“Sorry, I hope I’m not talking in circles,” Jay Brannan says, apologizing for a bit of rambling that was more articulate than he thinks. The 31-year-old singer-songwriter, who made a splash in John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, and has since gone on to build an avid following thanks to touring and YouTube, has quite a lot to say, which is nothing new. From cranking out cheeky, poetic tracks and engaging his audiences with anecdotes to baring his soul (and more) on camera since the dawn of the social-media boom, Brannan has long been hooked on expressing himself, preferably without censors. As he tells it, he’s also hooked on globetrotting, a passion he’s merged with his love of language on his new EP, Around the World in 80 Jays, which dropped this week.
Featuring nine international cover songs that Brannan croons in six different languages (among the selections is Selena’s upbeat—and offbeat—single “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”), Around the World in 80 Jays has all the singularly buoyant yet defiant attitude Brannan’s fans have come to expect, while doubling as a vehicle to help share what he’s gained while constantly getting his passport stamped. The EP release comes just before two shows this weekend at New York’s Joe’s Pub, a favorite haunt of Brannan’s, and soon to follow is a world tour in the fall. Often returning to the themes of language and travel, Brannan chatted with me at length about his “horrible” German, his stance as a gay artist, David Lynch, and the odds of getting a job at 50 after broadcasting video of himself singing on the toilet.
Any of your Facebook fans can see that you’re constantly posting photos of the places you’ve been, so it seems only natural that you’d release something honoring your travels. When did you feel like you’d hit enough map points to do something like this?
Well, traveling has become this addiction of mine. There’s something about exploring new places that really makes me feel alive, and I think that’s something I’ve searched for my entire life. It’s kind of become a drug for me. The covers EP came about from the fact that I’ve gotten to perform in so many different places, and it was also inspired by a trick I learned from John Cameron Mitchell. He taught me about learning a song in the language of a country that you’re visiting, because people really appreciate it. So I started doing that, and people responded to it. And I think they think it’s funny that you’re trying to sing in their language and you’re really horrible at it. So I amassed this collection of foreign-language cover songs from touring, and I’ve wanted to record them for a long time. And I’m sure no one can understand what I’m saying [Laughs], but I just wanted to do it, so finally I did.
And it has you singing in six languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Portuguese. Which was the hardest to nail down?
Probably German, because I have the least amount of knowledge of German. I mean, I’m obsessed with languages, honestly; it’s one of the few academic interests that I truly have. I lived in Canada as a child, so I learned some basic French. I’m from Texas, so I’ve been around Spanish my whole life. I’ve taken some basic lessons in Italian and Portuguese. My German is absolutely horrible, so I’m sure that song [“Du Hast den Schönsten Arsch der Welt”] sounds pretty scary to a German speaker. But it’s a fun song if you know what it means.
What does it mean?
Well, it was this super-big club hit in Germany, and Switzerland, and Austria, and it has these really poetic, beautiful lyrics, like, “Your hair is so beautiful,” “You have the softest skin,” and “I love your eyes.” And it all rhymes in German, so it’s kind of clever-sounding. But then the last line is like, “You have the sweetest ass in the world.” [Laughs] So it’s a little bit tongue in cheek.
And you were once a proofreader of legal documents for a translation company? That sounds like it might be a boring job, but relevant and helpful for your purposes here.
Yeah, it was a little bit tedious. The company translated legal documents, and I was one of the people who proofread the translations. I mean, I proofread the English ones, and I didn’t necessarily understand them because it was a very high level of language, from a scientific and legal perspective. But you could still proofread for basic grammar and make sure it matched the original document. And although it was tedious, it was a really good job to have. It really made it possible for me to pursue music because it was well-paid, and it was flexible, and I could work nights and weekends. And since it was an independent contractor job, I could travel for a few weeks on tour and things like that. Plus it was really close to my house.
So language is tied to your career in a lot of ways.
Yeah, it’s just something I gravitate toward. I have a genuine fascination with it. Even with English; that’s part of the reason I enjoy writing my own songs. You can play with language in a way that lets you say what you want to say, but also sounds interesting, or clever, or lets you put a different spin on an old cliché. Do you speak any of those languages [on the EP]?
Your last name looks like it’s Norwegian or something.
Yeah, well, I’m part Swedish. So the name has Swedish roots.
But you don’t have any Swedish-language skills?
No. Nor have I been to Sweden.
You should go. Stockholm is really pretty.
Where haven’t you been?
[Laughs] Lots of places. I have been lucky enough to visit lots of major cities in the world, and like I said, it’s become this sort of obsession, so I’ve found ways, via [frequent flyer] miles or friends who work for airlines, to go to completely random places where I don’t get to work. But I can still drop in on a budget, just to take some pictures.
You’re someone who started gaining a following through MySpace and YouTube before social media was “the thing.” You’ve really weathered this arc of how modern people put themselves out there. Do you ever feel like, “Hey, I was way ahead of you guys on this”? Like when you love a song before it’s popular?
[Laughs] Well, no, I don’t. If anything, I feel lucky, I guess, because I came into that world at a very specific moment in time. And it was the right moment for me. There was this small-window period where the Internet was available to everybody, and there were all these tools that you could use to create content, and put it out there, without any obstacles or roadblocks. There were no gatekeepers deciding what kind of content could reach the masses. All the major labels, for example, hadn’t yet accepted that [social media] was here to stay, so they weren’t on board, and it was kind of a free-for-all. In those days…listen to me, like it was a million years ago! [Laughs] But, really, in those days there was no customizable content on the home page of YouTube, so anybody who went to the site saw whatever the site chose to feature that day. And I was featured on the home page one day with this “Soda Shop” video that I posted, with me on the toilet with my pants down. I wasn’t expecting to get much attention from it, but within an hour, I had 2,000 emails. And I don’t think that could happen anymore. Because the major labels have now gotten involved too, and they’ve established direct relationships with the site. So when you go to YouTube today, you’re seeing a Beyoncé video; you’re not seeing a kid in a bedroom.