Jay Brannan delivers musical angst, anger and affection
Interview by Will O'Bryan
July 9, 2008
If you saw 2006’s indie dynamo, John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, it would be impossible not to remember Jay Brannan. His character, Ceth, was the one having the national anthem sung between his ass cheeks in one of the movie’s signature moments, equal parts sex and sentiment.
Then there was his infectious tune from the same film, ”Soda Shop”:
You held my head over the edge of the bed/ I remember it now but at the time I thought I was dead/ You put a pan there and held back my hair/ How can I repay you for saving me and my hardwood floor?
If you missed Brannan’s Shortbus debut, you may have caught him in Holding Trevor at 2007’s Reel Affirmations festival, in the supporting role of sardonic Jake.
Familiar or not, the 26-year-old Brannan is back, hitting his notes rather than his cues, with the release of his first full-length album, Goddamned.
The title track is a solid indication that Brannan is adding a serious bent to his repertoire, with a song that mocks not only the tourist trade in Jerusalem, but certainly martyrdom and perhaps religion itself.
Still, the artist who self-deprecatingly picks at his own sullen reputation by making a passing reference to himself as ”Eeyore” on his Web site, has not lost his playful sense of humor, evidenced in Goddamned‘s first single, ”Housewife”:
I’m making guacamole/ He’s working on the car/ When he grills turkey burgers/ He knows I like them charred
Ahead of his July 13 D.C. concert date — and recently returned from a show in Oslo, Norway — Brannan spoke with Metro Weekly about the music and movies, solitude and MySpace.
METRO WEEKLY:Congratulations on Goddamned.
JAY BRANNAN: Thank you. You’ve heard it?
MW:Yes, yesterday. I’m blown away by some of the lyrics.
BRANNAN: How crazy they are?
MW:No, by how intelligent, well crafted they are. But how was Norway?
BRANNAN: Norway was cool. I had a really good time. It’s the kind of place I never thought I’d even get to go to, so it was exciting to be there. The show went really well.
It’s unfathomably expensive, though. You don’t want that to be the only thing you think of about Norway, but, like, I was just so shocked. A Diet Pepsi is like $7. A combo from McDonald’s is like $20. I don’t see how people visit there.
MW:Were your hosts insulating you from some of that?
BRANNAN: Yeah. I was lucky to be there under those conditions. But just like stopping into the deli for a drink, I was like, ”Holy shit! Do they get any tourism here?” But apparently they do.
MW:You also had a Holding Trevor screening. Did that go well?
BRANNAN: Really well. The first screening sold out, so they added a second one. That actually took place after we left, but I heard from the festival organizers that that one almost sold out too, pretty close.
MW:Back to the music. I know the disc doesn’t hit till July 15, but Goddamned has been available on iTunes since July 1. What sort of reception has it been getting?
BRANNAN: At the very beginning, you want the record to make a little bit of a splash, and we actually made it to the No. 25 slot on the overall iTunes album chart. That was out of all the genres. That was its debut slot, which I was shocked by and incredibly proud of. That was really cool.
MW:The impression you broadcast is that you’re pretty sullen. Even if that’s the case, between the disc and the tour, you must be riding a sort of ”happy wave.” You must be thrilled.
BRANNAN: Everyone keeps saying that to me. [Laughs.] It’s cool. There are exciting things happening. I’m getting to do things I never thought I would get to do. A lot of people get nervous about getting to do exciting things. I think the most effective music often is music that touches people because it’s about pain or sadness or anger, feelings of loneliness. Dark music. People really connect with that. People get happy and their music gets a little bit boring, sometimes.
But I still live in this tiny, low-income-housing apartment in New York. I’m not really making money. I took on a lot of debt to make this album. I still don’t have a boyfriend. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? There’s always a balance.
I don’t think I ever have to worry about that, because I’m doing this all myself. I paid for it all myself. I’m doing all the marketing, all the publicity. I mean, I’m not ”doing it” — I have people — but it’s like I’m the head of the record label. I’m making all the decisions. I’m overseeing everything. I haven’t written a song in a few months, because I’m doing so much business stuff all the time. That’s a little bit frustrating, because I’m doing so much more business than art at the moment. I’m really excited about the things that are happening, but there’s always going to be material there.
MW:Because your music is so intimate — and because you have nearly 30,000 ”friends” on MySpace — I would think that much more so than a group like, say, the Pussycat Dolls, you must have stalker fans.
BRANNAN: No, I don’t have stalker fans. And I don’t really think of people who write me on MySpace as fans.
