Another Cup of Coffee with Cory Branan

I’ll be honest: I don’t know how to introduce Cory Branan. Sure, there are the press release bullet-points:

–Critically-acclaimed singer/songwriter from Memphis

–Released The Hell You Say in 2002 and 12 Songs in 2006

–Performed on Letterman and Carson Daly

–Toured with everyone from Jamey Johnson to Lucero to Dashboard Confessional

–On tour now, and gearing up for the release of his greatly-anticipated third album

But there’s so much more to it. When I first heard Cory, I was a kid sneaking into his shows, often playing alongside Lucero. It was a huge source of pride and inspiration seeing this new generation of artists emerging in my hometown. In the years since, he’s continued to make Memphis proud, evolving from a songwriting prodigy to a master craftsman. As a performer, as a songwriter, and as a poet, Branan isn’t just a rare talent; he’s been a major influence on my own music, and on so many of my peers.

We’ve crossed paths several times, but we’ve never talked at length about his music, his creative process, his upcoming record, or his time in Memphis. We talked about all that and more at Otherlands last week. So please, enjoy…

…Another Cup of Coffee with Cory Branan!

[Note: Cory Branan will be playing at the Hi-Tone in Memphis, Thursday May 26. To stay updated on all of Cory’s news and tour dates, click here. To read all the past Another Cups of Coffee, click here.]


So you’ve been in town for a little bit?

Yeah, yeah. Laying low, helping out at home, being with family.

Where’s that–Southaven? Did you grow up in there?

Mm-hmm. Born in Memphis. I always joke that the hospitals sucked, but it’s the truth–there was no Baptist Southaven then. So they came up here and had me.

Southaven’s different from even ten years ago. Lots of development.

Yeah, I’m one of those old dudes now, “remember when this used to be…” But where that hospital is now, where all that craptacular clusterfuck of fast-food places is, that used to be dirt. My old man made model planes, we used to fly model planes up there by the hospital.

So, when’d you come to Memphis? Did you immediately start playing around town?

Started playing guitar young, played in some bands, nothing anybody would’ve heard of though.

I think everyone’s read the metal-band-to-Leonard-Cohen press release by now.

Yeah! It’s true and not true. I guess I moved up here and started bartending at the Peabody.

That’s a good gig.

Yeah, it was fun, and it got me out of my shell. Because I was more of a shy kind of kid.

It’s funny, I always talk about the two things that are really influential on what I’ve done: the church and the bar. It really is true. You can’t underestimate the power of hearing the poetry of the Old Testament read to you every day in a really fundamental church; and then shooting the shit at the bar. That really got me out of my shell.

Were you already performing in town then, too?

Yeah, about then. I guess I started playing at the Daily Planet first, just getting on open mic nights, playing covers. Didn’t start writing until that summer when I was between 24 and 25.

That was a cool time in Memphis. Lucero was really getting started around then too.

I ended up running into the guys when we were both starting. I think I first ran into them at WEVL, the radio station. We’d play after each other on some radio shows.

I was introduced to you, Lucero, and Pawtuckets all at the same time. I was in Nashville, my family had just moved to Arkansas, and I was missing Memphis, feeling displaced. Then a friend gave me The Hell You Say, Tennessee, and Dogsbody Factotum all coming out of Memphis, all at that time. Knocked me out. Still, three of my favorite albums.

Hell yeah! We used to go see Pawtuckets all the time.

Next thing I know, I’m forcing everyone around me to come watch you on Letterman. Tell me about that.

Ah, stories for the kids, I guess. It was a fluke that we got to play it. It started because I had a killer publicist who took on the record as kind of her pet project. She was a monster, worked with Moby, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson. She got it in the hands of the people. They put the record on as load-in music–you know, when they were getting ready for the show, it would be playing. So he heard it every day and I guess he liked it.

So Letterman personally did it?

Yeah, least that’s how it was told to me. He was like, “let the kid come on.” The best part of it was getting the guys together for the gig and not telling them what it was for, then telling them all at the same time.

Then the Carson Daly performance was around the same time. Letterman was full band, Daly was solo acoustic. Really different performances.

The Carson thing came out second but it was shot first. I’d never done anything like that, so I thought it would be funny to just do the song like I do it at each show–walk out and do whatever the fuck comes off the top of my head. So I did it that way that night. Walked out, picked a couple people in the crowd, and said, “alright, I’m going to give this song to them.”

