It's hard to classify the music of Cory Branan. The Nashville-based artist clearly works on a country platform, but casts himself more in the Tom Waits mold of storytelling, using whatever musical form fits the tale. Given the varied sounds found on his latest release, Mutt, his first release in four years, he's not that far off.
We're not ready to crown him the next Waits just yet, but Branan works blues, folk, country, psych, and blue collar rock into the mix, supporting his songs about love, loss, misunderstanding, and bad reputations. He's earned a good dose of critical acclaim, which is nice, but doesn't always fill venues or sell records. Branan says he's not content ("I don't think I'll ever be content") with where his career is, but Mutt shows his determination to make music his way.
Up on the Sun tracked Branan down at his Nashville home to talk about Mutt, songwriting, and his potentially controversial album cover art.
Up on the Sun: You just released your first album in six years. That's like an eternity in the competitive music world. What have you been up to?
Cory Branan: I released a 7" record a couple years ago, so there were some small things out there, but this is the first full length. I recorded this record two years ago, so it was four year between records, but I did some shopping with it. I wanted to find the right home for it.
So what were you looking for then? There must have been plenty of labels interested in putting this out.
There were a handful, but they were just going to put it out. I needed a hardworking label that would work the label for the life of it instead of just throwing a little bit of attention at it for two months and then put it in the back catalog. Bloodshot works the record until the next one comes out. I like that.
The album has a track called "Ballad of a Bad Man." Is this autobiographical?
It's more about people who won't mind their own business in a small town and getting it wrong. Sort of having a bad reputation and deserving it, but not for the reasons they are saying.
But, is this autobiographical?
Yeah, hell yeah [laughs]. It's about my life in Memphis, which is a small town.
Musically, there's a real country feel to the music, but with aspects of rock, blues, and soul as well. Is there one way you define yourself?
No, not really. I try not to. That's almost the point of it. I think I'm more like someone like Tom Waits who comes from whatever genre or American roots stuff that seems to suit the song. It got to the point that I ended up calling the record Mutt. That's where the title comes from.
On the Mutt cover: It's more like a Mississippi cult muse. I didn't want to half-ass it, but the label wasn't scared of it. It's amazing, we're pretty uptight with culture here in the states.
These days everyone seems to want a cut and dried name to everything, so I give you a lot of credit for going your own way. Has it always been this way for you?
I guess it has, to the point that I knew I'd probably shoot myself in the foot. It'd be easier to [say I'm an] Americana artist, but there's not really a scene for [what I'm doing]. But as a touring musician it keeps me in work a little more.
Your lyrics are quite detailed in that you really get a sense of the characters, like the listener knows them. Do you put as much time into the lyrics as the music?
Much more time in the lyrics, absolutely. I put much more time into the lyrics than the arrangement. The music's kind of intuitive and fast; I cut it on the fly. In the actual recording process I've never really done more than two or three takes. I try to keep that pretty immediate. I put much more into the lyrics and songwriting, then I just try to work the music to sound like it means.
Do you have a set goal within a song?
Not necessarily with a template or anything. I just need to feel it's whole and complete in a way. If there are open-ended things, that's fine. It makes it more provocative. People think I've left something out, but there's always a reason for that omission. I tend to find if it doesn't immediately make sense to me then I work on it awhile until the form feels right.
"Survivor Blues" appears twice on Mutt in very different versions. Is it that you couldn't decide which one was better, or were you trying to get at two different things with the different versions?
It was originally that the faster version was more of the spirit of what I was saying and the other version was, even though it's a little depressing, there's a bit of hope in that song, but it's just a qualified hope. I like them both; they just brought out different aspects of the lyrics. The song's a good song, but there's different ways of hearing it.
You have to explain the album cover. The nude with a crocodile face is bound to raise some questions, maybe some ire?
Really, ire huh? I wouldn't have thought that. It's more like a Mississippi cult muse. I didn't want to half-ass it, but the label wasn't scared of it. It's amazing, we're pretty uptight with culture here in the states. Amazon is censoring it, but I saw it as is on the Best Buy website with no black bar. I took a lot of care and time with it. I tried to find a more classically statuesque model. It's supposed to be woman as goddess instead of just naked woman. Depending on how people see it, maybe they will act a little weird with it.
This is your third album. Hoping this one will be the breakout, or content with where you're at?
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I'm not content; I don't think I'll ever be content. I pretty much know what kind of music I make and it's not going to be going anywhere. I'm happy to be working. I'd like to be able to work a little less and a little better. Instead of 130 shows a year, it'd be nice to play 100 shows a year to twice as many people. It's just a practical application of more people at the party. That's would be fine by me.
Cory Branan is scheduled to perform Wednesday, July 11, at the Rhythm Room.