Interview with an artist: How Brandon Mills overcame PTSD through music

Not all musicians forge their careers out of unbridled ambition. For some, the road to a full-time job in the industry happens by accident, chance or fate.

New York-based folk pop artist Brandon Mills didn’t always have his sights set on it. For him, it took tours of Afghanistan and Iraq in one of the deadliest divisions of the Marine Corps to discover his calling.

Today he lives with two roommates in a four-bedroom apartment in Harlem and is about to launch his third album, the first he has ever shared with anyone. It is the product of a bluegrass-infused upbringing in Kentucky, solemn solitude with his guitar in the chaplain of army base camps and a reluctant, years-long struggle with PTSD.

‘I’ve found a lot of healing and empowerment through music,’ Brandon tells Music Education Madness.

After a brief childhood fling with the saxophone, the now 32-year-old had a casual relationship with the guitar until 2004, when he was deployed to Afghanistan with an infantry unit. Three years later, he was in Iraq with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, a revered Special Forces unit. It was there, between his field missions, that Brandon would sneak into the chapel to play a lonely guitar that had been left out after prayer services.

‘It was a distraction and it was equally an important to use as a tool to process what was going on. Things that I couldn’t say to anybody, things that I couldn’t even express vocally, I could put in songs. It was the war, loss, life and all the challenges of war that are hard to talk about.’

He played and wrote alone, occasionally watching the permanent administrative staff on the ground pick up the prized guitar for a light-hearted jam session.

‘The military looks at any vulnerability as weakness and there’s a functionality to that, so I get it. [But] it meant I didn’t share my feelings or talk about much of anything. The guys that were on base all the time, they were just practising and having a good time [when they played]. I didn’t know them very well but it seemed like a different thing.’

In 2008, Brandon left the Marines and was suddenly aimless. He traveled the world with charities in an attempt to occupy himself, all-the-while trying frantically to keep the creeping clutches of post traumatic stress disorder at bay.

‘I was in complete denial that I had PTSD. I was stubborn and hard-headed, hard-hearted and hyper vigilant once I got out. It was a part of my brain that I couldn’t turn off. It’s a hard thing – we have a mission and we’re good, gifted at it and then we get out and there’s no more mission and we’re at a loss.’

He settled in Hawaii in 2010, taking a well-paying job as a private contractor. It was this, with its six-figure salary and easy-lifestyle, which finally laid bare his crisis.

‘I had a lot of money but not a lot to do. I thought it was everything I’d ever want but I wasn’t happy, so I prayed. I had to experience that financial security to realise how empty it was, for me,’ he says. emphatically.

A year later, he ditched it to move to Harlem and start courses in audio engineering, music production and sound design at the City College of New York – ‘an amazing program’.

Now, Brandon plays small gigs at independent venues across the city and subsidises his life by with bar-tending  and catering (‘I actually love it. I love serving people’.) Last year, he opened for Jason Derulo at Times Square. When he can afford to pay them, he likes having support on stage in the form of other musicians. Otherwise, it’s just him, his Martin D- 28  and a harmonica which he uses nostalgically to inject the soul of that Kentucky childhood into performances.

As he prepares for the launch of his third album, he is grateful for his winding path to full-time music.

‘The freedom I have is remarkable. To do what I love and get paid for it…’ he tails off.

In addition to shopping around for a label, Brandon hopes to kick-start a music program to support other vets through PTSD.

For more about Brandon’s music, visit his website here

 

Related: BEING BLUE PART 1 – A STORY ABOUT GROWING UP TO DRUM FOR THE BLUE MAN GROUP

Learn more about a career in Music Therapy Here

Ten of the most unusual music venues in the US

Here’s our survey of ten of the most unusual music venues in the US.

Bluegrass Underground at Cumberland Caverns, McMinville, Tennessee

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Credit: Michael Weintrob

The Caverns operate as a tourist destination by day but play host to the Bluegrass Underground concert series for a couple of nights every month. The gigs take place 333ft underground in the ominously named Volcano Room.

Red Rocks Amphitheater – Morrison, Colorado

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Credit: Nathan Mach

Fans flock to this desert setting amphitheatre for an immersive experience in music and nature. Set between the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, Red Rocks Park sprawls over 738 acres and is 6,450 ft above sea level. U2, Sting and The Beatles have all taken advantage of the stunning setting and acoustics.

