Interview: Sian Brown, Musician, Vegan and Animal Activist

Hi everyone!

Been a mental few weeks but I’m back again with something special! As some of you may know I’m also a freelance journalist and recently I published a feature in Cork’s Evening Echo about veganism for World Vegan Day! You can read the article here. Two of the interviews in particular I had to cut short in the feature because the page is only so big so I’ve chosen to publish them as Q&As here because there’s a lot of valuable information to be had.

Up first is Cork City’s Sian Brown, one half of musical duo Lambdancer, vegan and animal activist.

When and why did you become a vegetarian?

Growing up, my family were a typical meat and animal product eating family but as a young child I could never stomach things like minced meat. It made me physically sick to the point where, from the age of seven-ish, I got made an omelette, while all my other brothers and sisters had dinners like shepherds pie or bolognese as my body simply rejected it.

In my teens, when my parents were starting to spend more time apart and my mother became the food provider, I did go vegetarian on and off for months at a time as I really didn’t want to hurt animals and, again, meat never really agreed with me but my mother could not afford the veggie options at the time and I went back to meat-eating. Once I left home I was never really a huge meat-eater and committed to vegetarianism in my early twenties and never looked back. I NEVER wanted to hurt animals.

When and why did you become a vegan?

Because I had been vegetarian since about the age of 22, ten years on I had been thinking about veganism for a couple of years although the thought of giving up cheese had always stood in my way. I started working in an alternative play school and the owner was vegan. Up until that point I had never met a proper vegan. She looked very healthy and I respected her and how she ran the play school. I started asking her questions about it. I was interested to know why honey was deemed not vegan and how hard it would be to make the transition.

Lent came around and a good few people were talking about what they might give up. I used this time as a period to try Veganism. I decided to give up all animal products for lent and see how I’d get on. I was raised atheist. I have never had a religion but do have my own personal beliefs. I wouldn’t call myself atheist now, I do believe in a greater good but don’t believe I could ever fully know what that greater good entails I just know its there and I know I’m connected to it and I kind of like the idea of a period of time where a simpler life is lived to further spiritual growth and to understand how lucky we actually are.

So at the beginning of this Lent time I watched all the major vegan documentaries on YouTube that I had been avoiding watching for a while. I probably went vegan over night after watching Earthlings, 101 Reasons to Go Vegan and Gary Yourofsky’s speech. I was horrified. I cried and cried. A few weeks into Lent I felt absolutely amazing. I had slimmed down to a lovely size and I was feeling very positive, which has sometimes been hard to do as I had suffered from severe depression on and off since childhood. People were also commenting on how healthy I was looking.

When Lent finished myself and my husband Jimmy had a meal with cheese in it but it made me feel ill and I just couldn’t enjoy it now knowing the background story. I told my husband I was going to keep being vegan, which, at the time, he wasn’t necessarily pleased about but now, four years on, Jimmy also probably only gives in to cheese or milk chocolate a few times a year now and is, himself, looking and feeling great. He’s more likely to give in to animal products after a few pints to be honest, which reminds me of something some one once said to me, which was ‘For me – alcohol and meat-eating go hand in hand.’ An interesting comment that always stuck in my mind. I haven’t drank alcohol since my early twenties and went fully vegetarian a few months after giving up drink. Food for thought.

For those who don’t know, can you explain the difference between being a vegan and living on a plant based diet?

There are so many off-shoots of veganism now it’s funny. There are ethical vegans, plant-based vegans, raw vegans, junk food vegans, 80/10/10 vegans, high-carb low-fat vegans, raw ’til four vegans; the list goes on. For me, variety is the spice of life and I’m not into this ‘You’re not vegan enough’ crap. I believe that we are all doing the best we can with what we’ve got and anyone who is making a conscious effort to try not to eat animals or animal products is doing a good job as far as I’m concerned.