I’m just a little bit honored that people relate to my music at all and feel the impulse to even write me to tell me that. The feedback is partly what keeps me doing it. When I write songs and play them, it’s never really for other people, or what other people think. It’s really my way of expressing myself, or giving voice to thoughts that have been racing around in my head for years and years. At the same time, the feedback and some of the validation has kept me pursuing it as a career, because that part is really, really tough.
MW:Reading your blog, it seems you’re even trying to keep up with those messages you get online.
BRANNAN: I’m horrible. I can’t keep on top of it. I’m only one person and I still have a day job. I’m kind of running this whole operation — I’m heading it with the help of a manager and publicist now.
I feel really bad, because I want to answer everyone. When I do, people say that they really appreciate that. I try, but it’s, like, so tough to keep up. I do the best that I can, but I’m a couple months behind.
MW:Do you actually imagine you’ll ever be able to catch up?
BRANNAN: You hope, but it takes forever to answer e-mails. I try not to give a one-word response or a copy-and-paste response. I try to read over the e-mail and see what people are saying and kind of write something back. You can’t, obviously, go into huge conversations with everyone. So it takes you an hour to get through maybe 30 to 50 e-mails, at best.
And then as soon as you write someone, they write you right back, so it never really goes down. I’m trying to get caught up so that I can stay on top of it. Even then, time is just in short supply these days.
MW:I’m hoping you don’t get the 13-year-old gay-boy ”I love you, Jay!” suicide plea.
BRANNAN: No one is really that dramatic. I don’t get too many insane people. There are a few.
For the most part, people are just really supportive. A lot of them are really understanding. They’re not crazy. I’m just not that big of a celebrity. I’m not Madonna, so no one’s going crazy for me. It’s all on a very personal level.
MW:Speaking of celebrity, when Shortbus came out, there was that first taste of celebrity, but it was shared. With Goddamned, this is all you. You can’t deflect a question to someone standing next to you at a microphone. Does that make a difference?
BRANNAN: It’s a lot more pressure. I try not to Google myself too much to read everything that’s out there, to read every comment. Because it’s just me — not like a movie, not like a collaborative effort that I wasn’t even the driving force of — I’m a little more sensitive to reviews, to what people say. Things have more impact. And it’s a lot more responsibility.
MW:You’ve got a huge number of tour dates to support Goddamned. What are you like on tour? Do you hide in your hotel? Demand Volvic in your dressing room?
BRANNAN: I’m such a loner. One of my favorite things at this point is that I’ve been able to do everything sort of by myself. I don’t drink and I don’t party. When I play a show, or when I write, everything I do in regard to music, my process is just sort of to be alone for the day, to let my thoughts sort of run. That’s the stuff I end up rambling about during the show, just to make myself a little less nervous.
It’s exhausting to do a show, with the nerves, the anxiety, just being up there under the lights performing. It’s really draining. Then I stick around afterward to try to say hi to people. When that’s all over, all I want to do is be alone and go to sleep, or get on the computer and turn my brain off for a while. So it’s like me by myself, being boring. [Laughs.]
MW:Any other sort of mood stabilizer? Meditation, maybe?
BRANNAN: I’m not that healthy. Aside from sleeping and the Internet, I like to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on DVD.
MW:Have you been to D.C. before?
BRANNAN: Actually, it’s sort of funny. I grew up with a very religious upbringing — I’m from Texas. The first time I came to D.C. was on a youth group ”mission trip.” We did the whole tourist thing, and then we were renovating this really huge, old church that was falling apart. We were helping with the renovation process, painting and stuff. I might’ve been in eighth grade. I don’t think I was even in high school.
MW:Just renovating? No evangelizing?
BRANNAN: Not that I remember. I block out a lot of this stuff! [Laughs.]
MW:Any other plans while you’re in D.C. for the show?
BRANNAN: No. I’m not really anywhere long enough. It’s kind of like airport after airport, in rapid succession.
BRANNAN: Probably not. But who knows? I never say never anymore, but I don’t know that I have the attention span to write something longer than a song. I don’t like poetry, so I won’t be writing poetry. I’d love to be able to write a screenplay or a book or something, but it’s just such a huge undertaking. It takes me forever to write a fuckin’ four-minute song. [Laughs.] I don’t think I can take on something much larger than that at this point in time. Maybe someday.
Cover of ”goddamned”
MW:What about your acting? Is that on hold?
BRANNAN: It’s not ”on hold” — it just hasn’t gone very far. [Laughs.]
I definitely want to do more film. I’d even like to try some TV — I’ve never done that before. I’ve focused on the music since Shortbus, because I can spearhead it myself. I don’t need a studio, or a director, or a casting director, or an agent, or a producer — all these people to hire me, buy into me, believe that I have something to offer. Film, by nature, is a lot more collaborative. You could make cell-phone videos and put them up online, but as far as a career or making money, it involves a lot more people.
