Mississippi-born songwriter Cory Branan makes his way to Australian shores for the first time next month in support of his latest album, last year’s ‘Mutt’. We caught up with Branan ahead of the tour to chat storytelling, influences and "live-action" paintings.
Last year you released ‘Mutt’, your third album, a decade after releasing your first album ‘The Hell You Say’. What sort of differences came up in terms of approaching and shaping the album as opposed to ten years ago?
I’ve never really been happy recording songs with just me and an acoustic guitar, I tend to hear them different ways. I think I’ve found some more natural ways to dress them up. It was a long time between the records, but that was all just bad business. I’ve been writing steadily, so they kind of stack up. I got to choose from a bunch of songs, new ones and old ones, and kind of pick the ones that worked together thematically.
I felt there was definitely a strong thematic coherency with the lyrics, what kind of ideas were central to the album’s themes?
Yeah, and that’s actually the only way they’re really linked. They’re pretty aesthetically grab-bag, but that’s just how I’ve always been. I grew up in Mississippi exposed to all kind of roots music, but I was also a little hoodrat with a skateboard and MTV, you know? It was whatever you could get a hold of. I had Black Flag but I also had Eazy-E. For me, it was just stuff that pissed my parents off – but yeah, the 12 or 13 songs I definitely picked out of the hat to try and represent a sort of ‘growing up’ record. What do you do, you know? Once the veneers’ worn off, and you’ve hurt people, and let yourself down. What do you do with the pieces? A lot of the songs dealt with that. And they were all from different time periods. One of the songs on there is one of the first songs I ever wrote and had just been laying around that worked with that.
I think your entire back catalogue has this very great kind of visceral, personal element about that. What’s your songwriting process like in that regard?
It’s different all the time. I don’t really sit down to write songs, I’m always just kind of jotting shit down. I tend to write in metre, I tend to write with rhythms in my head. I just tend to over-write, then strip the shit out of it. No real set process, I try to just keep it loose. But as far as the personal element, usually the closer something is to me, the more it means to me, the more I’ll distance it in the songs and re-cast whatever I felt or experienced into other characters. The ones that are story kind of songs are usually the ones that are closest to me, and I couldn’t get the distance to write about them.
Sure. I think that narrative element comes through pretty strongly.
Yeah, coming from the south, we’re definitely full of shit. We like to tell the stories [Laughs].
It’s your first Australian tour next month – what are you looking forward to?
I’m stoked. A lot of my friends have been there and loved it, and it’s pretty exciting for me. I’ve got a list of things that people have told me to do. I apparently have some family over there that I didn’t know about.
Oh, cool. You’ve become pretty well-known for a fairly relentless touring schedule, do you feel pretty comfortable at this stage with long stretches on the road?
Yeah. It’s different now, I’m married, I have a child and another kid on the way. There’s definitely more at home, it’s harder to pull away now, but if I don’t tour the lights don’t stay on at the house, so it’s bittersweet. But, in saying that, I’ve also in the past few years gotten to see a lot of the world on somebody else’s dime, so there’s that [Laughs].
With ‘Mutt’, I felt it was a pretty unique and individual record, but at the same time it seemed like you tipped your hat to some inspirations. Who are your biggest influences as far as both musically as well as writing and general creativity?
Sure. I didn’t write songs until I was almost 25 so I started pretty late. I heard John Prine and Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen all at the same time and that sort of changed everything, especially John Prine. That was the first time I’d heard really deceptively colloquial poetry. You feel like you could just have a beer with the guy, but then you start really listening to the stuff and you start to hear quite dark undertones and you can tell he’s leaving out every third thing. I love that. As far as aesthetically on ‘Mutt’, I got close to Tom Waits territory on some of the creepier ones. I felt a little weird doing it, but it definitely put it over the top. I had Ralph Carney, Tom Waits’ horn guy play on it, and once he did that I was kind of like “Oh shit, I’m stepping a little under that block”. It’s hard to do a creepy story song and not touch on Tom Waits somewhere. But I mean, there’s nods to Mellencamp and Springsteen here and there. I get in the studio and I start hearing things like that and I’m like “fuck it”, if the songs wants to go that way I go with it. I never do it on purpose, but I can tell when it’s starting to go there.
‘Mutt’ has a pretty interesting album cover, what’s the story there?
Yeah, I dreamt that. I was kind of going for a Frida Kahlo type live-action painting. It’s supposed to be like a “Mississippi Muse” type thing. It was actually quite tricky getting the right model. I needed it to be “Woman” with a capital W, you know? My wife volunteered, but she has tattoos. She would’ve been great, but people would have recognised the tattoos. I’d be paying people to go away from the merch table – "quit looking at my wife!", you know? [Laughs] I had to make the mask, I couldn’t find a gator mask. My wife loves it, it’s hanging on our mantle. It’s like, three feet long. You can’t tell on the record cover, but it’s huge.
Thanks for chatting Cory, see you in September.
Thanks, I appreciate it. Take care.
Cory Branan tours throughout Australia next month. Head here for dates and details.