Interviews: Brandy Zdan

brandyby: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

We caught up with songwriter-musician Brandy Zdan a week back to discuss her last album, the self-titled Brandy Zdan, released this last November. Zdan will be playing the LHUCA alongside fellow songwriters Drew Kennedy, Susan Gibson, Kelley Mickwee, Walt Wilkins, and Josh Grider tonight (Thursday, Jan. 21). The Red River songwriters are bound for their fifth annual Red River Songwriter’s Festival scheduled for this upcoming Jan. 28-30.

Though she’s been musician and songwriter for a decade now, the Nashville-based Zdan is still in the midst of exploration as a solo artist. The 11-track on her self-titled is a testament to that exploration and growth. The warmth in Zdan’s whispery vocals is only matched the by constant glow in her guitar.

Throughout, you hear a budding of confidence in anthems such as “Back to You” and “More of a Man.” that channel the likes of Jenny Lewis’ most pop hits with Rilo Kiley (think Under the Blacklight).  Still, there’s a healthy dose of intimacy and subtleties that leave tells and hints on what’s been keeping the songwriter up at night.

Where songs like “Back to You” find her in the front of a packed venue high on energy and attitude, songs like “People Like Us” are almost like ghosts that haunt you from room to room in your house when you’re alone. She channels the high and lonesomeness in these intimate accounts that we’ve grown to know off Springsteen’s Nebraska or Patty Griffin’s 1000 Kisses.

Tickets for the LHUCA show are currently $20 and can be purchased here. The show will be starting at 7:30pm with limited seating at the Firehouse Theatre within the LHUCA.

In related news, read our latest interview with Drew Kennedy here.

The Red River Songwriter’s Festival will be Jan 28-30 in Red River, New Mexico. For more information, click here.

New Slang: This album of yours that you released this past year, you had been sharing songs on the album here and there. It felt as though you had put a lot of thought and effort into how you’d release the album and how you’d prepare the audience for it. What were you looking to say with this collection of songs? What excited you the most about recording this album?

Brandy Zdan: There’d been a lot of time and thought leading up to recording the record. I had been in a duo (Twilight Hotel) for almost 10 years that split up when I moved to the states. Then I had spent a few years as a side-woman. I’d put out an EP here and there, but really, I was kind of waiting until I knew what my voice was going to be. I’d come from a background of roots and Americana, but my songwriting was changing. I wanted to give it time. For me, I needed to figure out what the sound was going to be. It was quit a few years of figuring that out. Once I moved to Nashville, I started to hone in on this vision with the all the songs coming out. I was trying out different producers and when I met Teddy Morgan, I knew right from the get-go that he was going to be able to take the vision I had–which was very specific in regard to the sonic textures and what kind of band I wanted to use. I really didn’t want to make a record where I was playing with a bunch of session players. I think that can sometimes come out sounding mediocre. It can take some special qualities out of a song. I think with the stuff I’m doing right now, it needed that “band” quality sound to it. I didn’t want it to sound like bad ’90s chick rock [laughs].

I was a PledgeMusic campaign for the record and it was really cool to be able to have almost a year between when I recorded it to when I released it. I gave it time to come out into the world. I did where I released a song a week where I let people have it for free. It let people know what was going on before the whole thing came out. It really was an exciting process because it was fulfilling a vision. I know that sounds really cheesy, but it’s true. We set out to do this and it became something better than we thought. I think it’s really the first step in who I’m becoming as an artist. I think I really hit on something that I’m supposed to be doing.

NS: You mentioned looking for those specific sonic textures. Those tones and textures really are a standout on the album. There’s a warmth to the album in that regard. When you’re writing a song and looking for these precise tones on the guitar, what’s that process like? Looking for that sound, is that really you letting the band find that sound or is it you searching for it independently?

