Easy on both the eyes and the ears, this Nashville-born musician became well-known here in Queer Bar NYC as a pianist. Over time, he also received success and acclaim as a musical theater writer, and a songwriting collaborator with one of “RuPaul’s Drag Race’s” most famous alums. Now he’s got an exciting new album of his own for you to stream, as well as a big time award nomination… Brandon James Gwinn! [Cover photo: Michael Hull]
Thotyssey: Hello Brandon! You certainly have a lot going on now, so there’s lots to chat about. But first thing’s first: congrats on your GLAM nomination for Best Male Performer, and your several recent BroadwayWorld Cabaret Award noms as well! How cool is that?
Brandon James Gwinn: Thanks! It is very cool. I’ve been in NYC piano bars and nightlife for almost ten years, and I have made so many amazing connections and friends and have had such a great time. It’s really wonderful to be recognized by my peers in the industry.
Wow, ten years! That’s a lot of ivory tickled. Do you have a favorite song to play in the piano bar scene, or is there something you do that always a big response?
Well you can’t go wrong with “Don’t Rain on my Parade” or “Defying Gravity.” But I love to close my sets with “The Rainbow Connection.” That frog had a lot of queer insight on life, dammit!
So you are from Nashville, which I’m guessing means that you were always surrounded by music growing up.
I was! I had some of the most talented friends and instructors. It’s kinda wild how when you’re in that environment, everyone seems to grow exponentially, and somewhat concurrently.
When did you begin performing music yourself?
I was three when my grandma put my hands on a keyboard first, and I started lessons at seven. I was drawn to the jazz of the 40s and 50s my grandma was into, and the pop rock of the 70s and 80s that my parents were into. Then I got really into what was left of grunge in the 90s. No Doubt is probably the best band ever. Fight me.
You might be on to something! And when did you start writing your own stuff?
When I was twelve! I started writing three minute “factory songs” in the style of LeAnn Rimes.
What eventually brought you to New York? Were you interested in musical theater?
I had been a fan ever since my parents took me to the national tour of CATS in Nashville. Yes… CATS. And I performed as a kid, and in high school, and college. I came to New York to go to NYU and get my MFA in musical theatre writing.
You actually wrote a recent musical about the continuing adventures of… a pair of ladyfriends whom the lawyers told me have nothing to do with the movie Thelma and Louise!
[TL;DR: Thelma Louise; Dyke Remix] follows two characters named T and L who drive off the edge of the Grand Canyon in a 1956 thunderbird convertible… and into a queer-lady-and-theys rock musical, where instead of dying in a fireball they get to try for a queer happy ending together. Saying something about the queer world at large, and celebrating queer joy while critiquing the image of queer women in media (grad school rears it’s ugly head), is really the mission of the piece, But it’s also a fucking great time! It won the 2021 Richard Rodgers Award and was a hit of the National Alliance of Musical Theatre’s New Musical Festival. I must mention my co-writer on that project: the amazing and brilliant EllaRose Chary!
Writing and producing musicals is such a culmination of all these really high end skill sets. It must be so challenging to put out a finished product that works well!
It takes forever, and so many smart collaborations. But when it comes together, it’s really magic.
There has been lots of talk during lockdown about how Broadway needs to change, both in the way that it does business and the type of art it puts out. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Representation matters, and in the theatre that means stories about and for audiences that are more diverse than cis gay white men. We need more stories that are queer, womyn and POC-forward, and don’t center trauma.
Also, I am a big believer that Broadway is big enough for all of it. If there’s not enough pie for everyone, you don’t cut smaller pieces… you make more pie. And we also have to support new writers with different world views and points of view–at earlier stages in their careers–with money and opportunity.
Amen! But having said that… will you be spending $600 to see Hugh Jackman in The Music Man, lol?
Haha. No. Broadway may have room for it, but I don’t need to see it. I’d rather see Hugh Jackman in Hair, or Take Me Out. Anything with a nude scene, really. Then we’d have trouble in River City…
You’ve also written music with Drag Race All-Star Trixie Mattel for her albums! How did that collaboration come about?
I saw Trixie in her first summer show in Ptown at the Post Office, and I fell in love with her and her talent. She played one little country heartbreak ballad, and I was so impressed I basically bugged her and her manager until we had a phone meeting to talk about moving forward with Trixie’s songs on a raw and heartfelt set of country albums.
We made the first one with very few bells and whistles, and the response was so wonderful.
And then she won All-Stars, and the second album came out, and we were Number 1 on the Billboard charts and in several countries… and it was surreal. Now she’s so rich… it’s truly obnoxious! But so deserved… no one works harder.
Did you see / hear her new song and video, by the way? Cute, and very different!
“Hello Hello!” I’m a fan of any 60s-esque pop bop. I co-produced her single “Yellow Cloud” which has a retro vibe, and, like, that track it’s right up my alley. I honestly think she never disappoints.
That brings us to BULLIT, your new album that’s getting all the raves! You can definitely hear a theatricality in many of the songs, but there are also lots of rock and country sounds.
Well, what can I say? I’m a little bit country, and little bit rock and roll… and always theahhtrical (I said that like Moira Rose, I promise). I was going through a tumultuous time in my life–I was just an indie music producer and maker in New York, writing musicals no one wanted to see. And then Trixie and I made music, and it all changed. I was opening for Trixie in 70 cities across the US and Canada for a year.
And around the tail end of the tour, I decided I had the balls to make my first real full length studio album (I have an EP that came out right before the tour). Trixie gave me a lot of confidence, in her way. And I had a lot to say about how my life had changed. So I started writing the songs that became BULLIT, Some of which were written in my little coffin bed on Trixie’s tour bus.
There’s a lot of partying, a lot of heartbreak, a lot of “fuck you, I never liked you anyway.” But there’s a lot of growing up and looking around, and marveling at where life can take you. And the music is eclectic as I am, I guess. It’s certainly as eclectic as my taste in music.
Your song from the album “Cristal Connors” pays tribute to one of gay cinema’s most iconic characters! You appear in drag in the song’s video… given how often musical theater folks in New York dabble in drag and your own drag-jacent state, have you ever considered trying to be a full-on queen yourself?
No! Lol. So many of my closest friends are some of the best in the business: Trixie, Pandora, Alexis Michelle, Chelsea Piers, Bootsie LeFaris and Marti Gould Cummings.
I’ll let those gals put on the heels full time… they’re just so wonderful. It’s so much work to get up in drags; I can’t even do it myself. Boots and Chelsea put me in drag for “Cristal.”
I also enjoy the video for your latest single “Black Nail Polish,” which starts with a funny bit of you in an office with your hilarious ladyboss, and then it’s all chaos from there. It seems like there’s something about black nail polish and what that represents that has a special meaning for you.
It’s definitely a Vibe, and one that I love. It’s just goth enough, and glam.
BULLIT is available on all streaming and downloading platforms! Is there anything else coming up for you?
I am cooking up a live and streaming BULLIT show, so that’s in the works with no dates just yet. Ella and I have an album coming out in early December called Place & Time, which is an album of some of our musical theatre originals from our years-long collaboration… all sung by a very exciting cast including Amber Gray, Amy Jo Jackson, Troy Iwata, Daisy Eagan, Alysha Umphress and Tituss Burgess!
Wow, can’t wait to hear that! So lastly: what do you want for Christmas this year?
It’s nothing that expensive, and I’m giving it to myself: I’m taking most of the month off! It’s been a wild year, and I am so grateful. But what I want for Christmas is to have a seat, take a nap, and catch up on all this TV everyone’s been talking about, lol!
Well deserved! Happy holidays, Brandon!