It was 2013. The theater was packed all the way up to the balcony. Television cameras swirled around, and the glittering lights hit the Chicago stage. It was the audition phase of season eight of the hit reality competition show, America’s Got Talent, and handsome singer Branden James anxiously waited in the wings.
In his pre-performance interview, Branden had explained that he is openly gay and someone who has struggled with his relationship with God and his conservative family over that fact. His struggle to become his authentic self—and the pain of that struggle—were very apparent.
He masked his nerves as he took the stage, and after exchanging greetings with celebrity judges Howard Stern, Mel B, Heidi Klum, and Howie Mandel, the music began. Branden had chosen the Puccini aria, “Nessun Dorma,” for this performance, a triumphant and challenging piece that has been recorded by everyone from Luciano Pavarotti to Aretha Franklin. He began to sing, and by the second phrase, his soaring, rapturous voice had the audience to its feet. By the end of the passionate performance, the judges were all smiles and the crowd was chanting his name: “Branden! Branden! Branden!”
During this fantastic and proud feat, as he basked in the glory of that moment, there was something he was hiding from the producers and even his family: Branden is living with HIV.
Branden James has overcome many challenges in his life and has battled to become his authentic self. He has written all about it in a memoir entitled, Lyrics of My Life: My Journey with Family, HIV, and Reality TV scheduled to be published in September.
I recently chatted with Branden on the phone as he is sheltering in place with his cello-playing husband in their Manhattan digs. “We’ve been doing pretty well since all the coronavirus stuff started,” Branden said. “We’ve actually done a few online concerts from our apartment, so that’s been great.”
Branden was raised in a very religious household in Orange County, California.
“My family had very traditional values, and we went to church every Sunday,” he says. Branden also has two brothers, and all three played sports. “We played soccer and baseball, but it wasn’t really my style.” Branden, who always felt that he was different, found solace and comfort in music. “It was like the piano was my best friend.”
As he got older and he began to discover his sexuality, Branden felt shame and fear that he might go to hell for being gay. “Because church was a big part of my life growing up and it was very important to my family,” Branden said, “I never felt like I could tell anyone or be authentic.”
In high school, he joined the chorus and discovered his passion for singing. This led him to study voice at the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music in California. While in San Francisco, he started exploring his sexuality more and began seriously dating a fellow musician, but continued keeping his sexuality from his family. Branden also excelled in conservatory, being cast in featured and lead roles in the opera theater.
At the end of his junior year, after being offered many private concert gigs and church soloist jobs, he took a job singing for four months at a hotel in Switzerland as part of a quartet. “It was really a great opportunity, and so exciting to be in Europe,” Branden said. Branden’s mom came to visit him while he was on this amazing adventure. “I loved that she came,” he said, “but it was a little bit of an awkward time, and I didn’t know why until after she left.” Branden’s mother left him a letter telling him that she knew he was gay. It was devastating. When Branden returned to school, with no more secrets, he embraced his gayness and began to live more openly.
After breaking up with the musician and finishing school, he began to travel more and engage in more musical pursuits. As a fantastic-looking single gay man in his 20s, Branden explored the nightlife scene and dabbled in alcohol and drugs. “I had a really good time, but I just didn’t really know who I was,” he said. He moved to New York City, then to Los Angeles. It was in LA that he tested positive for HIV. “It was very devastating,” Branden said. “I cried a lot and didn’t know what I was going to do.” He found help and comfort in HIV support group meetings and the bolstering of friends. He also started to feel closer to God in a new way, through working in the Catholic church as a singer.
Through everything, music was a constant friend and comfort. His talent kept him confident and strong even through his HIV diagnosis. “I’m always my happiest when I’m singing,” he said, “and my goal was always to find a way to make music full time.”
In the next few years, Branden’s extraordinary musical talent took him touring with the Twelve Tenors (a UK-based singing group), which included a performance for Pope Benedict XVI. He also landed back in New York, singing in the chorus at the Metropolitan Opera before joining the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Because he didn’t work enough regular singing jobs to acquire health insurance, Branden relied on programs like the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) and Obamacare to help him pay for the medications to treat his HIV.
While in Chicago, he decided to audition for America’s Got Talent.
“My boyfriend at the time encouraged me,” Branden said. “He said, ‘You’re never going to know if you can do it if you’re just sitting around. You have to try.’ So I did.” Branden’s mother was in town and went to the audition with him, but she still didn’t know about his HIV status.
After that first triumphant debut on the show, Branden was advanced straight to the quarterfinals, performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Branden made it all the way to the finals of the reality show that season. Although he didn’t win, his glorious performances gave him new recognition and new opportunities. It also gave him new respect for himself, which led him to seek out therapy and further self-discovery.
From the soon-to-be-released album Chasing Dreams, Branden and James cover Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own,” featuring Miss Conception.
Show business has its ups and downs, and to make a little money and try something new, Branden took a job in Santa Fe, New Mexico, playing at a piano bar. “And then I met my [now] husband on Scruff!” His husband, Australian-born James Clark, happens to be a musician himself—a cellist, pianist, and music arranger. After their meeting, the dashing James started bringing his cello to the bar for duets. “He’s my soul mate, really,” Branden said. The two married in January 2018.
The two have been making music together professionally as the duo “Branden and James,” traveling around the country and the world to perform. They’ve settled down in Manhattan and recently recorded an album together, titled Chasing Dreams, which will be available on all music platforms as well as on their website on July 31, 2020.
One of the most beautiful parts of Branden’s journey is that he was finally able to be completely honest with his parents. With James at his side, Branden sat down with his mother and father and told them face to face that he was living with HIV.
“It was the hardest conversation I think I’ve ever had,” Branden said. After an initial emotional reaction from his mother and what Branden called a surprisingly supportive response from his dad, both his parents have accepted Branden for all of who he is. Despite the worldwide acclaim, they remain his biggest fans.