With music, I can just sort of do my own thing and put it on the Internet at any point for however many people to hear. I don’t really need all these people to sign off on what I’m doing [musically], so I’ve focused on that.
But I guess I want to do more [acting]. The other thing is that I live in New York. I’m a guy in New York who sings, so people think ”musicals.” I don’t really like musicals.
MW:Jay Brannan, ”song-and-dance man”?
BRANNAN: I know, right? On paper, that’s what they think. Then I go into these meetings and I’m like, ”I’m really not that interested in theater.” But that’s what all the work is here.
MW:Between Shortbus, Holding Trevor, online networking, which do you credit with giving the biggest boost to your music career?
BRANNAN: Definitely Shortbus —and the Internet. Shortbus is the biggest, though. I’ve been able to sort of develop a forum online that’s worldwide, and that’s only because Shortbus made its way around the world. It’s like going on a world tour without going on tour. It’s not just being an actor, but having a song in the film and on the soundtrack. That’s brought so much traffic to my Web site from around the world.
Another huge, huge exposure thing that happened was that YouTube featured one of my videos on the home page. That brought in an insanely huge amount of traffic in such a short period of time. I’ve never experienced something as massive as that. I don’t know if it’s still like that today, but then, before all the studios and stuff went to YouTube, when it was just becoming the hot new thing, I used to be the 10th most-subscribed [artist] on YouTube. Now I’m fluctuating in the Top 100, and kind of falling out of it all the time. Even Hilary Duff has her own page now on YouTube.
MW:Perhaps you could collaborate with Hilary.
BRANNAN: [Laughs.] I don’t know how good I’d be at collaborating with Hilary. But when that happened, within a few hours I had like 3,000 e-mails. I’ve never had something that big, that fast, since then. That was huge.
MW:Your online presence is still pretty expansive. You’re on multiple networking sites, always blogging, etc. Do you ever crave a bit more privacy, maybe going a month without posting?
BRANNAN: Yeah, totally. But I can’t say I’m a private person. I don’t really have a lot of secrets. I don’t really care what people know about me.
But, in a sense, sometimes I do just want to crawl under a rock and not interact with another human being for like five years. Just go to sleep for like three weeks.
It does take a lot of effort to keep putting yourself out there, even it it’s not in terms of privacy, but just extending yourself. Like I said, I’m kind of loner. I appreciate [the attention], but it can be kind of overwhelming at the same time.
MW:You, the loner, mentioned you still don’t have a boyfriend. With all the attention, it seems like you should have the pick of the crop.
BRANNAN: [Laughs.] I wish that were true! That couldn’t be further from the truth, however. When people say that, they mean like the people who hear my music or see my videos or see Shortbus or something, and then e-mail me. ”Jay, I want to go out with you.” I’ve tried that a couple times. Guess what? That never works. They always think that they know who you are. Then, when they find out who you really are, they’re disappointed. There are always these expectations I can’t live up to.
It’s weird. Shortbus is one thing: If you think that someone is the character they are in a movie, then you’re sort of, like, not thinking. In terms of my music, I feel like it’s pretty representative of me. It’s pretty cynical, it’s pretty dark, it’s pretty honest. That’s who I am. But for some reason, people can accept it in music. ”Oh, I relate to it so much. Thanks for saying all the things I’ve been thinking. I thought I was the only one.” Etcetera. And then they turn right back around and they’re like, ”Why are you so sad all the time? Can’t you smile more?” I want to be like, ”You can have one or the other.” If I was that person everyone seems to want me to be, the music would be very different. And probably no one would care.
I don’t meet that many people, because I don’t go out. I don’t really connect with many people on that level. I haven’t dated anyone in six years.
MW:At least you’ll be out on the 13th at the 9:30 Club. I was sort of surprised to read that it’s a seated show, rather than the usual milling about.
BRANNAN: It’s an enormous club! I’ve never played D.C. before — I’m worried that I’m going to be the only one there.
I like doing seated shows. I know I don’t want to stand through anything. And my shows are pretty low-key, informal, relaxed. I’m not playing ”mosh pit” or dance music. It’s mostly kind of sad stuff, so I think people appreciate a seat.
It used to be that when people were standing during a show, the only thing I could think about was how badly they all wanted to sit down, because I know that’s what I’d be thinking. So it’s completely selfless, that’s what it is. It’s my gift to you.
Jay Brannan performs at Nightclub 9:30, 815 V St. NW, on Sunday, July 13. Chris Pureka opens. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15. Call 800-955-5566 or visit www.tickets.com or www.930.com. Visit Jay Brannan online at www.jaybrannan.com.
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