SteelStacks – Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

steelstacks

Image courtesy of venue

SteelStacks originally served as the Saucona Iron Company. It was founded in 1857 and the company produced the first iron rails for local railroad. The first steel was made ten years later and the operation, which employed thousands of locals, transformed intoThe Bethlehem Steel Company.

The constructions of Manhattan’s Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge depended on its produce. As the steel industry declined, the site shut down operations and in 2005 it was reborn as The SteelStacks campus, a home for culture and art. Gigs take place at the foot of the towering, rusty plant.

X Po Monkeys Juke Joint – Merigold, Mississippi

Merigold, MS: Po' Monkey's Lounge

Merigold, MS: Po’ Monkey’s Lounge

This off-the-beaten track shack is the stuff of Mississippi Delta blues legends. It launched in 1961 by hut owner Willie Seaberry as a place to entertain. Blues fans have been making pilgrimages its rickety walls, obeying the myriad signs outside warning them to bring their liquor inside but to leave at home the beer. Seaberry died in 2016 but the shack remains on Thursday nights.

The Gorge Amphitheater – Gorge, Washington

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Image courtesy of venue

The Gorge is a monster, 20,000 plus outdoor venue which overlooks the Columbia River in Washington. Its layout offers stunning views of the river and serves as the perfect summer concert spot. Coldplay, Guns N Roses, Kings of Leon and John Maher are among the scores of acts which have played there.

X Austin 360 Amphitheater at the Circuit of the Americas – Austin, Texas

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Image courtesy of venue

This 14,000 person amphitheater is set around a 3.41mile Formula 1 racetrack. It’s relatively new (built in 2012) but has already attracted big crowds and big names including Willie Nelson, Justin Timberlake, Muse, 30 Seconds to Mars. The track itself plays host to the US’s only Formula 1 event, the United States Grand Prix.

Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion – Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire

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Credit: Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion 

Set on the banks of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, this picturesque venue is widely recognised as one of the best in the country. It sits on what was formerly known as Meadowbrook Farm which was owned privately by the Miller family who used it for summer vacations. The Millers were musically gifted and, as more cottages popped up on the land, they used it to entertain friends with their talents. The concept evolved over the years and now has 5,746 seats under its pavilion roof and space for almost 2,000 on the lawn.

Surf Ballroom – Clearlake, Iowa

surf ballroom

Image courtesy of venue

Palm tree murals, beach stripes and bamboo booths are what fill this nostalgic ballroom and museum in Iowa’s clear lake. Tragically, the original ballroom was destroyed by a fire in 1947. Its replacement was built across the street the following year, decked out in the Ocean Club theme its original owners requested. The ballroom has followed its fans and their tastes through the musical decades ever since and continues to delight with regular shows. In 2011, it was included in the National Register of Historical Places.

Brooklyn Bowl – Williamsburg, New York

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Credit: Scott Harris

A favourite among Williamsburg’s craft beer chugging hipsters, the Brooklyn Bowl combines bowling with laid-back gigs with effortless ease. Its show schedule is packed with bowling themed family events but the space is just as often rented out for private events.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, LA

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Image courtesy of venue

It’s the resting place of some of Hollywood’s most beloved stars. So it’s little surprise that the Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles also attracts living, breathing talent. Clearly, its business is not in gigs but a handful of artists have put on unique, somewhat eerie, shows there in the past. The cemetery’s onsite Masonic Lodge now serves as its venue for live shows.

The best ukuleles for beginners

If you’re looking for a musical instrument that’s fun, versatile, inexpensive and relatively easy to learn then a ukulele just might be the thing for you. Ukuleles can be serious or comical and have been used by comedians and professional musicians with equal success. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s a list of recommended best ukuleles for beginners to help you put fingers to strings.

1. Kala Learn To Play Ukulele Starter Kit

Kala

This great little beginner’s kit comes with a tote bag, a getting started guide and a special tuning kit to help you get the hang of maintaining its proper tones. It comes with a nice wood finish and free lessons through the available app. 

Price: $59.99


2. Martin Smith UK-212

martin ukulele

The Martin Smith UK-212  features some of the finest quality tuning gears that you’re likely to find on a ukulele. The oversized tuning knobs  make the job even easier. It also comes with a carrying case and two months free access to live and local instruction.

