On this lovely evening, we have a very special guest here on Dragadventures – you might know him as the producer of Trixie (Mattel‘s) success albums or maybe you saw him perform during her tour, but did you know that this musical ‚wunderkind’ is also a trained musical theatre performer as well as an award-winning writer and recently released his first solo album and single? No? So, what are you waiting for – sit back, relax and read our chat with the lovely Brandon James Gwinn and discover this thoughts on music, friendship, confidence and of course, what he would do if he were Cristal Conners for a day!
Dragadventures: Hi Brandon! Thank you for taking the time to chat with us! How are you in this (still) crazy, kind-of-post-pandemic world of 2021?
Brandon James Gwinn: Just like all of us, I am hanging in there.
DA: Any new hobbies or other coping mechanisms you have discovered for yourself since last year (as in since the virus we shall not name put a halt to most activities, entertainment industry included?)
BJG: Actually, earlier during quarantine, I started hanging with a small group of friends who enjoy board and card games (and wine of course). My sister, Erin, and I have always been huge fans of tabletop games like that, and I have found myself getting back into it lately. I even designed a couple! One of which is on sale at www.pianobarcardgame.com (wink )
Dragadventures: Speaking of music, you’ve branched out from being a producer to a solo star, what made you take the leap? Have you always seen yourself as a solo singer? Is there anyone special who influenced you to take the path into music? Any particular artist that you grew up with?
BJG: I have always thought of myself as a songwriter first. I have found a voice as a singer sort-of out of necessity; I needed to be able to interpret what I wrote. And, I’ve always performed in and around piano bars as part of my living. After producing Trixie’s first two albums she took me on tour with her as her opener and back-up (she had seen me in bars for years at that point), and that really gave me the confidence that if I made something of my own, maybe folx would like it and listen.
Dragadventures: Since you took that big step of becoming a singer of your own right yourself, which must have been nerve-wracking, at times – What would you tell aspiring artists that may be doubting themselves and/or be afraid to truly be themselves?
BJG: I think that a lot of people are like me and spend 90% of their time doubting themselves, and that is nothing but a distraction and a trap. I really feel like you have to dream it to be it, and being yourself helps, but it’s just a first step on the path of becoming something. I am a HUGE believer in “fake it til you make it” because, for me, it takes the pressure off of being “great” (maybe you are great… maybe you’re just faking it… either way you’ll get there if you want to). I told myself I didn’t have to be 18 to start to be a solo artist which is why I made NOT TOO LATE (my first EP).
Then I found I had more to say, and I had to talk myself into the idea that people would listen… even if I felt like I was “faking it” some of the time. BULLIT’s title is a cheeky nod and challenge to my imposter syndrome. As if to say… I might be BULL (shitting) IT but maybe I’m not. I am here, the album is here, and it’s what I have to say. I guess the best advice is just to keep going. If you have something to say and want to say it, do everything in your power to make it happen. And if you’re particularly amazing, call me, cause I’d love to produce.
Dragadventures: Looking at your biography, one realizes very quickly that you are an artistic person – You graduated in musical theatre and wrote an award-winning musical: What made you gravitate toward musicals, and for you what is the pinnacle holy grail of musicals that everyone has to see? If you could perform any role in your favorite musical, what would it be and why?
BJG: I think musicals are so varied, and I am very drawn to more contemporary or strange work that’s more conceptual in construction. Sitting in the dark watching a musical that is challenging the form and talking about the human condition in a new or exciting way is a thrill for me. I think Sondheim’s work is particularly important. His concept shows like Company and Assassins are required viewing IMHO. I also love when rock music is successfully used in theatrical contexts as in Hedwig and Hair. More recently my colleague and friend Michael R. Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize for his musical A Strange Loop, which is about blackness and queerness and is probably currently my favorite musical. It’s just brilliant. I have performed in productions of Cabaret a few times at this point in my career and I would do it again anytime. Similarly, I’ve conducted Chicago and would pick up that baton again in a heartbeat.
Dragadventures: Your debut album, Bullit, is described as ‘queer pop but also theatrical rock ‘n roll. It’s about messy ends, and the rocky, mirky, often uncertain paths many of us travel in life before getting to what we celebrate as new beginnings’ would you say you find music is a creative and therapeutic outlet to dealing with life?
