Singer Brandon Markell Holmes talks about the Chicago music scene and ‘Empire’

Singer Brandon Markell Holmes talks about the Chicago music scene and 'Empire'
Photo courtesy of Brandon Markell Holmes

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Brandon Markell is on the rise. We recently touched base with Holmes and discussed his career, accomplishments, and R&B music.

You were one of the artists featured on the Gorillaz’s latest project, Humanz; their fifth studio album that was nominated for a Grammy this year. How did the collaboration happen with the British virtual band?
I met a legendary producer by the name of Twilite Tone one Sunday afternoon in Chicago while he was in town for a show. My good friend Heza, who happens to be an Afro-Brit, introduced us. At first, we didn’t talk much about music, Tone and I. We spoke more about education, art and growing up in Chicago. Eventually, he found out I was an artist. He started sending me beats to write to and I sent him a lot of my original music to critique. It was amazing to be in conversation with a legend such as him.

Not even a year later, I received a phone call about the Gorillaz. Due to the NDA [non-disclosure agreement], he couldn’t disclose any information about the recording sessions at the time, but shortly after I received a call from their manager confirming.

We recorded for about two weeks in NYC; I had so much fun during the sessions. It was a very magical experience. The collaboration wasn’t planned but happened after a long night of painting the town in NYC. Originally, the session was scheduled for 2 p.m. but was moved up to 10 a.m. I hadn’t gotten to bed until about 4 a.m., so I was pretty tired and exhausted before the session. I seriously didn’t think I was gonna make it. I drank lots of water, coffee, Gatorade and [popped] Tylenol throughout the day. And somehow, we ended up singing “Circle of Friendz” as a chorus. I really can’t remember the moments in between. All I know is that Tone told me to keep singing until it was done. The room went very quiet and my friend Marcus Johnson, who I’ve known for years, was crying. I was very confused honestly; I didn’t know if I had overstepped any boundaries because there were so many brilliant singers in that room. But Damon Albarn confirmed it was the right choice after we left the booth. That was probably one of the most magical days of my life, seriously.

You recently attended the 2018 Grammys. What was that experience like for you as an artist on the rise?
It was incredible. I got to meet Donald Glover on his golden night. I’ve looked up to him for about nine years now; he’s the reason I started making short films, writing short stories and experimenting with multiple mediums of expression besides performing.

The Grammys really proved to me that anything is possible if you believe. Growing up, I struggled a lot with confidence and self-belief, not because of anything bad, but because I always wanted to be the kindest most generous person. I think, sometimes those type of patterns can make you get used to being overlooked and ignored. So today, I’m much more confident and determined to be the best and get to the highest goal that I can. Oh yeah, we were nominated so it felt really good to be there for a reason. So many artists never make it to that level, so I felt very proud that I was allowed to experience that.

Your voice could be compared to many old school soul artists, but with a modern twist. Who are some of the artists you admire and why?
I admire Anita Baker, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, Harold Melvin, Gladys Knight, Minnie Ripperton, Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway, Smokie Robinson, the Isley Brothers and Otis Redding.

Back in the day, singers sounded like themselves. They all had distinct voices and a need to sing. A lot of those singers weren’t just vocalist but composers and songwriters, too, which I think is so important. And most importantly, they sang from their souls. It’s like you could hear everything they’ve gone through in their music. It’s just so nice to hear sincerity and an authentic point of view. No one was hiding or fabricating any facades or any false narratives, because they didn’t have to cause it was about the music and the soul that’s connected to it.

Now is a great time for the Chicago music scene. Being a Chicago native, why do you think so many artists are creating music here?
Chicago artist do it for the love. We do it for the passion. We do it because it makes us who we are. And that’s so cool. Nowadays, so much is about status and money, but in Chicago people are still being creative and ego-less. It’s very beautiful to see.

Speaking of the Chicago music scene: FOX’s hit show “Empire” is filmed in the city. You wrote the song, “You Won’t,” for Jussie Smollett’s character Jamal. How did you get that great opportunity?
My good friend and collaborator Bobby Wooten missed my show at Webster Hall in NYC. He called me and said, “Hey, man, I’m sorry I can’t make the show but would you like to write for ’Empire’ with me?” I was like, duh. Anyways, a few weeks passed and I didn’t hear back and then I called him personally to remind him; two days later he sent me a prompt and a beat that he and his collaborator Andre Danek created.   I wrote the song in a few hours, recorded it the next day at my studio, sent it to Bobby in NYC and a few days later I received a call saying the song was placed. Definitely a magical moment.

As a full-time artist, what inspires you to create?
Excellence. The future. Greatness. I honestly just like the challenge of making new work and pushing myself to the highest level that I can. I like testing the boundaries of creativity and expression. I think that’s what inspires me the most — my ability to be in the driver’s seat of my life and personal transformation.

What advice would you give your younger self when you started your singing career?
Don’t think; just do. You’re gonna succeed, so stop worrying so much. And don’t be so embarrassed when your mom drops you off at school; she loves you.

Can you share your favorite inspirational quote?
“If you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.” –Sister Act 2

Follow Holmes on Instagram: @brandonmarkellholmes

Check out Holmes at Lincoln Hall in Chicago on Feb. 17, 2018. Go to the website for tickets:

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