Many musicians speak about love and loneliness, but what makes Jay Brannan’s voice and lyrics so unique are his distinguishable sensibility and raw vulnerability.
In his latest album, Rob Me Blind, Brennan collaborated with music producer David Kahne, who has worked with other greats such as Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Fishbone and The Strokes, just to name a few.
In an interview with The Silver Tongue, the singer-songwriter not only opens up about this new material, but also talks about the struggles of being in the business, reaching out to fans through social media, his love for “sad, angry women from the 90’s” and dishes about the real meaning behind his first single “Beautifully” (it’s not about a girl falling for a gay guy).
In the market where many artists are rewarded for presenting a certain image, Brannan has achieved notoriety for his honesty, and it’s all been under his own terms.
Silver Tongue: Let’s start by talking about Rob Me Blind. How long have you been working on this material, and what can your fans expect from this?
Jay Brannan: It has taken me some time to put together a new album! I like to do things in the way that really feels right to me, so I tend to be a bit slower at pulling together new material than a lot of artists.
My music production is self-funded, and I waited to find the right producer for this album. My goal was to make another album of originals with a sound and feel that is very “me,” but also takes my music to the next level.
I wanted to experiment with more sound, a bit of texture and try some things I’m afraid of … like drums. I’m so happy with how it’s turned out and I can’t wait for people to hear it.
TST: How did you get to work with producer David Kahne? How was your first interaction with him?
JB: I still can’t believe I’ve had the chance to become friends with David and make an album with him! I basically just stalked his management down on the internet and sent them a pitch. Eventually David and I met and agreed to try doing one song together. After that we did another, then another and finally about nine months later we had a full album.
TST: In what ways do you think he helped you achieve Rob Me Blind’s sound?
JB: Well, I wrote and sang the songs and played the guitar on the album, but I feel like David is really responsible for the sound of the tracks. He was really the perfect person to help me make this album, and I learned so much by watching him write the arrangements for the tracks. He has such a great talent for creating memorable moments in music, but in ways that are really tasteful and beautiful, not cheesy or obnoxious. I feel like I hardly did anything but sit and watch him work miracles with my songs.
TST: Tell me about the writing for this album. Where was your head when writing for this? What’s the inspiration behind it?
JB: The songs were written in very different periods. I’m a pretty slow writer, so pulling together ten songs takes a bit of time and different sources of inspiration. My songs are often about pain and loneliness, fear, frustration, all the things I need to vent about to stay sane. But there’s also a feeling of self-acceptance, hope and openness in some of these songs. That’s new for me, but probably fleeting.
TST: And speaking of, what’s the story on “Beautifully”? (First I thought it was about a woman falling for a gay guy)
JB: Yes, many people think “Beautifully” is about a girl falling for a gay guy which never occurred to me when writing it, but songs resonate differently with different listeners based on their own experiences. For me, it’s just about falling for someone who isn’t attracted to you or doesn’t return the romantic interest, which is the story of my life. I wanted to write a country-style “he said/she said” storytelling song, but you can’t say “he said/he said” because it gets too confusing. I wrote it from the perspective of the girl, since her character’s experience is the position I’m always in. To me, pronouns and gender mean nothing, they’re all completely interchangeable.
TST: Now, looking at your tour dates I see you’ll be keeping busy in the upcoming months. Do you feel like you’ve already succeeded in the music business?
JB: I’ve been very lucky to make a living for about four years from music, and I’ve gotten to do so much traveling, which is one of the most amazing things I’ve gotten out of the experience. Traveling has really changed who I am, I think, and I get a lot of enjoyment from it.
I don’t know if I’ll ever feel successful exactly. I’m not sure what that means.
Most of the time I don’t even feel like I’m in the music industry. I feel like I’m off to the side somewhere in a world of my very own: the world of weirdoes.
TST: Any plans touring in the US and/or Latin America?
JB: Yep, I hope to add US tour dates for this summer! I am dying to tour Latin America, but so far I haven’t made many contacts in those markets. But I know I have fans there, and I hope to get the chance to play there more!
TST: You’re all over social media. How important do you think it is for musicians such as yourself to be, in a way, one step away from your fans and followers?
JB: I think different musicians have different business models. I don’t know about other people, but I know for me direct interaction online is the only reason I’ve had a chance at a music career. I think in the modern world most fans not only appreciate the direct interaction, but some also aggressively demand it and get pissed if they don’t get it. It’s a strange thing, but for the most part I appreciate it.
The kind feedback has probably kept me going in a big way because I’m not that confident or self-assured about what I do. I probably would have given up without fan support. But there’s a flip-side to it: you are much more vulnerable, and you are exposed to attacks as well as the support, which can be really difficult to become accustomed to.
TST: In most of your songs you always talk about lost love, longing for love and loneliness. As a writer, do you feel prone to those subjects? Is that your discourse as a songwriter or do you write about other things?
JB: Yeah, I tend to write about the things I obsess about or what I feel plagued by. I started writing songs as a form of expression, maybe even therapy, and I was just lucky enough that it became a business. I try to write about other things too, but I think at the end of the day people mostly want to hear about love and loneliness and sadness even if they don’t admit it. But I also have a sense of humor about it, I think pain & humor go hand-in-hand. It’s important to be able to laugh at the darkness, to avoid being destroyed by it.
TST: I read in your bio that you started studying acting. Why did you decide to pursue a career in music instead? Or were you trying to pursue both?
JB: I would still love to do more acting. I’ve chosen to pursue music because I can be in charge of my business more so than an actor. As an actor, you need a lot of people to hire you, and unless you are a filmmaker and writer as well, it’s just a much more collaborative art form.
As a musician, I can do a lot of the work myself. I’ve had a lot of help and am very grateful for people who have given me opportunities, but I think it’s easier to create music by yourself than it is to be an actor. And with the internet, there is a lot of opportunity now to create material with not a lot of money, and to reach an audience.
It’s hard to stand out, but people like me never would have had a chance in the days of record labels and radio holding the keys to all the outlets.
TST: Lastly – and this is something very generic – I’ve seen you doing covers of Amy Winehouse, Adele and N.W.A, and I read something you wrote about Lana Del Rey. So, what other artists do you like? What’s on your iPod now, and what pulls you to some artists and not others?
JB: Hmm, I mostly like sad angry women, especially from the ’90s. That’s the kind of music I have ended up making, because for some reason it’s what resonates with me. I do love Lana Del Rey’s new EP, as well as Regina Spektor, Meiko, Sinead O’Connor, this amazing Canadian singer Rose Cousins that I recently discovered, but I also get into some music people may not expect, like I love Nicki Minaj, and I just discovered Rihanna’s album Loud which I think is really great.
Make sure to check Rob Me Blind, in stores today.
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