This October Jay Brannan played a concert in Berlin, as part of his world tour. You can read the review of the concert that Mareike wrote for TQU here. Unfortunately Jay only had time for one interview while he was in Berlin, but he answered our questions via e-mail.
TQU: Thanks a lot for that lovely show you played at Frannz Club in Berlin last week. It was really magical!
Jay: Thanks for coming, I’m so glad you had a nice time! 🙂
TQU: It would be nice if you could take the time to answer a couple of question for us:
You started your career as a musician with a DIY video where you were filmed sitting on a toilet playing your song “Soda Shop” on an acoustic guitar. It seems like a lot has changed since then. The sound at the concert was amazing and I suppose you’ve updated your equipment quite a bit since you started. Did that change the way you approach the music? Did the popularity/more money/better equipment open new possibilities for you that you didn’t have before?
Jay: I’m actually using the same guitar that I recorded that soda shop video with, and when I record, I do it in someone else’s studio, or rent studio time and an engineer. So honestly, I haven’t upgraded any equipment since starting. I guess when I make YouTube videos, I tend to use a digital camera or an iPhone now, but I don’t know if I’d consider that an upgrade 🙂 So although I have been lucky enough to make a living from music since 2008, I still work on comparatively low budgets and am pretty DIY 🙂 I will admit that spending money on things like Facebook ads has become quite necessary, since Facebook has placed limitations on reaching your audience for free. The internet used to be a really useful and free platform, but it is becoming more costly & more competitive. Still useful, but a more difficult playing field since I first started.
TQU: Your appearance on stage and also in interviews that I’ve seen is super open and friendly and you seem to be very positive about things. Still your songs are often about self-reflection and sometimes sad or confusing topics. How do you manage to go from a sad song to smiling and making a joke on stage? (I was really impressed!)
Jay: Haha, well I wouldn’t say I’m that positive about things. Or at least I’ve been a cynic most of my life, but I suppose there has always been a hidden optimism underneath, which I do try to uncover a bit more as I get older. I actually think pain and humor go hand-in-hand. They are interdependent. Humor is a coping mechanism for pain. It’s how we survive. I tend to ramble a bit between songs during my shows, mostly because it breaks the tension between me and the audience, and eases the pressure on the performer-audience dynamic. So basically I do it because it makes me less nervous, haha. I do have a lot of sad songs, but I try to inject humor into them as well. I do the same in between songs, I guess.
TQU: Do you ever think about collaborating with other people/playing with a band?
Jay: Not really. I have played with string players before on a few songs (violin, cello). I have done a couple songs with a friend’s band because they were opening and were good enough to improv along with me, haha. I suppose I might be open to the idea later, if I found the right people. But I think isolation is a big part of my process. I like touring and traveling and singing alone. It’s what I enjoy. Getting lost in my thoughts is where my material comes from. I’m also a loner by nature, socially. So that’s how I’m most comfortable. Of course everyone needs human contact, but I prefer to be in control of my surroundings and if I had to travel with the same group of people all day every day, I’m pretty sure I would go insane, haha.
TQU: You talked about all the places you are going to be playing in the near future (basically all around the world), but it seems like it’s mostly the western world 🙂 Do you notice differences playing for different audiences? Especially when you played those two songs without a guitar, I thought the energy and rhythm you created just with your voice and almost no instrumentation were really amazing, and I found it sad to have such a stiff and stereotypically German audience that just wouldn’t move or interact. Does that bother you?
Jay: There are differences between each audience, and although I could offer some generalizations based on geography, the truth is that every night is different. There are many factors involved. Geography is one, the venue is one, the sound is one, the particular people in attendance, the night of the week… You can never predict what kind of an energy an audience will have. I am usually quite lucky. I often have really great audiences – a balance between interested/interactive, but also attentive and courteous. I was very happy with the audience! I like when people are into it and listening, haha. I think sometimes audiences in non-English-speaking countries can be a bit more shy, since I am speaking in English, and so that adds to the shyness of some people. But I generally really like my German audiences. I had a great time! 🙂
TQU: I know that John Cameron Mitchell suggested for you to learn songs in different languages when you tour other countries. We really loved the Gummy Bear song! Why did you choose that one, or how do you choose the songs to cover in other languages in general? And which is your favorite character from the Adventures of the Gummy Bears?
Jay: Haha, well a friend suggested that one to me a few years ago. I think she just knew it was a German cartoon (as well as American) when she was a child, and so she learned the words to the German version. I thought it would be funny. It was a big hit the first time I did it, so I often bring it back by request, haha. I also covered a German dance hit, “Du hast den schönsten Arsch der Welt,” on a foreign language covers EP [Around the World in 80 Jays] that I did last year 🙂 Sometimes I find these songs by googling songs in a particular language that I think people will recognize or that might be funny. Sometimes they are at the suggestions of others 🙂 I have to admit it’s been many years since I’ve watched the Gummy Bears, so I can’t really remember all of the characters haha, but maybe Sunni, the yellow female one 🙂 I remember liking her.
TQU: Thanks a lot for taking the time and maybe one last question: Do you have any advice for young queer artists who want to get their music out there?
Jay: Well, I think the advice is the same for anyone. My first advice is: choose any other career path if you can find one, haha. Making a living as a musician is a very difficult path, and for most people it doesn’t last a lifetime. But if you can’t find any other option and have music that you want to put out there, I think the best advice given to me when I started was to simply write and play live as much as I could. So that’s what I did. I am a slow writer. That part is not easy. But I played live as frequently as possible and was probably performing once a month for a while in New York City, where I live. I would always have a mailing list available for people who were interested, so I’d have a way to reach them when I booked the next show. (This was before social media, when people were more willing to join things like mailing lists.) Once YouTube, Myspace, etc., rolled around, I just worked really hard to have content available online and kept activity going on those websites so people would have things to listen to when they arrived at my page.
Thanks for the interest and the support 🙂
Greetings from Berlin,