Out musician Jay Brannan may have a No. 1 album, but the Internet-bred hottie is still steering a one-man tour bus
JAY FOR PAY
Jay Brannan, The Loft, 1135 S. Lamar St. July 19 at 8 p.m. $15. Theloftdallas.com.
Jay Brannan is a hard man to track down. After weeks of e-mails and Facebook posts with no response, we figured it was a lost cause contacting the young, hip artist. One would think that a musician on the rise might clamor for press to get his name out there. Giving up was looking like the best option.
Then the phone rang.
"Hi, it’s Jay Brannan. I’m so sorry for this short notice," the voice says.
Brannan plays the element of surprise well, if not intentionally. Brannan is on the cusp of musical celebridom. That can be busy work — especially because he’s doing it all on his own.
"I don’t really know how I do it. I just do the best that I can, but it’s a lot of work," Brannan says while navigating to a hotel before his sold-out show in Chicago. He’s not pulling some rock star aloof emo crap because he wants to; he has to.
Brannan harkens backs to the ’60s folk era when a musician and his guitar could create transcendent music that lives forever. These simple ingredients can evoke song epics whether it’s Brannan singing about his longing for domesticity ("Housewife") or Dylan going on about the answer "Blowin’ in the Wind" … both of which are likely to be heard at Brannan’s Dallas show this week.
Hailing from New York City, Brannan might be most familiar as pretty-boy model Ceth in John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 film "Shortbus" (his "Star-Spangled Banner" scene should be immortalized in independent cinema history). While his acting was pretty good, he listened to his true calling and forged ahead with his music career.
Brannan is a real-deal artsy-indie musician. He has not signed with a major label, he books his own shows, has no manager, lives in New York and pays for everything himself. The only thing remotely corporate about him is the distribution and marketing company behind his CDs.
Most artists might accept these factors and play local shows in a 100-mile radius from their hometown. Not Brannan.
"In one way it’s really great; I control everything," he says. "I’ve been really lucky even though touring costs a lot. Recording costs a lot. There are people to pay for these things but I don’t have that kind of money. I just wanna be a musician."
His four-song digital EP, "Unmastered" debuted at No. 2 on the iTunes folk album chart in 2007. He made enough money from "Unmastered" to fund his first full-length CD, "Goddamned," which could be considered his breakthrough, thanks to the tricky but clever ballad "Housewife" that drew strong buzz on the Web.
Much to the probable delight of many gay men, Brannan vented a sweet feeling that before felt emasculating to admit: "I like to wash the dishes/I like to scrub the floors/Don’t mind doing his laundry/What are boyfriends for?/I wanna be a housewife/What’s so wrong with that?"
Still, making "Goddamned" "drained my entire savings. For this new album I had to keep it simple. I did not have a lot to make it, so I recorded it in Brooklyn with a friend in his apartment," he says.
How indie is that?
With a less-is-more approach, Brannan has gained success digital-style since releasing "In Living Cover" earlier this month. The song "At First Sight" landed in a No. 1 spot on Amazon’s top MP3 list and the album is the No. 1 on the singer-songwriter iTunes chart. Which is kind of a surprise to Brannan.
"It’s ironic because I used to think covers were uncool to do. I thought real musicians wrote their own songs. But somewhere along the way I started to have the impulse to learn certain songs. Plus, I haven’t had time to write a full album," he admits.
Other than two original pieces, Brannan took on the Verve Pipe, the Cranberries, Joni Mitchell and yes, Dylan, among others. The album plays like a dreamy lullaby where Brannan excels at emoting his voice even through the works of others. While he goes a little too literal with the Cranberries’ "Zombie," his rendition of "Blowin’ in the Wind" is charmingly tiny compared to the monumental original. With such a folk classic, he still sings with an earnest and simplicity that could almost convince the song was his own. Is that musical blasphemy?
YouTube can be blamed for his new cover song fetish. Brannan has a reputation for performing others’ songs in concert that make it onto the site and to the delight of his fans. His "Straight Outta Compton" cover is priceless even though he covered Veruca Salt singer Nina Gordon’s own cover of the N.W.A. rap classic. Due to the positive response and lack of original material to fill up a whole CD, Brannan went for the covers.
"People wanted those songs. They wanted recordings of them. If people are asking to buy that stuff, why not give it to them? What makes it difficult is I can’t really play guitar," he says with a laugh. He ends up explaining that other than his own music, learning someone else’s songs is not easy.
In reactionary fashion, he filmed his cover of Michael Jackson’s "Man in the Mirror" for YouTube. "I’m not a super Michael Jackson fan. To me, he was like an institution. Anyone could probably sing along to about 20 of his songs and for me, there are like 10 to 15 songs that bring me to a specific place. His songs are placeholders of memories. I started making that video before they announced he was dead. It was just this random impulse," he says.
That impulse that’s garnered close to 2,000 comments from fans and non-fans. If it wasn’t for the Internet, in fact, we might not even have a Jay Brannan.
"You can make art in the apartment in the middle of the night and put it up for thousands of people to see. I’d be nothing without the Internet," he says.
He’s probably right. If only he’d respond to his Facebook messages quicker. That would really help keep down the stress levels of one reporter.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 17, 2009.