A Conversation With Classical Crossover Duo Branden + James

Branden James + James Clark

Branden + James’ Branden James and James Clark visited the blog. (Photo courtesy of Branden + James)

By: Jacob Elyachar, jakes-take.com

It is a pleasure to welcome back a friend of the blog, tenor Branden James, to Jake’s Take.   Branden made his Jake’s Take debut five years ago, just as wrapped up his appearance on America’s Got Talent and promoting his solo holiday album, The Voice of Christmas.

A lot has changed since I last sat down with America’s Got Talent (AGT) alum back in 2013. Branden fell in love with cellist and pianist James Clark, and together they formed the duo, Branden + James.   The two of them corresponded with Jake’s Take for an exclusive conversation.  Branden + James opened up about their arrangement process, their recent collaboration with Broadway superstar Shoshana Bean, and teased their latest projects including Branden’s autobiography.

Jacob Elyachar: Branden, it has been five years since our last conversation together. How have you grown as a performer since we last spoke?

Branden:  Wow. So much has changed. My sound, my style of performance. I have grown so much and have learned so much as a performer. I owe so much of that to my husband, cellist, and pianist James Clark. We met online four years ago and instantly fell in love. It just so happened that we were both musical, so our connection was immense. I hired him as a musical director for a charity event I was doing in Palm Springs. We played “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen together with his cello, and the piano and the audience was so elated that we decided to try and work together exclusively. Within a year, we were traveling around the world playing our new, fresh arrangements of pop, rock, and Broadway songs as well as some originals. We spent the first-year coaching with Patrick Cassidy (son of Shirley Jones) and director Michael Ziegfeld. I feel like I finally learned to perform after working with the two of them. Back when I was on AGT, I was a timid performer who was still in the frame of mind of an opera singer. I was afraid to make mistakes and to take significant risks. Our coaches took that fear out of me, and once it was gone, I realized how much beauty is in the flaws and the expression of my performances. It was like I had been let out of a cage. James and I, of course, have a fantastic connection of stage being married and such, but the performance coaching allowed us to be free with one another. We’ve grown so much.

Jacob Elyachar: Could you share your arrangement process with my readers? 

Branden: Well, I am the ideas man and James implements everything. I’ll get an idea for an arrangement of a popular song that I think would lend itself well to a classical voice and I get super excited about it. I probably drive James crazy, because I’m always asking him to come to the piano and try this or try that.  We will workshop it, and if it works, he’ll write the arrangement for it. It all depends on our performance configurations. Some of our arrangements are written just for piano, voice, and cello. Others are much more complex and feature a 7 to 10-piece band and occasionally a 30 to 60-piece orchestra. We tend to gravitate toward things that move us emotionally. I love the beauty of a song but am also very much drawn to the lyrics and how it makes me feel. If it makes me feel good or become pensive, or has some gravitas about it, I know that it is something that will work for us.

James: The big picture stuff, Branden and I handle collaboratively as he mentioned above. I was a high school music teacher for seven years and used to arrange for band and orchestra all the time. I have a love for it. Everything I create starts at the piano and builds from there. It’s like making a jigsaw puzzle with layer upon layer of texture.

Jacob Elyachar: What are some of the most significant challenges that both of you faced breaking into the music industry? How did you overcome those obstacles?

Branden: The biggest challenge I faced after AGT was trying to stay relevant. I had my 15 minutes of fame, so to speak and then had to work very hard to keep a fan base around me. When I realized that some of the initial fans were dropping off, I had to find a way to reinvent myself. When James came along, it just happened so naturally. We were amazed at how much the cello and the tenor voice blended well together and the people who heard us play in our very beginnings were ecstatic. We got burnt reasonably early on by a start-up claiming to help independent artists get a big break. It was a company that was founded by someone who was a permanent member of a prolific rock band that will remain nameless for now. We thought they were going to help us and we spent a lot of money to solicit their services. But in the end, they didn’t deliver on a single promise and their company has completely dissolved. The music industry is multi-faceted, just like life. There are good people and bad people in it. Having come from a classical music background, it was common that James and I would both question our skill set and our level of talent. There are just SO many good people out there doing amazing, creative things. But I realized throughout the process that people might be technically better singers and players than us, but no one else is us. We all do our own thing, and that alone is what makes us unique. I believe there is room for everyone who is talented and wants a place in the music industry. You first have to find your identity as an artist, and then the fog clears, and performance life gets a lot easier.

James: My own fear, insecurity, and technical weaknesses have been the biggest challenge for me. I’m a tried and true classical musician who was trained in thinking that there is no room for mistakes. The fear doesn’t ever leave; it’s just something that you learn to control. Branden has been instrumental in reminding me that I’m good enough and that I’m worthy of doing this. I’m still really new to all of this, however. I’ve only been performing for three years. I can imagine there are a lot more obstacles headed my way. But that’s life, you know?

Jacob Elyachar: Throughout August and September, you will be traveling across Europe. What are you two looking forward to the most about these cruises?