Price: $19.99


3. ADM 21

ADM 21

This item is specially designed for ease of play and durability. It comes with a waterproof nylon bag, an electronic LED lit tuner, extra picks and a strap. The body is also handsomely stained with a redwood finish that makes it look like a professional grade ukulele.

Price: $35.99

 



4. Diamond Head DU-150 Soprano Ukulele

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This traditionally shaped ukulele has a full sized body for a nice resonant sound that you don’t get with many others.  It comes with an easy to follow three-chord chart which will kick off your playing quite rapidly and a gig bag that has everything you need to start serenading.

Price: $34.08


5.  Kala KA-15S Mahogany Soprano

kala mahogany

Made entirely from mahogany, this beginner’s ukulele has a professional look and feel that will make you love to play. It features 12 brass frets on the rosewood fingerboard for greater resonance and looks great. The satin finish and geared tuners make this ukulele tough to beat.

Price: $59.99


6. Hola! HM-21 Soprano Ukulele 

Hola!

Choose from an array of handsome color schemes when you select this festive ukulele. Made from maple and rosewood, the Hola! HM-21 Soprano Ukulele  is going to feel as good in your hands as it sounds. 12 nickel frets round out the look and sound of this item nicely.

Price: $32.95


7. Concert Size Ukulele Bundle from Lohanu

Bundle

 

This is a great package for anyone who wants to learn to play and start entertaining as soon as possible. It comes with a case, a strap, a tuning device, three extra picks and one of the finest wood finishes you’re likely to find. It also comes with one of the highest quality stock  carrying cases available. 

Price: $89.99


8. Donner Concert Ukulele

Donner

This traditional concert ukulele is made from mahogany and comes strung with advanced carbon strings for longer lasting play. With its exceptionally fine finish, this ukulele plays smoothly and easily. The 18 brass frets enable you to hit more notes than an ordinary ukulele making it perfect for ambitious players.

Price: $65.00


9. Kala Makala Shark Soprano

Makala

With its lime and wood tone color scheme, the Makala Shark will stand out in any setting. It comes in a range of colors if lime is too much for you and the Agathis top offers the same quality of mahogany for less. It features 12 brass frets, geared tuners and comes with a lightweight nylon carrying bag.

Price: $47.99


10. Trendy Traditional and Painted Economy Hawaiian Soprano Ukulele Starter Pack

trendy

Beautifully made and a great bargain with lots of extras, this is an excellent starter pack for any beginner ukulele player. It features brass frets, finger position markers, chrome plating and a high-quality finish. Choose from a range of colors and stow it in the included carrier gig bag.

Price: Starting from $30.07

Music education non-profits: Who they are, what they do, and how to get involved

Many music education non-profits are working hard to ensure that the world of music stays alive. It’s crucial that they get the support they need to allow today’s talented young musicians to be free to pursue their gifts.

Ear Candy Charity

Ear Candy Charity is a music organization in Arizona whose primary focus is on music programs for children. This is a very hard thing to find nowadays so it’s amazing to see that there are some non-profits with a clear focus on helping kids discover the many joys of music.

The National Endowment for the Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts provides support in a range of creative spheres including music. The simple fact that they want to help children study and learn music in a proper manner is certainly a commendable thing.

VH1 Save The Music

VH1 Save The Music is a very interesting nonprofit, especially since its primary focus is on instrumental music. Its focus is specifically on public schools and the children who attend them who are in dire need of encouragement.

Mr. Holland’s Opus

This foundation does something very special. They collect used instruments, and then they donate them to schools. Nothing is more important than preparing the new generation, and that’s exactly what the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation does.

Fender Music Foundation

The Fender Music Foundation awards instruments to various music education programs across the country including public schools. It’s an incredible operation which has already supplied thousands of kids with access to instruments they may never have otherwise experienced.

Tipitina’s Foundation

Tipitina’s Foundation is a local non-profit focused mostly on the idea of supporting the music community in New Orleans and Louisiana, both of which have distinguished music personalities.

To get involved in any of the great organizations listed above, all you have to do is to check out each and donate as much or as little as you want. You will get to support the artists of the upcoming decades, so it’s a wonderful thing to be a part of!