Read Rebecca’s review and see her images of Cory live in concert in Neptune, NJ here;
Cory Branan released his sixth studio album When I Go I Ghost on October 14th. Branan, haling from Memphis and Mississippi, may not be a household name, but his singer-songwriter prowess has been well-known by fellow musicians, a number of whom he’s collaborated and performed with. Branan can display the powerful vitality of a rock and roll musician, while interweaving the tone and energy of folk, country, and roots music (or anything other direction he takes his music in.) In our interview Branan expressed, “I want to give myself the freedom to work wherever the songs want to go. I never really sit down and decide. I never say, ‘I’m going to write this kind of song.’”
Interview and Photograph by Rebecca Wolf.
Rebecca Wolf: Congrats on the release of your new album When I Go I Ghost.
Cory Branan: Thanks. Feels like having a kid I guess….like having a kid early in the year and then finally getting to tell everybody about the kid.
RW: Did you finish it earlier this year and it’s now just being released?
CB: Yeah, it’s always like that. You always have to sit on it…now even longer with the supply chain and vinyl and all that. It was in the can around March. It’s inevitable. I’m used to it.
RW: Did you the write the music a long time ago and it got delayed because of Covid or is it something you recently finished?
CB: No, we cut it in December and it just all got mixed and mastered then. A lot of the songs were around before that. I was on Bloodshot and they sort of dissolved, so I was without a label. So, I went in and demoed a bunch of songs right before Covid hit. Then, that threw a wrench into everything. Then Blue Elan came along about a year later. So, it slowed some things down.
RW: Were you on the road before releasing the new album or are you just out there now?
CB: Oh yeah, I’ve always got to tour. I’ve always got to do something. With Covid, I scrambled and figured out how to record at the house and put out direct to fan cover records and commissions. I started touring again as soon as we got the first false all-clear last June. I felt like I toured during every different variant. I did quite a few tours last year and I was as cautious as I could be. I managed to avoid it until recently. It caught up with me right before Americana Fest. I just got the newest booster in case what I caught wasn’t Omicron, and that did me for a loop, too. So, now I’m about as immune as you get.
RW: Glad you’re back on your feel! Do you usually tour on your own or with other musicians?
CB: It’s almost always by myself. I do piece a band together for festivals. Sometimes if I have a few bigger gigs I’ll do a whole tour with a band but primarily solo.
RW: Do you prefer it that way?
CB: There are benefits to both. I love playing with the band but even when I have a band I usually only do a three-piece. I try to travel as light as humanly possible. I’ve been doing it solo for so long. I enjoy the peace, getting on the road, not having to talk, and just compartmentalizing for awhile. Also, I can just be there an hour before doors. When you have a band you have to be at a club for a load-in and a soundcheck. This way I can get off the interstate, see the country, go through the small towns…for the past 20 years.
RW: Having been doing this for 20 years, when you look back at your music style from when you started to where you are now, do you see a difference?
CB: Yeah, of course, especially in the writing and being able to realize the songs as I hear them in my head; being able to actually get it down to tape. I think some of the stuff that I did during Covid, learning how to mix, actually paid off. Instead of talking to an engineer with artist’s terms like, “let me get this a little more crunchy or sparkly,” I can actually speak frequencies. It helps to actualize what’s bouncing around in my skull. The writing, yeah I would hope that the writing got less insular. Although I started relatively late, at almost 25, I started with a pretty good idea of the music I liked. The idea of songs being functional in a folk music way, where people could use them, where they don’t just point back at my pain or my feelings, where they are a little more outward facing. That’s always been a goal but it’s one I get better at as the years go by.
RW: Has your musical taste changed in terms of what you listen to over the past 20 years?
CB: I’ve always been kind of scattergun. I grew up in Mississippi so I was exposed to a lot a roots stuff and stuff from the church, a lot of great gospel and four-part harmony. But, I also grew up glued to MTV. I was a bit of a hood rat and so I was into metal. I think there’s a reason why artists like Beck or whatever came along in the early 90s. I think everybody that grew up in the 80s grew up with all this diverse stuff coming at you through the radio. If you listen to the radio’s Top 40 in ’84 none of the bands sounded alike. Everybody was making so much money that they were like “let’s do everything.” So, I sort of liked a little bit of everything. Once I began writing, I had sort of an epiphany when I heard John Prine’s music, and Tom Waits a little bit later on in my early 20s. I somehow missed all of that and that hit me like a freight train. But honestly, what I put on now is usually lyric-less. I listen to a lot of jazz piano, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum.