BJG: For me, it has been the ONLY effective creative/therapeutic outlet for dealing with life. I use music not only as a tool in my career but as the biggest part of my artistic life. I truly think that something like two decades of music in my life every day has helped my mental and physical health. A good friend of mine (the incomparable jazz and NYC piano bar singer Jennifer Pace) always says “Music is Life” and she is SO incredibly correct.
Dragadventures: Your first single is an homage to a famous character from the movie Showgirls – what made you want to portray Cristal Conners for your music video and does she have any characteristics you would love to have in real life? If you could be her for a whole day, how would you spend it?
BJG: This is such a fun question! I think that the way Gena Gershon vamps through the movie Showgirls as the character Cristal Conners is iconic (and I know that word is overused right now but I mean it!). In such a strange movie (but it’s fabulous!) she gives dimension to an otherwise flat character. I think a prequel origin story for Cristal is in order! She’s dangerous but hilarious. She has fragility but is incredibly strong. I want to move through the world with that kind of glamour, confidence, and that sureness in exactly who I am. Oh… and the accent. Gotta love the accent. I happen to love Vegas. So, If I was Cristal for a day, I’d do everything that the city has to offer; gamble, have a few drinks, sign a few autographs, ride every roller coaster on the strip, and still make it back to my dressing room with plenty of time to prepare to star in GODDESS!
Dragadventures: Also, since you got ‘dragged up’ by drag queen and make-up artist Chelsea Piers for your video: How long did the process take, and did you have a favorite moment in the ‘transformation process’?
BJG: Chelsea is a star of a make-up artist and really knows how to paint my face. She had done it before so I was really grateful she was available to do it for the video. And what’s more is, even though she works something like 6 nights a week in the bars in NYC, she was doing my makeup at 6 am so we’d be ready by the 10 am call at the set, (so it took four hours). And honestly, I HATE sitting for make-up. All I wanna do is run away the whole time (laughing). My favorite moment is when Chelsea is done and you see how fucking talented a makeup artist she is. Then add the wig and it’s like I’m not there anymore and Cristal is. It’s really something and almost makes me want to do drag more often… but then I think of those 4 hours!
Dragadventures: Staying on the subject of fabulous drag – you produced Trixie Mattel’s popular and well-loved ‘Two Birds’ and ‘One Stone’. What is the process of producing an album, how long does it take and what’s your favorite track of either album?
BJG: With those particular albums, the seed was the brilliant songwriting talent of Trixie Mattel AKA Brian Firkus. Trixie and I met after one of her shows in P-town where she performed the song “I Know You All Over Again.” I was really taken by her performance of that song. Her talent is really undeniable. From there we started the creative process of conceptualizing what a Trixie Mattel folk/country/Americana/pop/cross-genre album would look like. Luckily, Trixie is virtually a font of good songwriting. From there we hired a band and my brilliant collaborator M.P. Kuo, and got in the studio in NYC.
We played with the material and recorded the old-fashioned way. All in the same live room. What ended up on Two Birds and One Stone is fairly close to the live versions of those tracks. The songwriting and the musicianship are on display. Both albums (which are really two parts of a larger project) each took about 6 months from the first studio session to release (which is WILDLY fast). I think that is because Brian/Trixie had had that talent and vision ready to go for years. We just needed to get in the studio. I think I’ll always love “I Know You All Over Again” not only because I think it’s a perfect song, but because it was the spark of my creative relationship and friendship with Trixie. Because we found each other when we did, we really changed each others’ lives.
Dragadventures: You traveled the country opening for Trixie on her tour, what was your most memorable moment during the tour? And do you have any rituals to combat nerves?
BJG: Wow. It’s so hard to focus on ONE moment. There were so many that are cemented in my memory. I remember the first time I walked out on stage alone to a sold-out house of 2800 people. The city that particularly stands out was Portland, Maine. I don’t know if they get a lot of big-name drag acts there so we were definitely the biggest show in town that night. Walking out on that stage, the reaction I got, you could have sworn I was The Beatles. (laughing) My first joke (probably about Michelle Visage) killed, and it was truly amazing.
