by Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
"Rob Me Blind" (Nettwerk), out singer/songwriter Jay Brannan's first album of all original material in four years, takes him in a new direction. Lushly produced by David Kahne, the disc features the type of orchestration that one might not expect to find on a disc by the usually stripped-down singer. But in presenting his songs in this way, Brannan succeeds in not losing himself in the keyboards and drums. That's to the credit of both performer and producer. I spoke with Jay in early 2012, shortly before the release of "Rob Me Blind."
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) One of the first things that listeners will notice about your new album "Rob Me Blind" is the difference in its sound. "Rob Me Blind" is a more produced album. Why did you went in that direction with this disc?
JB: (Jay Brannan) That was 100% the goal this time. I take a little bit longer, I think, to make albums than most people because I always want to do it in a very specific way or in the way the feels really right to me. For this film I wanted to do something very me, very much my style, my taste. But I also wanted to take it to a different place and not just make the same album over and over again. I wanted to experiment a little bit with some additional instrumentation and try to do some things that I've really been terrified of in the past, like maybe use some drums or percussion and stuff. But I wanted to do it with the right person, so I had to set out, or hold out, I suppose, for the right producer to help me to do that in a way that I could feel comfortable.
GS: How is it that you come to work with producer David Kahne?
JB: Really good luck, I think [laughs}. I made a list of producers that I would kill to work with, my dream list of producers. He was the top person on there, mostly because of the album he made with Regina Spektor called "Begin To Hope." That is one of my favorite albums. I think it's one of the best to come out in the last 10 years. So I did what I do, which is basically Google people and try to figure out how to track them down on the Internet. I managed to figure out who his management was and I sent an email to an address that an intern probably checks every three weeks. Someone there had heard of my music before and forwarded it to his manager and she forwarded to David and then he contacted me that night directly. We met a couple days later and really got along, so we thought, "Let's try doing one song together." It was really fun so we did another and another and soon we had a whole album. I can't believe I made an album with someone so incredible. He's a legend. I'm thrilled.
GS: On "Rob Me Blind" you recorded a new rendition of your song "Beautifully," which previously appeared, in a different version, on "In Living Cover." Why did you choose to rerecord that particular song?
JB: I'm really proud of the song "Beautifully" and I really like both versions. I feel like it's one of my strongest compositions, just in terms of songwriting. When we first started, it was David's favorite song and he wanted to get his hands on it and do some arranging for it. I thought, why not give it another life and see what other form it can take. It's a little bit of a dangerous decision, because the other version has been out there for three years and a lot of people have responded to it. There are a lot of people who don't want to hear it differently. But I really do like both versions. I don't see why they both can't have a life of their own.
GS: Speaking of "In Living Cover," you performed covers of songs by Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco and Dolores O'Riordan, among others, on that disc. In your song "The State of Music" on "Rob Me Blind," you pay tribute to those three women, and a few others.
JB: Those are musicians that are definitely up there, that I like listening to, and that I respect as singers or songwriters. The Cranberries were my favorite band when I was in eighth grade or something when "No Need To Argue" came out and I listened to that CD on repeat in my room by myself for the next two years. That holds a lot of weight for me. I didn't discover Joni Mitchell until recent years, after I released "Goddamned" and people made comparisons to her from my music for whatever reason. I think she's a much better singer and songwriter than I am, but I'm flattered for the comparison [laughs]. It prompted me to explore her a little bit and I discovered some of her music and developed a really great respect for her. Ani, I think, is one of the best guitar players and songwriters of our time. I also have an immense amount of respect and admiration for Sinead O'Connor.
GS: "Rob Me Blind" is your first album of all original material since 2008's "Goddamned." Were these new songs written in one creative burst or were they written over the course of the last few years?
