Jay Brannan: Self-made music man

‘Shortbus’ star releases his anticipated debut album — on his own terms

by John Polly    
Published: July 12, 2008 in A&E / Life&Style

Prepping to do an interview with singer/songwriter Jay Brannan is easy. Anything you need to know about him, he puts right out there. His website offers his bio, a blog and his homemade music videos that have made him a grassroots YouTube success.

As a musician, he’s self-taught and self-made and his forthcoming debut album, “goddamned” — a collection of melodic, sharply honest songs of love, longing and critical self-examination — is self-financed and will be self-released on July 15. He calls all the shots. And, that includes any discussion about his sexuality and how it relates to his music — or how it doesn’t.

In fact, the 26-year-old Texas-born performer, who many discovered acting, singing and baring all in the sexually-explicit, hit indie movie “Shortbus” (his tune “Soda Shop” is featured in the film and on the soundtrack), calls on the phone to introduce himself and to get one little point across: He’s gay and has no interest in hiding it, but please don’t call him a “gay singer.”

As Brannan puts it, “It’s not that I’m resistant to being called a gay singer/songwriter — it’s that I hate it. I hate when people stitch my sexual orientation to my name as if it were a title or a category, or as if it were printed on my birth certificate. I just want to be a musician like anyone else.

“When Lisa Loeb sings, she’s singing about her life, her experiences, her relationships. No one says she’s singing about ‘straight issues’ or that she sings ‘straight songs.’ Why should it be any different for me? I think it’s time that gay people take their place as regular people in the world, rather than continuing to be defined and separated by their sexual orientation.”

Point taken. The thing is, when Brannan takes the stage with guitar in hand for a sell-out show in New York or Dallas or Cape Town or London, or when he records a new video that will invariably get blasted across the Web and raved about on his popular MySpace and Facebook pages, he’s not singing coming-out songs, anyway. He’s just singing about life, relationships or maybe religious hypocrisy.

“I never write about ‘being gay,’” Brannan explains, talking from his little one-room New York City apartment. “I find that to be an incredibly tired and outdated issue. I dealt with the fact that I was attracted to men when I was a teenager. I don’t really find it interesting anymore. A lot of people ask the question about pronouns in my lyrics, and the truth is I’ve never once thought about it — including them, excluding them, masking them or hiding them.”

If you’ve heard “Housewife,” the first single from “goddamned,” or seen the video online, you know Brannan’s right. The strummy song begins, “Two bodies pressed together/Two boys are falling hard” and then notes the joys of fixing cars and grilling turkey burgers with the man you love. It even goes so far as admitting “Don’t mind doing his laundry/What are boyfriends for?”

It doesn’t get any more direct or sweeter than that, so label-obsessed activists can rest assured: Brannan’s doing his part just by being the unapologetically honest musician that he is. And with “goddamned” he is poised to take his music to a wider audience than ever, as he launches a cross-country 11-city tour that includes stops in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.

Brannan shares that he obsesses over the songs he’s writing. “I’m never 100% satisfied with every lyric in a song, but I just try to get it to a place I can live with without driving myself crazy. I’ll fixate on a particular verse or chorus while I shower or walk around the city. Maybe I need medication?”

The title track to the new album is a rumination on religious hypocrisy, inspired by a trip to Jerusalem.

“It was so surreal being in the place whose legends have ripped apart individuals and nations for thousands of years and seeing how manmade it all was,” Brannan explains. “Some of the architecture is full of history, but the deep discord that stems from all the supernatural folklore attached to it is truly baffling and heartbreaking to me.”

Brannan adds that “the song’s title also felt appropriate for the way a lot of people have responded to me and my life, and the mistakes and choices I’ve made.”

Apart from the title song, romantic choices loom large in Brannan’s new tunes. It’s in the aforementioned “Housewife,” the funnily sad “At First Sight” and “Half-Boyfriend,” which reads like a letter to the boy who couldn’t commit (which might be for the best). But then, isn’t it all about love and finding someone?

“Love is hugely important,” admits Brannan. “It’s probably more important to me than anything else, sadly enough. I haven’t dated anyone in a long time — like six years. I’ve always been a loner. The truth is, I’m a weird person that most people don’t quite understand. I’m neurotic and angsty and obsessive and anti-social.

“People, and particularly people I have just met, are always telling me to change myself or the way I act or the things I say. It’s hard to find people who truly get my sense of humor and my cynicism.”
Still, he’s not ready to give up. “It would be really nice to find one person who I find to be smart and funny and interesting and reliable, who accepts me for exactly the way I am and actually likes me as that person,” he says. “I just want someone who I can have sex with and laugh with and order food with and sit on the phone with late at night for hours. Someone who answers my calls and actually calls me back. I think, with the right person, I would be a very good boyfriend.”

Until then, Brannan is happy to keep making his music, staying close to his good friend and “Shortbus” director John Cameron Mitchell (“a creative genius and a truly wonderful human being”) and even enjoying little things like preparing guacamole (the one dish he can make), wearing grey hoodies and maybe exploring more acting possibilities.

“I’d love to do more film and even try some TV,” Brannan says. “But I’m a gay guy in New York City who sings — and I hate musicals and that’s the first thing an agent thinks of when they see me on paper.
So, we’ll see. I know I’ll never be cast as the football jock, but there are sensitive straight-guy roles to be had, and I’d like the chance to try one at some point.

“I have no problem with playing only gay characters, but it would be nice if there were more roles out there that weren’t either a coming-out story or the bitchy stylist stereotype.”

In the meantime, with a bit of prodding Brannan divulges what he’d do with a real day off — no job commitments, no social obligations and no music to write.

“I’d like to say that I would go running and then read a book in the park before volunteering for a few hours at a soup kitchen, followed by dinner on the seaport with a sexy neurologist. But the truth is I want to spend all day every day at home in bed, eating, jerking off, taking periodic naps and watching ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ nonstop in the dark. That’s the perfect day.”

info: www.jaybrannan.com
— Photo Credit: Photo: Karl Simon/Stylist: John Tan