Welcome to In the Key of Q the weekly podcast where I chat with inspiring Queer musicians from around the world as they share stories, inspirations and of course their music.
This week's guest is Brandon James Gwinn, a Live Nation touring artist and Billboard number one indie music producer. He won the Richard Rogers award for musical theater writing. Previous winners include such illustrious alumni as Rent's Jonathan Larson. His most recent album Bullit is a rock delight with glorious splashes of Hedwick, Scissor Sisters, and musical theatre.
Brandon talks about the creatively restrictive living of smalltown Murfreesboro, TN. But despite this, his parents and grandfolks managed to fill the family home with REO Speedwagon, the Eagles, Eighties Pop, Glenn Miller and Billie Holiday. With such a gorgeous mix of inspiring music is it any surprise that their boy headed to the bright lights of New York and the dreams of Broadway!
Despite a modest schooling, talented Brandon beat all the odds and made it into NYU training to write for musical theatre. He's a real-life Gabe! Of course, by this point, we've discovered a shared love for the movie Trick and hope that the COVID-delayed sequel will still materialize.
He talks about connecting with Trixie Mattel, and how touring together inspired his Bullit album. And how he's learned to lean on good chums in times of depression. Or to put it better he quotes the great Bette herself!
If you enjoyed this episode, I suggest taking a listen to Matthew Presidente.
In the Key of Q is a weekly 30-40 minute podcast publishing every Tuesday. I’m your host Dan Hall, and in each episode, I chat candidly with a gay/bi musician about their life and music.
Access exclusive interview content and support the production of this podcast by heading over to Petreon and making a small donation.
Enjoy the music of previous guests by listening to these playlists with tracks selected by the artists themselves.
Would you like to appear on the show? Or have an artist you'd like to recommend, please tell them to get in touch via email.
Can you guys make an app where you click the Sondheim title and it just has an icon, you know, like five stars, but it's little bottles of poppers? Oh, you want... or you want to see, you know, Pacific Overtures? Well, that's a, that's a five bottle of Captain Rush right there!
This is In the Key of Q featuring musicians from around the world who inspire my queer identity. Everybody is welcomed to the conversation, whatever beautiful identity pleases you. Music helps us feel connected and know that we are not alone.
This program is made possible thanks to the financial support of listeners like you over at patreon.com/inthekeyofq. And remember to subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts.
I'm Dan Hall. Tune in. And be heard.
This week's guest is a Live Nation touring artists and Billboard number one, indie music producer. He won the Richard Rogers award for musical theater writing. Previous winners include such illustrious alumni as Rent's Jonathan Larson. His most recent album Bullit is a rock delight with glorious splashes of Hedwick, Scissor Sisters, and musical theatre.
A big welcome here at In the Key of Q to Brendan James Gwinn. Brandon, hello!
People ask, I think folks who work in show business, like why they do this, it's so hard. You could do anything else. And I think I love the, what Bernadette Peters has said over the year. She says, no I can't. I can't do anything else. Like it's, it's like a knife and I feel the same way. I'm just like, thank God that this ended up making me a living because I would literally be homeless.
I have no other skills outside of this arena. Like I can't, I can barely write a cheque. Like it's really, really important that this became my livelihood because it's literally the only thing I'm good at.
Yeah, I do like that. It took you less than a minute into the podcast to throw in a reference to Bernadette Peters. So applause to you for that.
I mean, do you have folks on this podcast who don't reference Bernadette Peters in less than a minute? What kind of, what kind of podcasts is this?! As I flipped my laptop.
Tell me, when did your love affair with music begin?
Um, I'm very young actually. I grew up, um, I grew up in outside of Nashville, Tennessee, and. For various reasons my mother's parents, my grandma and grandpa moved in with us when I was, I think, eight years old. And so like, there were three generations in the house and my parents were huge into music. They weren't musicians. Um, but they were, you know, music appreciators and they grew up, they, you know, fell in love and were in their twenties in the seventies.