It might be a terrible version, I don’t know. I watched it once. I’m actually kind of proud that I did it that off-the-cuff.

That’s what I think made it great. Everyone I watched it with said the same thing: “I’ve never seen anyone play like that on a talk show before.”

Yeah, they were kinda like, “what the hell’s he doing?” That’s what I was saying, too!

You’ve lived in Memphis, Nashville, Austin…New York?

Yeah, did New York for a while. About eleven months.

I did about that, too.

Where were you?

East Village.

That’s right. Yeah, I love the city but I’ll just visit from now on.

I loved it, but it’s no place to be broke and wanting to tour, and save up for an album.

It killed me! I lived in the library. I was in Brooklyn, but I was too broke to do things. During the days I would just go to the library–that reading room is un-fucking-believable. I’ve never seen anything like it. If you ask (I didn’t do it too much because I felt bad) they’ll bring out these original pressings of, like, Don Juan with the white gloves and everything.

Of all these music towns, what’s been your favorite?

Austin’s been my favorite. I know that’s a little blasphemous to say. I’m really proud to be from here. I love it here. But Memphis is also really easy to live in and really easy for me to just hang out. Which isn’t so good for me as a writer, because I’m not much of a self-starter.

It’s funny–that’s Nashville for me. By the time I left Nashville, I felt like that–it was hard to be productive.

Oh really? After the Country Throwdown, I met a l lot of young writers in Nashville, working, getting cuts. Last time I drove out of town, I heard two songs on the radio, back-to-back, that my buddy had written. They’ve got their publishing deal, they turn in twelve songs a year, and they make a living, you know? It’s a career.

Would you ever want to go that route, just straight publishing, just as a songwriter?

I wouldn’t want to do just the publishing deal thing, but I would absolutely like to write for other people. That was the thing that struck me: all my friends there say, “they only cut X type of song.” All of them have songs that just rip my face off–great old lost Jimmy Webb-type songs, great country songs. But those don’t get cut.

I’ve gotta ask the question that you’re getting a lot: what’s the situation with the third album?

It’s been in the can, mastered, for a full year. We’re shopping.

The problem is, if I’d just done a very small-scale record, cut in someone’s house, just gotten friends to play, I could just throw it out. And different labels have that kind of budget to put behind it. And I’m just like, “I put too much into this record to do that.” You know, there’s a business plan, there’s money at stake, so I have to get a certain type of deal.

Labels want “360 deals,” and I don’t want to give away a cut of my t-shirt sales to a label. I’ve been putting off the self-release. We’ve got two more labels we’re talking to.

So the list is getting narrowed down.

It’s getting down to the wire. So in the next couple months, there will be a release date. There will either be a contract in the next couple months, or me starting up a Kickstarter thing and putting it out myself.

But this record–I went out to San Francisco. I hired all the musicians. I hired out the studio. Did it all to tape. Just really did it right, you know? I sweated blood over it, produced it myself. Worked harder on that than I’ve worked on anything in my life, so I don’t want to just throw it out there. Especially because, once it’s out there, it’s free. Which is okay, I guess, as long as people still spread it around. I do think there’s an obligation there with sharing music. And me, personally, it’s one of my favorite things in the world–making mixes for people. When I’m excited about something, everybody else is going to hear about it.

Exactly. At my shows, I often just give records for free, like business cards, and tell people “I’ve got one rule with these: burn a copies for your friends.” But I know other artists might feel different about that.

Right, right. It’s tough, because if other people have invested in you, you want to make them some money back, too.

When 12 Songs came out, I remember reading that, at that time, you already had the next two albums planned out, down to the tracklist. Did that plan hold for this new album?

That all changed. If I’d gotten to do them then, sure. God, I wish I was in a position to do a record a year. I’d be a much happier person. Instead, these things stack up. By the time the songs age in my head, they come out different.

Do you like the studio? I love touring, but the studio’s my favorite place in the world.

Oh, you love the studio? It’s torture for me. I like it when it gets trucking. Andy Grooms, from the Pawtuckets, said, “when you nail something, and you know it’s there, on tape, for good, that’s a great feeling.” I like those moments.