Brian always talks about the moment we flew Trixie in LA (you can see this happening in Moving Parts – Trixie’s Netflix Doc). I was standing just offstage looking horrified cause I don’t love heights, and here’s my best friend being raised 50 feet in the air on wires. (Trixie was like…” Thanks, queen. Watching you watching me in HORROR was really comforting”(laughing) I talk through what I’m going to do before I go on. I try and focus up and find space alone offstage to really make sure I know what I’m doing. I guess the ritual for me is rehearsal. Do I know what I’m about to do? The more prepared I feel, the less I have any nerves about it.
Dragadventures: We certainly hope to hear more from you in the future – If you could work with any artist who would you love to record with and what kind of song(s) would it be?
BJG: Oh I love so many kinds of music and so many artists. I particularly love focusing on queer artists and accordingly I would love to work with Brandi Carlisle or Demi Lovato. I am friends with Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters and they are definitely sonic heroes of mine. I’m working with Alex Newell soon and I’m so fuckin’ excited. I love my work with Alexis Michelle (from RPDR Season 9). We make traditional vocal music in the Broadway and Barbra Streisand tradition, and I love keeping that American songbook and torch tradition alive.
Dragadventures: Before we let our interviewees ‘off the hook’, so to speak, we always love to have a quick round of fun, quick-fire questions, so let’s go! If aliens from a faraway galaxy landed on earth tomorrow, which three songs would you play for them so they could know your music style more?
BJG: Mine? Or other Artists? If it’s other artists: “Spiderwebs” – No Doubt, “I Feel Love” – Donna Summer, “Little Sister” – Trixie Mattel. If it’s mine: “Cristal Conners,” “You’ll See,” “Bullit”
How would you explain your musical inspirations to them?
BJG: Popular, country-rooted, disco-inspired, queer, rock-n-roll, theatrical, dark vs. light…
Would you rather hear your favorite artist sing your least favorite song or your least favorite artist sing your favorite song?
BJG: There’s nothing worse than a terrible rendition of a song you love. I’d rather hear a fabulous artist singing something like “Happy Birthday” or “God Bless the USA.” (Just because they SOMETIMES can time a firework to explode on that snare hit does NOT in fact equate to good songwriting!)
If you could put on a festival lineup of your dreams who would you have?
BJG: Elvis, Janice Joplin, Bobby Short, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Patty Smyth, No Doubt, The Donnas, Bikini Kill, Boston, Hall and Oats, Earth, Wind and Fire, Chicago, Kool and the Gang, Etta James, Sly and the Family Stone, Fleetwood Mac (I’ll stop there. I could go on for days lol)
What would the concept be and where would it take place?“
BJG: Shit Brandon Likes: a literal endless lineup of the best musicians in history playing their hits exactly like their original recordings” I guess it would have to take place in some theoretical afterlife.
Dragadventures: And, our last question (for this interview, anyway): Any exciting future projects you could give us a hint about?
BJG: We’re currently casting my musical TL;DR – Thelma Louise; Dyke Remix for its presentation in the Festival of New Musicals produced by the National Alliance of Musical Theatre. It’s too early for me to discuss which names are flying around but there are certainly some exciting prospects. With that musicals Richard Rodgers grant win, I’m excited about that project’s future.
A rock musical that asks: “why do strong female characters always gotta die?” is my kind of theatrical environment. Also my frequent collaborator in musical theatre, the brilliant EllaRose Chary, and I have a new compilation album of our “b-sides” coming out in the fall with a very exciting lineup of performers including Broadway’s Alysha Umphress, Troy Iwata, Telly Leung, Tony Award Nominee – Amber Gray, Emmy Nominee – Tituss Burgess and more!
Thank you again for your time, we wish you all the best and hope to see you again soon here on Dragadventures!
BJG: Thank YOU! Always a pleasure!
Be sure to follow Brandon Jame Gwinn on the following social media and stream his new single ‘ It’s a duet with Alexa Green, who played Glinda the Good Witch in Broadway’s Wicked !Check the video and single out now: https://youtu.be/_gVgz45jcR8.
Officail Website: www.brandonjamesgwinn.com