Thursday, July 17, 2008

Exclusive: Interview with Jay Brannan

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(Me, Jay Brannan)

Described by many as a “stripped down male version of Alanis Morissette,” New York singer/songwriter Jay Brannan has slowly been making a name for himself with legions of loyal fans as the next big thing on the indie music scene. With only word of mouth, some homemade YouTube videos, and a few concerts as his publicity, his self released debut album premiered at number 25 on the overall iTunes charts, as well as number 2 on the folk charts. Currently on tour promoting the record, Jay took the time out to talk to me about his music, his critics, and what exactly it means to be Jay Brannan.

AN: You are one of the most outspoken, honest, and risky songwriters I’ve ever heard, with your raw lyrics ranging from topics such as relationships, sex, politics, and religion. You’re not afraid of embarrassing yourself or singing about things that many songwriters would find too shocking or controversial to sing about. That being said, is there ever a point where you’re afraid of exposing too much in your music?
JB: I don’t think so. I mean honestly if there was something I really didn’t want exposed I probably would even just subconsciously not really write about it. What I do is my way of having a voice kind of, and getting these thoughts out of my head that have been racing around in there for years and years. It’s my way of venting and sort of just saying all these things. I say them because I want to and I’ve kind of just found that being open and honest about things and not having any secrets is just way easier than walking around sort of being embarrassed about things and keeping things to yourself. It’s that many less things people can discover about you or bring up before you do or throw in your face or whatever. So I just think it’s easier not to keep secrets. I don’t really care if people know about me, you know, so it’s more of about getting to say what I want to say.

AN: So you named your first full-length debut album “Goddamned” after one of the tracks on the record. Why was the album named after this particular song, and given the critical religious themes of this song, have you had to deal with a lot of backlash from religious groups or anything because of it?
JB: Well, I chose this as the title track because it’s one of the newer songs when I went to record the album so it was kind of fresh for me in that way. Also it’s just one of the most meaningful tracks on the album to me. I was raised very kind of religious and conservative in Texas, so the whole sort of, honestly what I see as a plague of religion is very personal to me – it’s affected me in a very personal way and it’s affected millions of people in the same way. It’s pretty much ripped apart our world for thousands of years on very global and political levels. I just kind of like the way it sounds as a title and it could also mean a lot of other different things. I like when there’s a title of a collection of something that could have several different meanings or be open to interpretation. I was just like “goddamned” is the perfect word to describe me too, the way that people have sort of viewed me in my life or the way that I view myself sometimes. It has this sort of tainted, broken connotation to it and so I was just into it. Other people like my management and stuff were like “we just want you to know that if you use that title, you probably won’t get picked up at Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, and Circuit City.” And I was just like “well, when have I ever done something keeping in mind that corporate headquarters of whatever commercial Middle-American chains would be into or sign on for what I’m doing?” I’ve never let anyone tell me what to do so why would I start now? Like if that’s what I want to call the album and that’s my instinct, that’s what I’ll fucking call the album. If people want to sell it or buy it or write about it then they can and if they don’t want to then I don’t fucking care, you know? As far as getting shit from people, it’s not a whole lot. I mean I have been reading some of my iTunes reviews and I have gotten a few reviews from people where they’ll give me one star, which is the lowest review. They’ve said like “it’s just not fair that I have to log onto iTunes and read this offensive title every time that I’m shopping.” They’re like reviewing my album when they haven’t even heard it, and they didn’t even listen to the song. I mean that’s so typical of those types of people, they’re so offended by something they haven’t even explored. If you listen to the song, the way that I use the word “goddamned” is so not offensive, you know what I mean? It’s condemning the war and the conflict that’s caused by all of that. That’s the thing about people that subscribe to these sorts of religious and traditional ideals to me. It’s like they’re brainwashed and believing certain things but these beliefs are never really thought through with logical conclusion or fully explored, and that’s the really sad part about it.

