A GoPride Interview

Branden James

What a voice!: an interview with Branden James

Fri. December 13, 2013  by Gregg Shapiro

I’ve always loved Christmas and would love to produce my own Christmas show at some point in the future.
Branden James
Branden James made Chicago and its gay community proud when he was a finalist on the eighth season of NBC's talent competition show America's Got Talent. James, a gay classical crossover artist (and performer with Chicago's Lyric Opera), made an indelible impression on the audience with his stellar rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." James has included that song on his debut CD The Voice of Christmas (MCON). A welcome addition to this year's crop of holiday music, The Voice of Christmas is the perfect showcase for James' breathtaking vocal gifts. What better way for him to display them than through such celebratory music? I spoke with Branden in December 2013 about the CD and his career. [Branden James performs in concert at City Winery on Randolph in the West Loop on December 19, 2013. Visit www.citywinery.com/chicago.]

GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Branden, the first time we spoke was during the summer of 2013 when you were still in the midst of performing and competing on America's Got Talent. How would you rate the experience on the whole?
BJ: (Branden James) That's a very interesting question. Do you want a number rating?

GS: However you want to do it.

BJ: There were parts of it that grew old so quickly because they asked the same 50 questions 100 different ways. It's reality television. We assume, as an audience member, that it's more or less reality, but so much of it is situational or scripted. They would ask me questions (and say), "That's a great answer, but can you make it this way or take it to this place? Can you answer that again and really go to that emotional place?" They were drawing out the drama, so to speak. That's one aspect of it that was intense. The other one was simply that on a professional and a personal level I was living out two new stories for me. One being that I'm a classical singer and have never been a commercial artist. That environment was completely different for me. It was kind of jarring in a way to be in a TV studio and suddenly be on live TV when I was used to being on an opera stage or in a concert hall, a smaller, less intense setting. The other thing was that this conflict between my parents and me, regarding my sexuality, we were still working things out while the show was going on. It was a lot to take in emotionally. I feel like I didn't really have a chance to process that until the show was over.

GS: Was that situation with your parents resolved in a positive way?

BJ: Yeah, everything's great with my parents. As with any change in your life it takes some time to process. When you're on a show like that you don't really have the emotional space to do it. I had to do it afterwards while I was recording this album [laughs]. The experience was intense and the post experience was intense. Now I'm in a nice relaxed mood.

GS: Do you have a favorite memory or moment from your time on America's Got Talent?

BJ: I think my favorite moment was making Heidi Klum cry.

GS: Your new CD The Voice of Christmas is an album of holiday music. Has it always been a dream of yours to record an album such as this?

BJ: It has. I've always had a soft spot for holiday music. I spent a couple of years over in the UK doing the largest Christmas show in Europe. There are 60 members in the choir, there's a 40 piece orchestra and 25 dancers. It's a huge production with elaborate costumes. I've always loved Christmas and would love to produce my own Christmas show at some point in the future. So, a holiday album was a perfect fit. I was voted off the show in the finals the week before the finale. It's funny because when I hired a team of publicists and marketers to put this project on its feet they all said, "This is great, but you should've called us two months ago." People start working on Christmas over the summer at the very latest. We had about three weeks to turn around this whole project. It was a very intense little pop of time. But I'm so glad I did it and I'm so proud of the product that actually came out in that very short amount of time.

GS: Do you have favorite Christmas albums from your childhood?

BJ: I grew up in the church and something my mom would always play at home was Amy Grant's Christmas album. I still returned to that because the songs are festive and wonderful. I also love anything that Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby recorded, as well. I'm kind of old school like that. And whose favorite song isn't "All I Want For Christmas" by Mariah Carey [laughs]? I was just at the Zoo Lights at Lincoln Park Zoo on Sunday night and that was playing with a light show and I was in gay heaven.

GS: Your rendition of the song "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" is making its debut on your album. How did that come to pass?

BJ: It was written by a young composer named Brian Katona, who has done a lot of Broadway and Opera compositions in the past, and he and I have had a long working relationship. I met him almost 10 years ago now in Los Angeles while working on an original operatic setting of Alice in Wonderland. He is now a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He offered to write a song for me. He said, "What about this text?" I said, "I love the story and it's a classic text." I'm very happy with the new setting. I love the way it turned out.

GS: "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" is one of two lighter tunes (the other being "Jingle Bells") included on the disc. Was it important for you to have some lighthearted moments on the album?

BJ: It's Christmas and people want to laugh and cry and celebrate and they want to be sentimental. So I think, yes, especially for holiday albums that it's important to have all of those aspects on there. It also shows another side of my personality. I may be a classical singer, but I'm not stodgy. I didn't want to come across that way. I wanted to make people smile as well as be emotionally impassioned about the music. I hope I achieved that.

GS: I think you succeeded. This has been a big year for Christmas CDs, with new ones from Kelly Clarkson, Mary J. Blige, and, of course, Johnny Mathis. What would it mean to you if your Christmas CD became a holiday favorite in the tradition of Mathis's holiday recordings?

BJ: That would be a dream come true and such an honor. I was recently lucky enough to be reviewed, in a grouping, with those CDs in Next Magazine, which was wonderful. I was so happy to even be included with that group of people.

GS: You also recently got a nice nod from The Advocate when The Voice of Christmas was listed at number two on the magazine's "Hot Sheet." What did that honor mean to you?

BJ: That's an incredible honor. There is one demographic of people that can be hard to please and that's the gays. I know there were some other amazing things on the "Hot Sheet" that week, such as John Waters' new spoken album and a couple of great shows, so that was an amazing honor. I wasn't expecting that at all.

GS: Do you have special plans for Christmas this year?

BJ: My partner works during the holidays. He's a hair colorist in a fancy salon in Chicago. The holidays are always his busy season. I always feel guilty when I go home around then. I grew up in California and for some reason the crazy, intense winter weather arrived a month early (in Chicago). Tomorrow there's supposed to be a low of three below are something like that. We're supposed to get five inches of snow. So, last night, in the heat of the moment I broke down and bought a plane ticket. I'm going home for Christmas [laughs].

GS: Who can blame you?

BJ: [Laughs] I had to do it.

GS: Branden, what's next for you professionally?

BJ: I'm doing this big show on December 19 at City Winery. After that, I'm going to finish up my contract at Lyric Opera. My plans are to move back home to Los Angeles. Every week I get calls asking me to come out there and do some work. I'm under contract and regret fully have to say no all the time. It's been a little bit frustrating. I'm looking forward to making the transition back to being a freelance artist. I have a bunch of private and corporate gigs that I have booked. I'm headlining the GLBT center's gala here in March, which is very exciting. Sometime after that I will make me way back to California and see what happens.


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.