Brandon Bailey Johnson Release Party
By Mari Gomez
It was about two years ago, some random Wednesday night, sitting at an open mic and eating pizza, that I saw Brandon perform for the first time. I had just heard a few songs by a young fellow playing the ukulele, when a little guy with a guitar and Lenny Kravitz style hair stepped up to the mic and played his few songs. One never knows what to expect in an open mic. Performance has a vast spectrum as does expression, but there are wavelengths on that spectrum that often catch you off guard and reverberate. In the case of Brandon what was surprising was not only his age, as compared to everyone else there, but his charm and a rare honesty in his playing.
A year or so later, when Ryan and I were covering the El Paso Song Writing Competition at The Playhouse, we saw Brandon again. This time a much more loose and comfortable performer who moved swiftly and gracefully on stage. It’s common for beginners to freeze up, to stiffen, but Brandon seemed so in tune with the space; in command of his instrument and the sound he was creating. The format of the Songwriting Competition is this: songwriters play a few of their original songs which are then critiqued by a panel of judges who offer feedback, opinions, and constructive criticism. It’s all done in the name of rewarding good songwriting and further expanding and fine tuning the craft. Brandon took the thoughts from the judges very humbly, with shy little nods and affirmations. In the end, Brandon took third place over all, among a crowd of diversely talented young people.
I asked Brandon in our recent conversation what he thought about playing for the EPSWC, “I really like performing there. It was just fun. It was one of my favorite shows, I think.”
What did it feel like to have judges critiquing your songs immediately after you play?
“I thought it was cool.” He said.
One of the things that struck me the most when talking to Brandon is how apt he is in conversation and discussing his process, his thoughts, and opinions.
“What really got me into music,” he says, “ is this band called Linkin park. The kind of music I like changes everyday, but it always goes back to rock, I don’t know why.”
Brandon heard Linkin Park for the first time when he was seven or eight years old. It seems to me that nine was a pivotal year for him, for that’s when he describes losing interest in sports and taking up his music more seriously.
“My dad would always play them [Linkin Park] and I liked them. Right now I’m into this band called Skillet. They’re a rock band too. That’s kind of what I like my music to sound like. They have this really cool style of music where they add violins and cellos and stuff like that.”
I asked him if he liked Transiberian Orchestra and he turns around and points to a small poster on the wall. “I love them,” he said. Eventually I suggest to him: Listen to the White Stripes.
We sat in his home studio, where he has his setup of guitars, guitar amps, a drum set and bass, as well as his mac computer. It was in this room that Brandon recorded his album. What they call ReddOak Studios. As we talked, I was struck by Brandon’s ability to maintain eye contact, his ease in conversation and his humor about himself. Some of what he said indicates a level of understanding of nuance and complexity rare in kids his age. He fidgeted some throughout the interview, spinning his chair around, playing with his guitar picks, glancing quickly at his computer or his mother who was sitting nearby, but he was very attentive and engaged.
Brandon started playing guitar when he was nine years old and he began with a few guitar lessons at La Guitarra Studio on Mesa Street. He speaks fondly of his first teacher Chris Ellis, who will be accompanying him at his release party this weekend.
“Things are always really shaky when you get someone so young, but Brandon was just a natural and he would come back the next week and he would have it done.” Said Ellis.
Ellis said he was impressed by not only Brandon’s progress, but the consistency and speed in which he picked things up. The work ethic seemed undeniable.
“He was genuinely interested. He got into improvisation and then he just took off.”
Brandon and Ellis performed Nirvana’s "Smells Like Teen Spirit" at a recital and Brandon wanted to play the clean intro part by himself, but needed someone to change the pedal for him when it goes into the dirty guitar riff. They got one of the other teachers and Brandon was such a performer, Ellis said, that the whole time he was concerned whether the other teacher would know the right place to push the pedal.He kept asking ‘Do they know when to push it?’ ‘Is it going to be ok?’
“Natural performer. Sweet Kid. Very humble.” said Ellis.
Brandon studied for a few years, took a few other instrument lessons and then played at the St. Marks United Methodist Church.
“I played with them for two years and that was a really good experience with them. I always want to go back, but I’m so busy right now,” he said.
Last Fall he was part of the El Paso Opera Searching for La Rosa.
Brandon never had any kind of lesson on the drums and describes going on You Tube and checking out videos of drummers from his favorite bands.
“The feel of it kind of just came and it was pretty much easy.”
His upcoming album is called, “My Journey.” He began working on it in November 2014. He seems so self motivated, driven by an internal desire to create and bring his vision to life that as he’s talking it occurs to me that he sounds like any grown up person would sound describing their struggles in creating something. The work ethic is naturally embedded in his nature. He describes getting up in the morning and going into his studio and remaining there for hours.When I ask him if he had a favorite part of the recording process. He thinks about it for a second and then says, “I don’t know really,” and laughs “I basically came in her and did the same thing everyday.I had to be in here 24/7.”
I had imagined that someone had walked him through the process or had helped him record it, but as he describes it, it was a process of discovery as much as it was of composition. Now, he says, he has it all worked out. He can record a new album every six months, which will give him four months to write and two months to record.
“I was in here by myself. Naturally I get up every morning and come in here and play my guitar and wake up all the neighbors, but then I started coming in here and mess with this stuff. I had to learn how to use the software. I didn’t even know how to use a Mac. While I was doing the Opera I’d come in here and mess with it. Everything was hard, but easy and fun at the same time.”