How long did it take to make this record?

Not too long. We put all the basic tracks down in four days. Then overdubs, then I was sick out there, so I came back to Memphis and did the vocals at Ardent with Jeff Powell.

Sure, Jeff Powell. How was that?

Yeah, Jeff’s brilliant. He did my first two records, he engineered along with Kevin Cubbins. We even did a lot of the acoustic stuff [on The Hell You Say] in Jeff’s living room. He’s great, he’s one of my favorite people.

Live, so many of the fan favorites–and my favorites–are unreleased songs. I’m imagining a lot of those will be on this record. Is it a “bigger” sounding album, or is it more stripped-down to match what your live show?

It’s definitely…both, I guess. The first song on the record is just me and a guitar and Jon Snodgrass singing harmony with me. But I just got to do what I want to do on each one. For better or worse, I produced it. So I got to chase each rabbit. There are definitely a lot more interesting instrumentations on it. There’s one song where I just sing to strings and a harp. Brought in a harp player out of Philly. It’s got this really creepy–but really pretty–feel to it. It’s kind of a dark lullabye.

Is this one you play out a lot?

Nah. It’s called “There, There” or “There, There Little Heartbreaker.”

It’s interesting to me that you rarely play some of your best-known songs. As many shows as I’ve been to, I’ve only seen you play “Miss Ferguson” once.

I did it for years. I pull it out every once and a while. A couple tours, if enough people ask for it, I’ll go, “okay, I guess I’ll relearn my own song.”

What determines which songs you will play and won’t?

You just don’t want to get up there and do the same thing over and over. And the shows can only go so long. It’s getting to where I can do a four hour show with just my own music, which sounds way too self-indulgent. I mean, I do four hour shows, and I love to do it, but I throw covers in, I’ll fuck around, extend things. I don’t just sing the songs. I try to make the show work with whatever’s going on in the room, try to make it a party.

I’ve only seen you with a band once–Amanda Shires and the Thrift Store Cowboys–years ago. Would you ever want to get a band together?

I do, actually. That’s something I was supposed to do with my time off this month and I didn’t do it. Honestly, I just can’t afford to pay them what they deserve. Something in me just doesn’t want to be that guy that just hires guns and gives them nothing at the end of the night to split five ways.

What I always thought would be best would be a nice three piece. But I know as soon as I get a three piece I’ll be like, “okay, I want a piano player, I want…” I always liked the idea of having a big band. A band that can do what I do with dynamics and dragging and rushing and the whole thing.

Talking about a small band getting bigger, it’s been really fun watching Lucero grow over the years. Adding members and developing their sound.

Oh, I’d want Rick Steff. And actually, if I ever did get a band, I’d only want to do really, really well so I could steal Rick Steff. But he’s got a pretty cush gig with Lucero now.

I did the record in San Francisco, but I sent it back here to get Rick to play on it, playing keys. I got some Memphis juice on it. Luther from the [North Mississippi] All-Stars plays on one song.

Is there a title?

I think it’s gonna be called Mutt. I got tired of people always asking what kind of music it was and me, not really having an answer. So I started calling it “mutt music” and that seemed to work. Being from here or, hell, just being American–to me, that’s our strength. We’re all a bunch of mutts.

I think that’s probably the biggest genre of music, in fact. Mutt music. Five different things thrown in there at once.

That’s what I’m hoping. Or that it’ll at least translate enough.

So many of your songs have dark, challenging moments in them. Have you ever seen someone in the crowd have a negative reaction to those moments?

I’ve gotten some gasps, sure.

I like to put it all together. Most of my dark songs have some humor in them. Maybe my kind of humor–really black humor–but it’s in there. Conversely, there’s a new song, a straight love song about the ex, but it has some black humor in it: “I am following a compass that is always pointed south…it led me to your love and it has yet to let me down.” Hasn’t let me down yet, you know?

And in the third verse there’s an insult. She thought she was a fiddle player and only owned a violin: “she’s got a sad little fiddle, she draws that bad bow down…” Yeah, you’re not that much of a fiddle player. So, there’s always a mix. I can’t bring myself to write “Isn’t She Lovely.” Maybe when I have a kid splashing in the bathtub I can.