We are all at different stages and that’s the way life goes. The difference between ethical vegans and plant-based vegans is, supposedly, that ethical vegans don’t just keep their diet animal-free but also their entire lifestyle. Clothes, shoes, cosmetics etc. Plant-based vegans focus mainly on diet. Both are vegans. I try my best to buy cruelty-free, vegan products besides food. I wear big vegan boots. I buy vegan cosmetics but I still have a few wooly jumpers knocking about and still accidentally buy some cosmetics that I thought were vegan but turned out not to be. Are you going to call me a fake vegan? It’s the world we live in at this point in time.

No one can be 100% vegan as a lady I used to work with who had been vegan for over twenty years told me. No matter how hard you try there will be glue that sticks chairs and furniture together made from animals. Again, it’s the world we live in right now. I think the vegan verses plant-based thing is just another example of how humans love to judge each other. Maybe THAT’S the problem? We can find this in religion also. Christian verses Catholic for example. They believe in the same thing in a slightly different way. Is it enough to go to war over though? It’s all madness. Do the best you can. At least you’re doing SOMETHING.

What are some of the misunderstandings that you have encountered from others about your lifestyle?

Some of the main misunderstandings are that I am judging everyone, thinking I am better than anyone who isn’t vegan and that I think anyone who isn’t a vegan is a murderer. That I must be no fun. None of these things are true! I share the world with 7.4 billion people all coming from their own unique perspectives and with their own unique life stories. It’s all pretty amazing. Change happens over years, sometimes decades, sometimes centuries etc. I am a pacifist. I love meeting new people and listening to their stories. I have many many meat-eating friends.

As a person here I don’t think it is my right to judge anyone or tell anyone else what to do or how to do it. People need to think for themselves and manage their own journey. I do, though, believe that I have the power to inspire people to at least THINK about their effect on the animal kingdom and the planet in leading by example or as Gandhi said ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ I have, myself, taken inspiration from people like Thomas Edison when he said ‘Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.’ Or when Albert Einstein said ‘If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first act of abstinence is from injury to animals.’ And also, ‘Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty.’ In the ways that I have been inspired by certain people I wish to inspire too through compassionate and non violent means. Practice what you preach.

Have you noticed any differences to aspects of your life since the change? (Amount spent on groceries, health etc)

Yes! I really don’t get sick that often anymore. I might get a seasonal cold but I NEVER get as sick as I used to. When I was eating animal products (I was also smoking at the time) I would get very sick at least once a month with chest infections, colds, sinus and tonsil problems. Because dairy is mucus forming, once I gave it up, all of these symptoms eased off or completely disappeared. I feel much more positive than I used to. I suffered from depression on and off since childhood and as a vegan I have never felt happier or have been able to pull out of low moods so quickly. My physical health and fitness is the best its ever been in my 36 years on this planet and in this body. We live a mainly high-carb low-fat whole food vegan diet, which really works for us and is a VERY affordable way to live. Focusing on brown rice, beans, lentils, vegetables, wholewheat pasta, fruit etc, can be the cheapest way to live. We also get more bang for our buck as meat and animal products can often be expensive.

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Has it ever been difficult dating or living with people with different diets?

Not really. I’ve had a funny life. Giving up meat and animal products coincided with giving up alcohol in my early twenties. I had a drinking problem, which had been growing since my early teens, which I had to nail on the head. It was a very hard time in my life where I completely turned myself around. I also didn’t date or see anyone for literally years. Probably around seven years and all this time I lived on my own in my little flat. I needed to work out who I was and where I wanted to go and didn’t feel like I could do this in a relationship or even find some one who would understand my life transitioning.

When I met Jimmy, my husband, when I was 31 he was also mostly vegetarian and respected my lifestyle. The only difficulty I experience since going vegan is when Jimmy eats cheese or milk chocolate in front of me. I try not to go over the top, as it’s his life, but it does make me sad that he knows the animals story and still eats the products. If I’m to be honest, though, he mostly only does this after a few pints. The brain isn’t going to be making the best decisions after a few. Heavy drinking releases so much dopamine that the brain can’t tell the difference between a good decision and a bad decision anymore. One or two drinks may help someone relax but with a few more drinks on top of that someone may start acting in ways that they usually would not…I speak from personal experience.

Can you tell me more about your work for animal rights through music and other activities?