Branden: We are spending a lot of time in Europe. We will be entertaining on some luxury river cruises that go from Amsterdam to Prague to Budapest. We’ll also be in the French Riviera, the Baltic states (Russia, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland) and will spend some time in Dublin and Belfast in Ireland as well.  James and I are both travel addicts, and it just sweetens the deal that we get to do it together. We were in 29 countries in 2017, and I think we’ll have that beat by the end of this year. Cruising is sort of a new thing for us. I was trepidatious about doing it at first because it has such a stigma attached to it. People assume that cruise ship entertainers are all cheesy. But the truth is, we aren’t all corny and shticky. Many of the entertainers we work with: magicians, aerialists, comedians, dancers and singers alike are all doing incredibly fresh and creative work out on the high seas. If you can get into the industry, it can be quite lucrative as well. It has been a financial boon for us, which is good. It didn’t don on me at first that I would be sharing my fee with someone else when I formed a duo with James, so it’s been helpful that the cruise lines pay well.

James: Seeing loads of new places that have been on my bucket list since I was a kid. Specifically, parts of Austria, Prague, and Budapest. I love exploring new areas, meeting new people and trying new food. I’m excited to spend time with friends on board as well. We have many entertainer friends that will be on some of these cruises. We all get to know each other so well because we’re literally in the same boat. Branden and I don’t get to see many of our mainstay friends since we’re always traveling, so I look forward to running into familiar faces when we can.

 

(Photo courtesy of Branden + James)

Jacob Elyachar: On October 18, you will make your debut at the legendary New York City nightclub Feinstein’s/54 Below.  What can your fans look forward to the most about “The Broadway Covers Project”?

Branden: Our fans can look forward to a fresh take on Broadway classics and some of the more modern songs as well. The cello is such a versatile instrument with an incredible range that can take you on a profound, personal journey. It can be heartbreaking, and it can also be thrilling to listen to and watch while someone plays it. I came up with the title, “The Broadway Covers Project” because I realized that musical theatre has followed me and influenced me longer than I have been a musician. I wanted an opportunity to take some of the glorious music that is out there on The Great White Way and put our spin on it. We’ll be threading through stories of how Broadway has shaped us as people and as musicians in addition to playing some exciting and unique arrangements. It’s a dream come true for both of us to make our debuts at Feinstein’s/54 Below. We’re recording that concert live on October 18th and releasing it under the Broadway Records label at a date to be determined in the future.

James: I played at Feinstein’s/54 Below once as a guest cellist for Broadway composer, Scott Evan Davis. I’m excited to be back in that iconic venue. It was such a rush the first time. Our fans can look forward to a vibrant collection of our favorite Broadway songs that mean a great deal to us and represent a broad range of Broadway history.

Jacob Elyachar: Recently, you recorded a new album with producer Patrick Hamilton, which will feature a collaboration with Shoshana Bean. What can you tell my readers about the album and how was it to record with the Broadway superstar?

Branden: We recorded 12 tracks for the album and a Christmas single with Patrick Hamilton in Bruges, Belgium. We spent 12-hour days for five weeks in his studio. The art of recording is an intense but rewarding process. The studio is much different than performing live, but I learned to love it this time around as opposed to fear it as I had in the past. The album has both covers and originals that were written by Grammy and Dove award-winning songwriters. We also co-wrote a couple of the songs on the project. Working with Shoshana Bean was a dream. I genuinely believe she has one of the greatest voices on the planet.

James: Her range and musicality and finesse and hear that she pours into every song is nearly unparalleled by any artist. She was a dream to work with; a consummate professional and was so giving and generous with her time and her advocacy for our work. I believe the collaboration with her will be one of the best things on the album. We ran a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo for the record, and we received over $52,988! We have faith that it will be an incredible collection of songs that people will enjoy listening to.

Jacob Elyachar: Branden, next year you will release a memoir through Start Publishing. What has been the most challenging and rewarding parts of writing your autobiography?

Branden: There were a lot of things in my childhood that was quite painful. For those that know my story, they know how long it took to reconcile my relationship with my family. They know that I am openly HIV positive and transparent about the adversities I’ve faced in life. Writing the memoir has been difficult at times because I’ve transported myself back to those dark times in my life. For several weeks I was trying to figure out why I was so upset and depressed and I realized that it was because I was writing about wounds that still aren’t completely healed. That is challenging to put yourself back in that awful place every day. The rewarding part of writing the book comes from realizing how far I’ve come and that no challenge is too big. I’m a survivor and am so grateful I get an opportunity to share my story with the world.

Jacob Elyachar: If you had the chance to meet with aspiring musicians who wanted to be in the music industry, what advice would you share with them?

Branden: Never give up. That’s the advice I would give them. I always find that when I feel like throwing in the towel, I’m actually on the precipice of a breakthrough. Music is a journey of epic proportions and patience is required to thrive in the industry. I realized long ago that things take a lot longer to develop than I thought that would. I used to be so impatient. Now I’m just grateful to keep etching away at my goals and slowing climb the ladder. I jumped in head first twenty years ago and never have even considered an alternative career. That’s how I know I’m right for this industry. It’s a tough, tough game to play. It will break you down, chew you up and spit you out. It is unforgiving and unrelenting. When I was stressed out and getting closer to the finals of AGT, my friend Liz gave me a necklace with a charm attached to it. One side of the charm says joy, and the other side has a musical melody on it. She gave it to me and told me, “don’t ever forget the joy in the music you make.” I wear that necklace every day, and when I’m stressed or doubtful of my ability, I look down at that charm and remind myself that I am right where I’m supposed to be.

James: Be the best you can be. Work as hard as you can when you’re young. And then play.

For more information about Branden + James, visit their website!

You can connect with Branden + James through social media. Visit their Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube channels. 

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Copyright 2015 Jacob Elyachar