Brittany Ann Tranbaugh on the pressure of music, queer identity, and her first release in over a decade - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

What does it mean to be a musician? What does it mean to define yourself so thoroughly by what you can create? And what does it mean when you can’t fulfill the role you’ve made for yourself?

Let’s go, for a moment, to 2018. Brittany Ann Tranbaugh is mere days out from her next show. This is the year that Tranbaugh added a new step to her pre-concert routine: panic attacks. Of course, that’s not the kind of thing that just starts out of a nowhere, and Tranbaugh knew as much. “I decided I needed to take a break while I addressed the root causes of my issues with music.”

Let’s go back a bit further—now it’s 2016. Tranbaugh has just moved back to Philly. She had just spent two years in Asheville, NC serving in AmeriCorps. There, she put music on the backburner, and was able to write new music and play a variety of gigs. Then she was back in Philly. “I told myself I was going to get back into the music scene in a big way,” she explains. But Tranbaugh found herself crumbling under the pressure and falling back into old routines—routines that go back even further.

Maybe it’s best to start from the very beginning. “I started playing gigs as a teenager, and it quickly became my entire identity, or at least that’s how it felt,” Tranbaugh explains. “When I first started writing songs around age 14, it was very simple and cathartic.” Tranbaugh has always had an undeniable talent and a knack for songwriting. What happens, though, when you define yourself so thoroughly by what you can create?

“After I began putting my songs out there in public, I felt hyper aware of the fact that other people were going to listen to them and judge them. This cycle started in my late teens where I would struggle to write songs, then that would launch me into a full-on identity crisis, like who am I if I’m not writing songs? As a result of this, I became avoidant of playing music, then I would feel shame and anxiety about it, which kept me in the cycle.”

2018—the cycle continues. 2016—it just keeps going. The whole thing unravels until suddenly it’s 2010, and Tranbaugh is putting out her last official release. Her last official release until now, that is.

2018, and 2016, and 2010 all feel worlds away at this point; Tranbaugh has entered a new chapter of her life, having finally broken out of the cycle that plagued her since the start of her career. Looking at it in hindsight, it’s clear how complex getting out of that cycle would be, but when Tranbaugh describes escaping it, she manages to do so succinctly, naming three key points.

“Not surprisingly, one of the biggest keys to getting out of the cycle was finally addressing my mental health: going to therapy, starting on meds, and simply just naming it and being honest with myself about it. Another big one was talking to friends and family and learning that the people in my life who truly love me don’t value me any less when I’m not playing gigs or writing songs. Finally, I think just learning to be less precious about music has been huge for me. Writing doesn’t have to be this mystical, emotional thing.”

Overall, Tranbaugh made it a goal to shift her perspective on the role that songwriting has in her life and released the expectation that being a musician is the be-all and end-all of her worth, both to herself and to those around her.

“[Songwriting] can be a creative exercise, like ‘oh wouldn’t it be interesting to try to write this type of song?’ or ‘wouldn’t it be fun to just nerd out co-writing with a friend for an afternoon?’ without any final goal of writing some life-changing hit. I think for artists it’s really important to remember that people are happy for you when you’re doing it, but they’re not necessarily mad at you when you’re not. That’s mostly in your head.”

Now, in 2022, Tranbaugh prepares to put out her first release in over a decade—Quarter Life Crisis Haircut. The story of this EP began back in 2021 when Jackson Emmer, a songwriter and producer Tranbaugh befriended in Asheville, urged her to come to Colorado to record an album. Having never been to Colorado before and having just gone through the long COVID lockdown, Tranbaugh decided to make the trip; the timing and circumstances were finally right.

Saying that Quarter Life Crisis Haircut began there might be a bit misleading though. Yes, that’s the story of how the EP finally got recorded, but, like everything with Tranbaugh, it goes even deeper. “I had been sitting on these songs for years making excuses to myself and everyone why I wasn’t ready to record them.”

Brittany Ann Tranbaugh - "Quarter Life Crisis Haircut Teaser #3"

Listening to these songs, it’s difficult to imagine why anyone would hold off on releasing such phenomenal material. The evocative lyricism and effortless vocals that Tranbaugh demonstrated back in her 2010 release, The Good in That, have only matured and grown in the years since. While it’s hard to imagine not immediately releasing this amazing work, it has been well worth the wait to see Tranbaugh collect them all in one place. On their own, the songs are exceptional showcases of Tranbaugh’s songwriting skill, but when placed together they form into a semi-autobiographical work that encapsulates the songwriter’s journey up until this point. Generally, albums are an ebb and flow of stand-out songs and pieces that just help to string the whole thing together; that’s not the case with Quarter Life Crisis Haircut. Somehow, each song speaks for itself, with Tranbaugh navigating between introspection, humor, and sentimentality with an ease that can only come from lived experience.

