October 18, 2019 Interview – Cory Brandan of Norma Jean
All hail the almighty Norma Jean! With over two decades under their collective belt, these heavy hitters have been making music for longer than many of our readers have been alive. Formed in the Atlanta suburbs in 1997, the Grammy Award-nominated band made their full-length debut with 2002’s Bless the Martyr and Kiss the Child, establishing a strong career that has brought six additional albums and is soon to deliver an epic seventh.
The band’s eighth overall offering, All Hail, arrives on October 25th, 2019, and was a labor of love for the beloved Norma Jean. Heavily inspired by their fans, the 14-song collection goes big on emotion, sharing an intimacy with the band at their finest hour. To discuss all things All Hail, Vocalist Cory Brandan recently took the time to sit down to delve deeper into some of the tracks, the almighty Norma Jean’s love for their fans, and much more.
Cryptic Rock – Norma Jean has been a band for just over twenty years, and you have been in the band for just under two decades. What has all of this time fronting the band taught you about yourself and music?
Cory Brandan – For me, personally, I’d done plenty of bands before Norma Jean and, of course, it’s been my dream job to have since I was a child. Some realizations I’ve had over the years is that no one told me that being in a band is mostly a desk job. (Laughs) No one told me that when I was a kid, like, “Hey, you’re going to be sending emails a ton, and sitting around and writing.” There’s so much more down time than what you see. When we get on stage, it’s like, okay, you’ve got thirty minutes or an hour to put all of that into what you do. There’s a dynamic that I didn’t know existed, so that time on stage becomes very valuable.
Cryptic Rock – That makes you cherish that time all the more. So, obviously we’re here to discuss the new album, All Hail, which arrives on October 25th. I read that the fans indirectly named the album?
Cory Brandan – Yes. The whole story really is pretty cool, because even the name “Norma Jean” was one of those things that… The story goes that we wanted to change our name, and that got thrown around a couple of times—it got said from stage one day and it stuck. There’s not a whole lot of deep story behind it other than just, “We need a name, here’s a couple of options,” toss it up on stage one day and there it is.
I joined the band and this whole, “the almighty Norma Jean” started—and that was really a fan thing. Again, it was just one of those things that got thrown around and we adopted it; we did a vinyl box set and we named it The Almighty Norma Jean. We just started saying that that’s what it was, and we’ve had people say, “Oh, there’s some member changes—you should change your name,” and I always say we did. (Laughs)
So, really All Hail comes from that. Fans started the “All Hail” hashtag, and “All Hail the Almighty Norma Jean” is just this fun thing—that’s really what it was. A lot of the stories on the album, a few stories anyway, were inspired by fans, so to us it just makes sense. Not to mention, it sounds cool too—that’s a plus—but it’s a fan-inspired title. Indirectly they named it, but they didn’t know. We started pushing that early, and it kind of ended up having a guerilla-marketing type vibe to it but it’s just been a lot of fun.
Cryptic Rock – It’s a bold title.
Cory Brandan – I’m so glad you said that! When we were trying to name the last album, that was a thing: we wanted a bold title. I think with this one we were still trying to look for that, and we were like, “That’s it, let’s just do it!” We really held off on sticking with it until we knew the album could match it; if we didn’t feel like the album really fit that title, then we would have scrapped it. We got into the album and recording with Will, and we kind of knew, yeah, this is gonna work. So, we’re really excited for it!
Cryptic Rock – It’s an awesome album, and the band’s eighth full-length. Going into writing and recording, did you challenge yourselves to branch out and take some risks to keep it feeling fresh or was there an organic progression to the album?
Cory Brandan – I think that’s one thing that we always try to do. There is organic progression anyway, because you never stop the learning phase of doing anything. Just like practicing an instrument: you play it enough you figure out new things and you get better at it, and then you have to find something to go even further. Those things are more calculated. We have a little bit of both, and for every album we try to think of something like what can we do on this album that challenges us and pushes us a little bit further?
With this album, it was really just trying to beat everything sonically. We really do have a looser feel to how we track; we want it to come off as live. With this album, we really just had to go and make sure that we knew the songs really, really well. Working with Will, he helped push us to make sure that happened and that we wouldn’t have a sterile-sounding album. We wanted to beat everything we’ve made, sonically, so we wrote the songs to work with that. Instead of everyone going off however they want, we talked about it more; made some parts work better for letting the album just hit hard. There’s some other things that happened, songwriting wise, that were more organic.
Cryptic Rock – You really explore a lot of diverse territory on the album.
