Branan, a Mississippi-bred folk rocker, was sentenced to a life of basement shows playing “wank guitar” (his words) in metal bands before he expanded his influences and discovered punk rock, which led to folk. The legendary Prine became one of his new heroes, and Branan switched off the amp and put away the distortion pedal in order to make room for his acoustic guitar.
Over the next few years he turned in a couple of brilliant, if little heard albums, and is back with quite possibly his best yet – Mutt (Bloodshot Records).
Branan spoke recently about going into the studio before signing to a label, working with American Music Club’s Tim Mooney and the brilliance of John Prine.
IW: You recorded Mutt without a label lined up. Were you apprehensive at all about that?
Cory Branan: [Laughs] Was no more apprehensive than usual with recording. Playing it by ear out here – especially since music “industry” as anyone knew it is dead and is shape-shifting through an amorphous blob phase. An exciting, frustrating, potentially revolutionary amorphous blob.
IW: How long had you been working on the songs that made Mutt? While you’re at it, what can you tell me about the album?
Branan: I don’t get to record as often as I’d like, so some of these songs were pulled from the stacks. One in particular (“Darken My Door”) is from when I first began writing about 10 years ago. Looking through all the songs in light of the newer ones, I noticed a narrative that I wouldn’t have had the perspective to organize from the trenches.
This record is definitely more purposefully organized thematically than my last record 12 Songs , which was titled to suggest just that, a batch of songs. We recorded and mixed at Closer Studios in San Francisco with American Music Club’s Tim Mooney engineering.
IW: Was this your first time working with Tim Mooney?
Branan: It was my first time to meet and work with Tim, killer engineer, great drummer. He was originally going to play drums on the entire record, but we ended up getting a heavy named Dave Douglas on drums, which freed Tim up to work his studio black magic.
IW: Any other guests on this record?
Branan: The amazingly strange and wonderful horns of Ralph Carney [probably best known for his long association with Tom Waits] on three tracks. Even though we recorded in San Francisco – with the exception of the vocals I did at Ardent in Memphis – I still sent tracks back to piano player Rick Steff [Lucero, Hank Williams Jr., etc.] to sprinkle on a little Memphis dirt.
IW: You recorded this album before committing to a label and ultimately signed with Bloodshot Records. When we last spoke you mentioned the best you could hope for was “a modest workhorse label with their ear to the ground and their feet to the fire.” Do these guys fit that description?
Branan: If any label fits that description it’s Bloodshot. I know other artists that have been on the label quite a while, and speaking from their experience it’s a label that walks the talk. I’m truly stoked to be working with them.
IW: So is it true that John Prine saved you from the heavy metal life? I’ve actually talked to a number of musicians who have similar stories. What was it about his music that appealed to you?
Branan: [Laughs] It wasn’t as cut and dry as turning from one type of music to another. All my metal days were when I was a wank guitarist in my teens in local death metal and thrash bands in Mississippi. Growing up in Mississippi you sort of take music as you can get it – Iron Maiden, Fugazi, Eazy-E, Guns ‘N Roses – it was all equally revelatory at the time. Anything that wasn’t the gospel/country/rockabilly/blues cocktail you grew up with.
And then slowly I gravitated to the kind of immediacy and “honesty” you find in punk music, which ever so slowly brought me back to the truth that was always there in folk music. And at around age 24 I heard John Prine, and that was it for me (not to mention my simultaneous and admittedly late discovery of Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen).
IW: It’s been a few years since your last release. What have you been doing in the time between albums?
Branan: Touring my ass off. Have never had the luck to be the kind of recording artist that gets to release a proper record every year, but put me in a room with a person with a pulse, and I can do my job.
IW: You spend a lot of time on the road. Has 2012 been any different?
Branan: Two thousand and twelve is shaping up to be the most ground I’ve ever covered in a year, although I still have one state left to play. Know a good Hawaiian gig?
IW: So what’s next for you?
Branan: I’ll be touring in Canada and Europe, then the States again, then Europe and UK with Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour. Then possibly Australia, then I get to work on the next record. Left foot, right foot