Yeah, I’ve noticed that a lot–setting up a dark moment with a joke. In “The Freefall,” there’s that great opening: “I was fucked up/as my haircut/she was wasting good perfume…”

That’s on the new record.

Thank God.

Yeah, I think if you’re going to write about something, you gotta respect it enough to write with some distance. I don’t want it to seem like I wrote it in wet ink in my diary, then slapped it onto the CD.

I usually wait before I can write about something. I need some distance, or I don’t trust it. Do you have any kind of writing routine?

No, no routine. With respect to that, if there’s something really heavy that I need to write about then, in that moment, I’ll shift it. I’ll shift the character to someone else, or I’ll shift genders. I reset it so I can put something different in, so it doesn’t feel like a diary.

Who’s influencing your writing now? Who are you listening to?

Oh man, I’m listening to just a lot of old Delta and Piedmont blues. That’s all I really listen to anymore. As far as new stuff, I’ve been digging Jason Isbell. And I always go back and listen to the heavies: Townes van Zandt, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen.

I got dangerously into Tom Waits territory on the new record, with this one song. When you get into that creepy-song territory, he owns more than just a block of that–he owns half the town. Plus, Tom Waits’ horn player played on the record!

Oh man, I can read the press release right now…

Yeah! But I couldn’t help it, it’s how the song was written. It’s that “Snowman” song.

I know that one, sure. Very dark song.

Very dark song.

Any other writers, poets, movies influencing you right now?

On a big noir kick right now.

Are you a big movie geek?

Oh yeah, huge. Probably nothing greater in my life than Netflix. When I lived in Austin, I had the five-at-a-time deal. I’d watch four movies a night. I go to sleep when the sun’s coming up anyway, so I’ll do that a lot.

Netflix saved me in New York. I had a tiny place, no TV, brought next to nothing with me, but I had internet. So my brother, for my birthday, gave me a Netflix subscription. That saved me, the streaming and all.

Streaming’s pretty good. They got a lot of good stuff. I recently watched The 400 Blows. I just checked out a Kazan movie called A Face In the Crowd that was really prophetic. It was 1950’s, and I cannot believe the stuff this movie talked about then that are commonplace now. And I just watched Chinatown again, which is my favorite neo-noir kinda thing.

So that’s neo-noir? This is good–I know nothing about film.

Yeah, they say the first period was forty-something to early-fifties. Then everything else is more neo-noir. Blade Runner. You’ve got the voice-over and the detective format and there’s this idea of the impossibility of facts. There’s a guy trying to solve a mystery but the villain he’s searching for is usually internal.

And in Chinatown, the movie keeps changing out from under you. And in the end, nothing can be known for sure, nothing can be communicated, and all you’re left with at the end is: “forget it, Jack, it’s Chinatown.” It’s so good!

I remember watching Chinatown in college and really loving it. But, with Blade Runner, I was glad I saw it once, but didn’t want to watch it again.

Yeah, yeah. I’m really interested in things that take a genre that’s established, you take peoples’ expectations of that genre, then you turn it on its head. Even in songwriting. You can take the boy-meets-girl, you already have those expectations of how that song should go, and then you can play around with them.

That’s always been my favorite stuff. I’m just a pop music fan, but all my favorite stuff is really sneaky. It’s subversive, it tricks the audience a little. Outkast can make sorority girls sing “Ms. Jackson,” then five days or five years later, those lyrics actually sink in.

Right, right.

Who are some of your favorite Memphis artists?

I am so out of things, I don’t know what’s going on now. I’ve seen a Magic Kids show a couple times. Melodically, the energy…I mean, they’re songs. You know? It’s interesting because, in Memphis, you don’t see many bands do this aesthetic thing.

I love them for that reason. All anyone had to tell me with the Magic Kids was, “think Beach Boys,” and I was there. Sold. For me, melody’s the thing.

Yeah, I enjoy that, of course. I wish I was more melodic. Never have been much of a melody-writer.

But if you grow up with really strong country and blues and gospel influences around you, all those melodies get instilled.

Yeah, it has to. The melodies are very linear–you sing them like you would say them. That’s usually how they come to me. I write lyrics usually first, or at least at the same time. Then, the natural inflection of how you would say something suggests the melody to me.

Wow–you have an actual answer to the “which do you write first, the music or the words” question. I never know how to answer that.