So they loved REO Speedwagon and the Eagles. And then like, as my mom got into her thirties in the eighties, she listening to a lot of eighties pop. So I just kind of listened to what they listened to and like fell in love with it. And then my grandparents were also there and they were living in listening to the Glenn Miller orchestra and Tommy Dorsey and Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, and like all these like really cool forties and like war time songs, American song book kind of things.
I like just kind of, sort of learning things by ear and that turned into piano lessons and it's just an, that turned into being in bands and collaborating with my friends. It's just kind of all grew from there, but I was probably three the first time my grandmother put my hands on a piano and I was seven and I started piano lessons and studying formally.
And then songwriting came around when I was 12.
What made you want to write a song rather than just listen to one?
I don't know. I don't know what the impulse was. I was just always singing, I would say in commercials, like I would say in the Bounty commercial, like my mom would tell me to go clean my room.
Bounty is like a kind of paper towel. I don't remember how it goes, but I would like sing it with like full virbrato full voice while I cleaned my room. And I just kind of like loved little jingles. So I would just kind of make things up
You'll probably find out that Hans Zimmer wrote it.
Zimmer has kids to put through college and that shit pays money.
You think Han Zimmer wanted to write The Lion King?! His kids wanting to go to Brown.
I was pretty closeted for a while there. And then like once. I came out, which was around the beginning of college. There was just kind of this push to like be me and party a little bit and, um, and perform. So I've kind of became like an actor performer singer. I didn't write that much. I had an, I had a mentor who was an amazing sax player named Carl Wegruber, and he kind of taught you, he taught me how to break down a song by just listening to it to learn it quickly.
Like I could sit at a piano and pretty much figure a song out. He'd be like, okay, this is the pre-chorus, it starts on an E flat. It goes one, four or 5, 4 1, which is like the national number system. And so like that, and that was a public school educator who I befriended, who used to just be oboe lessons.
And he could, you know, he was, he played in bands and I would go like sneak into these bars. I was, I was too young to be in just, and I wouldn't drink anything. I promise I would just sit and watch the Carl plays sax with his band. And like, it taught me. It's kind of crazy that like a lot of my income comes from you know, performing other people's work in bars or around the, you know, on tour. And a lot of those skills I learned when I was 15 years old.
If you really want to get to the good stuff, you can't just wait until you're inspired. Um, and that's what that, that was the, I think that's what separates the pros from the, from the hobbyist.
Like I have this, I have the personal overwhelming need for it to be exactly what I want it to be on the first try, but that's really impossible unless you're like, Bernie Taupin and an Elton John who just kind of had a gift, right? Like you, no one gets it right. The first time. It's just kind of not how humans are made.
Um, particularly in the musical theater. I mean, there's a famous phrase. I think Moss Hart's said musicals, aren't written they're rewritten, but, um, I think that as I got older and as I got more skills, uh, It became be becomes thing where you just have to write all the time. You might write 16 songs in a month and one of them might be any good.
And I think that that just comes with like maturity age and trusting yourself, but it's hard to trust yourself. I was, um, uh, I still have trouble believing in my own ability to get it right.
So you have all the musical genres in the world to choose from. You've got the skill. What is it that drives you towards the musical theatre?
Katherine Hepburn said that she doesn't like people who categorically don't like musicals I'm paraphrasing, but she said something like that. And it's just like, there's there has been. Up until recently actually, I mean, we have like five of the best movies this year were musicals, but that's neither here nor there.
For a long time it was just like musicals aren't cool. And I'm just like you are living... Everyone is living musical narrative at all times. Every single film that you've, unless your film film, you're watching it doesn't have a score then like you're not, then you're watching musical theater and it's, it's just like, it's kind of the bedrock of art.
Like it's all there. And everything I want to maybe write and every genre and style I might want to work in, or every story I want to tell can be done in the musical theater.
My lovely friend, Matthew Hodson uh, who besides being, uh, one of the country's leading experts in HIV is also a huge Sondheim fan.
