Feature: The "Small-S Struggle" of Cory Branan
It’s approximately an hour before “doors” are theoretically slated to open at Manchester, New Hampshire’s Shaskeen Pub. I say doors in quotes because all that separates the dining/bar area from the performance area is hallway and a curtain, but that’s not important. What’s important is that Cory Branan is here, solo, in support of The No-Hit Wonder, his fourth stellar full-length album (released in August via Bloodshot Records). Branan is headlining the Granite State’s largest city for the first time. This particular venue has made quite a name for itself in a fairly short amount of time (The Chieftains, an act for whom the word “legendary” seems a woefully-inadequate understatement, played the bar’s grand-opening in late 2005), and it has served as somewhat of an alternative Irish-themed beacon in downtown Manchester’s ever-expanding bar-on-every-corner “nightlife.”
The dark woods and deep-red painted walls adorned in stereotypically “Irish” imagery (Guinness signs and pictures of musicians in the front room, football scarves in the back room) provide a warm environment that brings with it more than a touch of working-class edge; a kind of “yeah, it’s probably safe here but you could still kinda envision shit going wrong, bottles being smashed and fists being thrown” kind of vibe. It’s the kind of venue that should seem a perfect match for a whiskey-fueled, blue-collar performer like Branan. And yet, this is still a cool, drizzly early fall evening in an increasingly-gentrifying downtown area, and, well, Demi Lovato is playing an arena a block away. So realistically, there’s really no telling what, or who, will come out on a night like this.
Branan joins me at a wooden bench below one of those aforementioned bar signs; something about it being a good day for a Guinness. We begin our discussion by focusing on The No-Hit Wonder. Branan has long been known as a brilliant storyteller; a songwriter’s songwriter. He has received praise from critics (like this very site) and other well-respected songwriters like Chuck Ragan, Ben Nichols, Jason Isbell, Dave Hause, Frank Turner and Chris Carrabba. As should be obvious given the name of his latest album, however, the respect from critics and peers does not necessarily translate to commercial success. Though famous for the mordant brand of humor that frequently appears in his lyrics, Branan is quick to point out that the album (and its corresponding title track) isn’t necessarily named for him specifically, any more than it is named after the myriad artists and songwriters that he’s toured and shared the stage with over the last fifteen years. In fact, Branan says he was hesitant to even name the album The No-Hit Wonder, as that’s not really the central theme of the album (though he concedes the point that what he calls the “small-s struggle” of his life as a working musician does “creep in a little on “Meantime Blues” and “Taking The Highway Home”).
While a certain amount of self-deprecation is still to be expected from Branan, it’s obvious to all but the most passive followers of his career that there’s a different, happier tone on The No-Hit Wonder than was present before. A lot has changed since the release of his last album, 2012’s Mutt. You see, not only is Branan married, but he’s now a father of two young children. As a result, Branan has taken a “smarter, not harder” approach to touring, stating that he prefers to stay out for shorter, three-week-cycles rather than seemingly endless cross-country tour cycles in order to allow for ample time at home. Easier said than done, he points out, as “you’ve still got to play a hundred-and-twenty shows a year to make all the bills.”
Loyal Branan followers need not worry. It seems that married life and the considerations taken for one’s new role as a spouse and a family man had little impact on consciously softening Branan’s subject matter. I asked about one song in particular from the new album, “The Only You.” When taken at face value, the song’s protagonist (if we can call him that) is essentially pines for an ex-flame, stating that “when (he) gets lonely,” his newer, younger lover will certainly “do,” but not quite like his old flame would. Was there ever a concern for how that would land at the Branan household, particularly for the Mrs. Branan? “No, never. My wife gets it; she gets what I do as a “small-a artist”. Plus, even though I write in that first-person sometimes, it’s not always about me or about a particular experience.”
