As people are being forced to stay home during the COVID-19 crisis, it might be argued that this suddenly sedentary lifestyle is an especially shocking change for musicians who normally tour non-stop. And for indie folk singer-songwriter Brian Dunne, who estimates he usually spends 125 days a year on the road, it’s a doubly difficult situation because he’s also releasing his latest album, Selling Things, on April 10.
While this seems like unfortunate timing, Dunne is doing his best to find a silver lining in this situation: “I would almost say it’s convenient to be releasing [the album] at this time because I feel like it fits in with the nature of these apocalyptic times,” Dunne says, calling from his home in Brooklyn.
The darkness in these new songs, he says, comes from writing them when he was enduring “really difficult emotional and mental problems…I wanted to talk about what that felt like. Each song is a reckoning with things that eat at me personally, or things that eat at me existentially.”
But Dunne’s material isn’t unrelentingly bleak: “There’s also a strange twisted sort of hope in each of the songs that we’re all still here and there is some light in the present,” he says. He also lifts the mood with flashes of humor throughout his songs. “I think that satire is a useful way to get my point across. When I was getting the ball rolling on this career, I think there was maybe an assumption that as a singer-songwriter, you had to be stoic or very serious. And that’s just not what I got into this for.”
This blend of solemn introspection with an unexpected touch of levity is particularly true on the beautifully solemn single “Chasing Down a Ghost,” which Dunne says chronicles his own struggle with mental health issues. “I came up with this punchline that I thought was funny, something like what your uncle would say to you: ‘It’s not enough to kill you but it will get you pretty close.’”
Finishing “Chasing Down a Ghost” was, Dunne says, “one of these really cathartic experiences because I felt like I was able to put to bed the struggle that I had been having in my personal life. Not that I haven’t thought about it since. Nothing goes away. But it was definitely a cap on a particularly harrowing time in my life.”
Although Dunne’s songs tend to be intensely personal, which might have made recording them a daunting task, he says it helped immensely that his longtime friend Andrew Sarlo produced Selling Things. “We’ve been really close for a decade,” Dunne says of Sarlo, who’s also produced Bon Iver and Big Thief, among others. “Our friendship enriches the experience because I really trust him, so if he tells me something is not cutting it for the record, we toss it.”
This trust was truly tested when Dunne presented Sarlo with the songs he’d written for the new album – and Sarlo told him to cut half of them from the list. “He said, ‘The songs are good, but they’re not the songs we need. I need you to write me two more, and we’re going to fill out the record this way.’
“For a lot of artist and producer relationships, that would be chaotic,” Dunne continues, “but I trusted him and I stepped up to the challenge – and I wrote what I think are two of the best songs on the record: “I Hope I Can Make It to the Show, and “Selling Things,” the title track. I think [this album] is my finest work, and I’m super proud of it.”
Dunne says it took him a long time to finally feel entirely comfortable with who he is as an artist. Although his previous albums – Songs from the Hive (2015), Bug Fixes and Performance Improvements (2017) and The Timber House Sessions (2018) – were critically acclaimed, Dunne says he was still learning his craft on them. “When I started, I definitely was confused about which way I wanted to go. There’s some cringe-worthy moments on my early records. It took until now to really understand who it is that I want to be.”
While it took some time to find his songwriter “voice,” Dunne says there was never any doubt about his career choice overall. “I always knew I specifically wanted to be a singer songwriter,” he says, although he acknowledges with a laugh that this was an unusual aspiration: “That’s a very weird thing to want to be when you’re five [years old] in 1994. It wasn’t like that was the American Dream at the time. But it was always what I wanted to do.”
During his childhood in upstate New York, Dunne dreamed of moving to New York City, where he was sure he would make it big. “I’ve always had this romantic idea about it, probably based on some weird documentary I watched about Bob Dylan,” he says of the city. Unfortunately, when he did finally make that move, he discovered that New York was actually a very difficult place to make his mark – so he promptly hit the road, where he has built up his reputation one tour stop at a time.
Now that he’s getting recognition, Dunne still chooses to live in New York City, even if he admits that it can be an expensive and challenging place to live for an artist. “I know a lot of people hightail it out of here because it’s difficult. But it does light a fire under your ass,” he says.
Now that he’s actually forced to stay in New York because of the coronavirus, Dunne’s pragmatic approach to his career is once again in evidence as he figures out how to properly launch Selling Things without the ability to tour. But he’s not especially concerned, because for him, this is just another example of the ever-shifting landscape that always confronts artists. “The music world is always changing,” he says. “and I just try to remind myself that my job is simply to figure out how to get my music to people. Sometimes that means driving to Cleveland. But right now, it means figuring out how to get these songs into people’s homes.”
The solution, these past few weeks, is for Dunne to regularly livestream performances on his YouTube channel. He says it’s going well so far: “It’s been a cool way to connect with people. You can tell that it really means a lot to them right now.”
This isn’t to say that Dunne is growing accustomed to being a homebody. “The second that they let us out of here, it will be non-stop touring until the end of time,” he says with a laugh, adding that he hopes that planned tour dates across the U.S. in late spring and on through summer will still be able to happen.
But no matter what happens next, Dunne says, “I’m going to work as hard as I can to try to get this music out into the world. As long as there are people, there will be people who need music – so I want to fill that need for them.”
If you like what you hear and want to order the latest from Dunne, click here.