Californian Branden James was a contestant on season eight of America's Got Talent and impressed the judges with his operatic voice. But James also walked in his truth that day and came out to the TV audience. James is gearing up for his upcoming Chicago concert and talked to Windy City Times about his HIV status, his EP and his new foundation.
Windy City Times: When you were in high school, a friend heard you singing in the car and suggested that you join the school choir. What song were you singing?
Branden James: I think it was Amy Grant's Christmas music. I grew up in a Christian family and that was what was playing on the CD.
WCT: You have admitted to being shy, so was the idea of singing in the choir daunting?
Branden James: I guess it was. But it's something that came so naturally and immediately became my identity that I wasn't scared of it. It was really what brought me out of my shell.
WCT: Do you still consider yourself to be a shy person, in any way?
Branden James: I consider myself reserved and not as shy as I used to be by any means. But I am someone who is a little more reserved than most people.
WCT: How do you go from singing in the high school choir to auditioning for season eight of America's Got Talent in 2013?
Branden James: I've always supported myself as a singer [since I left college] with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and Los Angeles Opera as well. I've been on world tours with The Twelve Tenors and have done things with the pope and the Mandela family.
Having worked mostly in a classical music environment, I felt that it didn't suit my personality. It can be very rigid and classical music is about your perfection and I think that there is a lot of beauty and expression in things that are flawed. And I really wanted to explore that by being an artist.
WCT: You came out on TV during the behind-the-scenes portion of the show. Did you hesitate at all about letting people into your personal life?
Branden James: I wasn't trepidatious about my sexuality coming out. I felt like 2013 was a time [when] I did not have to worry about safety or backlash from the public. I was more concerned about putting my mother in a position where she had to speak about her values in a defensive way. My mom has been open and honest about her views and our struggles in our relationship and I applaud her for doing that because it took a lot of courage.
WCT: Earlier this year, you revealed to Attitude magazine that you have been HIV-positive since 2005. What made you want to share that story?
Branden James: To be completely honest, I intended on sharing that story in 2013 on America's Got Talent. For so many years, because of the struggles in my family, I carried guilt and shame with me just for being gay. And it's almost going back in the closet when I found out I was HIV-positive. I can't tell you the weight on my shoulders that was there.
All the producers at NBC knew about this and we were going to go with that as a life storyline. But at the last minute I decided that I wasn't quite ready for that, so I ended up not telling anyone. But I really felt powerful being on the show and just telling a little facet of my struggle with my family and how powerful it was for people to see that. And I realized how important it was to be transparent and authentic and to share our own stories because there's so much in them that can inspire and help other people.
WCT: Your latest EP, Crossover, was released this past August. Do you worry about fan and critical reaction, or do you put it out without any fear?
Branden James: I think that both of those are true. When I decided to work on Crossover for release, it was the first time I decided to record original music. I have always written original songs along the way, but I decided that regardless of whether or not I'm a classical singer or a pop/folk singerI wanted to create something that was my own for me and release it. I suppose in the end that means that I didn't really mind either way what the fans thought because it was just a form of self-expression.
WCT: Are there others goals that you want to conquer?
Branden James: I'm really focused on wanting to help people and start a foundation. I have an organization I'm starting called You Belong that is about the common principle that we're all the same. We all have a place in this world because we're all human and one day we'll find that place through love and acceptance.
Branden James will perform at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., on Thursday, Sept. 24, at 7:30 p.m. For ticket information, visit www.auditoriumtheatre.org . For more on James, go to www.brandenjames.com .