Producer and musician Brandon James Gwinn may be best known for producing and performing on Trixie Mattel’s two albums, 2017’s Two Birds and 2018’s One Stone, both of which he performed on, but his latest project has deservedly brought him into the spotlight.
Bandon’s new single, “Cristal Conners,” is a country-rock pop-infused ode to the character portrayed by Gina Gershon in 1995’s infamous Showgirls. It is a love letter to aggressive feminine fierceness; something Brandon says he acquires after a number of vodkas. “As the song says, ‘I try to be good but baby, I don’t try too hard,” he laughs before noting how there is a dark side of Cristal. “As fabulous as she is, she wreaks a lot of havoc.”
The cheeky video was shot at NYC’s legendary Stonewall Inn with Brandon made up as Cristal, courtesy of drag queen and makeup artist Chelsea Piers. “I can be, at times, very specific about what I want and then, in other moments, at a loss for how to connect the dots,” Brandon explains. “Chris and Chelsea were really great about meeting me at that vision and then filling in the blanks where needed.”
The new song is included on Brandon’s album Bullit. Of the album, Brandon says it “is 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.”
“I started writing the album while on the nationwide tour for my first record, opening for drag star Trixie Mattel,” Brandon explains. “It was at the tail end and I was reflecting on the amazing and somewhat unexpected experience of traveling the country and how it would soon be over. At the same time, I found myself at the end of a serious relationship. All that tumult made me look at where I was and where I was going.”
Brandon never imagined he’d be a solo recording artist. He doubted he was good enough to sing his own compositions or that anyone would care about what came out of his mouth. The mantra behind Bullit has become a kind of armor to the young, out artist. It’s a “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality where he embraces his imposter syndrome and pushes himself to pretend that he matters. “I say to myself, just bull-it, Brandon. Trust you have music to make and something to say.”
Raised in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee, Brandon was part of a large Southern and Italian-American family, living with his parents, grandparents and sister. They were fairly conservative and religious, and Brandon was forced to hide his queerness. “I secretly dated a boy or two in high school, but I didn’t officially come out until my freshman year of college at Middle Tennessee State University.”
“The gender journey has been really eye-opening,” he continues. “Even as a young gay man, I found I always had problems fitting neatly into the cis and straight culture at large.” Today, he identifies as queer and gender fluid.
After college, Brandon continued his studies at NYU, earning his MFA in musical theatre writing. He has enjoyed a prolific career in theatre, writing ten stage musicals that have had various levels of production from college to regional and even Off-Broadway. He was nominated for a Drama League Award and won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Richard Rodgers Award for his musical TL;DR: Thelma Louise; Dyke Remix.
He first entered the pop realm with the production of two albums for Trixie Mattel: 2017’s Two Birds and 2018’s One Stone; both of which he performed on. “It was really Trixie’s idea that I could sing my own songs on my own EP, Not Too Late, and then perform them at 2800 seat theatres. She believed folks would buy it, and they did!”
The success of Not Too Late and the nationwide tour encouraged Brandon to reinvest in himself and rethink that maybe he did indeed have something to say. “I want Bullit to be fun when you need it to be, and a devastating feel-fest, if that’s what you’re after,” Brandon says. “Like life, the album’s a journey where you deal with shit, but then look around and realize the darkness you were complaining about is sexy and dangerous. You’re older and maybe a little tired, but you came out on the other side learning a thing or two. Sure, you made it by the skin of your teeth, while faking it just a little bit, but you smile because ultimately it doesn’t matter how you got there. You got there.”
Brandon chatted with us about the enduring legacy of Showgirls and shared a little more about himself as he answers the Socialite Seven. Get to know more about this multi-talented musician (and a true darlin’) in our interview.
Why do you think Showgirls holds such a grip on pop culture?
I think that Showgirls is a camp masterpiece. Now, whether the creatives at the top of that film meant it to be remains to be seen. The blood, sweat and tears and massive amounts of effort that went into this huge film that ultimately is just so bad it’s really fun and funny to me. It’s trying so hard to be so sexy that it’s ultimately sexless, and all while Elizabeth Berkley is giving awkward lap dances completely in the nude.
Meanwhile, Gina Gershon (who plays Cristal) vamps through this movie like she’s the only one who understands what kind of movie they’re making. She makes some of the most heinous situations and dialogue seem like “well, of COURSE Cristal would say it that way.” “Of course she used to love Doggy Chow.” It’s a great performance in a brutally ridiculous film. And, I have to say, I watch it fairly frequently. It creates a world of characters and places that are so unrealistic and exaggerated that it’s actually a lot of fun. It has the kind of cult appeal to me (and to a lot of folx, particularly folx in show business I find) that the Rocky Horror Picture Show has had. It’s All About Eve with cocaine and tits.
