There are many ways to label Jay Brannan: Singer-songwriter. YouTube sensation. Gay troubadour. “The male Joni Mitchell.” None of those quite do justice to the multifaceted musician.
Raised in a conservative, religious family in Texas, Brannan found his own truth in the arts early on. Songwriting came about after a turn as an actor. He landed a role in the experimental film, Shortbus, but “Soda Shop,” a tune he wrote for the soundtrack, became a smash on YouTube and launched an unexpected songwriting career that’s spanned four EPs, two LPs, and a live album over the course of just eight years.
Brannan released his second full-length album, Rob Me Blind, in 2012. This LP brims with songs both wistful and cheeky, written with a cynical eye and a beautiful ear. Considering Brannan’s around-the-world-and-back touring schedule, it’s almost a miracle that Rob Me Blind was released as quickly as it was, without a sacrifice of musical integrity. “I had such a surreal time working with a legend like David Kahne,” says Brannan of the studio experience with the same man who’s produced Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Regina Spektor, and many others.”He’s a genius and a dream producer… He really knows how to create memorable moments in music that are tasteful and not cheesy or over-the-top.” Indeed, if you’re into well-written lyrics atop affecting melodies sung by a mellifluous tenor, Jay Brannan is your man.
Brannan is about to embark on yet another tour, playing intimate venues and working out new songs alongside his fan favorites and beloved covers. “I’m just writing and recording as I go,” he tells us.
Read on: He’s got a lot more to say about where he came from, where he’s going, and the songs he’s been writing about it all.
I spent my high school years in the South around kids from conservative Baptist families. Because I knew a lot of people who grew up as you did, I’m curious: How did your experience growing up in this way shape your decision to get into movies and music?
Well, I think I was probably… you know, a lot of this is subconscious so I can only sort of guess, but I think a lot of what drew me to acting originally—and music—and the creative, expressive art forms was probably coming from such a conservative background. A lot of things that are based around image or suppressing reality or the way you really feel about things, you know, like social obligations and those sorts of things.
I imagine that this craving to express what was really going on, or just to talk about what was really going on—even if it wasn’t things I was feeling, but things that I was seeing and how the world works—I’m sure I wanted to have a voice. I felt like I was always trying to acknowledge things that no one else would acknowledge. Once you put some of that stuff into music or a movie form or a story, all of a sudden it’s socially acceptable to be expressive. I think that was probably a way to express myself in a way that was validated rather than criticized. Does that make sense? I know that’s kind of the long way around!
No way! I always felt so badly for the kids I knew who had so many restrictions placed on them. I was curious, too—did your parents let you listen to secular music?
Yeah, we could. I mean, I remember wanting to buy TLC’s CrazySexyCool—which is one of my top five favorite albums of all time… I wanted to buy it at Walmart and my mom didn’t want me to buy it because the album cover was too risqué! There were some limits; I didn’t own that album growing up, but I probably recorded every song on it off the radio onto cassette, though.
I remember those days! [Laughs]
Yeah! [Laughs] Back when they had radio, remember? [Laughs]
You’ve been compared to a variety of musicians and songwriters—and I know you don’t like to be pigeonholed as “the gay…fill-in-the-blank.” Who would you like people to compare you to, if anyone?
I compare myself to people all the time. I actually tend to get more female singer-songwriter comparisons because that’s really what I gravitate towards as a listener and what reached me growing up. Lisa Loeb is one of my favorites. I love Regina Spektor now—she’s kind of more modern and not from my high school days or anything. Ani DiFranco and Tori Amos and Bjork. More recently, I’ve discovered more people like Patty Griffin and Sinead O’Connor—stuff that I missed before. But I get a lot of that because I think people sense that that’s what influenced me.