How many songs are in the album?
“It’s funny actually because it was going to have five, but then at the last minute literally, we thought we were done. We went out and celebrated and everything and then I came back and recorded two more songs.”
One of these last minute additions, he tells me was a Christmas present for his parents. It made it on the album as an instrumental song, but the present was a melodic guitar part with his voice expressing his thanks and love for his mom and dad. Somehow I convinced him to play me a part of this. As it played, Brandon squirmed in his chair and put his hands over his hears, wincing. He would admit later that he does not like to hear himself sing or listen to any of his music that is not finished. His mom told me that often when Brandon plays them a song he's just recorded, he leaves the room.
“My favorite song is my song called Truth. I like it just because it means a lot to me and it has the coolest guitar solo.”
Tell me about some of the other songs.
“The song called Future. That one I’d been messing around with for awhile. Mainly all my songs I write them about my life and things that happen. If something happens that I think people might want to hear about I write it into a song. And that song is basically about some stuff that happened to me. I was really shocked. So my dad and me like to talk a lot. We have a really good relationship. We were just talking and some stuff shocked me and it really put me back a bit. I had gone my whole life believing that this is this. The song says: the only thing that keeps me going is the Future.”
When I asked what this thing was that had shocked him, he was reluctant. He shook his head. He wouldn’t talk about it.
There is so much that can shock you at that age, but he speaks about this discovery as something mind altering, capable of shifting ones philosophy of the world. There was something about the way he mentioned his relationship to his father that suggested he understood that not everybody’s relationship to their father is like that. This was perhaps the most impressive thing about Brandon, his depth, sensibility, and wise assertions.
How do you start writing songs?
“Usually it starts with me walking around the house playing my guitar, jumping off of couches, being a rockstar,” he laughs.
Then, he describes to me, he hears something in his playing and thinks, “Wait a minute!” He stops and records it with his mom’s phone so as not to forget. Then he pieces it together until it flows like a song and then, “I put it on hold until something happens that I can write about. Because I can come in here and write 20 songs with my guitar, but the lyrics that is really hard.”
I’m trying to remember myself at his age. I had a tremendous lack of confidence, mostly preoccupied with fitting in at school and hyper-aware of why I was inept at social interactions, in conversation, in class, in sports, in dressing ‘cool.’ I was trying out for the basketball team and sitting on the bench. I was miserable in school.
Brandon is currently home schooled and seems to concern himself largely with creation, but is well adjusted to challenges and obstacles. He is well spoken, expressive, polite, and exhibits a sense of self awareness that is quite captivating. He carries a sense of curiosity, excitement, and individuality untouched by the systemic restraints and limitations of public education standards.
What do you do when you are not playing music? I ask him and he reveals his passion for movies and stories and Legos. He has a collection of Legos he says.
“I’m on my third book,” he adds, “I’m not really happy with it. I need to go back and change it.”
I’m taken aback. Wait, so you like to write stories?
“Since I was like nine I’ve been creating a story in my mind, but I eventually want to put it to paper. It’s about magic. It’s about this world. Our human world is only one of the other different worlds. Stuff that we think can never live, lives. Stuff that we look down on. Like this pencil. We think, oh, it’s just a pencil. Maybe in some other place a pencil lives.”
He loves magic and the fantastical. An imagination of Pan Labyrinth proportions. I realize that there are posters in the room of Harry Potter and I ask him about his favorite books and movies. The Hobbit. Lord of the Rings. The Hunger Games. Harry Potter. Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
“I’m the weirdest kid I know. I literally have conversations with my stuff. It’s just funny. I even talk to stuff that doesn’t have physical form, like my songs.”
He describes to me how he often imagines being a different character when he plays different instruments, so as he plays there is another level of story happening. Characters from his stories also emerge and help him play.
So what do you want to do in your future? Music?
“I kind of want to have a band and be able to tour and write music, but if not I’ve always wanted to be a movie director and an author. When I grow up I want to be an author that’s what I really want to do besides play music. So I want to base movies off of my books and direct them.”
How does your story writing relate to your music?
“I see them as two separate things. Usually when I write my books I make up stories and when I write songs I basically written about my life. Maybe I’ll write a song about me writing a book” He laughs.
As we wrapped up the interview he begins to show me his recording process. “What do you think I should play for you?”
Anything you want, I say.
So he sets up and shows me how he plays each instrument and how he records it using Studio One music software. He plays the intro to Sweet Child of Mine. He’s a perfectionist, I can tell because even in this short demonstration he recorded several takes of a short melody and constantly said things like, “I messed up. What’s new," or "That didn't sound very good." He certainly has fun with what he does and doesn't take himself too seriously.
Brandon is currently the only musician his age to have composed, arranged, produced, and recorded his entire album. He is to enter the Guinness Book of Work Records as “Youngest Professional Music Producer.” Brandon’s release party for his album is this Saturday at the Pizza Joint downtown.
Are you excited about your release party? I ask him.
“Yessss,” he says, “I’ve invited a ton of girls.” He smiles.
CD release party to introduce his pop-rock debut, "My Journey."
When: 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday.
Where: The Pizza Joint, 500 N. Stanton, Downtown.
How much: Admission is free. CDs will be sold for $12; limited T-shirts for $20.