World view: an interview with Jay Brannan
Fri. October 25, 2013 by Gregg Shapiro
There are so many great songs out there that speak to you or sound great in your voice so they feel good passing through your vocal cords.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Cover tunes have long been a part of your repertoire, from your YouTube videos to your In Living Cover disc to the Around the World in 80 Jays EP. How did the concept for this new covers collection come about?
JB: (Jay Brannan) I've been so lucky to do tons of touring internationally since I started getting to play shows and travel beginning around 2007. I've had the opportunity to play in all sorts of other countries across Europe and South America and Africa and Australia. One of the things that's become sort of a tradition is to learn a song in the language of the place I'm visiting. My friend John Cameron Mitchell, the director of Shortbus, suggested that way back when. It became something that I started doing that I really love doing because I'm actually very interested in foreign language in general. People respond really well to it. I thought about recording some of those foreign language covers for a really long time but it was such a crazy idea that I figured I'd never get the chance to do it. Eventually I just decided, what the fuck, I've always just done what I want, who cares if it makes sense or not [laughs].
GS: Would you say that you are comfortable enough to converse in any of the languages in which you sing?
JB: No, absolutely not. I definitely cannot speak any of those languages conversationally. I've taken lessons in several of them. I'm obsessed with foreign language. I have been since I was a child. It was one of the few things I had an attention span for in school. I can use it for travel purposes and stuff, but I couldn't have an actual conversation. I understand probably more than I let on. I can follow what people are talking about, not necessarily what they are saying exactly. Honestly, my pronunciation is probably absolutely horrible. It's a shameless thing [laughs] but I plowed through regardless of whether I should or not.
GS: It's admirable that you made the effort.
JB: [Laughs] The thing is, people really do appreciate it. They almost get more enjoyment out of the fact that I'm butchering their language by giving it a shot. There's a comical element to it.
GS: Have you ever had the chance to meet Patty Griffin or Sinead O'Connor, both of whom you cover on Around the World in 80 Jays?
JB: No, I haven't. I have been Tweeted by Sinead O'Connor.
GS: With so much from which to choose when it comes to songs by Patty Griffin and Sinead O'Connor, how did you go about selecting (O'Connor's) "Black Boys On Mopeds" and (Griffin's) "Top of the World" for the EP?
JB: Sinead O'Connor is one of my absolute favorites. I didn't really become acquainted with her until way after everybody else, maybe five years ago. I realized how incredible she is. Her repertoire is relatively new to me and there are several songs that discovered that I wanted to sing and that was one of them. I like the simplicity of that song and the melody of it. The tone of her voice makes anything sound celestial. ("Top of the World") is the second Patty Griffin song that I've done. I knew the Dixie Chicks version before I heard Patty's. It's a great song. It's a newer cover I learned and I was into it at the time. Plus there's the whole conceptual geographic element to the EP.
GS: Sinead O'Connor, who had the biggest hit of her career with a cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U," has also regularly included cover tunes in her set-lists. As a songwriter yourself, can you please say something about the role that other people's songs play in your creative life?
JB: Honestly, it took me a while to warm up to doing cover songs. When I first started, I always wanted to be a musician, but there was a part of me that felt like it wouldn't be authentic to have a career where you just sing other people's songs. That's why I didn't pursue it until years later. I somehow found myself actually writing my own material. It was so important for me to do original songs. I'm kind of a slow writer and I like singing more than I do writing. So I started doing cover songs as a way to keep singing, because my writing didn't really keep up with my singing and desire to make more videos and to perform. There are so many great songs out there that speak to you or sound great in your voice so they feel good passing through your vocal cords. There is also a certain level of self-consciousness or vulnerability that is stripped away. When you're singing someone else's song you know it's a good song, you're not evaluating it. You don't have to perform it thinking, "I hate this song today. Or everyone's thinking these words are so stupid." None of that is an issue.
GS: Patty Griffin, on the other hand, has had her biggest hits with other people's covers of her songs. Are you aware of other people covering your songs?
JB: [Laughs] Definitely not like Patty Griffin. I haven't had any Top 40 Jay Brannan covers. But yes, I've seen lots of covers on YouTube which has been surreal over the years. Very flattering. A lot of people do "Soda Shop," "Housewife." Honestly, people have covered a lot of them. Which is amazing and surreal, to think that anybody had heard of my songs, let alone knows the words and wants to perform it on YouTube.
GS: What would it mean to you if a cover version of one of your songs became a hit?
JB: It would be awesome, depending on who did it and how they did it. It could come out in a way that you feel good about, but it could also come out in a way that you feel betrayed. It could go either way, but I'm sure it would be pretty exciting.
GS: You mentioned writer/director John Cameron Mitchell. Is there any chance that we'll see you again on screen?
JB: I hope so. I get to audition every now and then. I've been very lucky working consistently in music since Shortbus came out. I'm constantly traveling and working on new projects musically, so I'm not around a lot to go on auditions and stuff. Hopefully something will come through that way for me at some point. It would definitely be excited to do more acting work.
Interviewed 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.