These new life experiences carrying over into his art is to be expected, though Branan is measured in how he approaches these changes. Is it harder to write stories or to write quintessential “love songs” like “Missing You Fierce,” “All The Rivers In Colorado” and “You Make Me”? “Love songs,” Branan answers, though quickly adding the tag that “well, they’re all love songs in their own way…or pain songs.” Ah yes, the pain songs. Branan retells an old John Prine chestnut about preferring to eat a hot dog on a sunny day when you’re feeling happy, rather than writing a “happy” song. Still, even with the pain songs, Branan is careful to temper that pain in a way that allows a song to transfer differently, better, to the listener. One need look no further than two particular tracks from The No-Hit Wonder, “Daddy Was A Skywriter” and “All I Got And Gone,” for proof of this in action.
In-between writing sessions for Mutt and The No-Hit Wonder, Branan’s father, Dallas, passed away. Some might imagine that a songwriter’s default instinct in that situation would be to pick up a guitar and start writing as an outlet for that pain, part of the grieving process. Not Branan. He notes that picking up a guitar and writing a song at that time has the effect of creating a very finite, specific moment. The real emotion, he finds, is created in part by the passage of time providing context for the pain: the real feeling comes not in that moment, but in having to go on, to live your life everyday with that person’s absence in perspective. Still, the new album has a song called “Daddy Was A Skywriter.” That’s a pretty obvious posthumous ode to his old man, no? “No, that song was actually something I wrote and worked on when he was still alive.” Though he never tackles the singular experience of losing his father head-on on the record, he notes that some of the emotion that the event inspired is present in “All I Got And Gone,” a song which on paper, Branan is quick to point out, “has nothing at all to do with my father.” Again, it’s all about perspective.
Whatever the perspective, there’s no denying that The No-Hit Wonder is the most accessible, relatable album in the Cory Branan catalog. Branan called on some fairly well-known friends for guest-spots on the album: longtime pals Jason Isbell and Sadler Vaden join him on album opener “You Make Me,” while longer-time pal Steve Selvidge brought along his own new bandmate, The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, for an appearance on the album’s title track. “That’s a funny story,” Branan notes. “Steve’s a Memphis guy and I’m a Memphis guy, we’ve known each other forever – he actually played guitar in the band I played (The Late Show With David) Letterman with (back in 2003). The Hold Steady were nearby recording Teeth Dreams. Steve came by the studio where I was recording and brought Craig with him. I had never met Craig before, and I was nervous because I’m a big fan of his. I had an idea for a round to finish the song, but I didn’t want to do all of the parts myself. I asked him if he wanted to do a part and he said “sure.” Within half an hour of first meeting him, he was singing on my record…and he made the song. He’s the only guy I know that sings every letter of a line. He doesn’t just hit the consonants at the beginning and roll through the vowels to the consonant at the end. It’s like “B-L-O-o-d t-o s-t-r-i-ng” and it makes the song!” Still, Branan makes a point of noting that adding guests to an album is not just a marketing trick meant to entice new listeners: “I’ve always had guests on my albums…it (just) helps that I have famous friends now!”
That being said, the increasing number of “no hit wonders” populating the scene nowadays, Branan notes, is due to factors like the obvious decline of the record industry and the lack of support for the arts in general in the United States: “There’s no support for developing music (or the arts in general) here now. We as a country can’t even crawl yet, compared to Europe. They do it (supporting artists) better, because they’ve been around longer. They know to slow down a little bit!” Branan adds that “It wasn’t easy when I started fifteen years ago, but it’s that much harder now.” Branan also astutely points out that it’s not just the artists that are suffering because people don’t pay to buy music or value the art that is songwriting nearly as much as they used to: “places like this (The Shaskeen), 250-and-under capacity places are struggling just to get by too.”