JB: They were written over time. Obviously "Beautifully" was written around 2009. I'm kind of a slow songwriter. And I'm also something of a one-man show. I haven't had a manager in three years. I have an agent but I still do a lot of my own booking. Anything outside of North America is all me. My marketing is me. I have to take things in stages. I'll take a period where I'm creative and I'm writing, and then I have to set time aside to run my business. I don't have someone else doing that for me. So it takes me a little bit of time; the creativity only comes in certain periods and certain bursts. Some of those songs have been on YouTube for a while and were never recorded. These are songs that I gathered together and come up with. I even wrote a couple while we were recording the album. They're from a large span of time.
GS: As you mentioned, you have been playing shows across the globe, growing an international audience. Was "Denmark" written while you were in Denmark?
JB: [Laughs] No, that's kind of an inside joke. "Denmark" was actually written about an experience I had in Brazil [laughs]. I had a little whirlwind love affair when I was visiting Brazil and it was a really special experience where I felt something that I hadn't felt for someone in that sort of youthful, magic that you can feel when you connect with someone for the first time in several years. That was written after I got back from Brazil. I have never even been to Denmark [laughs].
GS: "Denmark" is one song that illustrates your gift for word-play, with the line "fallen down a dark carpal tunnel" as an example. Has an unusual turn of phrase ever turned out to be the inspiration or impetus for any of your songs?
JB: Yes, that happens all the time. My writing process is weird, it's different. I start with something on guitar. I don't have any real formal guitar training, so I can't really write a song and then make up a guitar part for it, which I actually did do for one song on this album. But that's very difficult for me. Normally I'll start with guitar and then…half the time I don't know what the song is going to be about until it's written, because it starts from the lyric idea or something that pops into my head based on what's going on in my life. Like you said, I like to take clichés and spin them around or turn them on their heads and then figure out how to work them into a verse somewhere. It happens different ways, but sometimes an idea like that will spark an entire composition.
GS: You can be heard singing in Spanish on "The Spanglish Song." Do you speak Spanish or did you need assistance with the lyrics?
JB: [Laughs] I don't speak Spanish and I did write that by myself. I did run it by some native speakers to make sure that I had it grammatically correct. I'm a little bit OCD about that kind of thing. If I'm going to do it I'm going to try to do it properly and not sound like an idiot to people who actually speak Spanish. I don't speak Spanish and I would love to speak another language, but I don't. I have to start with just a partial foreign-language song [laughs].
GS: There is a subtle air of violence lingering over the album – including the bullet in "Myth of Happiness," the gut punch in "Greatest Hits," the clawed mortar in "Rob Me Blind" and the shrapnel in "The State of Music." Does that say something about your current or recent mindset?
JB: It must. Because I've never noticed that or thought about it, but now that you mention those lyrics, it makes sense. I suppose if I ever get health insurance, maybe I should see a therapist [laughs]. I feel like I'm known for being the angsty, sad guy, who has the soul of a seventh grade goth girl [laughs]. That's what inspires me to write: fear, frustration, anxiety, anger, all those things that I have a difficult time coping with. Those are the reasons that I write songs, so that I'm able to say it out loud. When you put antisocial sentiments to music or in the context of art, people are able to tolerate or stomach them more. I guess that's who I am. The stuff that's coming out in ways that people will listen and maybe be a little less critical, I think.
GS: You also look love dead in the eye on songs such as "La La La" and "A Love Story." So is love in the cards for you?
JB: [Laughs] I sure hope so! But I don't know if there's any way of knowing that for sure. I would like it to be, but it hasn't been in the past decade or so. I've not been in a relationship in a very long time. I'm hoping that I'm capable of it but my track record is not good.
GS: It's been a few years since moviegoers were introduced to you in "Shortbus." Do you have any plans to return to film?
JB: I would love to do more acting. It's something that is always in the back of my mind. If I have the chance to go after opportunities I do. Actually after we got off the phone I'm heading to an audition for a TV show. Every now and then I do get the chance to go out and audition for stuff. But it's hard because I'd like to do both music and acting, but they work very differently. Music has to be planned at least six months in advance and acting, you have to be available at all times for a last-minute thing. It's hard to coordinate the two. I hope that at some point it works out because I'd love to do more acting for sure. Obviously "Shortbus" was a really important vehicle for my music. But for me the two really build on each other.