It’s one of those questions that everyone asks. I don’t have a set way to write, but it’s usually not “sitting around strumming, and here comes a song!” It’s usually, you know, writing on paper, and I try to put the music in the lyrics.

Someone’s making a Memphis music mix, you get to pick one song for the playlist. Name that song.

Andy Grooms has this song, I think it’s on his solo record. It’s this beautiful song. Talks about his mother used to go out with Elvis and his dad’s sorta bitter. The chorus is “hold her so tightly she can’t breathe/be thankful she stuck it out with you/cause the old days are gone, except for the songs/and those are all fading too.” I would pick that one, that would be my choice.

Favorite bar in Memphis? Or most frequented bar?

The P&H. Always loved the P&H.

You got one meal left in Memphis, where do you go?

Gus’. Absolutely, hands-down.

Memphis is…?

(Laughs). You ask that question to everybody? I’d be curious to hear all the answers. Let me think about this. Thinking of what I love about Memphis, what I think of…hmm…how contradictory it is.

Memphis is perfectly conflicted. Can it be more than one word? Memphis is perfectly conflicted.

Best advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t know where I read or heard this, but it’s helped me most with writing: it’s not that great writers have a lot to say, it’s that they find out what they’re saying while they’re writing. It’s the writing of it that you find out. That gets you past the whole thing of needing inspiration, or waiting for inspiration, or whatever. Just saying: write. Fuck it. Just work. These things don’t write themselves.

That’s huge. I know a ton of artists who wait for inspiration. They end up writing one song a year when something strikes them at four in the morning. For me, it’s all about writing on the days you’re inspired and writing on the days your not. Sit down, do the work, keep going.

Yeah, what you’re going to say in the song is there in the writing of it. You don’t have to have it before you start the writing process.

I don’t work and rework them as much as I let them sit. I don’t write with a definite end in mind. A lot of times they’ll just sit around, hang out in the notebooks. You sleep on it and let it come together over time in a natural way. I don’t force things, but I definitely don’t wait for them to fall out of the sky.

Do you write on the road?

Can’t write on the road.

Me either. But I’m impatient–I will force it. If I’m not on the road, and I’m free, it’s 9AM, every day, sitting down to write.

Really? That’s great. I don’t have that kind of diligence. Ben [Nichols, from Lucero] does that. He’ll go to Little Rock, sit in his dad’s furniture shop and say, “I’m gonna write some songs.”

Yeah, unfortunately I don’t write so much on the road. But I haven’t sat still, either. So I’ve probably written two songs this year. I’ve written tons of stuff that’ll become songs. But I’ve been more input than output. It comes in bursts.

What’s next? Where would you like to be in a year? Five years?

I’d like to have a new record out in one year, definitely. And what I’m trying to do in the next couple years is open up Europe more, go back to the UK. It went over so well when I played Europe and Canada before.

Nothing lost in translation?

No, there were some cultural gaps in the songs maybe. There were definitely language barriers in Spain, some in France. I got along with the French really well–I just gave them shit back.

That’s great. I remember being a little thrown when I was there. I was a teenager, they were spiky, I didn’t know what to do.

Oh yeah, coming from the South, you know people like that. They’re ornery, cussing, thinking a certain thing about the place they’re from. Yeah, I liked the French. They’re funny.

What about long-term? Any one specific goal? Any place you’d like to be ten years from now? Five years from now?

I’m kind of cleaning house and tightening up the ship. I’ve got new management. I wouldn’t mind owning my own means of producing these records. The idea would be to do some writing for Nashville, get a studio, and self-release a record a year. That’s the idea. Taking more control over it. It feels nebulous right now.

I think your fans would be onboard with that plan.

It’s difficult. It’s harder for musicians to make a living, so they’re on the road more. It’s harder for the clubs, because everyone’s touring, and they have to sort through who’s who. They take a bigger cut off the top. And lots of people can’t afford to go see shows all the time. It’s difficult. So that’s why I tour solo, and stay busy.

But I definitely want to get more control over it. And not wait four fucking years between records. If I can draw 100 people in every room I play, that’d be fine. That’s all I really need. Just a career is all. That’d be nice.

I think I’ve run out of my James Lipton cards. Thanks again, Cory.

Sure, thanks for having me.

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