AN: Prior to the release of “Goddamned,” all the songs you had released had been completely acoustic – just you and your guitar. Why then did you decide to incorporate instruments such as the piano and violin on your album, as opposed to just sticking to the acoustic material you had done before?
JB: I just felt like I wanted to take it to the next level by just adding a little bit of texture to what I had been doing. Everything I’ve done up until this point just being guitar and vocals, I mean it’s partly just because it’s what I do and what I do is very personal and very intimate. It’s kind of just what I feel like doing in my apartment alone in the middle of the night. I don’t have a budget for a symphony when I’m writing songs and I wouldn’t even know how to address all of those instruments so I just never would bother. But the reason why I do music is because it’s something I can do totally on my own, it’s not like acting where you have to have an agent, a manager, a casting director, and a producer and a director, and all of these studios and other people that have to hire you. You know, I can do music on my own, and for this album I kind of wanted to add a little bit, add some different layers, and I think strings are really great. I wanted to maintain the same feel of just me and the acoustic guitar kind of vibe, but like I said, add a little more texture to it - even for the couple of songs on the album that were only me and guitar, just because I didn’t want to go in a completely different direction. And I’m a minimalist so I wanted to keep it simple anyway. Does that make sense?

AN: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, speaking of acting, you were one of the principle characters in the cult indie film “Shortbus,” as well as the film “Holding Trevor.” Is acting another passion of yours you’d like to pursue or were those just kind of like experimental side-projects for you?
JB: I guess a little bit of both. I mean I’d like to do more acting, I’d like to do more films for sure, and maybe even try TV which I’ve never really done. But in terms of the stuff that I’ve done, that industry hates me. They’ve never been on my side, they’ve never been into me, you know like I ended up quitting after I moved to L.A. to be an actor just because it’s as horrible as everyone says. Living in Hollywood and going on auditions and trying to get an agent is just miserable and as awful as all the legends say (laughs). I was working as a receptionist at a corporate office when “Shortbus” came along and I was interested in the project itself and what the filmmakers wanted to do with it. With “Holding Trevor,” that was a small independent thing that made with like not enough money to make a music video. My best friend wrote the script and we passed it back and forth for two years and I gave him feedback on it and helped him develop it. He wrote it for us to sort of do together, so I did that because of the personal connection to it. So you know, the things that I’ve actually had a chance to do have been sort of side experimental, they just sort of fell across my path kind of things. I definitely would like to do more though. If anyone out there is listening … (laughs).

AN: You received a huge fan-base online, whether it was people who listened to your music on your MySpace site or people who tuned in to watch your regular YouTube videos of you performing into the camera in your computer. Did the rapid generation of this fan-base add a lot of pressure when it came time to record a full length album?
JB: Um, I never really think about that in terms of what I’m doing creatively or artistically. I just sort of do what I want to do. I can’t really say I do it for other people. There definitely was pressure but the pressure came from the idea that I’ve never recorded before and I’d never done anything with other instruments. I had to learn to play to a quick track, which is really difficult for me because I’ve never been accountable to other people or keeping a certain beat or whatever. Everything I could do could sort of just be very instinctual, and recording turns music a little more into math and science in a way, so that was a challenge. Then the fact that I was spending pretty much all of my savings, there was kind of pressure financially. From the business side of things, I started working with a manager, an agent, and these publicists now, so I do kind of feel accountability to other people. I wouldn’t say that the pressure comes from my MySpace friends or the people that are connecting to my music, that’s where the support comes from.

AN: You released your album on your own record label, Great Depression Records. Were you ever approached with a record deal, and if so why did you opt to self-release the album rather than go with an already pre-existing label?
JB: I talked to some other labels. I wasn’t ever approached with a record deal, but that’s kind of a myth, I really don’t think that happens anymore. Record labels don’t take chances anymore and they don’t try to discover talent and give them free albums in order to make a splash. They sort of hang around and lurk in the backs of shows and talk to you for like a year, and once you’re about to hit anyway, that’s sort of when they offer you a record deal. I feel like at this point record labels always sign acts that can stand on their own. I spoke to some people, but I’m a weird person, I do weird things. I have really strong opinions and beliefs and I say what I want to say and write what I want to write. I don’t censor my lyrics, I don’t think whether or not something can be played on TV or the radio. I do YouTube videos on the toilet with my pants down, and a major label is just going to strangle all those instincts and impulses and basically make me into something that they want me to be, which I wouldn’t be able to live with and probably wouldn’t even be possible anyway. So it just seemed like the natural flow of things just to do it my way because that’s what’s gotten me this far. If people want me to turn my back on that, I don’t think it would work.