Cory Brandan – Yeah, we also tried to do .. Track 1 was written with the purpose of it being Track 1. That’s really hard to do, because typically you write a bunch of songs and you go, “Which song works first?” But when you actually think, “No, let’s write the song that’s going to be Track 1,” that’s a lot harder to do. Then writing a song that goes last and trying to tell the story in between… We really did for the whole album, “What is going to go where?” and that really challenged us to write in a different way and tell a story. I think sonically it tells that story, because by the end of the album it’s almost a completely different band. But there’s also an ongoing concept and a theme that we added into that.
Cryptic Rock – Okay, let’s not do a track-by-track, but let’s discuss some of the specific tracks a little more in-depth. You can provide any insight into the songs that you’d like: anecdotes, inspirations, or whatever comes to mind that you’d like to share. The first song is “Landslide Defeater,” which can be taken somewhat politically.
Cory Brandan – Everything is metaphorical. There is a definite inspiration behind that song and where it is on the album, but I try to write more on broader terms so that people can get something else out of it than I even intended. Sometimes those interpretations are way better than mine! (Laughs) I’ve adopted them, because music is art and art is meant to be interpreted. If I look at a painting, I might see something completely different than what you would see or someone else; so it’s subjective.
That song is really the idea that we look at things in life where the hero or the savior is the center of attention and this great thing, but if you think of… The album has what I call a mirror theme. So, if you look at what the mirror of that is, well, a place that would need someone like that might seem pretty dire. The fact that you would even need someone to save or to fix something, it means that something must be broken. It’s written from that perspective, and that’s pretty much what the whole album does—looking at things from that perspective, from that angle.
Cryptic Rock – “Full Circle In Under A Minute.”
Cory Brandan – I’m still on our mock titles, so it’s hard for me to remember. (Laughs) “Full Circle In Under A Minute” is, the mock title for that was “Death Discount.” (Laughs) Oh man, that one is a lot harder to explain, because I did a lot of research and studying for this album. I ended up unintentionally studying the story of Adam and Eve, and I started to think of interesting questions that were in there.
One of them, specifically, is when they discover that they’re naked. The mirror of that is not that that was a discovery and what does that mean— the question that they were asked is, “Who told you you were naked?” (Laughs) I really liked that, because that’s like, “What? Where did you get that idea from?” That was never intentional. Just diving into that type of thing and the idea that we live in a society where we’re born entitled, and then people can kind of take it from there. I don’t want to go too far into it, but that’s pretty much the source data. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Okay. The next song is “If [Loss] Then [Leader].”
Cory Brandan – Now we’re into the second half of the album, which, the album has a transitional point. It starts in this kind of fictional reality at the beginning, moving towards stuff that’s more real. That song was written from the perspective of thinking what you tell yourself is what you’re going to believe; what you say out loud is what you’re going to believe. Your words are your faith. If you say you’re never going to get up from something then you won’t. If you say you can’t recover from something then how could you? Again, open to interpretation, but that’s kind of my initial thought process.
Cryptic Rock – That makes perfect sense. Alright, next song is “Careen.”
Cory Brandan – It’s pretty self-explanatory, in that, it’s about surrender. It’s about being in that place in your life where you’re on the ground, or you’re underneath and you just don’t know what to do. Right there is where you see a crossroads, and you make a decision what you’re actually surrendering to.
There’s a couple of us that went through two different forms of that. So, the whole album, and really what Norma Jean does to stay alive and to push ourselves to write music, is to try to match the emotion of the content and the lyrics to the way a song sounds. Although it has some soft elements to it, it’s also one of the heaviest songs on the album; it’s also one of those heavy moments in life. I think that’s where we really pulled that off the best. It was written from a completely emotional standpoint and trying to tell a story through a feeling.
Cryptic Rock – It’s definitely a strong stand-out, but so is “Anna.”
Cory Brandan – The end of the album. So, the beginning of the album starts with the fictional side of things, and again, transitional—as if you’re passing through a mirror—it ends with “Anna.”
“Anna” is the real side of things. Anna was a big Norma Jean fan—she struggled with addiction and a lot of problems. My wife and I became really close with her, and my wife really took her under her wing to try to help her; we both really were there for her. She passed away in September of last year, within the first day that we got together to really start writing songs together. That was the first song we wrote, and we knew that day that we would name it after her and dedicate it to her.
So, it’s really that story of her, and basically realizing that our music and what we do we feel like is important to someone. If you do things with that intention, it becomes harder to do because it’ll never be good enough. What we did was very important to her, so it was just a way to end on something that was tangible and real.
Cryptic Rock – That is exceptionally touching. Now, perhaps most surprising is that you end with a gorgeous acoustic guitar piece, “The Mirror And The Second Veil.” What made you decide to close the album with that particular piece?