And I do get Rufus Wainwright because that’s sort of obvious because everyone tries to think of the gay guy who’s a singer-songwriter. We kind of do a similar thing… he’s very talented, so I don’t mind being compared to him at all! [Laughs]
I love Rufus. Your style does sound different to me, and maybe that’s because I love Rufus so much that I know his catalog pretty well. He’s more like… I think he’s even said about himself that he’s what happens when a little boy grows up listening to Verdi all the time.
When it comes to Rob Me Blind, though, I can see the comparison because your lyrics are so well done, so not “on the nose.” The way you write your music and lyrics is very poetic, even in the way you inflect when you sing. Does that make any sense, or am I talking out of my ass?
No, I appreciate that. If I am doing any of that, it’s probably just instinctual. I won’t give myself too much credit. [Laughs] Like I said, I like what I like and I’m influenced by that stuff. Like The Cranberries and Dolores O’Riordan—and these really melodic, expressive vocals. I’m sure in some ways I mimic some of their styles and found my own style along the way.
And also, when we were talking about the society that I was raised in… growing up in church was hugely influential in a musical way. I was surrounded by music since I was still in my mother’s womb. I was in choirs and sang in church and had solos and talent contests for as long as I can remember. One of religion’s greatest contributions to humankind is music and the arts. They’ve developed so much—even visual arts. The great painters were sponsored by churches and that sort of thing. So, I think that listening to contemporary Christian music as well as gospel music and old hymns—all of that influences what I do, still.
I have to ask you about “Soda Shop.” It was kind of this runaway YouTube hit for you. What was most surprising to you about the success of that song?
Honestly, that is a song from this film Shortbus that I was an actor in. I, at the time, had just started doing YouTube videos. The film had… I can’t remember if it was out already or not… but there was this controversy of the film not being listed on IMDB because it’s a sexually explicit film. I was just responding to that in my own way, to the non-audience that I had at the time. [Laughs] It was kind of like a joke and it was just this thing that I was doing in the middle of the night, making a YouTube video. Then it got featured on the homepage of YouTube! So, the most surprising thing was doing a video as a joke on the toilet with my pants down and then having YouTube put it on the homepage! [Laughs]
This was when YouTube just came around and everybody was going to YouTube, but they didn’t have a customizable homepage. So, whatever they put on the homepage… millions of people saw. I got 2,000 emails within an hour—that was a surprise! The huge flood of communication from random people in cyberspace, and having my video explode out of nowhere—that was crazy. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such instant exposure since. It was so fast.
That must have been surreal.
Yeah. It was such a specific moment in time; I guess there are viral videos now, but as content and platforms become more customizable… that was a time when the major labels were still afraid of the internet, so they weren’t using it. Now they’re back in and taking over again and grabbing up all the relationships again. It was such a specific moment in time where that [kind of reaction] was possible. I don’t know if it is like that anymore. The viral videos now usually have pretty high production values—it was very different.
Now that the labels are into monetizing the whole YouTube thing and trying to make videos go viral, do you feel like that’s going to be the focus for the industry now? Because I write for The Vinyl District, I have to ask you: Do you think there’s still a place for the album today?
What do you mean “for the album?”
What I mean is a collection of songs that may be related or not. It seems that things have shifted back to being more single-oriented. I mean, is anybody buying an album of Psy’s songs, or is it only going to be “Gangnam Style” for him forever?
Well, I think it depends on the person. When something does explode based on a gimmick… it depends on who’s behind it and how you use the momentum you get. And I think it depends on what you’re doing and who your audience is. I have a much smaller audience than Psy, but I have a pretty passionate, supportive audience—and they’re there. When I come out with an album, they want a hard copy with the pictures. And they want the t-shirt and they want the canvas poster that I made. They come to my shows and want to meet me after. There’s an emotional connection there… maybe [Psy] has that, too, but I feel like… it’s just different.
Back to your question, though, that’s the ultimate dilemma. That’s why major labels fought for so long, because they were like, “We’re losing money! We can’t sell twelve songs anymore because everyone wants just one!” We’re all kind of addressing that on a different scale.