AN: As an openly gay singer, why do you think that so many celebrities are afraid of coming out of the closet? Take Lance Bass for instance – he waited until years after NSYNC was over to admit that he was gay. There really are no openly gay young mainstream radio artists out there today, so what about being homosexual do you think causes so many musicians and actors to hide their true identities when they’re in the limelight?
JB: I think it’s a complicated thing. There are different types of stigmas from different groups in terms of being gay or straight. I think the bottom line is that people are obsessed with it. In the past, it’s sort of been nobody wanted to say because then nobody would take you seriously, or heterosexual people would view you differently or wouldn’t accept you or relate to you or whatever. I feel like that’s kind of changing because gay people are being shown more in TV and film, and it’s still a little cliché and a little bit stereotypical, but at least entertainment is helping the world to acknowledge that gay people even exist. But my dilemma is almost the opposite of that. It’s like because I’m not trying to hide it and I’m just a gay person who doesn’t filter that or change the pronouns in his lyrics or something, I’m almost pushed into the gay corner by gay people because they’re so desperate for an openly gay whatever. I always get called the “gay musician” just because they want something to sort of hold onto in that way. It sucks though, it’s like I don’t want to be … I think it’s time that gay people should be able to be who they are and sleep with whoever they want and sing about whoever they want but not necessarily have to be genre-ified, and like pushed into the “gay genre.” We can be real people just like anyone else. I’ve never stopped to say “oh I can’t relate to Regina Spektor’s songs because she’s a woman singing about a man, and I just don’t get it because she keeps saying ‘she’ and ‘he’ and I’m gay.” All people are basically the same at the end of the day. We all go through the same things and we all have the same experiences on a basic human level, and I don’t think pronouns really affect that. I don’t want to play pride parades for the rest of my life. I don’t think about being gay, I just am who I am and I don’t want to talk about it anymore. I feel like I’m sort of ten years passed it even being an issue and other people haven’t really caught up yet. My goal is just for it not to be an issue, in a good way or a bad way, I just don’t think it should matter.

AN: You’re currently on a headlining tour that’s spanning from all over the U.S.,to places such as Norway, Canada, and the U.K. You’ve also played shows in locations such as Israel, South Africa, Brazil, and France. What would you say is your favorite place to perform?
JB: Haha, oh god. I can’t really say that I have a favorite honestly. Every show is different and every show is the same too, you know what I mean? Every crowd is a little bit different but I’ve been really lucky to have pretty supportive crowds that are attentive and into it. It’s a little more nerve-wracking to play in front of crowds that aren’t native English speakers because I rely a little bit on audience-performer interactions to sort of ease my nerves and make other people kind of do some of the work to keep the show flowing (laughs). When I played in France, they were silent for the entire show, partially because I think they’re self conscious about practicing their English and yelling it in front of a big crowd in a performance situation. But also, they were telling me that’s their culture too and are just really polite during performances. I thought everyone was really bored but then at the end they stood there applauding forever, and there was no backstage so I didn’t have anywhere to go and it was kind of awkward because I didn’t want to leave but I was like “Oh god, what do I do now?” You know, so they were really responsive but just in a different way. Every show is different but I’ve been really lucky to have pretty good crowds.

AN: So given all the changes in your life and now that you’ve released your debut album and are playing shows at larger, more prestigious venues, where do you hope to see yourself a year from now and what can we expect from Jay Brannan in the future?
JB: I’d like to definitely, like I said, do more film. I want to keep doing the music thing. Honestly, I try not to think that far ahead because I feel like I can’t really control the future, I can only sort of do what I’m doing now and take one step at a time. I don’t even know if I’m going to want to be doing this in a year or if anybody else is going to want me to be doing it in a year. I think it’s too much pressure to look that far in the future so I kind of do what I’m doing now and I’ll sort of ride it as far as it goes and we’ll see what happens really.

AN: Alright, well thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to me, I really appreciate it.
JB: Yeah! Thank you!

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