And he is gradually trying to get me into Sondheim. I mean, he was such a fan that he acknowledges that some of the material is tough.
That's one way to put it!
He took me to see Follies, uh, just before the pandemic. He said effectively, it was kind of, you know, a couple of fingers and a bottle of poppers.
Uh, but he's working his way up to Sunday in the Park with George, which he figures will be five fingers, but not the knuckle.
This metaphor is amazing. Oh my God. Can, can you guys make an app where you click the Sondheim title and it just has an icon, you know, like five stars, but it's little bottles of poppers. It's like, oh, you want it? Or you want to see, you know, Pacific Overtures. Well, that's a, that's a five bottle of Captain Rush right there. Like, yeah. Yeah.
Yeah. That's five bottles of poppers and two tubs of Crisco.
I was such a strange kid I had to like, can see it. I thought I was like, I thought I was the one who had the world figured out and that everybody else was just like sporting and that I couldn't like, like, I couldn't understand why no one could see things my way.
Like, I definitely, like, I was a kind of kid who didn't like surprises. Because it meant there was like a discussion I wasn't invited to, I would get surprised on my birthday and I'd howl like that. I was definitely definitely a monster and I don't think anything's changed.
And where did you grow up? What was it like?
I grew up in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee called Murfreesboro, which is still there. I hear. And it should only stay there.
I have to tell you what just happened. I'm sitting in Decatur, Illinois, which is a much smaller town than I grew up in outside of Millikin university, where I am doing some work on a new musical. And I'm looking out the window and an actual literal tumbleweed just rolled by!
I'm watching it roll by even further, like an actual tumbleweed rolled across the street. I am dying right now. And I guess that that's a great place to talk about the metaphor that that just was for living in, in Murfreesboro. I mean, I, I kind of don't remember, I've been in New York for over a decade and it's, and I feel like such a New Yorker now, but I think that you just kind of see a lot of the, when you move and shake, as it were in somewhere that's a little bit smaller and less populated, you kind of see a lot of the same people. You do a lot of the same things. And I think for some folks find comfort in that. And I think that there's obviously comfort in that and like having a home that feels like home and like doing some of the same things. But like, for me, it was very mundane.
I think everybody who like skipped town to go to the big city, you know, um, has like negative things to say about their quote one horse town, unquote. Uh, it was just like very mainstream, very hetero, very religious, uh, just a hard place to be anything other than mainstream.
There was one gay bar in Nashville. It's still there. It's called Play dance bar. And, uh, you'd have to drive like 30 minutes from Murfreesboro to get to it. And so did everybody else.
So if you wanted to pick up a boy at the bar and like, go home, you'd be like, wait a minute, where do you live? And he'd be like I'm in Hendersonville, which is like an hour from Nashville. So that means if you want to go hook up with this guy, you're driving an hour to Hendersonville getting up at like eight o'clock in the morning to drive the hour and a half it'll take you to get back to home, back home so you can go to class. Like, it was just kind of like, oh God!
It's just not worth it!
I remember the first time I went to New York, I think I was 16. And I just like, I couldn't really do any, I couldn't like go out and get wasted. I was 16. I was with my parents, but we saw Broadway shows. We went to different, we went to cool restaurants and I was just like, the wealth of new experiences was, uh, it was just staggering to me.
Um, and was there a tipping point when you stopped dreaming about going to New York and actually went, this is something I'm going to do?
I graduated from middle Tennessee state university. I think I was like 20 and I had written a musical in my playwriting class called Underwear - A Space Musical, which you better not be able to find online!
And, um, the, this woman named Debra Barsha, hadn't been flown in by my school to see the show and respond to it as part of the American college of the Kennedy Center, American college Theater Festival. She also was the associate conductor of Jersey Boys on Broadway and she's, and she's this fabulous lesbian and a loudmouth and just wonderful.
And she pulled me aside after seeing Underwear. And she was like, is this what you want to do? Do you want to write musicals? And I like was at a place where I was like, I don't fucking know what I want to do. She was like, this is good. This is what you're good at. You need to try to put this in the fringe festival.