As I’ve said, I am coming from the angle that I want to be the change I wish to see in the world. My way of activism is by making pro-vegan themed videos for my YouTube channel, doing my vegan baking and sugar art, doing vegan cookery demonstrations in Natural Choice health shop in Cork City and also writing a few songs on the subject. One such song being ‘Voice for the Voiceless’, which will be on the electro punk Lambdancer album (my collaborative project with my husband) out this year. I write about their pain and suffering and how ‘We don’t need to kill to eat. A vegan meal and I’m replete. My body’s not a graveyard, no no.’ I also give free vegan advice to anyone who contacts me via email or social media and play my songs at animal rights related fund raising charity events when asked.

How easy is it for you to eat out in Cork?

Actually Cork city is great for vegans. I’m lucky here. There are loads of places that are vegan friendly now more than ever. You do end up in places that are still clueless about the diet. Usually when I’ve been asked to a meal and have no control over the venue. That’s O.K. I just note never to go there again.

Where’s your favourite place to eat out in Cork as a vegan and why?

There are a few…. The Quay Co-op is a vegetarian/vegan restaurant and is always affordable and pretty healthy. They always have vegan desserts too, which is so nice as many mainstream restaurants can cater for a vegan meal but often fall short on dessert. They also have a lovely cafe in their shop with an awesome deli that always has vegan coleslaw! Iyers is an amazing vegetarian Indian restaurant that does many vegan options and all are delicious. Liberty Grill has a great vegan menu with more than one option for a starter, main and dessert. Jacobs on the Mall has a more upmarket, three course vegan menu with many options and is always really delicious. It’s very reasonable for what you get but definitely slightly more expensive. There are more but these are my favorites when I decide to eat out.

Where’s your favourite place to shop in Cork as a vegan and why?

Well, I do get a lot of things from supermarkets as I am a student just starting my Masters in Music Therapy in UL [University of Limerick] and living on a budget but, for the more specialised vegan foods, I like to shop in Natural Choice health shop in the Paul St shopping centre as I used to work there and know the manager Sarah Hyland is always conscious of where she buys products from and she always tries to keep the prices as reasonable as she can. There are a few more cool places to shop which I have already mentioned.

What’s the hardest thing about being a vegan in Cork?

Cork is a small city in a small country that’s kind of blocked off from the rest of the world in many ways. Many of the new amazing vegan foods being invented around the world do not reach the shops here until years after they come out. I am still unable to buy simple things like liquid smoke here or Daiya cheese, which is a new cheese from America that is meant to taste amazing. I can only order these new products online so I suppose the variety of vegan products here is frustratingly limited especially when you see all these vegan YouTubers around the world raving about new products and you want to try them yourself. It’s slowly getting better though. Also a lot of people here still have a very narrow minded view of vegans and veganism. Many people will tell you that your diet is extreme, bland, boring, elitist etc. But I think that probably happens everywhere too.

What advice would you give people thinking about becoming a vegan?

Do your research!!! Go into it eyes wide open. Make a plan. Read articles and blogs. Watch videos. Be prepared. Follow your heart.

What would you say to someone who said your diet wasn’t healthy? Do you get comments and questions about your health and nutrient intake a lot?

I would probably tell them they were clearly misinformed. A lot of doctors in America are now recommending a vegan diet to reverse diabetes and to help with heart disease. If they were willing to listen about how you can get all the nutrients you need and more on a vegan diet then we’d have a good conversation. If they are one of the many people who are just looking for an argument then I’d walk away. There’s just no point sometimes.

A lot of people contact me for nutritional advice as a vegan. I have done exams in nutrition and sports nutrition over the years working in Natural Choice health shop. The only thing to keep a good eye on is B12, which is as simple as taking a good supplement but B12 deficiency is as much a part of meat-eaters’ lives as it is a vegans’ with many meat-eaters deficient. Because of the country we live in I would also take a vitamin D supplement sometime during the winter too but otherwise I get everything I need from my food.

Do you find the lifestyle more or less expensive?

I find this lifestyle cheaper than when I was eating meat but I enjoy a mostly wholefood diet. I buy hardly any processed vegan foods such as fake meats and cheeses and these are generally the expensive things.

