With his bombastic mix of musical theater tropes, rock-and-roll glam, and beautifully rendered confessional, downtown performance artist Salty Brine is one of New York’s notable alt-cabaret stars-in-waiting. His Living Record Collection shows, performed monthly at Lower East Side supper club Pangea and set to move to Joe’s Pub in 2019, are sprawling mashups of full-length album covers and emotional solo monologues.
Brine and his collaborators start by orchestrating a famous LP for his band; in the case of his most recent set, “And If You Listen Very Hard,” that album is the immortal Led Zeppelin IV. He sets that performance within the context of another canonized artwork—for “And If You Listen,” the modifier was the Robert Louis Stevenson pirate adventure novel Treasure Island—then layers in a one-man show of personal discovery. It’s the sort of ambitiously maximalist theater that young artists tend to shy away from, but Brine comes by this complexity naturally. “When I was 6 or 7,” he tells me, “I remember taking my mom into my room to show her the inside of my closet. I had created a three-dimensional world out of building blocks, paper clips, and little toys. It was the set design for a world in my head, and my apartment today is decorated the same way, with little dramatic scenes everywhere. I just see the world like that.”
The density of Brine’s source material is buoyed by his quick wit, strong writing, and powerful vocal chops. In advance of his sure-to-sell-out November 29 and December 13 tributes to singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, Brine spoke with us about his debt to Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman and why presenting bad work is a necessary part of powerful theater.
What Should We Do?!: How did you come by the name Salty Brine?
Salty Brine: It’s my real name! My family name is Brine, and I was named after my grandfather, Walter, who played a sea captain on a local children’s television show in Rhode Island. He was a radio host there for more than 50 years and everyone called him Salty. It stuck for me, too.
WSWD: So you come from a performing family?
Brine: I’d say I do. My dad was a morning radio drive-time host in Boston for many years and, though my interests and performance abilities have fallen a bit far from the tree, I like to think I’m keeping up the tradition. My grandfather was trained as an actor and, while I don’t think he ever saw me perform, he was so excited for me when I told him I wanted to be onstage.
WSWD: When did you realize you were going to be a performer?
Brine: It’s been more or less as long as I can remember. I grew up doing children’s theater and trained at NYU’s Playwrights Horizons Theater School. It offers a really thorough education with an emphasis on the creation of new works in which the playwright is an active part of the performance. It stressed that you don’t have to sit in one category and say, “I’m only a director” or “I’m just an actor,” which absolutely spoke to my sensibilities.
Once I graduated, I got turned on to the burgeoning alt-cabaret scene in New York, the no-fourth-wall style where the distance between the performer and audience is arm’s length. I started hosting a rock-and-roll drag karaoke show in Astoria for a couple of years but, to be honest, I didn’t consider that work to be capital-T Theater. I had just come out of four years of collegiate training and I didn’t see the cabaret stuff as anything more than a bit of silly fun. Then one day I realized that getting in front of an audience in a dress and high heels and ripping my wig off while screaming Cyndi Lauper songs was simply another kind of off-Broadway performance.
One day I realized that getting in front of an audience in a dress and high heels and ripping my wig off while screaming Cyndi Lauper songs was simply another kind of off-Broadway performance.
WSWD: What sparked that epiphany?
Brine: Going to see Kiki and Herb at Carnegie Hall. At the time I didn’t really know who they were; my friend had a spare ticket and thought I might like the show. It ended up changing my life. They validated something that I had always believed as a kid: Musical theater is punk. Musicals were all I listened to; it wasn’t until college that this whole other world of sound opened up to me. My dorm roommate was immediately like, “You need to calm down! Smoke this joint and listen to Radiohead!” Up until then, musicals were my rebellion. I would skip down the high school halls, singing songs from You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown as an explicit fuck you to everyone.
WSWD: What were you so angry about?
Brine: I was 16 when I came out of the closet, and I took a lot of shit for it. I had spent years being the monster in hiding, and it took me a long time to get over that. The rage of my teens and 20s provided a powerful creative fuel and helped make my work important to me, which helped keep me making it, but—as often happens—it also became a bit of a crutch.