Despite the album feeling deeply personal, it grounds itself in the kind of emotion that gives it broad appeal and relatability. Considering that, the title track serves as the perfect launching point for the whole EP. “Quarter Life Crisis Haircut” chronicles Tranbaugh’s musical journey and the weight of expectation she expects from the familiar strangers—as she expresses in the song, “My anxiety kinda messed me up creatively / I’ve been chilling in obscurity.” Despite the heavy lyrical content, the song as a whole leaves it clear that Tranbaugh has overcome these recurring thoughts, and describes the writing process as a positive one:

“Writing ‘Quarter Life Crisis Haircut’ felt genuinely liberating and fun. I definitely see it as the backbone of my EP. I started writing it before the pandemic and finished it at the beginning of it. I know people who haven’t seen me in a while and don’t actually care about me a lot are going to notice I gained weight, I know they’re going to notice I’m not doing music full-time and apply whatever judgment to that, but why should I care?”

“Quarter Life Crisis Haircut” serves not only as the first single and backbone of this upcoming release, but as a sort of “comeback song” for Tranbaugh. She reflects on what the reception of the song has been like:

“It’s cool seeing how much the song resonates with people. Whether or not you’re a musician, almost everyone can relate to the experience of running into an old acquaintance, feeling condescended to, and trying to brush it off.”

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A post shared by Brittany Ann Tranbaugh (@b_thefolksinger)

The next single from Quarter Life Crisis Haircut is “Kiss Me,” a song that Tranbaugh had written a few years back and performed live a couple of times. Tranbaugh reflects on writing it, “It began as just a fun challenge to myself: what if I wrote an explicitly queer country song?” The song recounts the bittersweet and confusing experience of first love as a young queer person. Once again, the personal narrative that Tranbaugh presents serves as a backdrop for a song that ends up being proudly emotionally relatable. “It ended up having a lot of heart and a wider appeal than I expected. The song has an overall sweet and nostalgic vibe to it but doesn’t shy away from expressing the deep fear I felt as a middle schooler in the early 2000s realizing I’m queer.”

While the song has undeniable emotional importance, both to Tranbaugh and to many of us listening to it, it also serves as a significant benchmark in Tranbaugh’s career. “Recording it with Jackson brought it new life and affirmed for me that it’s one of my best,” she expresses. And that sentiment was further affirmed when she entered it into the 2021 John Lennon Songwriting Contest “on a whim.” Of course, Tranbaugh’s confidence in the song wasn’t misplaced, as she ended up winning in the grand prize in the country category; despite not aiming to write a “life-changing hit,” she certainly knows how to. “[Learning] that I won a grand prize a few weeks ago was a huge shock!”

Brittany Ann Tranbaugh - "Sarah" (Tiny Desk 2022 Submission)

The third song of the EP similarly touches on the bittersweet experiences of being a young queer person. “Basically I took three separate situations and jumbled them up and put them in this one song, and named it ‘Sarah.’” The song presents the reality of being a newly-out 20-something queer person. “I found that I was usually the one catching feelings hard and fast, and maybe scaring people away as a result of how intense I was. It’s a snapshot of that chapter of my life, but I think a lot of people can relate to the general feeling of it.”

“Like Dustbowl Refugees (Sam & Billy)” breaks the mold of Quarter Life Crisis Haircut. Where the others feel like Tranbaugh’s introspection and personal narratives are used as a backdrop to emotional relatability, “Like Dustbowl Refugees” feels like a relatable experience being used to backdrop the songwriter’s introspection. The satirical piece describes the kind of archetypal “straight, white, male folk singer” that sometimes seem to dominate the genre.“I started writing it late one night when I was driving home from a folk alliance conference and just feeling generally bitter about the scene. It’s meant to be playful and catchy, and sort of a parody of itself.” Then, towards the end, Tranbaugh flips back inward: “It gets a bit self-deprecating toward the end because I’d be a hypocrite not to also poke fun at myself.”

Dust Bowl Refugees/Sam & Billy - Brittany Ann Tranbaugh (Gems In The Rough 2022 Submission)

The final song serves as a perfect closer to the semi-autobiographical album, showing pinpoints of Tranbaugh’s life. “Each verse is a little vignette: me as a child, me falling in love with my now-wife, me frustrating my wife at the grocery store because I’m zoning out and not listening to her.” “Space Cadet” analyzes the highs and lows of being an imaginative, introspective person who daydreams to escape the boring or uneasy pitfalls of reality. Where “Quarter Life Crisis Haircut” is the backbone of the EP, “Space Cadet” is undoubtedly the heart (which is a difficult feat in an album already filled with so much heart). “Of all the songs on this EP, this is the one that people most often want to talk to me about after shows,” Tranbaugh explains. “I think a lot of people see themselves, or a partner, or a family member, in this one.”

Tranbaugh’s Quarter Life Crisis Haircut will be released on 4/8. Be sure to pre-save it on Bandcamp or Spotify. You can catch Tranbaugh playing a show this Thursday, April 7 at Kung Fu Necktie. If you can’t make it, consider checking out her other show dates here, or at least take a listen to “Quarter Life Crisis Haircut” and “Kiss You” below.

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