An interview with actor/singer/songwriter, Jay Brannan
I first noticed Jay Brannan in John Cameron Mitchell’s controversial exploration of sex and love, SHORTBUS. He played Ceth, an aspiring musician who falls into the middle of a troubled relationship between two men named Jamie. His charm was winning, his smile was soft and his singing voice was soothing. I couldn’t help but fall in love with him right there and then.
I took to the internet, a place where Brannan has carved out a sizeable home for himself. His part in SHORTBUS led many people to his humble, self-made website. Brannan decided it was the right time to capitalize on his notoriety and did what he had to do to get himself into a studio to lay down as many tracks as he could afford. The tracks went up on iTunes and sold well enough over time to get Brannan the money he needed to record a full-length EP. “Goddamned” became available online this past July and immediately debuted in the Top 30. That’s pretty impressive for an unsigned independent.
Brannan is a new kind of artist. He is a modern success in every sense possible. He has utilized social networking sites like MySpace, YouTube and Facebook to the best of his advantage. Roles in films like SHORTBUS and the 2008 independent feature, HOLDING TREVOR, have raised his profile but it is his 21st century grassroots approach to self-marketing that has found him thousands of fans around the world, of which I am proud to count myself amongst.
I had the distinct pleasure of catching up with Brannan on the phone in New York the day before he left the country for his first European tour. I quickly found out that he is as multifaceted as his music.
Joseph Belanger: First off, I cannot start this without offering my congratulations. I love your album and I am a big fan. I will try not to gush throughout this interview.
Jay Brannan: Thank you.
Belanger: I know you’re busy right now but I have a few questions for you. Hopefully they aren’t too personal but I figured seeing as how your album is fairly personal, you wouldn’t mind.
Brannan: If they are, I’ll let you know.
Belanger: That sounds fair. I’ll just start by asking a bit about yourself. If you visit your website, one of the first things you read on the main page is a disclaimer you wrote claiming you’re not sure why anyone would want to know, see or hear anything about you. Yet, here we are having this interview. You’re about to go on a European tour. Clearly, people are interested in Jay Brannan. Has this sunk in?
Brannan: I can see that is happening now. It just really surprises me. I can’t imagine why anyone would care. I just like writing songs and playing them for people. I always feel really grateful when people show up at the shows or send me e-mails or buy the CD. It’s nice but it’s hard to believe that I’m playing shows around the world. People shout out and request songs by name or sing along. It is kind of shocking to my brain.
Belanger: Hopefully your humility will stay with you. I feel like your path to success is this modern, grassroots approach, which is suitable considering you’re a self-professed folk singer. How did you make this all work?
Brannan: Obviously, the era plays a huge part in this. I would be nothing if it weren’t for MySpace and YouTube. Even just my own website was constructed with some templates and HTML stuff but there’s a mailing list and all of this has been completely invaluable for me. Of course, being in SHORTBUS, was a big part. It was distributed around the world and being in that film as well as having a song in the film and on the soundtrack was the equivalent of going on a world tour without actually having to leave New York. Once the film was released, it just drove all this traffic to these sites where I just tried to maintain activity, keep putting music out. It was like all of a sudden I had 2000 MySpace messages.
Belanger: SHORTBUS received a mixed reaction when it was released. Given its highly sexualized nature, it cannot help but be the kind of film that polarizes people. Despite that, it certainly left its mark and we’re still talking about it now. What was it like being a part of that unique experience?
Brannan: Being a part of SHORTBUS was one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done. It was an incredible experience, just a personal and a creative level, without looking at the professional opportunities it brought to me. We worked on the film for two and a half years. The actors were cast before there was even a script. The thinking was that actors could be more comfortable taking risks like this, like having explicit sex on screen, if they had a hand in creating the characters, the plot, the script. We all became very close and I made some amazing friends. I’m very proud of how the film turned out. I feel like it has this greater cultural purpose.
Belanger: The SHORTBUS DVD actually goes into great detail about the process you’re describing. It sounds like it was much more of a communal effort rather than just something where you sign a contract, show up, shoot and go home.
