Brandon James Gwinn is best known for producing Trixie Mattel’s two albums, 2017’s Two Birds and 2018’s One Stone, both of which he performed on. He also opened for Trixie on her USA tour.
Now Brandon is out with his sophomore album, BULLIT, featuring the smash single, “Cristal Conners,” a country-rock pop-infused ode to the character portrayed by Gena Gershon in 1995’s infamous Showgirls. It is a love letter to aggressive feminine fierceness; something Brandon acquires after a number of vodkas.
The song is a love letter to aggressive feminine fierceness; something BJG has been known to embody 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.” It’s a quality that Gwinn admits he can relate to. Written by Brandon James Gwinn and produced by BJG and M.P. Kuo, “Cristal Conners” is being distributed by Indie Chameleon and is available on Apple Music, Spotify and all digital platforms, along with the Bullit album. Its video is available on YouTube.
The music video echoes the chaotic, queer joy of the single. Directed by Chris Ruetten and shot at NYC’s legendary Stonewall Inn, the video is laugh out loud funny with Brandon made up as Cristal, courtesy of drag queen and make up-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.”
Brandon’s unapologetic erratic-ness permeates throughout the collection of songs on his Bullit album. Much of it is darker than the piano-based-quirkiness of his previous work. Bullit 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.
The video was shot at NYC’s legendary Stonewall Inn and is laugh out loud funny with Brandon made up as Cristal, courtesy of drag queen and make up-artist Chelsea Piers.
“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.”
Brandon James Gwinn was raised in the suburbs of Nashville, Tennessee where he lived with his parents, grandparents and sister. He recalls a big Southern and Italian-American family where there was always an uncle or cousin around. 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 James Gwinn 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 RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars winner 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.”
We spoke with Brandon James Gwinn from his home in New York City.
Was the video your first-time dressing in drag?
Brandon James Gwinn: I have done drag a small handful of times, but never before as Cristal. The first time was actually in order to perform at The Stonewall Inn as part of a Toys for Tots benefit. My drag name was Whosie Whatzitz.
Did Trixie Mattel offer you any tips on drag?
Brandon James Gwinn: Trixie is a true make-up artist, a brilliant musical talent, wildly hard working and infinitely creative. She has given me tips on and inspiration for so many things: from eyebrows and nails to choruses and key changes. When we were together on tour we were always laughing and collaborating.
Has Trixie met Cristal?
Brandon James Gwinn: (Laughing) If by “Cristal,” you mean the version of Brandon that has been known to stumble, once or twice, onto a tour bus after an overnight drive, a two-hour show, a meet and greet and a few vodkas… she’s met her!
How did you come to work with Trixie on her first two albums?
Brandon James Gwinn: I happened to catch a Trixie show in Provincetown in a little theatre that probably sat fifty people. She lip-synced brilliantly. She was funny; she tap-danced and she played her acoustic guitar and sang “I Know You All Over Again.” I grew up around musicians and songwriters all my life and I was so floored by the songwriting and her talented, heartbreaking delivery.
With a background in country music and musical theatre, I approached her and said I wanted to produce her first album. I pitched her how I would record and craft the sound of what would become Two Birds. The song I saw her perform in Ptown went onto that record, and when the album hit number 1 on the iTunes chart, we knew we had to make the follow-up. So, a year later One Stone was born. It was number 1 on the Billboard charts and she supported it with a sixty-city North American tour, playing 2800 seat theatres.
Have you considered working with other drag artists?
Brandon James Gwinn: I have worked with many! I produced an album of Broadway showtunes and standards with Season 9’s Alexis Michelle (now available on Broadway Records). I produced for Stefanie’s Child, and I have music directed live shows for Chelsea Piers, Tina Burner and more. Drag is a very beautiful and malleable art form, and I’ve been really lucky to get to make a bunch of really cool shit with these gals. I’m always up to work with any wonderful artists, queen or otherwise. Collaboration really is key.
Why did you name the album BULLIT?
Brandon James Gwinn: The title track starts with the lyric “He’s like a tumbleweed….” and I’m hanging out the door of an old rusted pick-up on the cover; all sort of contributing to a post-apocalyptic bordering on Western atmosphere on this album. An atmosphere where one might expect to dodge a bullet or two. Also, it’s sort of a mantra that I use to fight my never-ending imposter syndrome. Bullit, Boy. Literally “bull(SHIT) it”… fake it ‘til you make it.
What are some of your favorite highlights from the album?
Brandon James Gwinn: I love the guitar work on the rock songs like “Black Nail Polish” and “Exit Strategy”. Tim Basom (guitar player for Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway) is my friend and such an amazing guitarist. He reads my mind in the studio. The duet with Alexa Green (“You’ll See”) is another of my favorite moments. Alexa is a true talent and one of my closest friends. And, I still can’t believe that Broadway’s Alysha Umphress took time out of her busy schedule of being in Broadway show after Broadway show, Girls 5eva and Bonding on Netflix to be the speaking voice of “Cristal Conners.” We both love the film Showgirls and she didn’t even need the script that day in the studio. Still gagging over that one.
Will Cristal be performing on stage in the near future?
Brandon James Gwinn: I bet she could be convinced. Though I think Brandon’s still pissed about losing that poker game in the video and may not be willing to share the stage with her.