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Interview: Jay Brannan

Is it possible to fairly review an album one has fallen in love with? It is legitimate to review an album one hates; those are much easier and great fun to write. In life as in music criticism, it is simpler to spew bile than to convincingly justify love. So I won”t attempt a critique of Jay Brannan”s debut album, Goddamned, which was released this month. I will not discuss the wistful beauty of Home, the biting acerbicism of On All Fours and American Idol, the sing-along properties of Half-Boyfriend or At First Sight, the staccato wit of Bowlegged & Starving or String Along Song or Death Waltz, the sweet yearning of Housewife, or the sweeping acoustic gothicism of the title track.

Perhaps it is a better indication of the album’s merit that everyone I have introduced Brannan’s music to has become a fan (at least those who have reported back to me). Most satisfying among my converts is Any Minor Dude, 13, who came into my study and announced that it is impossible not to listen to Goddamned on loop. Father and son share excellent taste, again. It is indeed a wonderful album in the singer-songwriter genre.

The melodies are quite lovely; the arrangement frequently spare but consistently imaginative. The set is at times intensely intimate. Some catchy phrases creep into the mind, creating recurring earworms. But above all the album”s finds its potency in the singer”s vulnerable lyrics. Brannan reveals himself, sometimes brutally so, in songs addressing issues of self-esteem, of rejection in complex romantic liaisons, of disillusionment, anger and hope. Brannan has some invigorating turns of phrase, such as “your text messages provided low calorie food for my soul”, the awkwardly lovely metaphor underlining the appeal of an artist giving of himself. One feels close to the singer, drawn to his experience. Hmm, perhaps I have found the words to justify why I love the album.

All this may sound as though Brannan is a miserablist with guitar (and strings and piano). That would be a misrepresentation. He has a delicious wit. Read his blog to meet a funny, unassuming, passionate and very likable man who feels very strongly about some things and is wide-eyed about other things.

And with all this out of the way, here is this blog”s very first EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

AMD: Music critics are becoming increasingly scathing about the whole singer-songwriter genre. Are you concerned that being a guy with guitar performing under his own name is going to harm your reception with the reviewers?
JB: Everyone keeps telling me that this “singer-songwriter” category is becoming cliché and that people are afraid of that classification, but I never knew that until I started hearing it from others. Of all the titles and categories that could be pushed on me, I”m totally fine with this one. In fact, I often use it on myself. I think it describes what I do quite fairly: I sing and I write songs.

It”s a very rich genre at the moment, perhaps the best “singer-songwriter” scene since the ’70s, with artists like Sufjan Stevens, Laura Veirs, Joshua Radin, the Weepies, Rosie Thomas, Kathleen Edwards, Josh Rouse, Mindy Smith, Griffin House and so on. Do you see yourself as part of that scene?
I don’t see myself as part of any “scene”. What I do is very personal, and I do it because I don”t know what else to do with myself. It”s me and my guitar in the middle of the night, alone in our apartment, putting music to all the thoughts that have been racing around in my head for years. It”s my way of having a voice, and attempting to maintain some level of sanity. I mean, there”s music that I like and stuff “” the Weepies are really great “” but I don”t pay that much attention to what other people are doing. I”m not saying what I”m doing is incredibly original or anything, but I”m kind of a lone wolf. I”ve never been one to really feel part of any family or community.

Your litany of swearing on On All Fours is quite spectacular. Did that come to you naturally?
Ha ha, thanks. Swearing always comes naturally to me. Curse words are so expressive and can be used in so many different ways. And they”re just words. I don”t see why people get so freaked out about that sort of thing. We live in this society that forces so many rules and customs on us, but most of those concepts are never thought out to their logical conclusion. For example, when Janet Jackson flashed her breast at the Super Bowl “” whether by accident or on purpose “” who cares? It”s the human body, for god”s sake. We all have a chest”¦men, women, children. I think it”s so sad how we are trained to see our own bodies as so shameful and dirty. I”ve never understood, or been able to follow, these customs and ideals that just flat out don”t make sense.

