Brandon Markell Holmes' last year has been miraculous. A local singer and artist with creative vision, he found the feature of a lifetime on Gorillaz’ Humanz album, leading the very last track "Circle Of Friendz". We caught up with Brandon, who joyously described the musical path leading to his collaboration with legends on such an ear-popping, diverse and wonderfully divisive album.
From Austin on Chicago's west side, he's proud of his family's roots as workers and educators. Beginning in theater but surrounded by music, his instincts and mind as a performer meant Brandon gravitated toward singing and it's creative control. Gifted at composition and possessing vocals aching with emotion, the result was his debut EP and visual experience, Inertia, melting even the most cold-hearted with its psychedelically searing ballads. Having made the move from actor to musician and at a career crossroads, Holmes weighed a move to one of the coasts. He kept his art in the Midwest.
"I wanted to move to New York for a long time and I kind of changed my mind. I wanted to stay and develop who I am as an artist, develop my brand and my identity, versus going to one of the coasts and becoming a number. That was the thing that really made me stay in Chicago, because I felt like I had a voice and an individuality, and that I could start something and be something...I wanted something more substantial."
Brandon stayed in Chicago and success found him. A story of networking gone right, he started building connections in the Chicago music and poetry communities. At Soho, he met the legendary producer Twilite Tone, bonding over a multi-hour discussion of the city they both called home. Despite status in the game as producer for heavyweights such as Common, Kanye, Kendrick, etc, Tone became a mentor to Brandon, and they'd soon have more in common than Chicago. A fan of Brandon's music, Tone invited him to a studio session in New York. The trip goes well, time passes. In spring of 2016, Brandon gets a call.
"He asked me last year, March April 2016, 'Yo, you have a passport?' I was like, 'Wassup??' He's like, 'I'm working on this thing and really can't tell you what it is, but it's going to be really cool and I'd love for you to be a part of it.' And I remember a day later getting an email from the Gorillaz' manager, like 'oh, the Gorillaz, oh shit!...Of course I'm available, get me on the plane now! Ahhh!'"
It was on. Brandon was to fly from Chicago to London and record backing choir vocals with Damon Albarn and co in London for a couple weeks. The recording location switched last minute from London to Brooklyn, but it wasn't the only change of plans, and in the best way possible. One morning, Brandon Markell Holmes gets called in for a session that he'd remember forever.
"...Originally I was supposed to be there to do background vocals singing in the choir...I was out real late at night, they were going to put the session later in the afternoon, but Twilite called me at like 7 AM and asking if we could come to the studio at 9... I remember going downstairs, drinking water and coffee, taking 2 Tylenol and going to the studio. We had this five hour session, and at the end of it I was super loose and started singing the chorus of the song. "Circle Of Friendz" is the song that I'm on, and I didn't know if I fucked up overstepping my boundaries cuz I was only here to do background, but I remember Twilite saying 'keep singing Brandon, keep singing". And it just went on for bars, it went on for like two minutes straight. We stopped and the room was completely quiet, my homie next to me was crying. Damon Albarn was like "what the fuck man, that was so good."
Now a member of the worlds foremost animated rat pack, the surreal nature of his experience isn't lost on Brandon. Telling his story, his emotions range from joy to disbelief. He describes attending a Jamie Hewlitt (Gorillaz animator) gallery in Chinatown and the shock waiting for him.
"When I walked in the art gallery i just saw a line, and it was all these kids in line wanting them to sign their books. I was like 'we're in an art gallery, what are people in line for? Look at the art.' And in that moment it dawned on me 'Yo - you're with the Gorillaz. People know who they are...Jamie Hewlitt is having an art show in Chinatown, of course people are gonna be in line."
"They had blocked off this bar for us...I remember the bar shutting down, just so we could go in there. It was crazy, I'd never seen a place clear out for like 5 people to come in and chill. Being in that space with Damon Albarn, Jamie Hewlitt, Twilite Tone, they were all standing around me and I just remember that feeling of that I think I had just been a part of history, something historic but I didn't really know and couldn't be sure."
"Circle Of Friendz" is the closing track of Humanz and of particular importance. Brandon Markell Holmes hammers home the emotional chorus with gravity, bringing the frenetic and high flying project back down to earth with practical optimism. His vocals tangible, it's clear why Humanz had to end this way. Humanz goes out with "Circle Of Friendz" expressing the bittersweet, possessing a strain of sadness that doesn't need an explanation - it's part of being human. Life imitates art, and Holmes' own experience recording Humanz and "Circle Of Friendz" reflects the song.
"...before Damon Albarn left, he came up to me and gave me a hug, and started singing the song ("CoFz") in my ear. He said 'Yo man, people are going to love this song'. And I was like, "Ok". And he just left. (laughs)...I was really humbled, but in a way like, I want more. Man, that was a beautiful taste. I remember not knowing how to control myself after that. I actually got really sad, after that. Not because it was over but because I knew it was back to real life...It was magical, there was something magical because of the people in the room...it's that one thing that so many people dream of, that never happens."
The recording experience eventually came to a close, and Brandon Markell Holmes has enjoyed the fanfare, the parties, the publicity, all of it. But his takeaway from the experience demonstrates that the admittedly very nice perks aren't why he makes music. Going on this surreal journey guided by two music legends, Damon Albarn and Twilite Tone, Brandon picked up a philosophy that, combined with his creativity, vocal prowess and emotional center, should make for a long, interesting and powerful career.
"The thing that I took away the most from being in that experience was how much the Gorillaz don't - it's kind of weird, they don't necessarily care about fame. That's not their goal. Fame is not their goal. In so many words, fuck fame...what happened to being infamous? That's what I remember taking away, what happened to being infamous? And that's what happened, and that's why the cartoons are such a huge part of the Gorillaz. They don't want the lens to be 100% on the person, but outwards on the world."