When you have a personal connection with fans, but these are fans and relationships that you’ve developed for years… Amanda Palmer is a great example of having a very personal connection with her listeners. There are people who want the support. There are people like us who maybe don’t have a major label or tons of money or politics behind us. Maybe [your fans] don’t always buy the twelve songs, but they buy one because they want to contribute.
It’s interesting that it seems so polarized. On the one side, there are fans who are all about that instant gratification of a catchy, awesome pop hit. And then there are those, like you said, who want all the swag—the albums and t-shirts and posters.
Yeah, people are interested in having keepsakes. Physical CDs do still sell, but [fans] have to be interested in more than just a song. They have to be more invested than that. I don’t buy CDs, personally. I buy everything digital now. I’m not interested in clutter because I live in Manhattan and I have a tiny apartment and just don’t have space for CDs. I love the digital world, but there are still people who like having something to hold onto or get signed. I think it will die eventually, though. I don’t mind—I don’t want to have to pay to ship those fuckers anymore. [Laughs] It’s a nightmare getting them to all the shows and stuff! I can’t wait to get rid of all that bulk. They’re super irritating when you don’t have a team to take care of it.
You released an EP of covers [called In Living Cover] between your first album, goddamned, and Rob Me Blind. Why so long between albums? Was it your touring schedule? It looks like you’ve been around the world and back a few times.
[Laughs] Well, I’m kind of a slow writer, for one thing. I work without management. I do have an agent for North America, but I do all of the booking outside of North America. I book all my own travel, I travel alone, I do all my own web marketing… I do have some help. I do have a label that I have a distribution deal with that helps with the marketing, but I’m doing the jobs of a lot of people. So, being a slower writer plus having five other jobs to do, I’m either doing the business stuff or the creative stuff. I released a couple of albums in consecutive years; the covers album was something that I did because I couldn’t write a full album fast enough. It took me a lot farther than I had expected!
The release of it was a success and I toured on it for quite a while. I really wanted to do something specific with Rob Me Blind so I was looking for the right producer and the right person to make it with and figuring out how to do the funding. I wanted to figure out how to do the next album a certain way, so I waited until that came together. It took longer to make; the producer was sort of a super star and he was amazing to take my project on, but he was also working on ten other projects. We had to fit things in when he had time, so the production of it took longer. Things at the label… they wanted ages of preparation time, and they want what they want. Every time you turn around and talk to somebody, there’s another year that you’re pushed back. That’s just how it happens.
Could you talk a little about “Rob Me Blind”—did that song come first, or the idea for the album come first?
No, once the album was done that was my favorite song so I picked that as the title of the album. I thought it worked as a title, and I also had this image in mind of what would be a funny cover of me tied up, like I’m being held up or robbed or something.
So, Rob Me Blind isn’t an over-arching theme for the album, like an opinion about the music industry or something like that?
In terms of using it as an album title, I always like multiple meanings. You can interpret it to mean any number of things; I don’t necessarily have one or two things in mind. But I do like the idea of phrases or concepts or images that make you think and sometimes make you have to come up with your own interpretation. People interpret things differently in relation to how [music] resonates with their own personal experiences. I do like having things that are open-ended, but sometimes people ask me, “What do you mean when you say this lyric?” And I’m always like, I mean… I know what it means for me, but maybe it could mean more than one thing! I like the idea of things not always being obvious.
In my clumsy attempt to describe your music, using the word “poetic,” I was after that kind of thing—those multiple meanings in almost all of your songs. I was listening to Rob Me Blind thinking about each song, “Man, this could be interpreted in a LOT of ways!”
[Laughs] I love it! Double entendres are my favorite thing in the world! [Laughs] Lyrically, they’re one of my favorite devices.
If you could go back to 2008 and talk to yourself before you released your first full-length album, goddamned, what would you say?
Oh, God… If I could give myself advice… I don’t know. I think I might just tell myself to relax and trust the process a little bit more. You’re talking about specifically recording the album?