And if it gets into the fringe festival, you should figure out how you're going to get it to New York. And I was like, okay, lady, nice to meet you!
And, uh, but we did, we applied for the fringe festival. It got. It opened in the fringe festival. And then I used some of the materials we prepared to get into the fringe festival to apply for graduate school at NYU, for musical theater, writing, never, ever thinking I'd get in.
I didn't go to a fancy school. I never thought I'd get in. And I got in.
And I moved to New York with, I think, one suitcase and no long sleeve clothes. And I've been there for almost 15 years.
And you were basically Christian Campbell and Trick in the movie Trick.
Oh, absolutely. Except with half the talent he had at that point in my life, I I had half the know-how that his character has.
When you grow up in, in the, in the nineties, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, you're either straight or you're gay and there's not a whole lot of gray area. If you're not a straight boy, you're a gay boy and gay boys think like this and walk like this and dress like this. And they like these things. Um, and it's, and it's a binary system of almost kind of like, it's almost like a gender binary, but it's about sexuality and what's acceptable and like, oh, you don't like sports. Okay. You're this kind of gay boy.
And it's just like that. I found comfort in accepting that otherness about myself, but not being heteronormative, like straight seeming like mainstream. But the simplicity of that is the lack of nuance in that is dangerous because a lot of people can't find comfort in that.
And like, I moved to New York and worked out and took the Molly and went to the circuit parties and did the whole like hot boy dance on the beach and Fire Island thing. And that was fun. And I don't regret it, but like, I didn't feel really at home there either. There's some, there's a, there's a version of me that's kind of in the middle of gender wise and then middle sexuality wise.
I'm way more queer slash by that I am gay. I'm way more he/they than I am he. And that's something that, I mean, I'm in my thirties, if you can believe it. And that's something that I'm kind of evolving on daily at this point in my queerness.
Do you think that these conversations about what is masculine? What is feminine? What is in the center are going to be incredibly archaic within say 10 years?
I don't know, I'm kind of a baby myself having these conversations. I think that, um, uh, obviously gender is a construct and like that the freeing thing about that is, is it's a construct we can play with. I mean, find you within it it, I think is important for your, for your health and wellbeing, but also like you can manifest it and dress and paint yourself and do whatever you want to with your body in whatever way you want.
And I think that that's going to become true for more and more folks. I think that it would be, I think we're not in 10 years. I think it's more like we're a hundred years away from divorcing our entire society from the idea of a binary gender. But I think that I think that in popular culture, we will see, yes, those kinds of discussions, not necessarily becoming archaic, but the, uh, the need to have them will become different.
I think that it's different for every single human. What is standing between you and being your true, authentic self. I know folks that it seems so easy for them to get to that level. And yet I'm, don't have there. I'm not, I'm not aware of their, um, you know, consciousness only they are. So I don't know if that's a facade or if that's true. They could feel as authentic as hell from where I'm sitting and it doesn't, it doesn't matter if it is or not, because I'm not there watching them produce it.
I think that, um, I can only say like for me, and it's a struggle, like I don't, I think that, uh, I made Bullit and I say this with truth because I had to, I had things I needed to work on and put out in the world. And I had an image I wanted to have myself and my dream and my music that I wanted to put on a physical thing.
And I had an audio world I wanted to make, and some of it is authentic and some of it feels like I'm putting on a show or a costume, or if it doesn't feel inauthentic so much as it just feels an augmented sense of self instead of like exactly who I am. And I think that if that's who I want to be in that five minutes, and that's what I want to be.
And if you feel like you're faking it a little bit, you being like the big you out there, I think lean into that. And I think that if you can muster up even false confidence and security to try something and then just fake that until you make it. I think that'd be my only advice.
Now when we finish this recording, I pull it into the edit suite and obviously chop, chop us all about, about to make us all sound gorgeous and incredibly intelligent, but for the next two minutes or so, I'm not going to do that. I'm not going to get out my edit pencil at all and I'm going to say to you that these next two minutes are your platform to talk about whatever you want. To have your voice heard.