Brannan: It was an actor’s dream. I actually moved out to L.A. to be an actor but ended up quitting just because it is as miserable as everyone says. Once this film came along, it was more about the project itself and it ended up actually being more about what I genuinely liked about acting in the first place. John [Cameron Mitchell], the director, was very good at creating a warm, validating environment. It was like work and play were the same thing. It was just fun and creative and experimental and you don’t often get a lot of that.
Belanger: You mentioned that you had pretty much quit acting but now you’re in another film called, HOLDING TREVOR. Do you think that you might end up doing more acting as your career progresses.
Brannan: I definitely have an interest in doing more acting but it’s just a little more difficult to do on your own. Filmmaking is so much more collaborative than music some times. I can write a song in the middle of the night in my apartment and throw it up online. While with film, you need a director and all these people to hire you and buy into you. With music, I can spearhead it myself. HOLDING TREVOR came from because my best friend in L.A., [Brent Gorski], had written a script for us to do together. It was an interesting project that I could make with friends. We had absolutely no money to make the film. It was the director’s first feature and she was willing to give this a shot on a budget that is basically barely enough to make a bad music video. It was just something that came along that would be fun and a way to make art with friends.
Belanger: Clearly, being true to your art is important to you. Your first full-length album, GODDAMNED, was just released last month. It is a very intimate experience. I thought we might chat about a few of the songs specifically in order to get to you the man behind the music. In “Half-Boyfriend” you sing, “You’re the pill I never wanted to take, my anti-misanthrope.” Does Jay Brannan resist love and happiness or is that no one worth it has convinced you of otherwise?
Brannan: It’s a little bit of both. I probably do resist happiness to a certain extent because the opposite of that is my comfort zone; it’s what I’m used to. At the same time, I don’t feel like I’m making any of this up. I’ve always been an angsty, sad person. That’s just who I am and there are a lot of reason for that. Part of it might be some sort of chemical imbalance, I guess. People always ask why I’m so sad or why I’m so angry and I just want to shake them as k why they aren’t sad. Look around at this world and what’s going on. The truth is I walk around every day feeling the pain of the world. All these horrible things, they’re so frustrating. The world is the way it is and I’m just affected by that.
Belanger: The title track, “Goddamned” exhibits a certain bravery and honesty in your lyricism that is refreshing but also somewhat abrasive. Do you always say exactly what you’re thinking?
Brannan (Laughing): Most of the time, yeah. I’m a pretty honest person. I have a concept of appropriate vs. inappropriate circumstances – when to keep my mouth shut. Just because I’m feeling a certain thing doesn’t mean it is necessarily the right thing to say. I don’t want to hurt other people or cause problems. I’m not always the best at it, like I’ve been fired from jobs before for being too honest in a professional setting. When it’s appropriate, like in a lyrical context, and I’m not going to hurt someone unnecessarily, I’m honest because sometimes you’ve just got to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. I’m actually really not good at the opposite, hiding things or keeping them to myself. It just builds up and makes me crazy.
Belanger: The song, “Can’t Have It All”, asks, “Do you want a lover or do you want a life?” Is it too simplistic to say that we can’t have it all?
Brannan: I would like to believe that we can but I think all evidence points to the contrary. I think some people can have it all but I don’t think we all can, particularly in the way of love. For some reason, we’ve all been taught that everyone has a soul mate, then you look around and see how many people don’t. All these people who live out their lives alone or die alone; it just happens.
Belanger: So then, is it too simplistic to say that Jay Brannan is a pessimist?
Brannan (laughing): Actually, I would say that’s pretty accurate.
For a pessimist, he’s a pretty lovable guy. Brannan is stopping in Toronto (September 19) and Montreal (September 20) before heading back out to Europe to continue his successful trek. If he isn’t careful, he might wake up one morning to realize he’s closer than he’s ever been to actually having it all.
For ticket information or to buy a copy of "Goddamned", please visit jaybrannan.com