Well, anything in general. Maybe more about where you were at that time, too. I know the album got kind of mixed reviews.
That’s tough. I don’t know… I mean, I don’t know there’s anything that I could say. I feel really right about that and how it turned out. Looking back from a different perspective, I think that maybe I didn’t make all the right choices or whatever, but at the time those were the choices I had to make. Calling the album goddamned was not the most commercial decision I’ve ever made in my life. There were people—and some people warned me about this—there were resellers who didn’t want to carry an album called goddamned. They would’ve I’m sure, if it was Beyonce’s album. But not from someone they didn’t know would even sell.
I probably didn’t do myself any favors with some of those types of things, but at the same time that was the song that meant the most to me on the album and that’s what I wanted to call the album and that’s what I did. I look back and think that maybe I didn’t make as much money, or maybe my album wasn’t in Walmart. But I feel really proud that I did what felt right to me at the time.
That’s awesome. So, no regrets?
Well, I don’t know what I’d tell myself. In terms of more technical stuff, I’d tell myself to relax a little bit because I was so stressed out about it because I hadn’t done it before. I was so afraid of doing it right and doing it the best that I could. Sometimes that kind of tension and anxiety makes it even harder to perform. But I couldn’t have known that at the time. Sorry, I don’t have a very good answer for this. [Laughs]
No, you gave a really strong answer about how you didn’t compromise!
[Laughs] I mean I could think about that for a year, but what pops in my head now is that I feel really good about how it turned out.
So, what’s something about you that you’ve wanted people to know, but you’ve never been asked?
Oh my God… [Laughs]
Okay, so I’m too out there with this one… [Laughs] I can ask you something else!
[Laughs] That’s especially hard because I don’t know if there’s anything that I haven’t been asked. People have asked everything that you could think of. And I’ve been so exposed in what I’ve done because I haven’t had the walls of teams of people to hide behind. Nobody else is posting on my Facebook. I’ve answered my emails from day one and I still do. So, I’ve never had that barrier… which is sort of my business model and it’s worked for me. At the same time, it leaves you quite vulnerable. Everything is out there already! [Laughs]
I promise I’m not trying to psych you out or anything, I just wanted to ask you that since I know many artists get frustrated getting asked the same old things and not getting to talk about what they really want to talk about—just because nobody asked.
I run off at the mouth too much . If anything there’s stuff that I wish I could take back. [Laughs]
Okay, so let me ask you this: Are you living the life of your dreams right now?
[Laughs] I’ve been so lucky. I think probably my ultimate dream would involve a little more space. Like, I could use a couch or a table or something. I could use a new place if somebody wanted to hand me a couple million dollars. I’m not like a lottery winner or anything, but I’ve traveled the world four times. That is the most amazing thing I ever could have asked for.
The first time I went to Europe, I wanted to go to every single country in that trip because I thought, “I may never have the chance to come back here.” Where I’m from… a lot of people never leave the state of Texas their whole life! The fact that I’ve gotten to see so many different places… it’s like one of the most exciting, captivating, inspiring things that I could imagine getting to experience—doing all that travel and seeing different cultures and different places geographically, being exposed to other languages. To me, that’s my favorite part of the whole thing.
So in that sense, I’ve gotten to do crazy stuff. I mean, I was in a film that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. I’ve gotten to release three and some-odd albums, and I never thought I’d ever be able to write a song. I never, ever thought I’d be able to write a song and now I’ve written forty or something. In some ways, yes, it’s been pretty cool. It’s changed my life.
Apr 29 – Washington, DC – Rock & Roll Hotel
Apr 30 – Philadelphia, PA – World Café Live (Upstairs)
May 1 – Boston, MA – Middle East (Upstairs)
May 3 – New York, NY – Joe’s Pub
May 6 – Chicago, IL – Schuba’s Tavern
May 8 – Austin, TX – Lambert’s
May 10 – Los Angeles, CA – Hotel Café
May 11 – San Francisco, CA – Bottom of the Hill