Uh, I make a living in a lot of different ways and like, so I spend almost equally as much time playing in a piano bar in the west village, as I do playing on gay cruises and sitting in Decatur, Illinois, writing musicals with Elrose Cherry and producing Trixie Mattel's albums and, you know, and playing Club Cumming in Maine with Alexis Michelle.
And, you know, it's just the thing I get to do every day is something different. And it's really good for me as a creative and as a person. And I know that that's not everybody's cup of tea, but for me, it really, really, really has clicked. And I'm very grateful that it also, you know, pays the bills because as I said earlier to quote Bernadette Peters I can't do anything else. This is where the skillset lies.
Um, but you know, I'm just a kind of, I'm a creator in the ways that in, in the way that like, that's my identity. It's a big part of my identity. If I'm not making something, I feel a little stagnant.
And, um, to the point where like, when I, during the, during the pandemic, I, you know, Marie's Crisis, which is the bar where I've worked for many years, it's my, like piano bar home. We took all of our efforts online and we did things on Instagram and we did things on Facebook Live. Um, we amassed this whole, I mean, really like hundreds of people would watch us on these livestreams. I'm was shocked and they would tip us on Venmo and PayPal. And they like kept me afloat financially while my industry was essentially shut down. And like, that felt very... I had my own little TV show essentially that was piano bar entertainment,
But at the same time, I invented, I've always been a big board game buff. Board and card games are kind of like something I really enjoy. And I invented two while I, during the downtime, I invented a card game and a board game during the downtime in the, in the pandemic. One of them is actually for sale. You can buy it online at pianobarcardgame.com and it is, um, a card game that's kind of acrossbetween Clue and Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples but all of the things that you're dealing with are songs, characters, and jokes from musical theater and or Disney films, things that you would hear in a gay piano bar.
Um, which I used to play like a handmade version, like makeshift version of it with my friends. And it was a big. So I designed it. I'm a little bit of a budding graphic designer, so I designed it, and I sent it to a factory in China and now there's like 5 million copies sitting in my house. Please buy them. I'll ship them anywhere!
I didn't really see myself as a solo artist, releasing albums until Trixie Mattel, whose first two albums I produced called me and was like, Live Nation wants me to have an opening act. I want it to be you because I want to go on tour with you. And I was like, are you crazy? She was like, just perform some of your songs.
And it was like, all right. And she was like, oh, and you should probably have something to sell. We are on tour with Live Nation after all. So it was like, okay, I'll get right on top of that, Rose.
And, uh, and so I made like a five track EP as fast as I could, because I was going out on tour. And I have to say like, if you want to be inspired by someone's hustle, know how, creativity and business smarts spend a year with Trixie Mattel. She's one of the smartest people I've ever, ever been in the same room with and a brilliant, brilliant songwriter artist but also a brilliant comedian. And, um, she kind of gave me the confidence that I could be a solo recording artist.hs, living on her tour bus in:
Ella Rose my writing partner in musical theater and I. Finally realized like that it was time. We didn't have any material on, uh, on the internet that was like available for streaming. So we called in every favour in showbusiness we've ever had. And we made an album called Place in Time, which is a collection of our songs that we've written so far in our almost ten-year collaboration with the likes of Amber Gray from Hades Town and Tituss Burgess from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and a million other things. And it's, um, it's got a, it's got a queer theme. It's about, it's kind of what we write. We write about queerness and write about identity. Um, and we write about the humans, not necessarily about just the ideas.
Your story has you growing up in a small town and having to escape to, to the big city. What would you say to someone who's listening to this who still finds themselves stuck in those small towns?
I think that, um, if you feel that where you are, like the town that you've been put in by whatever forces that put you there, um, is not vibing congruent or part of your identity, then it's not. You don't have to actually be there to have community. You can have community anywhere. And if you want to, if you want to find the means to get out and I hope I just, I, I know that that's not possible for everybody, but I hope that you do. And help you have my, I mean, it can happen. It can happen when you least expect it!