What is your favorite moment from the film?
Oh shit. This is very tough for me. I honestly love any time Gina is on screen. The lunch scene (“Doggy chow”) is probably my favorite. Oh…and any time they are performing the show Goddess. It looks like the best and highest production value on a topless show that has ever existed. The first drag bar I ever went to (Play Dance Bar in Nashville, TN) used to use the music from Goddess as the overture for their drag show. So, to me it means a gay, fun time is about to happen.
If you had to recast Nomi and Cristal for a remake, who would you choose?
I would put Jennifer Coolidge in as Nomi and Catherine O’Hara as Cristal in a wacky new version (or maybe even a sequel!) directed by Christopher Guest.
What movie would benefit most by replacing a character with Cristal Connors?
I think the question you should be asking is what movie wouldn’t benefit by replacing a character with Cristal Connors. But, if I have to answer I guess I’d say…. Cats. Literally, replace all of them with a cast of Cristals vamping around to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score from the 80s. Seriously, someone do it. Take my money!!!
Brandon Answers the Socialite Seven
How did you develop your passion for singing?
I definitely developed a passion for music at an early age. It first manifested in my being able to play things I heard on the radio “by ear” on the piano. I started writing music and songs early on as well. Singing sort of emerged as just the easiest way to get out songs I’d written. Then there was a lot of music school. I grew up in the Nashville area where public school music programs are amazing. I also studied music in undergrad at Middle Tennessee State University and then eventually in grad school at NYU; always as a writer and pianist first and a singer second. I’ve been really lucky to work in the studio singing on other folx’s projects and singing and arranging lots of background vocals. I’ve learned so much about singing in the studio, singing background. It was really on Bullit where I got to play and try new things and sounds. M.P. Kuo (my co-producer) is really a brilliant creative mind, and the two of us are a flurry of ideas on a vocal day. I am really using so many colors and spaces in my voice on this album, many of them for the first time.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career and why?
Firstly, I’d have to say many music and arts teachers over the years. From as early as elementary school I remember having awesome music teachers who noticed my enthusiasm and interest and fostered it. I was always pushed to be my best and convinced not to cut corners. (I played piano by ear for years and avoided learning to read music, well music school put an end to that). Secondly, I have to give Trixie Mattel credit for trusting me with her albums Two Birds and One Stone which I performed on and produced. I watched my friend go from a delightful, talented queen playing a 50-seat venue in Ptown to a multi-hyphenate, chart-topping, multiple business and dwelling owning literal TV superstar with a sold-out 60-city, Live Nation tour. She took me on that tour and let me open for her in every major (and not so major) city in the US and Canada. She took big chances on me and they have made me better. Thanks, Tracy.
Who (if anyone) would you love to collaborate with?
OMG, So many women I want to work with! I would dream to work with Brandi Carlile, Dolly Parton, Lizzo, Gaga, Taylor Swift. Kacey Musgraves got a copy of Trixie’s albums I produced and posted about it, and I nearly lost my mind. I am a huge fan of the band No Doubt and I would love to even just be a fly on the wall in the studio when they’re writing (if they ever do again :/). If I could go back in time and work with Sarah Vaughn or Ella Fitzgerald, Blossom Dearie or Bobby Short would also be a dream. And, Diane Warren is such a songwriting legend. If she’d give me the time of day I would have to be scraped up off the floor
What type of music or artist that you listen to frequently do you think your fans would be surprised to learn that you’re a fan of?
My taste in music is and has always been very eclectic. When I’m in an Uber and the driver is playing something I’ve never heard before I almost always Shazam it to find out. What is this person listening to while they work? I am always interested in what other people love and listen to.
I am a huge listener of vocal jazz and the American Songbook. (I don’t know if that would actually surprise anyone.) Particularly material from the songbook written during the Great Depression and World War II. The tradition of popular songwriting craft in America was really in its golden age and the talent and techniques on display during that time period are fascinating to me.
What are you hoping to achieve with your music?
“The same thing we do every night, Pinky. Try and take over the world!” I kid, I kid. I had to write this album because I had things to say and I am a songwriter. It’s how I put my ideas into the world. It’s always nice when your music gets to the most ears, so I hope folks find Bullit and enjoy it. I will make more music and I hope folx find that and enjoy it. I want to meet new artists and make new collaborations and travel the world making music. I have been lucky enough for that to be the case so far and the rest is gravy.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Music. Music. Music.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Life (like a gay cruise) is a marathon not a sprint. (advice given by the great singer and entertainer, Tori Scott)