A GoPride Interview

Branden James

Talent to burn: an interview with America’s Got Talent contestant Branden James

Thu. August 8, 2013  by Gregg Shapiro

I think the popular audience responds to opera in that way because it's such an exciting form of singing. It's not something that necessarily comes naturally.
Branden James
This season on NBC's America's Got Talent there's not one, but two, openly gay opera singers competing on the show. Luckily for Chicago, one of them, Branden James, lives right here in our fair city. James, who can be heard locally singing in the chorus of the Lyric Opera, as well as in venues such as The Twisted Vine, told his personal story on the show and immediately grabbed the attention of viewers. He also wowed the judges with his prodigious gift, earning himself a well-deserved slot on the program and advancing forward to the next round as a semi-finalist. At 8 p.m. on August 10, James is performing on the North Stage at Northalsted Market Days, giving his local fan-base a chance to experience the talent he generously shares with the rest of America, live and in person.

GS: (Gregg Shapiro) You auditioned for America's Got Talent when the auditions were held in Chicago. Did you grow up in the area?

BJ: (Branden James) I did not grow up in Chicago. I grew up in California, in Orange County. I've lived in Chicago for more than three years. It's definitely home.

GS: What brought you here to Chicago?

BJ: I moved here for a job with Lyric Opera. I sing in the chorus of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

GS: How old were you when you discovered your operatic talent?

BJ: When I was 17. Someone bribed to me to start singing in the high school choir. I was guided by a mentor into classical music because he said my voice lent itself to that style.

GS: Did you get to sing in the chorus at school?

BJ: Yes, for my Junior and Senior year of high school.

GS: Did you do theater as well?

BJ: I did some theater. I was in some musicals and concerts and things like that.

GS: In what kind of training did you partake?

BJ: I learned the foundations of singing because I didn't have any formal training before that. All of the approaches of the teachers that I worked with were the classical style. All the while, my heart has been in pop music, so it's been an interesting dichotomy.

GS: Operatic voices, including yours and Prince Poppycock's, are well-received on America's Got Talent. Why do you think that is, why do you think that audience responds in that way?

BJ: I think the popular audience responds to opera in that way because it's such an exciting form of singing. It's not something that necessarily comes naturally. It requires years of training, much like a ballet dancer, that I think it is very impressive to the layman's ear.

GS: Do you think there will ever come a point, and maybe it will be you, selling as much music as Justin Bieber and have that level of audience?

BJ: I think it's definitely attainable. What I want to do with opera is take it to that next level. Take songs that are on the charts now, more current songs, and give them a classical twist. There's also a big market in techno and dance music where you hear these diva voices. It's the same style of singing in a lot of ways. I think there's a lot of room in that style, and since dance music has made a huge comeback on the charts, I hope that that will continue.

GS: You and "All-American Boy" singer Steve Grand, who is also performing at Northalsted Market Days, have some things in common. You are both based in the Chicago area. What do you think that says about the talent pool of the region?

BJ: One thing that the judges on America's Got Talent said over and over again was that there was more talent in the Chicago auditions than they had seen anywhere else in the country. We also have greats such as Jennifer Hudson from here. I think Chicago is a breeding ground for all sorts of talent. I am so happy to be a part of that.

GS: You and Steve both come from religiously conservative backgrounds and, along with your families, have overcome the terrible prejudice often inherent in such a setting. What has that been like for you?

BJ: It's always morphed throughout the years. It took so many years for my family and I to get to a place where we decided, although we have disagreements, that we were going to continue to love each other. They are the only family I have, after all. With that, more recently having this whole story play out on national television, I can't tell you how much the relationship with my family has changed.

GS: Additionally, both you and Steve have been embraced by the YouTube community at a time when that is increasingly the place people look to discover new music and artists, as opposed to the radio.

BJ: 2013 is such an interesting time. Social media has taken over every other form of communication including, as you said, the way we listen to music. What's so interesting about being a part of this movement is that having been voted in by the American public last week (on America's Got Talent), it makes you realize that people don't see creed, religion or sexual preference in the same way that they used to. That is such a blessing.

GS: You have some cabaret dates on your schedule. What can you tell me about those performances, as opposed to singing with the Lyric Opera?

BJ: The cabaret dates and those sorts of appearances a really a chance for me to sing the kind of music I love and to play some of my favorite covers. I play piano and I plan to do a cover of Cher's "Believe."

GS: A piano and vocal cabaret style version of "Believe"?

BJ: Yes. An acoustic, unplugged version if you will. That's what I like to do when I'm at home.

GS: What kind of music do you like to listen to when you are at home?

BJ: I'm not necessarily putting on Puccini and Verdi. I work in that environment so often that I don't listen to on a casual basis. When I'm at home, I listen to a lot of Top 40. I listen to a lot of singer/songwriters, such as Sara Bareilles and Emeli Sande. Elton John has always been a huge inspiration of mine. I always go back to his music, obviously, because he's an accomplished pianist and his songs are so great and catchy and radio friendly.

GS: Did you take piano lessons before you studied voice?

BJ: Yes. I was taking piano lessons from age 10 to 16. But I had many piano teachers who quit on me. They complained to my parents that I wasn't practicing enough. I've always been more of a pianist who likes to play by ear. Once again, in a classical music setting I would I would rather have done what I like to do as opposed to what was on the page.

GS: With everything that's happened so quickly on America's Got Talent, have you gotten the chance to meet Elton John?

BJ: I haven't yet. I really hope to someday. I would love to collaborate with him on a song.

GS: Do you have any interest in writing your own songs?

BJ: Yes, I have written some original material. I would really like to have a writing partner. I'm in the process of looking for someone to collaborate. That would be amazing.

GS: Would you mind letting us in on what you'll be performing at Market Days?

BJ: I might be singing a song that I performed on America's Got Talent.


Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.