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.