Watch the latest video posted on their facebook page, a live performance of their original arrangement of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and you will see two performers who can’t keep their eyes off each other. Every breath is in sync, and at times, their synergy is so complete that they seem to be one body in two forms; singing with two voices, but joined at their elemental core. This is BRAXI Music, a husband and wife classical crossover duo based out of the Netherlands, and inspired by “true love, divas, drag queens, glam rock, & Bocelli.”
“We watch Rupaul’s Drag Race on a regular basis, and are constantly impressed with the performance level of these ‘lady boys.’ Their looks, their attention to detail, the way they have no fear of going over the top- its inspiring! Glam Rock does the exact same thing, with iconic artists like David Bowie, Freddy Mercury, Cyndi Lauper, Meat Loaf, all pushing the boundaries with their looks and performances; something that has become very important to us. And if you listen to the musical compositions of these artists, along with many others in the Glam Rock world, you can hear brilliance, sometimes symphonic sounds that, if arranged in a slightly different way and translated into Italian, could very well be considered ‘classical.’”
The story of Brandi (nee Russell) and Max Himmelreich could be the lyrics of a sweeping, romantic ballad. After completing her contract with the Holland America Cruise Line, Brandi moved from America to the Netherlands to pursue a relationship. Although that love story was not to be her happily ever after, it did lead directly to meeting Max, when she joined the cast of a dinner theatre of which he was already a member.
Max: “I remember very vividly taking the tramline to work, knowing that day a new colleague would join us who had won POPSTARS. I had never seen the show, so I had no idea what he/she looked like or sounded like, so in the spirit of collegial sparring, I was looking forward to the challenge. In the tram I saw this massive head of curly bright red-hair in front of me, I of course assumed she was in the industry. So when I saw she was exiting the tram at the same stop I knew that was her… She must be going to the Dinnertheater. I got there first, and when she entered and introduced herself, we got along right away. So, we met through music, and at the dinnertheater had the opportunity to sing together… I couldn’t think of a more natural process, and it continues to strengthen our relationship every day.”
Specifically, the duo credits the song “Vivo Per Lei” with making them realize they had a special connection and potential as not only a romantic couple, but also a powerful performance partnership.
Both members of BRAXI boast very extensive resumes that led them to this point in their careers. For Max, his interest was fostered by his family, who were all involved in music in some way or another. He joined local musical theatre groups, which were founded by his father, then branched out into dinner theatre, cruise ship tours, and even modeling, which he credits for helping him “be comfortable with standing out, and to not only rely on things I’ve trained very hard for like singing and acting. But to truly accept who I am, what I look like and what I do and especially to enjoy every moment. At the end of the day, the most memorable artists, or successful people in any aspect of life, are those who stand out by being themselves. It seems like such a repeated and dragged out statement, but finding out who you are and accepting who you are – are two very difficult things. A performers’ mind has a default setting full of self-doubt. For most performers, conforming to something that already “works” is much easier than having a long look in the mirror, seeing what you might not like, choosing to embrace it and making it work for you. ”
Brandi has a long list of credits to her name, from the Pensacola Children’s Chorus to studying classical voice at age 14 to attending the University of Central Florida to study in a BFA program for Musical Theater. Writing is one of her hobbies, and she wrote cover stories for the city-wide GLBT newspaper in Orlando, FL, as well as writing and performing one of the official songs for Stockholm Pride 2010. She won “Popstars” (a Dutch TV series) in 2008 and also fondly recalls a performance as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. “I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek comedy of the musical, and the soulful music that drives it. The absurdity that little Audrey gets eaten by a plant from outer space and sings the last song as an actual PART of the plant just made me laugh and enjoy every single performance.
As I get older, however, I really love the idea of sinking my teeth into deep characters, with so many built up emotional layers that would challenge me as an actor. There are two roles that I would LOVE to play: Sally Bowls from Cabaret and Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Both of these characters have tragedy surrounding their lives, and have used their performances to escape. Both searching for love, both devoted to their art, both with mental challenges that taunt their existence…. I would really love to delve into their worlds.”
