Alana Urcia

Brian Dunne’s Road-Tested Optimism

Tonight he takes the Transparent Clinch Gallery in Asbury Park. Tomorrow he takes on the world.

Brian Dunne is so much more than a singer-songwriter, so much more than a New Yorker, so much more than an indie rocker with new music out. Dunne is versatile, so while he is, in fact, all of those things, it only scratches the surface of his abilities. His music has a cinematic quality and his lyrics hold an earthy, soulfulness. Loser On The Ropes is progressive and the man behind it celebrates the humbleness of fighting for yourself, your world, and your art… and he is the only one who can describe what it means to make a record with such contemporary, new wave-y layers… so we got on a call and talked with him about it.

Since we’re talking about the new album, Loser on the Ropes, you have the title track opening the album. Did you always know that Loser on the Ropes was going to be the title or be the opener? 

I think that the moment that I wrote that song, I knew that it was going to be track one, side one, and the title track. It just felt like such a mission statement for me. Those are few and far between, so when you get a song like that…. I care very deeply about ‘track one, side one,’ due to an early viewing of High Fidelity as a child [Laughs]. I am always sort of searching for the very first and last song on the album, and I just knew the second that I wrote that song that it was exactly what I needed to kick off the record. It’s sort of a song that builds and builds and builds – half the song sort of centers you in the reality of the record and the second half of the song sort of states my intentions. It was sort of a confidence boost to myself to speak my mind and really say what I wanted to say, ‘cause if we’re going down, we’re going down swinging. It’s sort of a thinly veiled metaphor for that [Laughs].

I love it. A lot of this album is very honest and people are sure to be able to see themselves in a lot of these songs. The songs like, “The Kids Are All Grown” and “Optimists” are songs that have balance. We can hear it as your song, but see ourselves in it.

Oh, thank you. That’s very kind to say. It was a strange moment for everyone, the pandemic. I think any musician would tell you it was a very odd moment to have had this thing that they’ve been working towards their whole life sort of rendered somewhat useless. I just felt so useless, you know? I was getting ready to release my previous record. It came out on April 10, 2020, which was not a slow news day [Laughs]. I just had this feeling of like… there’s so much going on and I want to help. I was thinking, “I don’t know how to help because this thing that I’ve devoted my life to has been – in terms of priorities – pushed to  sort of the margins.” It was the year I turned 30, as well, and I kind of just felt like, “Oh man, I don’t know. I don’t know where this is all going,” but, weirdly, that thought was kind of liberating because it allowed me to be a little bit more honest. I’ve been a little more careful than I maybe should have been early on. I really wanted to be well liked and perceived a certain way, and I just sort of started writing again the way I wrote when I was a teenager, which was just to get some things off my chest as almost for a cathartic release.

The word cathartic is used perfectly there. You are less about asking, “Does this make them feel understood?” and more about asking, “How can I understand myself?” I think that makes your stories and messages hit even harder for them, for us, for the audience.

Yeah, I think so. It wasn’t necessarily that I had lost sight of that, you know? I’m proud of my previous records. I was sort of performing again for myself in a room during COVID which was something that I hadn’t done in a very long time. Ever since I started my first record, I’ve been touring nonstop. The songs would get road tested and played out and about in the world, and I would sort of get feedback from that to decide what was working or what wasn’t. This was the first time I was writing songs just exclusively based on what it was that I wanted to hear myself. I was trying to write a song that would ease my worries or would sort of open up the wound and clean it out. [Laughs] That’s a gross metaphor, but it gets it, and I am putting this together in hindsight. I was sort of just following the muse when I was writing it, but I hear it now, because a record is a recording of where you’ve been the last couple of years, and I hear it now. What I think is exciting about the record is that it is the most related to who I was when I was first started this career, even without the industry or the even the audience sort of being in my mind, as it was just sort of me trying to write the album that I needed to get through the day.

I appreciate you sharing that as I do find that Loser on the Ropes has a sort of naive resilience to it, which connects to the simplicity of just wanting to express yourself for yourself, first and foremost.

Right. That’s sort of what I landed on, too, like for instance, a song like “Optimist” is sort of saying, “knowing what we know now, it becomes harder every year.” What the album sort of flirts with is the idea of, “I’m gonna do it anyways because there’s no other choice.” You know, I am an optimist, and that is sort of that naive resilience. Knowing that you’re being naive, it’s sort of like a self-aware lack of self-awareness, you know what I mean? “Ok, I know that I’m just going to get knocked down again, but I’m going to get up anyway.” It was a tonal feeling as opposed to just something specific that happened to me. I didn’t have an incident where I needed to recover. It was just how I felt living in the world these last couple years; it’s become very hard to feel good about anything, but I need to try.

That’s what we got with his record, too, you know… this understanding of putting yourself out there and coming out on the other side. You get to put all those feelings and experience into your back pocket for the future. The instrumentation is kind of noisy and yet a collective at once, so all the messiness comes together as we listen on and as we move forward.

Thank you. Yeah, I thought about that a lot because I had a feeling when I first got started that maybe one of my shortcomings was that I wanted to show that I could do everything. I’d have a song that was sort of a rock song and then a song that had a quietness, and I don’t think I was doing it consciously, but I wanted to impressed with my versatility or something, so while the songs definitely float between genres on this record, I wanted there to be narrative threads and sort of a sonic cohesion, because all my favorite records do that. The songs together bring you into a sort of a sonic universe. 

I thought about a lot about; I thought about how I love it when artists lean all the way in to what they want to do and how if you don’t like this record, I want you to really not like it, because I want it to be so pushing for what it wants to be, that if it’s not for you, it’s so just not for you [Laughs]. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that was sort of what I was getting after. I wanted this to be right down the middle for somebody who was into what I’m trying to say, and if it’s not for you, that’s totally cool, but I wanted it all to feel cohesive.

You kicked off this run of live shows at the Mercury Lounge for a kind of hometown performance, but then there is a show at the Transparent Clinch Gallery in Asbury Park coming up, as well. That is such a thrilling place to play. All of these venues have a really cool intimacy and artistic aspect to them. For you, like what has been the best part so far? What are you looking forward to? 

Well, the New York show was incredible. We sold out the Mercury Lounge and kicked it off with a huge bang, which was really exciting. Then we went up to New England and toured for a couple of days. And now, I’m actually loading the van right now, we are to get started on the Midwestern run. We go out and do a bunch of rock clubs out there, which is really fun for this record. One of the things I’m noticing that I really am excited about is that the whole record is sort of playing really well to the crowd. This was one of the things I was slightly apprehensive about since I wrote [the album] over the course of the last couple years. It was the only record I’d ever made that I hadn’t road tested, so I wasn’t sure. It’s a weird feeling when you’re stepping on stage the first night in New York and you don’t know how the songs are going to stand on their own because you haven’t played them live before. It’s been a real thrill to see them go over and see which songs are going to become staples for the next few years. It’s very exciting right now. It’s all happening so quickly and I’m just trying to keep up and not lose my mind.

I don’t think you will. I think this album will ground you in the fact that it, in itself, was organic in nature.

Yeah, exactly. Somebody once told me a long time ago that your songs are always your insurance policy. I feel very confident that no matter what comes with us, no matter what kind of show we’re playing, if it’s sold out or a tough night, I think that the songs will carry us.