reason why she's not too starstruck is that she has flirted with fame before. Five years ago, she was invited to audition for the girl group Thunderbugs, a novelty act in the sense that all the members could play their instruments. The audition went well, but she was never called back.
Thunderbugs went on to have a minor hit, then disappeared. She can smile about it now, but at the time it hit her hard. "I was devastated," she says.
She learned to play music as a girl, messing about on the piano at the primary school where her mum worked as a cleaner. "She would put me in the classroom with the piano and I would sit there going 'plink, plonk'." By writing the letters of the notes on the keys of the piano, the young Tracey could work out how to play the jingles from her favourite television advertisements. It wasn't until she started a performing arts course in the sixth form that she learned how to read music properly. "A teacher called Ann Reid was my main inspiration. She showed me how to put songs down on paper."
After school, she started training as a primary teacher in Devon. "I hated it. I thought, 'I'm never going to teach, it's not for me'. I wasn't ready for it." She dropped out and went to study jazz performance at Middlesex University, which led to "a nice living" as a session musician and bass player in a touring jazz band. She even recorded an album with a three-piece girl group, Slinky Minx, but it was never released. "I've done cruises, panto, sessions - everything except the big time."
The work started to dry up and she decided to have another go at teaching, this time music at secondary level, attracted by the pound;6,000 training salary. "You have to have the right mindset to be a good teacher," she says. "I felt so different going into it this time, I was confident and self-assured."
She did her second teaching practice at William Ellis before gaining a distinction in her PGCE from London Metropolitan University. Richard Knight, the school's head of music, "snapped her up" when she applied for a job there. "She's very conscientious and she's got a fantastic way with the kids," he says. "Some of them have a hard time at home, but she understands them."
Ms Brennecke started in September, taking sole responsibility for key stage 3 music. The school has a musical pedigree: it boasts a range of performing bands and, even though it is a specialist language college, it reserves a few places each year for pupils with musical talent. An early version of the 1980s group Madness performed at William Ellis, where bassist Mark Bedford was a pupil.
"It's hard round here and there's a lot of pressure to take the less than righteous path," she says. "But I like teaching boys; you know where you stand with them." With a few brisk instructions to "open your ears and close your mouths", Ms Brennecke brings her Year 7 class to order. They have been learning the theme from Titanic, and today is their assessment.
She picks out the refrain on the keyboard, starting with level 1, the kind of single-fingered playing she attempted as a child. "If we have got any superstars who can do this," she says, giving a double-handed rendition with rhythm accompaniment, "then we are looking at a level 5."
Ms Brennecke took the first two weeks of this term as unpaid leave to promote the single and start work on an album with Stevie van Lange, who has produced Atomic Kitten and Blue. "If things go well and we lose her, it would be tragic," says Mr Knight. "But we wish her all the luck in the world."
Luck has played a part in getting Ms Brennecke this far. She wrote "First to Know" and "Alibi" with the intention of selling them to country star Shania Twain, but the session singer didn't turn up and Ms Brennecke ended up doing the vocals on the demo. It went unnoticed for almost two years until a radio DJ picked up on it and the CD began doing the rounds of regional stations. She says she's still finding her voice as a singer, but if, as her record company hopes, the single makes Radio 2's playlist, we will all be hearing a lot more of it. "The interest has been phenomenal and I would love this to be absolutely massive," she says, "But if it doesn't happen, I have a fulfilling job to go back to."
'First to Know' is released by Halo Records on January 26