What’s your top tip for doing vegan on a budget?

BROWN RICE!!!! along with lentils, beans, wholemeal pasta etc. Watch my series of ‘Living on €2 a day’ videos on my Youtube channel. Aldi has many vegan options and is very budget-friendly. Go bargain-hunting. Know where the savings lie. If you see a good deal STOCK UP!

For people hosting vegans at dinner parties, what advice do you have?

Don’t panic! People think veganism is WAY harder than it actually is. Ask your vegan guest what they might like to eat or just get a few ideas from them. Google recipes, there are hundreds of thousands of ‘simple’ vegan recipes online. If you really don’t know what to make then ask the guest to bring a dish for sharing. That way you will be able to see how easy it is and how it tastes.

Would you raise your children as vegans?

If I have children one day then I will be raising them vegan.

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What’s the best thing about being a vegan?

Everything. I love everything about being vegan. I’ve never been happier. Feeling healthy, happy and light in mind body and spirit. Not harming any living creature. Helping the planet. Kindness. Peacefulness. The list goes on…

How was performing at Electric Picnic? How did that opportunity come about?

Yeah it’s always fun to perform at Electric Picnic. It’s such a great festival. We have lots of fun at festivals. I wear pretty loud costumes for my electro punk band, Lambdancer. This year I dressed up in an adult-sized My Little Pony outfit. For the laugh you know. It was just SO COLOURFUL. It was the Dash character costume. We played in Natasha’s Living Food Emporium, which is a tent that serves only vegan food and I’m pretty sure it’s all raw too. It went really well. Natasha saw us perform at Dublin VegFest last year and really liked our set. She told us we should play in her tent for the festivals so we did! It was great to be asked and nice to play in a different spot this year. We also got some amazing food there. We’re very grateful to her for the awesome experience.

You’ve performed at Dublin VegFest before; how was that and are you looking forward to doing so again?

Yes, as I said, we played at the very first Dublin VegFest last year and it was great fun and was where we got our festival gigs organised. It was so amazing to be asked back this year too to play a solo set. I’ve been writing songs for years and have released two solo albums so far with another in the pipeline. My band with my husband, Lambdancer, is so out there and wild I often feel like my solo singer/songwriter stuff is boring and miserable in comparison, so it’s nice to be asked to play my solo tunes specifically, which were way more suited to the chill out music area this year.

I met two of the main organisers, Pears and Katarina, a few years ago when I was setting up my vegan Facebook page, Belly Full of Rainbows, and doing some of my own vegan podcasts and then when Pears asked me up to play at a vegan meet-up they had in Temple Bar. They are both really beautiful human beings and are always looking out for vegan performers and vegans in general. They always keep me in mind for music and I’m very grateful for that. I may be playing Cork VegFest next year, which will be fun too. It’s so great to be able to contribute to vegan events in my own country.

What are the things that are or are not vegan that you find people tend to forget about when shopping?

Oh LOTS of things. I don’t know why but there is whey powder in almost everything mainstream. Even salt and vinegar crisps, which I find baffling. As a vegan you just have to get used to reading the ingredients on everything. It was a pain at the start but now I can quickly scan anything and know in seconds if I can buy it or not. It helps that they now have all allergens in BOLD so I’m even quicker now.

There are a few strange words that you might think are safe but are not like carmine or anything that sounds like it is a red food coloring made from ground-up beetles, casein and similar-sounding substances are milk proteins. Collagen and keratin are rendered slaughterhouse proteins. Gelatin is derived from the skins or bones of animals.

On the other hand there are MANY ‘accidentally vegan’ products out there too and you can find lists of these on things like the PETA website. Examples are lots of chocolate above 70%, biscuits such as Hob Nobs, Fig Rolls, Digestive Lights, Lemon Puffs. Lots of crisps including salt and vinegar, bar-b-q and even Hunky Dory’s cheese and onion! Many noodles are vegan, pasta sauces, breakfast cereals but watch out for the whey powder in muesli’s. NO WHEY MAN!!! The list goes on and on.

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