The lack of industry support, it seems, for the songwriter and storyteller as an artist, it seems, is a problem that has grown more than most over the last couple of decades. “Before it wasn’t run by corporations. So Geffen (Asylum at the time) could sign a Jackson Browne, and when his first album didn’t really do anything…and it didn’t…they could spend resources on developing him asan artist” (editor’s note: Jackson Browne ended up going platinum in 1997…27 years after its initial release). Given the success that storytellers and songwriters like Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty and, hell, even Jackson Browne had in the 1960s and 70s, does that make Branan feel like he was born at the wrong time? “I do frequently feel born at the wrong time, but not just in regard to this! And I’d probably have to go back earlier than the 60s or 70s.”
And so, here we are, in that pub booth in downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, on a rainy Saturday night. Anyone that’s seen Branan live can attest to the fact that he’s nothing if not one of the more intense, enigmatic performers going. But there’s an interesting push-and-pull in play. As with many great live performers, Branan seems to function at his best when tip-toeing along a brilliant precipice. His solo live show has a certain dangerous quality to it; the banshee-like vocal shifts, the percussive, nay borderline abusive, guitar playing. While it doesn’t happen frequently, there is always at least the underlying feeling that the whole damn thing could derail in catastrophic fashion. And yet, the man who seemingly thrives on dynamic spontaneity – hell, who prides himself on the almost infinite possibilities that come with being a solo performer and the accompanying freedom to never play the same song the same way twice – is a stickler for how something sounds.
Those dynamic changes and the infinite twists and turns in a given set – or a given song—have been honed by years as a one-man touring act. Yet this raises two occasional questions to his fanbase: 1) why hasn’t this been captured on an album and 2) is there a goal to do this night in and night out with a full band on the road? Branan answers the second question first and most concisely: “it would have to be a very specific band…” He trails off before circling back to explain that, as most people that’ve caught him live can attest, “timing is a relative thing with me. I have to tell the bass player and the drummer to become best friends and to stay together all the time, in the pocket, because I’m all over the place.”
As for the former question, Branan explains how he focuses in on those member of an audience that haven’t quite bought in yet, that at best are standing arms-crossed on the perimeter of the floor, and at worst are perfectly content to carry on their own conversations at the opposite end of the bar (as would be the case on this particular night). Those twists and turns are varied nightly and geared toward drawing those casual observers in. It is difficult, perhaps downright impossible, to carry on a conversation or to disengage from a performer like Branan when he’s on. Yet it’s a phenomenon that’s almost impossible to capture on record, so he chooses to apply almost OCD-like tendencies to translating the songs as written in his head to the sounds that are produced in the studio to provide for the best possible sonic experience.
Before bringing our conversation to a close so that he could go do a pre-show soundcheck (which, as it turns out, accomplished little given the seemingly endless series of sound-quality issues that plagued the stage for his hour-plus set), Branan and I discussed what comes next not just for him, but for his newest hometown of Nashville, Tennessee. The latter has quite notoriously become home to what he calls “bro country” or “Bud Light country” music, serving as a hotbed for the generic, feelingless pop-music-with-a-steel-guitar that passes for mainstream country music circa 2014 (see our recent interview with fellow Nashvillite, and one-time Branan collaborator, Joshua Black Wilkins for more). Branan sees Nashville as being primed for a backlash, for a real return to the roots that made Nashville what it was. “The idea of living as a working songwriter can’t happen in most places, but it’s always been possible in Nashville. Dolly Parton wrote a lot early on, but less as the years went on. Willie Nelson wrote some, but he didn’t write “To All The Girls I’ve Loved Before.” Branan speaks of Chip Taylor who, despite having some modicum of success in his own performing career, is best known for writing tracks like “Wild Thing” and “Angel Of The Morning,” popularized by The Troggs and Juice Newton, respectively, as well as songs for Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and countless others. “That’s something that’s still possible in Nashville, and something that I definitely would like to look into,” Branan states. The irony of The No-Hit Wonder potentially spending the last half of his second decade as a professional musician as a successful songwriter for other people is, well, perfectly Branan-ian.