Talking to the Manhattan-based, openly queer singer-songwriter
by Lawrence Ferber
Judging from the comments on Jay Brannan’s YouTube channel, the Manhattan-based, openly queer singer-songwriter doesn’t have many haters. He also may have the 2006 film Shortbus to thank for the international fan base he has accrued there: on his May 2014 posting of a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” one of the comments reads: not to take anything away from a very good rendition of landslide, butt…I just really want to bite your ass.
“Oh God,” Brannan laughs. “That is a reference to the three-way!” In the sexually explicit, very queer film directed by John Cameron Mitchell, Jay Brannan made his acting debut as Ceth, a young musician who becomes part of a gay throuple with co-stars PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson. During a riotous threesome sequence, DeBoy sings “The Star Spangled Banner” into Brannan’s derriere while rimming him (the clip is easily found online).
“But there wasn’t any biting going on in that scene, for the record!” Brannon clarifies. “It was very gentle. Yeah, a lot of people were introduced to me and my music through that film. Shortbus struck a chord with a lot of people.” Shortbus also featured his song, “Soda Pop,” a catchy indie-folk ditty that proved the soundtrack’s most popular entry—today you can download it for free on his website’s discography page, jaybrannan.com/music.
In the years since, he’s released several full-length and EP albums, including 2012’s Rob Me Blind, which featured another hit, “Beautifully” (it shot up iTunes’ charts when a gay dancer used it as his audition track on Canada’s “So You Think You Can Dance”). Brannan was nominated for a Canadian Genie Award (the country’s Oscars equivalent) for the original song “My Love, My Love,” featured in director Thom Fitzgerald’s critically acclaimed 2011 film about a pair of elderly lesbians, Cloudburst. And his multilingual 2013 EP, Around the World in 80s Jays, featured cover versions of international songs in their native tongues.
Just as strong as the above tracks, and perhaps even more profound, “Blue-Haired Lady” is Brannan’s latest ditty and music video, a beautiful, hook-laden song about an elderly woman on her deathbed with the catchy albeit downbeat refrain,…don’t let me die alone. It springs from his brand-new album, Always, Then & Now, which became available on July 15.
He says that the song, and entire album for that matter, are informed by lessons learned as he’s grown older and more reflective—Brannan hit 32 in March—and desire to create fictitious characters and flex creativity through his songwriting rather than just “let out steam from my own head.”
“It’s thinking about the past and future and who you are in all those times,” he explains. “Who you will become. I experimented with different song structures. I wrote several that don’t have choruses. And I think there is more hope on this album, which is not a characteristic of me. Anger and loneliness and sadness are still there, but also hope. I can’t be an angry 20-year-old the rest of my life. Only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
The liberal use of strings, meanwhile, adds an aching quality (a la Antony & the Johnsons) to a number of tracks, which were recorded over the course of a year in a friend’s Brooklyn studio.
“Aching’s my middle name!” Brannan laughs. “It was very organic. It’s raw and acoustic. My songs are about the lyrics and melodies. I would just start there, and once I have guitar and vocal down, I think, where can I add some texture? I have talented friends who play cello and piano, and there are background vocals on one song [by someone else], which is a first for me. We tried a bunch of different stuff. I do what I want in the moment. I’m not good at planning a number-one hit!”
Nor was Brannan ever the type of person to plan out his life in long-term measures. Raised within a Texas Baptist family, he says he never imagined living beyond 30, and decided to, with instinct as his guide, pursue a precarious and unpredictable path as artist. After escaping Texas, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting, but became disenchanted and quit. In 2002 or so, a friend spotted a call for audition tapes for what was dubbed “Sex Film Project” at the time—later to become Shortbus—and thought Brannan, by that point working as a receptionist, might be interested. He was, and made the cut, becoming part of a film that achieved critical success, captured a cultural zeitgeist, and reinvigorated his creative spirit.
“I went to Cannes Film Festival,” he recalls. “I got cut from my acting program in college, and to walk down the red carpet in Cannes for a film I was in felt good.”
Brannan went on to appear in 2007’s Holding Trevor. However, it was Brannan’s music career that really got the jumpstart from Shortbus: he was signed to label Nettwerk, and Shortbus film festival screenings afforded him opportunity to perform all over the world.
Today, an international following ravenously devours his output on YouTube (40k+ subscribers), Twitter (29.5k followers), Facebook (over 77k likes), and other media sites, through which he makes a living from his music. Alas, he notes, maintaining these makes dating really difficult. “I’m a loner on his laptop all the time, and that was great for writing songs and social media, but dating is one area where I have not had much success the last 10 years,” he admits. Adding to his labors as “president of the company,” he decided to self-release Always, Then & Now for several reasons (he says he may return to Nettwerk in the future). “It was just where we were—our contract was at a certain place, and I wanted to do something organic,” he notes.
While he may never have seen any of this coming as a Texan teen who didn’t even think he would make it to 30, now Brannan—who names Lana Del Rey, Seattle’s Courtney Marie Andrews, Lorde, and Canada’s Rose Cousins as his current musical faves—is looking very much toward what lies down the road quite literally, starting with a three-month tour that will take him across North America, Germany, the U.K., and beyond between July and October.
“I followed a weird path,” he muses. “I followed my instincts. I have done so many things I wanted to do. I feel grateful. But there are two sides of it. I have done things a lot of people dream of, but I haven’t planned for 60 yet! I realize I am only a third of the way through my life! And who knows. It’s important, finding a balance between living for now and living for tomorrow.”
For tour dates, see jaybrannan.com.
Lawrence Ferber is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.