What do you think your 15 year old self would think of you?
Oh my God. I would love to think that I would be my own hero. Um, I, uh, I have moments. I mean, we all have moments of self doubt and even depression in my case, like it's where you just, just like, oh, I haven't been climbing up the same hell for how many years, but like, you have to remember when, when you have victories to sell to at least acknowledge them.
And it's something that I have to remind myself to do. It's just like, I think about the things you wanted when you were 15 Brandon and you did those things, your wants just changed, but you didn't give yourself the credit at 20 whatever that was that you did exactly what you said you were going to do. You moved to New York and you said, you're going to do that. And you did it.
If you give yourself, if you say, you're going to give yourself a gift and you give yourself that gift, you should celebrate giving yourself a gift. And I think that my hope is a long way of saying, I would hope that my 15 year old self would be very proud of me.
You talk there about overcoming depression. What does that look like for you?
I know I'm a very lucky person. My depression comes in forms where I can, um, name it. I know a lot of folks. Uh, I hear that a lot of folks are debilitated by their depression stopped in their tracks, or they can't figure out where it comes from and they can't figure out how to deal with it.
I, um, I don't know if I know where it comes from. I don't do, do any of us? But I have coping mechanisms and I have a great, I have a strong community and I have a support system that makes it livable. But when I have these moments and I have to say they're few and far between I'm one of the lucky ones.
What would you recommend as one of the more effective coping strategies that you have that you could pass on to listeners?
Uh, in the, in the immortal words of Bette Midler, you gotta have friends! I think, um, for me, community is everything. I know that that's not easy for everyone. I'm, uh, I'm a gregarious asshole Leo, and it just comes natural to me. Um, So other people, other people who aren't assholes or who are funny assholes like me, I think I'm a funny... a laugh can really change the world.
Now you've namechecked Bette Midler there I think you've pretty much ticked all the sugar boxes.
Yaaaaaas! I quoted Katherine Hepburn on your show for fuck's sake.
And you got Bernadette Peters mentioned in the first 60 seconds. Mentioned in the first 60 seconds.
And Moss Hart I think. This is some, like I went to school a long time ago, kind of interview. I paid attention one day in class!
Now what queer music are you listening to at the moment, who would you recommend that we get on as a guest? Do my research for me!
A dear friend of mine, um, Ellen winter is she created a podcast called 36 Questions that was like tweeted about by Mela Miranda. Um, she's writing all sorts of really cool shit with very fancy people because she has a solo album called I believe it's called Mantras and that is really, really special and really, really fab.
Now we've been listening Brandon to your music all the way through this episode, but as with all good performances, we've saved the best until last. So I would like to ask the guest, if there's one gateway song that will act as a perfect way into your catalog for a new listener, what would that song be and why?
This was actually a tough, um, that's kind of a tough question because, um, I am, uh, self labeled as very eclectic to the point of almost, um, chaos chaotic and like the kind of sound that I, um, that comes out of me when I'm, when I'm doing things. But I have to say the title song on my album, Bullit it's called Bullie spoiler alert. Uh, it's the last track on the album? It is, it fell out of me in pieces. I wrote different parts of it at different points in the journey of the album. And then I kind of realized I couldn't figure out what it was about. It sounded sad to me. It feels very. It's difficult to get it out. And then I realized that it was about making the album.
It was about it's honestly why I named the album after it. It was about getting out of my own way. Um, my own self stab, a tour, or, uh, having imposter syndrome and just write the damn thing. Uh, and that's something I hope everybody can. Um, that's a that's advice. I hope I can give everyone including myself I try to give myself that advice every day. Um, and it's also like piano driven, moody chords, lots of minor sevens. It just kind of is, um, a place, a place where a musical landscape, where I feel very at home. So yeah, Bullit form Bullit.
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The show was made at Pup Media. I'm Dan Hall. Go listen to some music and I'll see you next Quesday!