Julian Talamantez Brolaski (they/them) makes traditional, inventive Americana music, adding poetic lyricism to melodies inspired by some of country and western music’s original recording stars and most beloved sounds. Classical piano lessons, the poetry and queer country music scenes on both coasts, and years spent studying languages gave Brolaski the foundation to create “sweet, cutting, and melancholy” (Country Queer) music with various bands and now as a solo artist on It's Okay Honey, due out August 4, 2023. As a poet, Brolaski has released three critically acclaimed books of poems that “[push] lyric to its limits, often forcing it as close to music as it can get” (Public Books).
Julian Talamantez Brolaski (it / xe / them) is a poet and country singer, the author of Of Mongrelitude (Wave Books 2017), Advice for Lovers (City Lights 2012), and gowanus atropolis (Ugly Duckling Presse 2011). Julian is a 2023 Bagley Wright lecturer, a 2021 Pew Foundation Fellow, and the recipient of the 2020 Cy Twombly Award for Poetry. Its poems were recently included in When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry (2020) and We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics (Nightboat 2020). With its band Juan & the Pines, it released an EP Glittering Forest in 2019; Julian’s first full-length album is coming out in August 2023.
The art of songwriting combines poetry and music, and Julian Talamantez Brolaski (they/them) has earned their bona fides at both. Brolaski makes traditional, inventive Americana music, adding poetic lyricism to melodies inspired by some of country and western music’s original recording stars and most beloved sounds. Classical piano lessons, the poetry and queer country music scenes on both coasts, and years spent studying languages gave Brolaski the foundation to create “sweet, cutting, and melancholy” (Country Queer) music with various bands and now as a solo artist.
On It's Okay Honey, due out August 4, 2023, slow, melancholy waltzes and rousing, upbeat numbers lend the album a variety of moods. The album’s 12 songs combine the language of classic country with lyrical innovation and pacing that reflect Brolaski’s point of view as a mixed-race transgender poet.
“Yes, it is sort of a COVID album,” says Brolaski, “but it’s more than that. They’re meant to be songs of solace. They represent a range of emotional experience, but ultimately the goal is to be healing: to heal myself, and to solace listeners.”
Brolaski recorded It’s Okay Honey in 2022 in Philadelphia, during a yearlong Pew Foundation fellowship-in-residence. While in Philly, they connected with a talented group of local musicians: renowned lap steel player Mike “Slo-Mo” Brenner (also the album’s co-producer), bassist Michael Frank, harmonica player and harmony vocalist Boaz Kim, composer and electric guitarist David Laganella, and drummer Mark Schreiber. For their part, Brolaski found inspiration for their guitarwork in the picking style of Mother Maybelle Carter of the Carter Family; they also emulate the heartbroke yodeling of another musical muse, Hank Williams Sr., particularly in the timely “Covid-19 Blues.”
Growing up on the southern coast of California, Brolaski began playing piano — under the tutelage of their father, a piano teacher — at the age of four, but shifted their focus to writing poetry as a young teenager. They left home at the age of 16 and enrolled in college, studying English and creative writing. Brolaski later earned an MFA in poetry and a Ph.D. in English and has published three critically acclaimed books of poems that “[push] lyric to its limits, often forcing it as close to music as it can get” (Public Books).
“Poetry has more lyrical freedom to it,” says Brolaski. “I think of songs as emotional landscapes, too, but sometimes the lyrics and the word choices have to be simpler. I do try to push myself lyrically, and syllabically, in my songwriting, though.”
Brolaski was not exposed to classic country music during their childhood, but after they heard Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues” on the UC Berkeley radio station when they were 19, they were entranced by the emotional break in Williams’ voice. “It seemed to me to be just the epitome of heartbreak expressed vocally,” Brolaski explains. “I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard.”
Williams’ yodeling and the music of the Carter Family, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells, among others, inspired Brolaski to pick up a guitar and start singing. They began writing songs — an easy leap from writing poetry — and playing with San Francisco Bay Area multi-instrumentalist “Handy” Andy Waegel, who would become a frequent collaborator and plays banjo and pedal steel and sings some harmony vocals on It’s Okay Honey. “I love working with Andy,” Brolaski says. “He intuitively understands the emotional resonance behind my songs and has this magical ability to bring them to life.”
Brolaski moved to New York City in 2006 and immersed themself in the city’s burgeoning queer country music scene. They played in the bands The Low & the Lonesome with co-lead songwriter and pedal steel player Elana Redfield and the Invert Family Singers with late trans singer and performer Bryn Kelly. They performed at small venues — including Hank’s Saloon, Freddy’s Bar & Backroom, and the venerated Branded Saloon — and recorded a still-unreleased full-length album with another band, Juan & the Pines. They also performed their poetry, worked as an editor for a small poetry press, taught writing at various universities and colleges, hosted poetry readings, and curated a variety show, “Mongrel Vaudeville.”
“It was an exciting time to be in New York,” recalls Brolaski. “I put an ad on Craigslist and ended up connecting with all of these queer and trans artists. It was sort of a ‘if you build it, they will come’ moment, and all of these queer country and Americana artists came out of the woodwork, and people were really into it. It was like a dream come true to be a part of that scene.”
But after a decade of teaching in New York City, Brolaski decided in 2016 to focus full-time on music and poetry. Three years spent on the road, living out of their truck and at artist residencies, were clarifying and exciting — spiritual, even. The experience, Brolaski says, was “incredibly freeing” and “taught me to live without fear.”
Back in the Bay Area, Brolaski founded the band The Western Skyline, with Waegel on pedal steel. Juan & the Pines returned, too, in a stripped-down, duo form, again with Waegel, and the pair recorded an EP, Glittering Forest. Brolaski has also performed with the Bay Area American Indian Two-Spirits (BAAITS) drum group at the Two-Spirit Powwow, San Francisco Pride, the Queer Women of Color Music Festival, and the San Francisco LGBT Transgender Day of Remembrance. Their music and poetry have also taken them to literary festivals and venues in Brazil, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway.
As a poet, Brolaski is the author of Of Mongrelitude (Wave Books, 2017), Advice for Lovers (City Lights, 2012), and gowanus atropolis (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011). In addition to their 2022 Pew fellowship, they are a 2023 Bagley Wright poetry lecturer, the winner of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts’ 2020 Cy Twombly Award for Poetry, a 2017 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry finalist, and the recipient of numerous artists residencies, including Djerassi, Montalvo, and Yaddo. Brolaski is currently writing a new book of poems and co-editing an anthology of two-spirit poetry. Wave Books will also be publishing the lyrics and chord sheets for It’s Okay Honey in a songbook.
“I’m interested in the way that language and song function as medicine,” explains Brolaski. “My songs are infused with the enthusiasm of addressing a person you’re newly in love with and intending to elicit a response, make them feel pleasure, and heal their hurts.”
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