w/Cory Branan

Darren C. Demaree
Cory Branan has one of the most active minds in songwriting today. His ability to mold poetry, pop-culture, and dive-bar ethos into his songs is incredible. He has been one of my favorites since his first album, “The Hell You Say”, and remains as such with his most recent (his fourth) “The No-Hit Wonder”. I had a chance to chat with him recently about the new album, about songwriting, and about what musical challenges he plans on undertaking next.
Darren C. Demaree: Where are you today?
Cory Branan: I’m in Nazareth. I had a day off after I played The Loft last night; so I came here to tour Martin Guitars, do the factory thing. I’m playing Philly tonight.
DCD: Where in Philly?
CB: Boot & Saddle. I’ve played it once before. It’s got a long bar in the front, and nice empty room in the back. It’s kind of nice.
DCD: Sounds like fun. Now, most of my questions are going to be about writing, but the last time you and I got to talk we were down in Tuscaloosa (Alabama), outside of Egan’s.
CB: That has been a piece then, hasn’t it, that’s been about five years now.
DCD: That sounds about right. I had gotten married a couple of years before that and I was telling you how “Easy” had been runner up to Leonard Cohen’s “Tonight Will Be Fine” for my first dance song.
CB: That’s funny. I got married two years ago, and ours was (Leonard Cohen’s) “Dance Me to the End of Love”.
DCD: Back at Egan’s you were saying if you ever got married your first dance song would be (Gary U.S. Bonds’) “I Want to Holler But The Town Is Too Small”.
CB: That’s too much of a dance song, but it made it into the mix. That’s funny. I was consistent with that one. It was in the wedding mix. My wife’s first dance with her father was a Cat Stevens song that she was born to, not conceived to, that would have been icky.
DCD: Very true. I wanted to ask you about your writing process, and you how write the songs you’re performing now.
CB: You know, to call it a process would be very generous. It’s pretty nebulous. I just grab some things here and there. Now that I have kids any structure that I had before has gone out the window. It just comes in pieces, and I either get the fragments back together later on, or sometimes, you know, they will just jump into your lap whole. They fall out of the sky. When I go fishing I like to take a line and a pole, I don’t expect the fish to just jump into the boat. I just write when it comes to me as far as then here and there, and they’ll just go down on the voice memo or whatever, and when I’m luck enough to have a few spare hours I just sit down and do it. There’s not a whole lot of waiting for the myth of inspiration. I just do it. I normally write thought it, I’ll over-write, and then I’ll keep writing. I’m usually not that interested in the first few songs I write. A song will become three songs, and then somewhere it will be interesting to me, then I go back with a machete.
DCD: There’s not much elegance to it when you’re fitting things in with kids. I’ve currently got one watching a video, and the other is taking a nap. You get it in when you can. I wrote my entire second book with something animated on in the background.
CB: You don’t have a life anymore. It’s great though, because you give it to them. It’s the best thing. It returns dividends, much more than music has ever. They’re also little pains in the ass (laughing). I’m not hermetic about the process, I mean, I don’t need total silence, but a minimum amount of breaking my eardrum helps.
DCD: When you sit down to write are you listening to anything in particular or are you just taking what’s given to you at that point?
CB: Yeah, I rarely, this is a shameful admission; I rarely listen to new music, or really music at all. When I’m listening for pleasure, it’s normally on the road, and it’s usually recorded before 1948. I love old blues and jazz. That’s the stuff that I like to listen to. I don’t listen to a whole lot of songwriters. I listen to my buddies. For years of doing this on the road, I’ve fallen in with some rad people, and when my buddies have new records out I will check those out. Anybody I’ve played with I listen to on principal. I’m not the thirstiest guy for new music.
DCD: In the past, when we’ve talked, you’ve got as much to say about poetry than about anything else.
CB: Yeah, I read poetry more than I listen to music, but then again I peek at some anthologies, but in terms of actively searching out the next generation of poets, I’m negligible with that as well.
DCD: Plenty of good old stuff to re-discover if the anthology has a good editor.
CB: Oh yeah. I just did some piece with someone in New York, and they were asking me about a good read, and I couldn’t remember anything. I felt terrible. I’ve had audio books read to me, but I just ended up talking about Lorca’s essays, how much I love that. That counts as reading.
DCD: Well, you always do a great job of weaving together the poetry and the pop-culture, how does that balance come about?
CB: Hopefully organically, out of necessity I don’t plan that. I’ve always been attracted to the kind of poetry that’s invisible. I take things here and there just because they amuse me. When I’m writing I try, especially with this new record, I tried to make these things really sturdy, where you don’t see the writing in them as much. A little more Frost than Wallace Stevens. I’m trying to emulate those minor works (laughing). I like a conversational, off-hand poetry that if you look at it it’s obviously highly structured and well written.