After winning Popstars, she was signed by major record label Warner Music Benelux and also had a contract with the producers of the show. “It was an incredible experience, life changing. However, the songs were chosen for me, the looks were chosen for me, and the way I was being developed felt wrong. After one year, I separated my contract with them in order to find my solo sound. I made a pop/dance album that I am still incredibly proud of, called Reinvented, though at the time it never really took off. I was so young and didn’t understand the music industry, especially in The Netherlands. I expected the industry there to be as boisterous as it is in the USA or the UK, but it was the opposite. Anything that ventured outside of these strict boundaries they placed on the performers was considered wrong, over-produced, over the top and ‘trying too hard.’ I actually fell into a depression then, because the same people who told me the year before that I was great, were telling me this year that I couldn’t sing. It beat me down and made me lose faith in my abilities.”
A mere two weeks after their marriage, Brandi and Max set out on a three-year adventure of performing abroad in theatres, onboard cruise-lines, and at high-end resorts. Their family jokingly called it a “paid Master’s degree.”
Max says, “It pushed us to use every chance we had to try new things, write/perform new songs, discovering ourselves in new looks and outfits. Since Brandi and I were both classically trained as vocalists as well as actors, but also had an established career in contemporary music, we found common ground in our fascination for the old and the new.”
Referring to their growth as a performance team and a couple while traveling during those three years, as a springboard for advice to other artists interested in the traveling lifestyle, Brandi says, “Whether you’re traveling together or alone, I would say, embrace and enjoy every moment. Be ready for some bullshit along the way and don’t give yourself any excuse EVER to give a performance less that everything you’ve got! Part of the journey is strengthening your endurance and pushing yourself to breaking point. Take good care of your body, since few other lines of work requires you as much to be in good health. Sometimes it’s like a big party, but take care of YOU as much as you take care of anything else. It will be respected more, than being careless. Keep your eye on the prize! The prize can be big, and it’s easy to say that the prize is fortune and fame. Unfortunately, if you look at the job that way, you have a great deal of competition. Instead, aim to be happy and proud of your work and yourself, that way your only competition you’ll have is yourself.”
Now, as a duo with two singles to their name and an album on the way (to be called “Musical Esemplastic,” on which you can expect to hear songs in English, Italian, and Swahili), BRAXI is dedicated to not only pushing the boundaries of the classical crossover genre, but striving to promote equality, acceptance, and education through their music, as well.
“Both of us grew up being bullied, teased, and beaten down for having big dreams, being ‘different’ and theatrical, and therefore we will always try and use our music to give hope to others feeling the same way or experiencing the same (or worse) things. ”
A casting call for a music video was posted on their facebook page, requesting dancers who were comfortable with GLBT themes.
“[The casting call] is for our music video for the song “Breathless (Senza Fiato).” Through the dance and music in the video, we hope to show that love can be a beautiful thing, no matter who it is between.”
“I really believe that love can and should be celebrated, and if anyone can find the love that Max and I share, be it two men, two women or a man and woman, it should be celebrated and not shunned. There is so much hate in the world, and I choose to move forward with love. ”
BRAXI is also working with a US-based charity called AO Music, which helps children in under developed countries across the world have a musical education. They will be filming a video clip for the Swahili song “Kuimba” in the Caribbean rainforest and with children on the island of Saba. Proceeds from the venture as well as a percentage of the sales from the single will go towards AO Music’s charitable endeavors.
“The songs on this album are true messages of hope, love, and fighting through the darkness; some of them have even been our therapeutic way of dealing with things in our past. They were all written with the idea that the listener would FEEL something when they hear it the first time. There are many layers to each piece, which we hope will make our fans want to hear them over and over again to find that ‘something new.’”
The list of influences they name is all-encompassing. John Mayer, Coldplay, and Adam Levine impact Max’s songwriting, and both members mention Sia as a leading pop icon. Max emphasizes that he grew up listening to legendary artists such as The Beatles, Michael Jackson, and Frank Sinatra, as well as hearing classical music (Bach, Mozart or Debussy) played around the house by his parents. Brandi pays tribute to great divas of the past and present, including Kate Bush, Bette Middler, Lady Gaga, and Sarah Brightman. They drop names such as Phil Collins, Brian May (of Queen), and Andrea Bocelli as dream collaboration partners.
Max: “I’d also like to give a special mention of a Dutch artist named Theo Nijland, who during my Academic years was a great mentor and inspiration.”
While music is their primary focus, BRAXI always looks for additional elements they can incorporate to broaden the audience experience of “BRAXI” as a complete art form. In the future, BRAXI hopes to develop a large theatre tour, “together with two dancers and an aerialist, truly ‘crossing the classics’ in music and dance.” Even now, they incorporate dramatic makeup in their photos and performances, feeling that “It is another art form that we can use to complete the ‘experience’ of BRAXI (not to mention the fact that it is so much fun).”
