March 01, 2007

Cory Branan - Words' Worth

By Steven Rosenfeld

With a Southerner's gift for storytelling, CORY BRANAN shines on 12 Songs


Cory Branan

Cory Branan is not a singer-songwriter who picks up an acoustic guitar to reveal a bleeding heart. He's a gregarious, witty, poignant observer who delights in confounding listeners' expectations in character-filled songs with unusual storylines. His 2006 release, 12 Songs, highlights his quieter and louder musical sides, but beyond the wide range of music and mood, it is Branan's lyrics that really stands out.

"The only thing I take pride in is my writing. It sure as hell isn't my singing voice," says Branan, who grew up in a Mississippi suburb and started writing at age 25. "I take time with the words. Personally, I like lots of contradictions and juxtapositions. I am just attracted to that in life in general and in people. So some of the songs have real wide swings in them."

Wide swings indeed! A song about the prettiest waitress in Memphis ends not with the usual guy-gets-girl motif. In a typical lyrical hairpin turn, Branan triumphantly declares she's no longer the prettiest waitress in town because he just left town with her. Another song, "A Girl Named Go," is an exuberant rocker that takes a similar twist when the girl he is infatuated with plies him with drinks and tells him to drive, turn up the radio and floor the accelerator.

"Sweet Janine" flips a dark memory of a childhood best friend's drowning into a song about a young girl who suffers the same fate but then, somehow, it is the singer who has just been killed in a car crash. Suddenly the singer himself is the victim, a dark narrative turn that seems more at place in traditional folk music than its modern counterpart.

"You have to balance it," Branan says, explaining his writing technique. "If you're going to say something that's inherently sweet, you have to balance it with something that's throwaway or dismissive. I am attracted to characters like that, that are ludicrously complex, but set in a very traditional song."

When asked if he considers himself a Southern songwriter, he demurs. Branan says he grew up in the suburbs, which is not the same as being from rural Mississippi. While there are plenty of images of escaping to the countryside in his songs, Branan says the South's biggest impact on him is its zero tolerance for "BS" when dealing with people.

"I play solo - and I am guilty of this," he explains. "When I see a white male get up and about to play, I think, 'Oh God, here it comes.' I'm about to learn about this white kid's feelings. It's really hard to make me care. So I don't expect anybody else to care. So I think I start off with that - I have that thing."

Branan says his response are songs filled with characters rather than confessions. "I start off and try to make a different impression of myself," he said. "I try not to go over the top for a reaction if I can show something that's inherently sad and I can show it in an understated way."

His "All These Little Cowboys" takes aim at people who are too selfabsorbed. "I have a lot of self-destructive friends," he says. "You go through that for a while, and if you survive it, it starts to get old. I have a few songwriter friends who do that, too. They think they have to crack their heart open like a fortune cookie or keep their lives in disarray to get a song. The best thing I ever heard on that was John Prine, who said 'I'd rather have a hot dog than a song.'"

Fortunately for Branan, he has plenty of songs. Most of the tracks on 12 Songs were written around his first recording in 2002. While the songs weren't exactly new, he took different approaches for the recording. Big Star's Jody Steven played drums on two cuts. Older finger-style guitar songs like "Tall Green Grass" got a gritty low-fi makeover. And "Love Song 11 (secretly enamored)" has a sexy minimalist rhythm track.

"It just took forever to get stuff recorded. There was no burning bush," Branan says. "I've written about 70 or 80 songs since then. I'm sitting on quite a bit of stuff. That's my thing. One day I want to write something like Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" and the next day I want to write "Louie, Louie."