“Cory Branan’s got an evil streak
And a way with words that’ll bring you to your knees.” –Lucero
If you’re familiar with Lucero, you probably know that line. Here’s your chance to find out for yourself just how true it is. Cory Branan is the guy with the guitar that you should be listening to instead of wishing Bright Eyes’s Conor Oberst would cheer up a bit.
Don’t call him a singer-songwriter—he isn’t going to pour out the sobbing tale of his nineteenth broken heart on the Hi-Dive stage. Instead, he’s going to play you rock songs, soft songs with lyrics that make poets jealous, all pulled together with a wicked sense of humor that’s rare in today’s ultra-self-absorbed music scene.
On his latest album, 12 Songs, Branan has an eye and an ear for the beautiful in the everyday moments of life, and a knack for a twist ending that keeps even love songs from being predictable. He isn’t afraid of the dark side of life and love, but doesn’t wallow in misery or ooze saccharine.
Onstage, he becomes a storyteller, offering background details before launching into songs, which seems like he’s talking to an old friend. You’ll think he’s known you since childhood and is just reminding you of your shared past, until the night ends and you realize the redheaded man on stage is actually a stranger.
Perhaps it’s best to say that Cory Branan is an individual—not because of his clothes or his haircut or some new musical style that he’s invented, but because he’s not worried about being part of a trend or a scene. Traveling alone with his guitar, he’s a true American troubadour and probably the best musical discovery I’ve made in the last few years. And he’s playing three shows in Colorado for your listening pleasure.
Cory took the time to answer a few questions for us from his home in Memphis before hitting the road, again. We saw no sign of the aforementioned evil streak, but got a little insight into that oft-cited way with words.
Kaffeine Buzz: Are you on actual tour or are you just coming out to Colorado for a few dates?
Cory Branan: I just got through with a tour. I’m down for most of May, just flying out for the Colorado stuff.
KB: Are you flying out by yourself, or do you have a band with you?
CB: Just myself, I always travel by myself. Well, once in a while I get a band together.
KB: I saw you play once with Lucero and once on your own in Savannah. The only way I had ever heard any of your songs was just you and your guitar, and then I got the 12 Songs album and there was a lot more going on in some of the songs than I expected. How did you decide to set them up, when you’re used to playing them by yourself?
CB: Well, me and a guitar is just a necessity, monetarily. If I could afford to take the E Street Band out on the road with me, I’d find the guys. But the current state of affairs right now, I don’t know anybody that’s doing it and making it work. It’s the only thing I do, and I’m not pop.
KB: Did you work with anyone in particular that made you decide on setting a song up a certain way?
CB: Oh, yeah, especially Jody Stephens, the drummer from Big Star, played on a couple of them. We were all sitting around trying not to giggle, because we’re all big fans of his. It’s Memphis, and you can throw a rock and hit like five great musicians, so there are so many people that I did want to play with. Honestly, not a lot of thought really went into it. The songs were there, and I didn’t want to just make a folk record. I’m not really a singer-songwriter, whatever that is. I get put as that, but I don’t know. It seemed like fun to me. Those songs were all written at about the same time as the songs on the first record.
KB: Yeah, I read somewhere that you’d written about 70 songs at about the same time and had them to put on albums.
CB: No, no, that might be a mis-quote. I’ve written quite a few, but not all at once. I used to be more prolific than I am now. I write a couple a month. I used to churn ‘em out. I think it’s all on the road—I can’t really write on the road. Strange. I’m trying to figure out a way to do that, but it doesn’t seem to work. It takes a certain amount of attention to not drive off the road when your brain’s going. It’s kind of sad. You don’t think you’re doing anything and then you drive eight hours and you get out of the car and you’re all beat up and you think, “Oh yeah, I’ve been trying not to kill myself or anybody else for eight hours. That’s what I’ve been doing.”
KB: I remember one of the times I saw you play there was a song about KISS taking off their makeup, and I was sad that it wasn’t on your album. It made me laugh.
CB: That’s an old throwaway one. There’s a funny side story to that, actually. On the MyShrine page, somebody posted an old video of me playing that song and I guess some KISS fans found it—you ought to check it out, it’s really funny. They’re like cussing me out, really angry, typing loud with the caps lock button on. I thought I was getting cussed out from all over the world. I was getting called a dume fagot, which sounds…French, but they were just all these misspellings—I looked and went, “Oh, great, these guys come from everywhere.” But then I looked and they were all from the States. They were so angry that they couldn’t spell anymore, I guess. It was awesome.