BZ: It’s definitely on my part–half and half really. My process on that, even this morning, one of the first things I do when I get up, it’s listening to guitar parts and doing some things and seeing where it goes. Because I’m a guitar player and a side-woman instrumentalist, that part of it is so important to me. I feel so many emotions can be portrayed through different guitar tones and steel playing. Sometimes the music can portray an emotion way better than when you try and put into words. I think that combination is important to me. I get bored out of my mind if I’m just going to strum on my guitar and sing. I want to have parts to play and interesting melodies in the music–not just in the vocal melody–but the music. I haven’t sat down and strummed on an acoustic guitar in who knows how long because right now, it just doesn’t do anything for me. I want to work with the subtitles and power of the electric. I just love that. So I’m doing it myself, but at the same time, it’s working with my producer Teddy. I knew what kind of guitar player he was. He has that texture in his playing. It’s like Daniel Lanois. He’s able to do all of that stuff. I don’t even have to say anything. He just gets it. 

NS: Yeah. I think it’s probably because, like you said, you’re also a guitar player, side-woman, etc as well. So many songwriters, they see a song by someone–or one they’re starting themselves–and the primary focus is the lyrical content–at least in a starting point kind of way. But I’m guessing if that isn’t working, you’re able to switch gears and hone in on those emotions or ideas musically. 

BZ: Yeah. Exactly. You know, I’d just been going through one of the only writing slumps that has occurred in the last decade of my life. I had so many people tell me to not worry about it and that I have other skills. Go play the guitar and not worry about songs right now. Go play accordion and steel. Go exercise the other muscles. Sometimes you’re the one who puts all that pressure on. You think you’ve released an album and that you need to go and write the next one immediately, but that’s not necessarily true. You can think you know the direction you’re going in, but you can’t force it. Drew Kennedy actually said some of the coolest songwriting inspiration and words to me the other week. You can’t skip the songs. All the songs are already inside of you and you can’t skip them to get to where you think you need to go. They have to come out in their time. Maybe one isn’t going to be so great, but it’s going to lead you to the next one that is. I just love that.

NS: Yeah. That’s true. Back to the album, what’s the time frame on these songs? How far back does the oldest go and how recent is the newest one?

BZ: It’s kind of a two-year span there. One of the older songs on the record is “Love to a Ghost.” That was sort of a way in to a new kind of writing for me. The newest one was written a month before going into the studio. That’d be “More of a Man.” Teddy had given me an omnichord to take home when we met. I wrote “More of a Man” on that omnichord. It just goes to show you that if you take a new instrument and start playing around with it, you’ll get a whole new side of yourself that you never knew existed before. That song, it’s the poppiest song I’d ever written. I didn’t really know I had that in me [laughs]. I had written most of the record when I moved to Nashville two years ago this month. 

NS: Your songwriting voice, a lot of the time, it’s from a strong point of view and perspective. I know some would call it a “girl power” view or something like that. But I’d really just consider it a strong confidence. Songs like “More of a Man” and “Back on You,” they really show that. Where do you think that voice comes from?

BZ: I think it comes from growing up. Becoming an actual woman. It’s figuring out who you are. Not letting yourself become the victim just because you are a woman. It’s like, just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t do what all the boys are doing. In a sense, it’s like putting your middle finger in the air and saying that I’m going to do what I want. I’m glad that it comes across as strong. That’s where I was at in life when I was writing those songs. I’m still getting there. Part of it, it’s going through some really negative relationships and figuring that landscape out. You can let yourself be the victim or you can say, “No, this isn’t what I want.”

NS: What was the most difficult song to finish writing? What took the most out of you to get to paper?

BZ: I can honestly say that none of them were too much of a struggle. I always kind of write in a way where I’ll have that initial inspiration and write a bunch of stuff and come back to it on a daily basis. I think of anything was hard, it’d be the songs “People Like Us” and “Only the Sad Songs” because they were super personal and honest. Even when I play them now, I’ll still get a little emotional. I’m not really sure why. But nothing really was too much of a struggle. That’s not to say I didn’t work on them though. I did work hard on them.

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