Interview: Jay Brannan

By Giovanni Biglino • 19 May 2009 • Nessun commento

Jay Brannan - photo by CrackerfarmHis concerts in London and Paris are sold out. And he has been defined “the male Joni Mitchell”. But Jay Brannan has probably reached a wider audience since he starred as Ceth in the 2006 movie Shortbus by John Cameron Mitchell, in which he was – among other things – performing live his song Soda shop, a sweet ballad about a hangover. Born in Texas but rooted in the NYC music scene, Jay’s voice is extremely melodic. The simple atmosphere of his music – guitar and voice, the simplest combination, sometimes reminiscent of a happy Scott Matthew – creates a sense of melancholy and intimacy, whilst the lyrics often alternate anger and sadness. Be it the American Idol (“American Idol, get the hell off my tv”) or a guy met in a bar (“You like the guy on your iPod, not the guy in your bed”). Someone remembering a night out in the morning, a cup of coffee on the kitchen table. The bittersweet taste of everyday life, a relationship that didn’t work, “tears flowing in full force tonight”, but also a light-hearted use of the guitar – a minstrel telling stories (autobiographical?). His record, Goddamned, does not include some of his songs (Soda shop, but also Body is a temple) that have gained popularity among the online communities of myspace and youtube.

As an independent singer-songwriter, how much do you rely on the internet as a way to promote your music?
Someone like me would have no chance at success in the music industry without the internet. Besides the film I was an actor and had a song in, Shortbus, which brought so much traffic to my internet sites, the internet is really all I have in terms of marketing, promotion, word of mouth, even releasing new music. Artists now have the opportunity to release their work for any amount of people to hear, without going through the “gatekeepers” of the music industry.  And on the flip side, audiences now have the chance to choose what they want to hear, rather than what is spoon-fed to them by radio, retail chains, and major labels.

Would you consider a label to say that you are part of the New York indie music scene?

I really wouldn’t place myself in any “scene”.  I’m very much a loner as a person and as an artist.  I don’t really believe in the idea of “communities” other than those that are geographic or ones that consist of people you choose to have in your life.  I’ve always been quite independent and I enjoy doing my own thing. I actually find that “communities” or “scenes” can often be an obstacle to truly being yourself and doing what feels right to you.

How important are lyrics for you? Would you ask someone else to write your lyrics?
It’s actually a little ironic that, when I am listening to music, lyrics are the last thing I pay attention to.  I’m more drawn in by the sound of the song itself, the vocals, the melody.  I say it’s ironic because my music is pretty lyric-driven.  Or that seems to be what people respond to anyway.  Up until this point, I have just written my own songs and performed them myself.  I’m open to collaboration and observing the processes of other songwriters, and in recent years have explored performing cover songs.  It really just depends on the specifics of the situation.

What were you listening to before becoming a songwriter and who influenced you most?
Angry female singers, often from the 90s, are my thing.  Lisa Loeb, Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, The Cranberries, Alanis Morissette, Bjork, Liz Phair…  but I also grew up in a very religious home, and I think gospel music, hymns, contemporary Christian music also have a big influence on my musical identity.  And I’ve gone through phases in my life with country music, hip hop, rap, r&b… all of that contributes to what I do as a musician, I think.

Are you working on another record after Goddamned?
I am releasing a covers EP this summer with two original songs and seven covers.

Tell us about your experience in shooting Shortbus. You perform your song Soda shop live in the movie but you are also performing the American anthem in a very ironical scene on which quite a few words have been spent - how comfortable were you when shooting the movie?
Shooting the sex scene was a challenge.  The hardest part (so to speak…) was being aroused in what is just a very non-sexual environment.  We were starting and stopping, there was crew around, it was under bright lights and on a floor and set pieces.  And we, the actors, were quite close friends when shooting it, and I’m more used to having sex with people I don’t really know.  I’m happy with the finished product, and that’s why I was willing to venture into that area of discomfort:  it was for a greater purpose.

Would you like to work more in the cinema industry if the opportunity arises?
Yes, I definitely want to make more movies!  but ones that I’m actually interested in, not just anything.  I have focused on the music because I can do it myself, but as an actor it is more difficult to make your own work.

Sunny day or cloudy day?

Tea or coffee?
Both, they serve different purposes.

Goddamned-coverSparkling or still?
Still, sparkling sucks!

iPod, vinyl or both?
I have an iPod. I’ve never heard of vinyl…

You are touring Dublin, London, Paris and Tel Aviv: how much do you enjoy performing live?
It’s why I do it!  I like writing songs and playing them for people.  The travelling and the other work involved is really hard,  but I like singing live, it’s natural and instinctual and just about playing songs and singing.  Recording is much more difficult, as there’s so much science involved.

As you were wondering in your song Can’t have it all, “Are the best things in life truly free”?
If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t have asked the question!

Giovanni Biglino

Giovanni Biglino , 25, has been living in London for seven years. He is about to complete his PhD in biomechanics. He is a freelance writer, a contributor for Dazed&Condused and correspondent from London for Il Nostro Tempo. He has published his first novel, Armonie del Ritorno, in 2005. He cultivates a passion for art and has experienced the world of the great auctions chez Sotheby's London. Travelling, photography, food, cinema, architecture and riding his bike across London among his other passions...
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