KB: KISS fans are angry at you.
CB: It was such a bad song, too. I can’t believe that people really got upset about it. I’m as big a KISS fan as anybody else, but their 80s music, come on. Who’s defending that?
(PS: You can check it out for yourself at http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=1082840943)
KB: On both of your albums, really, the tone kind of shifts from these really rock ’n’ roll songs to these soft songs—I catch myself turning the volume up and down.
CB: I know what you mean. I wish there was a better way to mix the songs. If you take the acoustic ones and you make them as loud as the rock ones, then when the rock song comes on it sounds smaller, from the juxtaposition of it. It drives me nuts, too. One day I’ll make a record that’s just listenable. There’s a little work to do on my records—I can’t listen to ‘em, personally.
KB: You can’t listen to them?
CB: No, I never listen to any of my own stuff. It sounds like—back when they actually had answering machines and you’d hear yourself on an answering machine. It’s like “Wow, do I sound like that?”
KB: I know, because I have to transcribe these interviews later and I listen to myself and think, “How does anybody take me seriously? I sound like I’m 12.”
CB: It’s the same, but set to music. Plus, whatever’s going on—those songs are all like six, seven years old, so it’d be like handing out your high school annual at a show, like “That’s what I thought then.” It’s weird, it doesn’t go away. Luckily some of ‘em don’t suck. I like some songs on this record.
KB: You have quite a few songs that seem to reference childhood stuff, like the “Skateland South,” that seem to be these old memories. It seems like you take material from a range of experiences through your entire life instead of these albums like “This girl broke my heart and I’m going to write a record all about it.”
CB: I don’t like that. I don’t keep a diary, but I definitely don’t set music to my diary like some people. I like to put a little distance to it, and childhood’s about as much distance as I can remember back. It seems like a common starting point. I have a pretty diverse crowd sometimes—when it’s best, I have a very diverse crowd. So I have this mix and match of indie rock kids, punk rock kids, people that are there…it’s just stories, I found that those kind of do resonate, almost a little too much.
KB: Sometimes it’s really specific details—I remember going roller skating when I was a kid, or going to the ice-skating rink. It’s the same idea, though. I assume that not all of your stories, like the prettiest waitress in Memphis, are based on reality, but just a character and a story.
CB: Of course I don’t write everything just from complete personal experience—that one actually is a real person, though—but they become composites and you take license.
KB: I’ve talked to people before who’ve said that at some point you aren’t brokenhearted and you’re not sad. You don’t have anything terribly exciting going on in your life except being a touring musician, and you can’t really write songs about that.
CB: I tell you right now, that’ll break your heart worse than anything! But I see what you’re saying.
KB: But at some point you have to be able to come up with stories.
CB: I’m not one of those people who keeps cracking themselves open like a fortune cookie, like I’ve got to tear apart my life to write a song. I’ve got enough imagination to tell stories from what I see and what I observe. I don’t have to keep myself wrecked.
KB: What’s the story with the numbered love songs? [On both albums there are songs titled Love Song 11, Love Song 7, Love Song 8.]
CB: I’m just incredibly lazy. [Laughs]
KB: But are there really that many that don’t have titles?
CB: Yeah, pretty much. They’ll probably all come out eventually. The numbers honestly are pretty arbitrary, but there are that many.
KB: A lot of your metaphors in your songs make me horribly jealous, as a writer. I wanted to know which authors you read that inform your songwriting.
CB: As far as poets, I’m a big Yeats fan, Lorca, Neruda—lots of Spanish guys. Even novelists, like Marquez. Stateside, I’m of course a big Henry Miller fan. I like Wallace Stevens, when my brain’s intact. Sometimes he rips my head open and I have to put him down and read some Bukowski. I really dig a lot of the Spanish and Argentinean writers. Octavio Paz is great. There’s something about it—a lot of ties between the Gothic south and Spain for some reason, I keep finding them. Not just like, Marquez is heavily influenced by Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and all that, but something cultural, like the South having to fight the industrialization of its crop and the Civil War, just real strange similarities to me. I’m sure there’re 30 other ones I forget, but mainly Yeats. I love him.
Well, Cory, we love you. And we’ll see you in Colorado soon.
Cory Branan plays Hodi’s Half Note, Ft. Collins on Thursday, May 17, at hi-dive on Saturday, May 18, and in Boulder on Sunday, May 18 (venue TBD).