As one half of the musical duo Branden & James, Branden James has fused his own musical prowess with that of partner James Clark’s orchestral genius and has crafted a partnership that has taken them to the finals of America’s Got Talent Season 8 and to some of the biggest stages around. As he steps out on his own with his revealing memoir Lyrics of My Life, Branden sat down with me to talk about his beginnings in music, reconciling his Christianity with his life today, and what it is like collaborating with artists like the ethereal Shoshana Bean.
Michael Cook: One of the constants at your music is that it can be very eclectic, but you are able to weave in your own unique style, do you think that is fair to say?
Branden James: Yeah I think so. Our music is very cross-genre, and whatever we make of it really.
MC: How do you make the choices that you make for your music?
BJ: Well, we make sort of collaborative choices in the beginning. A lot of it depends on what key something is in, if it works with the cello, does it work for the two of us, does the song work for your voice, we have those sort of initial conversations and then figure out a form and a pattern. James is a music director and arranger and he is the one that puts pen to paper and arranges things for full orchestra, making all of that mix and sound really extra special.
MC: When did you know that music was going to be the passion that you were going to follow in life?
BJ: It wasn’t until I was seventeen actually. I started singing just before that, at sixteen someone bribed me to be in the high school choir (laughs). I wasn’t one of those people that was “singing since they were four years old”. I was way too shy to put myself out there like that. I remember when I was ten, my parents took my to Dollywood, and its a crazy trippy place. That have karaoke booths where you can go in and record a song. I remember at ten years old, I went into one and recorded “Wings Beneath My Wings”, Shortly thereafter, my parents bought me a karaoke machine. I could lock myself in my room, but I was never interested in performing. It was like pulling teeth to get me to play piano in front of the family, and I certainly would not sing for anybody until someone in high school bribed me to do it.
MC: America’s Got Talent has become one of the largest platforms fo share not just your music, but your story. What was it like being in front of the world sharing both your music and your life story?
BJ: It is kind of like being in a game show and a nightmare at the same time. There is definitely the element of pressure that supersedes the competition and that came from telling a story, because it is such a sensitive story and my family was healing in real time while that was happening. We were starting to communicate better, forgive each other, and were starting to say things that we had never said or had not said since we had become estranged from each other. Other than the regular stress of being on live television, living the story part and trying not to pay attention to the noise and the comments was difficult. If I could, I would do it all over again knowing then what I know about myself, like the things you can and cannot change.
MC: How is your relationship with your family now?
BJ: Everything is really good, yes definitely.
MC: Who is your favorite judge on America’s Got Talent? Everyone has to have one.
BJ: Well, it would have to be a toss up between Heidi Klum and Howard Stern. For the same reasons also. They were both such lovely warm people. I know people would not expect Howard to be that person, but she was so genuine, so warm loving and caring and Heidi was the same way. That’s his radio personality I think, I did not get that. He is no Simon Cowell, that’s for sure (laughs).
MC: Putting it out there on the stage is one thing; sharing your story in print is something very different. What made you want to put everything in print in your book Lyrics Of My Life?
BJ: I have been having an existential crisis about that question since I started writing it. It is a strange feeling to put something like this out there that is so personal. For the year and a half that I was writing it, it is a memoir in chronological order, so I really had to relive a lot of painful moments in order to describe them in the way that I wanted to. I never intended to write a book, it was never an aspiration of mine or anything. A social media manager that we were working with a few years ago said we should write some blogs because it would improve our SEO score (Search Engine Optimization) on our website. I started writing blogs and people liked them, and then a couple literary agents approached me about them, so that is how it all fell into place. It has never been my dream to write a book and I never thought that I might.
MC: What do you think were some of the harder aspects of your story to reveal in the book?
BJ: Well, putting out that I am HIV positive and putting that in print, still all the continued stigma, and all that. I think the second hardest thing for me to reveal is that I still identify with Christianity or spirituality really. I am not such a huge fan of the church and everything that the church has done in the past, but as far as believing in a God and knowing that God has always been there for me and never left me I have ever felt deserted, it feels uncomfortable for me to admit that. For some reason, in my own head, the reverse stigma makes me feel like I should be embarrassed about feeling that way but I know that its not the reality.
MC: Is it hard to reconcile faith with being gay and being HIV+?
BJ: I don’t think its so hard to reconcile because what I realized after writing this book is that God doesn’t discriminate and he never has. If you go back and look at the early teachings of Jesus Christ, it’s all about love and forgiveness and unconditional love and forgiveness. Helping strangers and caring for the sick and the poor. All of those tenets of the faith are things that I believe people should be doing all of the time. I don’t think there is any issue with being gay and Christian, I think that it should be for everyone.
MC: On a lighter note, your collaboration with Shoshana Bean is remarkable. What is is like collaborating with someone that you know comes pre-loaded with such an amazing fan base? Who would you absolutely love to collaborate with?
BJ: Thats a great question. James do you have any input on that?
James Clark: Kristin Chenoweth.
BJ: Kristien Chenoweth yes, That is someone that we would love to collaborate with. Also, Sara Barelles I think is also someone that we would love to collaborate with. Her voice and the cello would just go so well together. Even if I was just a fly on the all while she and James played together, it would be amazing.
MC: For the next five years, what do you think is on your vision board?
BJ: Well, the recent events have definitely changed that (laughs). If now is not the time to say “take one day at a time” I don’t know what is. We have tours coming up, assuming everything passes, which I have faith that it will. I was actually writing this morning and was realizing this morning that I am living proof that we can get past viruses. They come and go, they are not always with us. Humans adapt; we alway have. We may lose people along the way, but it is not going to destroy us.
MC: What would the Branden talking to me now tell that little boy starting in the industry who walked into that Dollywood karaoke booth?
BJ: I would tell that kid to be bold and be brave-that is something that I tell myself all the time now. And to keep practicing. Charlie Parker has a quote that I actually quite all the time; he says “master your instrument, master your music, and then forget all that and just play” You have to do all of the hard work first, but at the end of the day it is about expression and not about being flawless.
Check Out Branden & James’ website