After I worked through that anger, I sort of naturally started thinking about gender and what it meant to be a man, and did I feel like a man and what was all that supposed to mean? That opened up drag as a means of expression. Now that drag has been a part of my work for so long, I’m trying to find out what it means to be human, connecting the personal to the universal. I want to offer my own life, everything that’s embarrassing or exciting or sexy or sad to me and ask if you can see yourself in that. That’s what I’m hunting for onstage today.
WSWD: How did you first conceive of the Living Record Collection?
Brine: I had the idea for it about four years ago. I had been doing a cabaret act called Pepper and Sam, just a Kiki and Herb knockoff, really, but it helped me learn how to take apart a piece of popular music and turn it into something I could own.
I started with the Talking Heads’s Stop Making Sense. I got a band together and we played both the album and all the moments from the Jonathan Demme live concert film from start to finish. We didn’t copy everything exactly, but I had the big suit. We only did it for one night, but once I came off the stage, I knew something important was in there and I had to figure out how to get back to it. It took me a year to find a producer and the right team before we could start scheduling and making monthly shows.
Once we got the Living Record Collection going, it took me some time to start adding my own personal stories into the mix. I hate self-indulgent cabaret, and I desperately wanted to avoid making the show about me. Eventually, though, I had a director tell me that the piece simply needed more of me in it. At first, opening up in front of strangers was terrifying, but now it’s something of an addiction to figure out how to keep this delicate balance. Theater isn’t therapy for the performer; it’s therapy for the audience. I have to make sure you take something of worth away from the show and, if I’ve done my job well, you never get lost along the way.
I want to offer my own life, everything that’s embarrassing or exciting or sexy or sad to me and ask if you can see yourself in that. That’s what I’m hunting for onstage today.
WSWD: One of the most striking things about your work is just how big it is. Most young, independent New York theater artists tend to go simple, but your shows regularly run over two hours and feature a full band, elaborate costumes, audience participation…
Brine: It’s collage and puzzle solving. I have all these different stories and ideas, pieces of text and deeply personal experiences I want to share. How can I fit all that together in a way that makes one big picture? That’s what an album is to me: a graceful assemblage of disparate pieces into a harmonious whole. I suppose people don’t think about artful album making much anymore; everything’s a single. And that’s fine, I love plucking out songs, too! But there’s something special to me about the way an album can pick you up and take you on a journey if you let it play all the way through. It was always golden to me if you got so in the groove that you were happy to sit down and let it ride.
Theater isn’t therapy for the performer; it’s therapy for the audience.
WSWD: Is there anything that you think a first-timer to your work should be aware of before they walk in the door?
Brine: I get disappointed whenever I run into a friend who tells me they wanted to come see the show but they didn’t know the album I was covering. I’d like my audience to know that the album is just a means to an end. You’re welcome to sing along if you know the words, but we’re going to take the music to places you don’t know, even if you’re a huge fan of the source material. I would ask that people give me a chance to show them what this music sounds like through my ears.
WSWD: Any words of advice to young theater artists trying to make their mark in New York City?
Brine: I feel like I’ve wasted so many early years and so much of my time worrying about being wrong. I had to learn to embrace the mistakes. Even the thing that doesn’t make it into the show, the part that belly-flops; you have to do that to know what not working looks like. That risk-taking sharpens your taste and your talent. I teach a bit at NYU, and the thing I warn my students about all the time is that when you make theater, you have to be ready to go into a room with other people and just be bad in front of them. It’s so hard! But you can’t keep your play inside your laptop until opening night; you need to show all the work, share all the drafts and hear it spoken out loud. Inside that badness and that fear of being wrong, I promise you that’s where you’ll find the good stuff.
Salty Brine’s You’ll Never Get to Heaven
178 Second Avenue (between East 11th and 12th Streets), East Village
Thursday, November 29 and Thursday, December 13
$20; $25 at door