DCD: Right. It doesn’t have to have a rhythm and rhyme to it for it to have some music in the lines.
CB: Absolutely. I try to work in miniature. It’s just a three and a half minute song. I have some “Blonde on Blonde”, more ambitious, sprawling things, but I’m a big fan of pop songs. I’m a big fan of that. I think Tom Petty and Robert Frost, that’s some good rock n’ roll. It’s just that carefully chosen words in any arena…
DCD: Well, you got bigger songs, like “The Last Man on Earth” and you’ve got great, quick rock songs like “The Prettiest Waitress in Memphis”. It’s an interesting dichotomy.
CB: Yeah, one day you want to be, my hero is Leonard Cohen that day when I wake up, and the next day you want to write “Louie Louie”. It also helps, because I play, you know, I go where the work is, so I’m out on my own headlining tour, and I joined up on tour with Against Me! and Justin Townes Earle, so sometimes you get the songwriter room and sometimes you get a big punk rock room. It’s just nice to go in armed to the teeth.
DCD: And if they looked bored you can just jump into “White Tee Girls” and see how things go.
CB: I don’t know if I even remember that thing.
DCD: Well, you talked about not listening to a lot of new music, and you mentioned Leonard Cohen…Have any of your buddies written anything lately, where you just said, “Well, fuck you dude, that’s too good”?
CB: Yeah, well of course Jason (Isbell’s) last record was fantastic, you know I like that elephant song. It felt like a Carver short story or something. It’s the one where the girl has cancer, and it’s just hinging on the fact that we tried to ignore the elephants in the room.  It’s just friends drinking at the bar, it’s tender, but it has that line that I think makes the song, it’s like “If I’d have fucked her before she got sick, I would have never heard the end of this. She doesn’t have the spirit for this now.” It’s almost an un-trustworthy narrator. It balances the tenderness and the sentimentality of the song so well, and you’re just like, okay, there you go Jason. I think that’s fantastic. There’s some more, like John Moreland and Adam Faucett. I liked Tim Easton’s last record a lot.
DCD: Well, with this new album and how aware it is of with the title, “No-Hit Wonder”, does it feel a little bit like you’re writing for the next meal or is this album that point where you pushed past all of that. Were you feeling pressure, and then just said fuck it, this is who I am?
CB: No. It just came together as a group of songs, and I was noticing there was more roots songs, they were leaning that way. A few of them had been around for a while, like “Meantime Blues”, “(Daddy Was A) Skywriter”, “Sour Mash”, those were just some of my little bastards that had been nipping at my legs for years. As I was noticing the record was sort of headed there, I just bundled them in there for the hell of it. There are two songs that deal directly with career. There are some that are about the road, and I normally stay away from that, but they opened up enough I thought to use. “No-Hit Wonder” is not even about me, it’s about all the people I see just treading water out there, trying to make a career out of this without changing, without shouting “Hey” and “Ho” because it’s on the radio. They’re not becoming part of this quasi-folk fad that really has very little to do with folk music. I know a lot of people that just refuse to take shortcuts.
DCD: You’ve always had a good group of guys around you, and I think that sort of thing is going to resonate more in a group that refuses to take any shortcuts at all. Did the shortcuts start to look more appealing when your family started to grow?
CB: Yeah, I don’t think I would have that choice in front of me, even if I wanted to make it. I’m too drawn to idiosyncratic songs, and also I’ve got this voice to work with. When I hope my mouth, I have no idea what it’s going to do today. In general though, I have started putting more of the medicine in the verses, and the chorus is bigger. It’s a little bit more of an old school approach to simplified songwriting, keeping no more than a few layers going at any time. I just sort of started relaxing into these songs. I think it’s because I’m on a label now that’s going to put out a record every year and a half. I used to worry that it was going to take so long for these records to come out that I would put all the songs on there. I would worry about that. I’ve got seventy or eighty that have never been recorded, that were stacking up and weight on me, and now I think everything will come out eventually. I can relax and make records that actually fit on vinyl. This record sort of presented itself, as oh these are the songs. I only cut the eleven. I didn’t cut a bunch, and then go back and think I had to choose.
DCD: That had to feel good.
CB: It did. It came together well. It also helped that I was working with a more straightforward...I could translate this to the players more easily.
DCD: Is that freedom going to give you more room to be ornery? What’s on the horizon after this album?
CB: I’m not sure. I sort of always wanted to do folk songs in the old sense of the word folk. The ballad, narrative type thing. I’m tempted to do that record. I’m trying to improve as a player before I do that record. I’m really into Normal Blake, the cross picking. If I could make a finger picking album, and hold my own that would be great. It’s beyond my grasp at the moment, but I’ll get there.