Some of the songs on Goddamned are very personal, evidently drawn from complex relationships. The line “You liked the guy on your iPod, not the guy in your bed” (from At First Sight), for example, suggests they are autobiographical. How much of yourself goes into your lyrics?
Pretty much everything I write comes from my own reality. Anger and pain and frustration are my main motivating factors for writing, and I try to be as honest and accurate in my lyrics as I can. That”s not to say every song is a complete literal account of a real life event, though some are. Sometimes I combine a couple different relationships or experiences into one song, but make it all one story for the sake of the song. Or sometimes you take an emotion or sentiment and magnify it a little to make it more interesting. You only have three or four minutes, so sometimes you make adjustments so that each song is coherent in such a small amount of words, but it definitely is a patchwork of reality. That”s my goal, anyway.

Songs like Housewife and At First Sight obviously describe gay relationships. It does come across as being quite unselfconscious, which I admire. But did you debate with yourself how this might influence the reaction your music will receive?
I disagree that any of my songs “describe gay relationships”. I don”t think that the singer”s gender and the gender of the other character(s) in the song really affect what the song is about, and I hope we are closing in on the day that people can see that. I know pl
enty of women (straight and gay) who want to be housewives, and I”m sure there are plenty of straight men out there who would like to be in a relationship and not have to be the breadwinner, too. They might just be afraid to admit it out loud (laughs).

But are you worried about being known as “Gay Singer Jay Brannan”?
I hate having my sexual orientation used as a title or a genre. It pisses me off. I just want to be a regular musician like anyone else. When Lisa Loeb sings, she”s singing about her life, her relationships, her experiences. No one ever says she”s singing “straight songs” or that she”s singing about “straight issues”. No one ever says that Whitney Houston”s or Seal”s songs are about “what it”s like being a black person”. At the end of the day, we”re all the same and we all go through the same shit. The rest is just details.

On your blog a couple of months ago you said you hadn’t given up your day job yet. What is that day job? Do you still have it?
I proofread legal documents for a translation company. And yes, I still have it, though I have decreased my hours quite a bit in order to record and go on tour, and so on. I probably could have quit already, but I”m nervous about letting it go, because the music thing is very unpredictable. Also, I”ve saved the money I”ve made from music thus far and invested it in recording my own album. That way, I”m able to make all the creative and business decisions, and release the album under my own record label, Great Depression Records.

How does a Brannan live show differ from the record?
Well, I don”t think they”re enormously different. When I play live, it”s just me and my guitar. I tried to maintain that feel on the record, while adding some layers and textures. But I think the arrangements are still pretty simple and raw and acoustic. I even put a couple tracks on the album that are just me and guitar. In some of the recordings, I am playing and singing at the same time, so it”s almost like capturing a live performance. I talk a lot between songs at a show to try and ease my nerves, and I didn”t put any of that on the album. I like my shows to be informal, with interaction between me and the audience “” I don”t like to have to do all the work (laughs). So I think they have a similar feel, but get there in slightly different ways. Does that make sense?

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Visit Jays homepage (and read the very funny bio) at www.jaybrannan.com

Order the album here.

And here are two more songs, Can’t Have It All from Goddamned and the dangerously infectious Soda Shop from James Cameron Mitchell’s film Shortbus, plus the direct links to songs I posted last month.

Jay Brannan – Soda Shop.mp3
Jay Brannan – Can’t Have It All.mp3
Jay Brennan – At First Sight.mp3 (direct download link)
Jay Brennan – Half-Boyfriend.mp3 (direct download link)

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  1. My hmphs
    July 21st, 2008 at 03:19 | #1

    Hmmm…I’m intrigued – Never heard of the guy, but I’m definitely gonna give him a listen now.

  2. captainlaurie
    August 17th, 2008 at 10:02 | #2

    I have to be honest, I love Jay Brannan’s music but I think his album was a little overproduced. It lost a lot of the raw quality of the stuff he’s posted online, and that takes away a little of that special brand of clawing, desperately confessional honesty of his songs.

  3. spatchula
    March 16th, 2009 at 08:05 | #3

    I have to be honest, I love J Brannans’ music and I think his album was too good to be true. I loved the more polished production of the album and of course I love the raw quality of the you tube stuff as well. I am excited to hear what the future brings as J continues on his journey.

  1. December 13th, 2008 at 00:29 | #1