RW: Does that have an effect on your writing? After you immerse yourself in their music do you feel like you take something and incorporate that into your music?
CB: Oh god, I wish. No, that’s like an alien octopus. It’s so strange to me. I played a lot more piano during Covid and I know theory and all of that stuff and I learned these little more advanced jazz things. I have aspirations further than just strumming cowboy chords, but melodically I tend to be very linear. How I would say it, is how I would sing it. There are no big Burt Bacharach leaps. My voice is naturally limiting. So, I express myself a little more broad sonically than I do with melody.
RW: Do you see yourself in any particular genre?
CB: I try not to, to be honest. I know everybody says that but I really try to avoid it. I like the license that somebody like Tom Waits has given himself. He pulls from blues, country, German theater, avant-garde stuff and Tin Pan Alley. But, obviously it’s all united by that voice. I don’t have that idiosyncratic voice to unite it but I do want to give myself the freedom to work wherever the songs want to go. I never really sit down and decide. I never say, “I’m going to write this kind of song,” or “I’m going to write about this.” I just tend to follow it down whatever alley it wants to go. Even when it comes to recording, I tend to not overthink it.
RW: Do you write music first or lyrics?
CB: The lyrics, more often than not. Usually I tend to write in meter or to a rhythm, just innately. It seems to start sectioning itself off in a song. Usually the way I would say a thing is how I would sing it, and I make sure it has interesting hooks where it needs. Occasionally, I will have a little something I like and I will put lyrics to it but usually it’s lyrics first or it happens simultaneously.
RW: Your ideas for lyrics, do they pop into your head….are they a feeling?
CB: I try to stay observant and jot and I have a gigantic scrapyard of stuff. I definitely don’t sit down and wait for inspiration. The work itself generates that, and then I usually find out what I want to say by saying it. At 47 I feel like I have no wisdom to impart…no practical advice. So, I’ll write and I’ll stumble onto something and I say, “Ok, that’s true.” So, I have to recognize it as it surfaces.
RW: Do you feel like your writing process has been the same since you started or has it changed over the years?
CB: I think that’s always been it, a nebulous gathering of things and then piecing them together and seeing what works. I like to balance things. Usually a song will suggest its inverse to me. If I have something that I want to say that’s a little sentimental or saccharin, I’ll balance it with something hard, and conversely anything dark, all my darkest stuff has jokes in it. I usually find they create themselves with this balance and I can see what’s missing in a song, what it needs to be balanced. The only thing that’s really changed drastically is up until a few years ago I never wrote on the road. For some reason I would always wait til I was done and had that energy and restlessness. Then, once I had kids I had to learn to write on the road. I’m a little more productive on the road these days.
RW: Do you go to concerts yourself?
CB: Absolutely…well, yes and no. I’m a bit of a hermit in general. I don’t get out much at all but when I do it’s music. I need to have my face ripped off at least once a month and I’ve been lucky to have lived in cities where that’s always possible. When I left Memphis and Mississippi, I moved to LA, NJ, Austin and Nashville so there’s always been access to the fountain.
RW: Are there any dream musicians you’d love to meet or play with?
CB: I’ve actually met a lot of my heroes. Just off the top of my head, I’d love to meet Joni Mitchell. She’s one of my favorite songwriters. I know that’s a big ask. Elton John is not retired apparently, so I still want to see Elton. I’m a huge fan. I’ve managed to let some of these greats slip through. That’s what I always regret. I never saw Waylon. I still haven’t seen Steely Dan.
RW: That’s one of my favorites. I saw the band before Walter Becker passed away and with just Donald Fagen. He still sounds great.
CB: Yeah, I blew it before Becker died but I’d still like to see Fagen.
RW: I’m looking forward to seeing you perform on Friday night in Neptune at Cat’s Luck. I’ve never been there but I’m excited to check it out.
CB: Yeah, I don’t know anything about it. I play one of these kind of places every once in a while. There’s a punk rock place somewhere on the coast in California called the Crepe Place. The first time I was like, “That’s a weird name for a club.” Then I pulled up and went, “Oh, it’s a crepe place.” When they close, all the seats come out and it turns into this sort of a punk rock space. I like playing a DIY club now and again. Friday will be a super mellow, small show. I like that. It breaks up the monotony of dive bar to dive bar to songwriter room. I like a strange gig now and then. Where better to have a strange gig than in Jersey!
RW: How very true….NJ can be strange!