Branden & James Travel the Lavender Circuit
by Steve Desroches
Top Image: Photo: Ric Ide
It’s a sound that began on opposite sides of the world. James Clark grew up in Adelaide, the pleasant state capital of the state of South Australia, while Branden James was raised in Orange County, California, not far from metro Los Angeles. Partners in life and music the two laugh when asked how they met as they used to say at Starbucks, but now reveal it was on gay app Scruff. There is of course no shame in that, though they continue to laugh that it’s not necessarily the most romantic relationship origin story. But what is the stuff of fairy tales is their life together, forged by not just a love for each other, but music. Within a year after meeting in 2014 they began an adventure as Branden & James, a cello and classically inspired vocal act that has taken them around the world performing to packed concert halls as well as intimate cabaret spaces. Their journey together began thousands of miles apart and decades ago, but music was the spark that brought them together.
“Music has been a part of my life forever,” says Clark. “My parents had a piano and started my sister and I with lessons when I was about eight. My sister is older and I took to it right away while she struggled, which pissed her off. Then I started violin and then moved over to cello while I was still quite young. So I’ve been playing music for about 30 years now.”
“For me, my house was always full of music, though I didn’t begin singing until I was 17,” says James. “My grandfather was a country musician who played with Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. But we never listened to country, as my mother hated it. But our house was full of all kinds of music, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carole King, also a lot of contemporary Christian music. One day I was singing at school just under my breath and a friend said I should go out for choir. I was so shy, but did it anyway and the next thing I know I’m getting solos.”
Clark moved to California to further his music education, and after meeting James, they began performing together in Santa Fe, New Mexico, finding their musical groove working in a piano bar. Those seven months gave them the time and focus as they turned what was an unconventional act for a piano bar into a pop-classical fusion show gaining valuable experience by taking requests from the audience, playing everything from Michael Jackson to Celine Dion. Branden & James was born. They laugh and shake their heads via FaceTime when acknowledging their name as a duo is singularly James’ name as well.
While in their past both feared their sexuality would hurt their musical careers, and at time it has been a challenge, being out has been a healthy and beneficial aspect of their careers together, providing representation for the LGBTQ+ community and helping to educate those in audiences who may struggle with homophobia. Married in 2018, they are still surprised that in 2021 they encounter homophobic audience members who enjoy the music, but want them to “keep quiet” about their relationship.
At the moment, Clark and James are touring on the Lavender Circuit, those summer hot spots popular with the LGBTQ+ community. And today they are in an unusually hot Ogunquit, Maine, during a late August heat wave gripping the Northeast. From there they move on to Provincetown for a five-night run at the Pilgrim House, finishing up with October dates in Palm Springs, California, and New Hope, Pennsylvania. Come later in the year they’ll begin a 40-date tour around the country. And while they love performing, there is an added ease playing in places like Provincetown, they say.
“I definitely feel most comfortable in places like this,” says James. “When we play for more conservative audiences we might shy away from sharing about our lives together. But I feel I can completely be myself in places like here and Provincetown.”
Both James and Clark came from conservative Christian families, which provided each of them with difficulties accepting themselves as gay men. When Clark came out to his mother at 18 he promised her he’d either figure out how to be straight or just be celibate, a story he punctuates with an eye roll and a laugh. He says he had to come out again a few years later when he realized that wasn’t going to happen.
For James, he never got the chance to come out as his mother confronted him and then shunned him from the family. He recounts this very difficult time as well as the eventual reconciliation with his family and finding happiness as a gay man in his 2020 book, Lyrics of My Life: My Journey with Family, HIV, and Reality TV. James adds that he sees “the Church” as so far from what he sees being a Christian is about that at this time he doesn’t want much to do with it. While Clark still calls himself a Christian, he too, sees how far from Jesus Christ’s teachings of love and compassion, and reaching out to the marginalized, so many Christians have strayed so far away from.
“I do believe there’s a spiritual side to life and I try to remain open to that,” says Clark. “I’ve allowed myself to be comfortable with the mystery in my life. I’m fine letting the mystery be.”
Branden & James present Broadway Under the Covers, Sunday, September 5 through Thursday, September 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pilgrim House, 336 Commercial St., Provincetown. Tickets ($35) are available at the box office and online at pilgrimhouseptown.com.