3/27 - Jay Brannan - 'Rob Me Blind'
Everything about Jay Brannan’s young career is improbable. Defying legions of critics both personal and professional, he has managed to build a shockingly dedicated following in a very non-traditional way. Urged to stick to society's conventions during his Southern upbringing, Jay has become a lightning rod for castaways by simply being himself: a neurotic and inspiring mess.
Jay is a New Yorker by way of Texas and California, with several stops in between. A (severely) failed Southern Baptist, he moved to L.A. to pursue acting at the turn of the century. He picked up his first guitar at age 20, just as he put down an alcohol addiction. This new, healthier dependency took hold, and a few failed attempts at romance later, Brannan found himself in New York City auditioning for John Cameron Mitchell’s experimental film Shortbus. Landing the part, he fell into a world of performers who made him feel comfortable as a creative professional for the first time. “I finally learned to trust myself as an artist and began to believe that I do have something to contribute, a concept that had been beaten out of me in just a few years of attempting a career in entertainment.”
Jay’s song “Soda Shop” became the most downloaded track from the movie’s soundtrack album, released on Conor Obersts’ (“Bright Eyes”) indie label Team Love. He began performing his music at events surrounding the film, allowing him an international platform to showcase his music.
A passionate insomniac and self-described Internet addict, Jay found himself spending countless hours each night cultivating his burgeoning online following—a following that exploded when he posted a 3:00 A.M. laptop performance of “Soda Shop” on YouTube. The video found itself featured on the website’s homepage and has since been viewed over 1.5 million times. “I was a random guy at home fucking around with his computer, thinking no one would ever watch the video if I posted it. I guess I was wrong.” He has gone on to post most of his new songs as they’re written, including his first album’s title track “goddamned,” inspired by a trip to Israel where Jay had been invited to perform. These now over 125 online videos have amassed in total over 8.5 million views, and their response was what gave Brannan the confidence to take his musical ambitions full-time.
Jay’s online following was simultaneously taking physical form as he began playing to sold-out crowds in his hometown of New York City. Deciding to try his luck with farther audiences, his first performances sold out in advance in cities as far flung as London, Paris, L.A., Toronto, Vancouver, Cape Town and Tel Aviv. Within one year, Jay jumped from playing small clubs and venues to sold-out Manhattan theatres.
As Jay’s fan base has steadily grown, so has his catalog of musical releases. His bare-bones, 2007 self-released EP Unmastered saw over 30,000 downloads on iTunes. He used the proceeds in 2008 to fund production of his first full-length album, goddamned, which debuted at No. 25 on iTunes’ overall albums chart. Brannan’s tenor voice combined with painfully honest lyrics surrounding taboo subjects caught the attention of critics at such influential outlets as Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, which proclaimed that Brannan “makes even the saddest lyrics easy on the ear.” In the Summer of 2009, Brannan released In Living Cover, a covers album consisting of 7 cover songs book-ended by 2 originals, which he recorded in a friend’s bedroom-studio in Brooklyn. It topped the Singer/Songwriter chart on iTunes and reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart.
While admitting he usually prefers sparse, unadorned music (“I’m not crazy about electric guitar, and percussion scares the shit out of me”), for his second full-length album of originals, the singer wanted to add some new instrumental textures to the mix. So he set his sights on working with Grammy-winning producer David Kahne, whose résumé includes such notables as Regina Spektor, Paul McCartney, The Bangles, and Lana Del Rey, to name only a few. Eschewing traditional methods of luring producers, Jay went new-school: “I stalked him online.”
“David was on the top of my list of dream producers—that Regina Spektor album he did [Begin to Hope] was one of the best albums of its decade,” says Brannan. “David and I are a great match creatively. I wanted to experiment with a slightly more produced sound, and David was able to help me do that in ways that are musically memorable and satisfying, yet tasteful.”
Recorded over nine months, Rob Me Blind showcases Kahne’s thoughtful production abilities, while maintaining the signature qualities of a Jay Brannan album: brutal honesty, sharp wit, and sparkling melodies. Lyrically, the album documents the singer through states of loneliness, anger, rejection, and yearning, while somehow offering a glimpse of hope and self-acceptance, as in the first single “Greatest Hits,” where the singer discovers his failures and shortcomings are in some ways his best offerings. Forging across borders both physical and lingual, “The Spanglish Song” recounts a failed transcontinental romance—in both English and Spanish.
Brannan is a keen observer of both the world at large and of his own inner turmoil. He is equally adept at expressing his frustration for being a minimalist singer/songwriter in a forceful smoke-and-mirrors industry (“The State of Music”) as he is at storytelling the plight of a person falling for a close friend whose attraction lies only in the realm of the platonic (“Beautifully”). The album’s biggest musical departure comes from “La La La,” a multi-layered lap around varying musical genres, from—as Brannan puts it—“a German Biergarten brass band to gypsy violin to a horror film, like something out of Scream,” even taking a quick jaunt through Weezer-esque punk and singing an entire chorus with his tongue sticking out. “It’s supposed to be funny,” he admits.
Perhaps still a quasi-hermit and cyber-geek at heart, Brannan has spent the past few years touring multiple times around the globe, including the USA, Canada, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Norway, Greece, Brazil, South Africa, Israel, and Australia. While usually performing alone with guitar, he can occasionally be found onstage with cello or violin, and maybe even jumping on a piano for a song or two. Each show is peppered with a healthy amount of commentary, often expounding on the observations, adventures, and frustrations of his daily life.
“The things I say often get me into trouble,” says the singer, laughing. “The world pretends to glorify opinions and individuality, but really everyone is so terrified that anything might exist outside the traditional or the mainstream. I think that’s a big reason why I do what I do. For some reason, people can tolerate the truth a bit more when it’s put to music.”