Cory Brandan – Oh, it was so random. You’ll hear us talking a little bit at the beginning, and really what we were doing was we were in our home studio at my brother’s place. We were doing some sound design stuff, so this was right before we were mixing the album; it was tracked and we were just adding some other elements from home. We had an idea for a guitar thing, and the way my brother tracks in his studio is he just leaves it running; he records everything, but he’ll hide the screen so you don’t know he’s doing it.
That’s just Grayson, our guitarist, sitting there, strumming along. You can kind of hear me open a door, ‘cause I’m standing outside the sliding door like, “What is that?” He’s like, “Just playing shit!” (Laughs) You can hear him say that kind of vaguely underneath. He just was jamming and we recorded the whole thing, and that was it; it was just one take. We were like, well, that’s how the album ends. We just slapped it on the end of the album—it wasn’t intentional to be there in the first place, but we liked it.
Cryptic Rock – It’s perfect, actually. The album hits really heavy sound-wise and emotionally, so when you end like that it’s the breath of fresh air for the listener as it all settles in.
Cory Brandan – Yeah. It’s just the theme, too, because it was the most real; it was just a moment that happened. There wasn’t a second take, we didn’t fix anything. We just picked a place where we turned it up louder, had it mixed bigger. We added a little piano tone to it, but that’s what Grayson played and we kept it.
Cryptic Rock – It turned out flawless, it really did. So, we mentioned this before, but Norma Jean is a band with very intelligent, poetic lyrics that are open to a myriad of interpretations. When fans finally sit down to listen to these new songs, what do you hope they take away from the experience overall?
Cory Brandan – Oh man! It’s so hard to say because one of the main things about the album is thinking about some really important moments with fans, telling those stories. I’m sure even the smallest bands have heard this before, like, “Hey, your music changed my life or saved my life.” That’s a big statement, it’s huge! To get to a point where you get used to it a little bit, I think that’s kind of a bad place to be. I think this is us really stepping back and thinking about how they’re not kidding.
It’s for them! I think that when a band makes an album and they release it, those songs don’t belong to them anymore— or else why release it? So, I can’t say what I hope they get out of it, but, if anything, I just hope that they continue to get something good out of it; something that does change their life, save their life, or, if anything, it’s just fun to listen to! (Laughs) At the end of the day, it’s a Rock album and it’s entertainment, and that’s a fun place to be. At the very least, I hope that they think it’s a blast to listen to!
Cryptic Rock – That’s a great way to put it. So, obviously in late October into November, you will hit the road with The Devil Wears Prada and Gideon in support of All Hail. What should fans expect of the live show this time around?
Cory Brandan – I think we’re going to be playing a lot of newer stuff, we’ll kind of focus on that. We do get to play close to a full set, so they can definitely expect that we’re not on there just for thirty minutes; we’re playing a good amount of time. It’s definitely worth coming out to see! We’ll be focusing on a lot of newer stuff from the last couple of albums, and then we’ll add some older stuff in there too; we’ll try to play a little bit from everything if we can. We’ll do a headliner next year and we’ll bust it all out for that!
It’s going to be a fun show, for sure. At the end of the day, we respect that people are walking in the door paying their hard-earned money to see us play. So, we’re going to put on a show and it’s going to be a lot of fun!
Cryptic Rock – That’s guaranteed to be a great tour. Okay, last question. At Cryptic Rock, we cover music as well as films, particularly Horror and Science Fiction. Are you a fan of either genre and, if so, do you have any favorite Horror and/or Sci-Fi films?
Cory Brandan – I definitely love Sci-Fi! I like movies that have dark realism with a Sci-Fi element rather than pure Sci-Fi that’s like, “Oh, we’re just in space.” (Laughs) I really love, Gattaca (1997) is a good one. It has a futuristic Sci-Fi element to it, but there’s some realism. The Road (2009) falls into that, dystopian, but I like that kind of stuff. There’s questions to the movie that they’ve never answered—including their names. (Laughs) I really like that.
Horror, I liked it when I was a kid. I can’t help myself now, I don’t know what this is, but I just think Horror is mostly comical. (Laughs) It’s like a jump-scare thing and I just laugh. I’ve definitely seen some Horror movies in the theater where everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh!” You really have to tell yourself to be in that state to really do it and I can’t do it anymore. There’s too many loopholes. (Laughs) There’s a ghost—obviously get out of there! (Laughs)
Recently, one of my favorites is that movie A Quiet Place (2018). The story is crazy because it’s all about this family, and they’re having to live in this world and there’s nowhere to go; the whole world is this horror, not just a house or a town or a slasher guy. The story of the family really makes that, because you’re invested in them. It’s not just, “Oh, that guy’s dead now—who cares!” If there’s a tragedy, it felt like a tragedy. Recently, I would say I really loved that—it was refreshing to see.