If you wanna be a stickler about such things, go ahead and take Brandy Zdan to task for having the cheek to call her self-titled new album a “debut.” As a general rule, if not always by strict definition, that handle is usually reserved for the first entry in an artist’s catalog, and Brandy Zdan just happens to be its namesake’s eighth release in a recording career that just passed its 10-year anniversary. Granted, four of those previous albums were officially duo projects, and the three she released under her own name — 2007’s Your Words & the Weather, 2013’s Lone Hunter, and 2014’s Instrumentals 1: Heart Theft — were really only EPs, so one can allow Zdan a little leeway in calling her latest release her “full-length solo debut.” But there’s no mistaking this seasoned singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for any kind of rookie.
“I guess I do almost have an unfair advantage, going in to make my first solo record with all that experience,” Zdan admits with a laugh — and more than a hint of understatement, given that she’s been performing for nearly half her life, going back to her first solo acoustic coffee house gig in her native Winnipeg at 15. She went on to spend the better part of the last decade touring and recording with fellow Canadian songwriter and guitarist Dave Quanbury as Twilight Hotel — a gothic-folk duo whose last two albums, 2008’s Highway Prayer and 2011’s When the Wolves Go Blind, were both nominated for Juno (Canadian Grammy) Awards for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year. (“We didn’t win, but that didn’t matter,” she says with pride. “It was still a really big deal to me because we didn’t have a manager or agent or anybody working for us, which means the records got nominated solely on their artistic merit.”) When the duo split shortly after moving to Austin, Zdan hooked up with the all-girl, Texas-based Americana combo the Trishas as the band’s lead guitarist and utility player (lap steel, accordion). She didn’t sing a note herself with the group, but embraced the opportunity to keep her chops in practice while playing and touring with friends — all the while quietly “plotting” for the next stage of her own musical journey.
“All of that stuff led me to know exactly what I want,” explains Zdan. She calls the results, as captured on the aptly titled Brandy Zdan, the most focused expression of her musical identity to date. “It’s just completely me. I’ve been shaping this vision of my own personal musical statement now for years, and I think what makes this my real debut is just the fact that I was able to completely fulfill that vision. For me, that’s the greatest success that you can hope for when you make a record.”
The vision Zdan speaks of was first glimpsed on Lone Hunter, the six-song teaser she recorded shortly after the Trishas went on indefinite hiatus. Hailed by Lone Star Music Magazine as a “one-woman tour-de-force,” the EP showcased not only Zdan’s prodigious instrumental skills (guitar, steel, Wurlitzer, synth, drums and percussion), but her equally strong vocals and affinity for writing and arranging mature pop songs with hauntingly gorgeous melodies and edgy arrangements. On Brandy Zdan, that sound and vision is writ large on a widescreen canvas, ribboned with wide swaths of warm guitar tones and shades of chilly blue atmosphere and buzzing with static overdrive from the assertive opening charge of "Back on You” through to the electronic pulse of the closing “More of a Man.”
“This is very much an indie-rock and pop record,” says Zdan, readily admitting that it’s a far ways from her more traditional Americana roots. “I don’t know really how I got to this point, but over time I just started slowly drifting away from that. I think just my love of guitar led me to appreciate a really wide range of music. I mean, you don’t want to make the same record over and over, right? You always want to try to figure out what the next thing is.”
Indeed, it was that searching spirit that sparked her move from Austin to Nashville a year ago. “I like to get out of my comfort zone every couple of years, and it’s been great,” Zdan explains. “The majority of the songs on this record were written after I moved here, which is interesting, because I think it was being around such a conservative musical world that made me want to get even more fucked up musically! The contradictory situation was really a very positive thing.”
So was her good fortune in meeting a kindred musical spirit in producer Teddy Morgan, a seasoned guitarist and recording artist in his own right who helped Zdan bring her vision into clear focus at Nashville’s Creative Workshop. In addition to Morgan and Zdan (who played guitars, lap steel, piano, keys, omnichord, and percussion), the sessions also featured Carl Broemal (pedal steel) and Tom Blankenship (bass) of My Morning Jacket, drummer Richard Medek (Alternate Roots, John Doe), and Little Brave (aka singer-songwriter Stephanie Macias, whose eclectic drumming, keyboards, and background vocals have made her Zdan’s go-to musical companion on the road for the last two years).
“It really feels like a band record, which is what I wanted,” enthuses Zdan. “We set up all these different stations in the studio, like ‘keyboard world’ and ‘guitar land’ and ‘drum world,’ and we all kind of went around to each one throughout the 15 days that we were recording. It was so much fun!”
As collaborative as the studio sessions were, though, Zdan wrote all 11 songs on the album solo. There are relationship songs (“Back on You,” “Love to a Ghost,” “More of a Man”), songs both cryptically and unabashedly about sex (“Courtship of Wild Horses,” “What It’s All For”), songs about the up-and-down, roller coaster dichotomy of life (“Median Artery”), and songs about songs about all of the above (“Only the Sad Songs,” “Running for a Song”). And true to the album’s name, all of them fit together to form a seamless, unflinchingly honest — and liberating — self portrait.
“This is me really finding my voice,” Zdan says. “And not just finding it, but finally being able to present it to the world — which I don’t think I was ever really ready to do up until this point. One of the main themes that I kept coming back to with these songs, and really have been ever since Lone Hunter, is the idea of trying to figure out how to be on my own. That’s actually that’s how I started out, as a teenager — I was out on my own playing my songs for a good four years until Twilight Hotel happened and kind of took over. And I’m glad that it did, because I learned a lot about different sounds and songwriting and playing guitar from that whole experience … but because I was in that duo for so long, it got to where that became my identity.
“It’s so funny how it works, really,” she continues. “Because now I’ll look back and think, ‘How did that idea ever even come into my head? At what point did I actually think that I wasn’t good enough to do this on my own?’ But after playing with someone for eight years, it’s just something you kind of get used to, and then you have to break that habit in order to start out again on your own. But I’m actually really grateful that I’ve been able to go through that whole process, because it just forces you to work all that much harder to find your own voice. And in the end, that’s really all we have to offer the world: You can’t try to be anything but the greatest version of yourself.”