In addition to independent makeup brands that they have discovered, their primary loyalty is to MAC cosmetics. Brandi worked with them as a makeup artist and knows their products inside and out and respects the high quality of the brand. Also, she says, “I know the company donates a lot of money towards people infected or affected with HIV and AIDS, so I don’t mind spending that extra few dollars.”
The theme of individuality and staying true to your personal vision is a recurring one with BRAXI. After her experience with Warner Music Benelux, Brandi credits Max with helping her find her true identity once again. “When Max and I met, he helped me to build up my confidence again. When we began making music together, that was when the pieces began to fall into place. But in The Netherlands, it was difficult for us to experiment and find our sound, for the same reasons I just told you. So we decided to take time outside the country, as much time as we needed, to study, experiment and search for the ‘secret’ of our music. We did this by performing on cruise ships, which allowed us to see many different part of the world, and gave us a new audience every single week. We would listen to the local music in these new countries, watch street musicians perform, and listen to the lyrics and languages that expressed how each country felt. We would train vocally everyday with online vocal lessons, and spend late nights engulfing ourselves in the music of our influences. Then onstage, every week, we would change our show, experiment with vocal arrangements and visuals to see how each audience reacted until we found the perfect balance. This is how we developed our sound, and how I found the joy in my work again. ”
Though they personally compose their own lyrics and melodies, they place a high value on collaboration. “We feel that having that one extra ear outside of our own can help take our music to the next level.”
They make their musical choices not based on what is popular or will “make money” in the industry, but rather what they feel will most truly represent them as artists, and what will push the boundaries beyond what is expected. When trading vocal lines between the English so-called “pop” melodic line and the “Italian operatic,” they easily trade back-and-forth themselves, ditching the classical-crossover stereotype for a Broadway-styled male vocalist and an operatic soprano (though when the song is served, they do adhere to that pattern.) Rather, they choose to arrange the song according to the story that the melody and lyrics tell. They know how their voices fit best together, and that determines the arrangement they perfectly customize for each song, with an ear towards ultimate emotional impact and what they want the listener to feel.
BRAXI tells it best in their own words: “We have been told many times by our fans that they never thought they liked opera until they came to see us perform, and that opened a door for them, in fact most of them tell us they now visit the opera house on a regular basis. This makes us wonder, if someone were to do the reverse of what we are doing, perhaps they could also broaden the minds of those audience members who have never listened to contemporary music? We strongly believe that the future of music is genre fusing, and would therefore love to see an artist from the classical world meet up with an EDM DJ. I bet it would sound pretty amazing. ”
Max: “I can imagine that many artists affiliated with the classical variant of crossover would visually like to represent a more subtle and toned-down look because they think it’s what the audiences expect from a classically trained singer. And yet, Brandi and I have consciously chosen a different path. To turn heads and to reach out in unexpected ways to audiences. We’ve really taken our time experimenting with the effects of different visual and musical genres. It took us quite a while to figure out what BRAXI really was, and luckily we were both very happy when we did. In the end it wasn’t so much a choice, but more like running into the dark and seeing what we’d bump in to. I’d like to think it’s worked out pretty well. ”
Brandi: “We both had interests and respect for classical music we were younger. It wasn’t until I ventured away from it that I realized how much I loved it and missed it in my musical career. Because Max had this natural talent for opera, it was a very easy choice to put it in our music. We both loved it and felt like the classical elements really added a new level of beauty to the new music we were making. ”
Max: “I think the core of what BRAXI is us just being Brandi and Max. Because we insist on being ourselves, and we’re ‘many facetted’. We love the art of creating and nothing feels better than working together. All the people we’ve worked with and will work with in the future will inspire us and help shape our musical-output. “
Brandi: “I hope to always grow in our music. When I hear recordings from a few years ago, it’s amazing to me how much our voices have grown, how much our actual sound has changed. We hope to continue along this path, always experimenting with our voices and different sounds influenced by the cultures we experience. This is the excitement we hope our fans will jump onboard with: you never know what surprises we will throw into our music and performances….”
The title of the upcoming album, “Music Esemplastic” (expected to release worldwide in early 2017) is inspired by a word-of-the-day that happened to flash across their studio screensaver.
“When recording the vocals for “IL NOSTRO AMORE,” the word Esemplastic came up with the meaning: Def: adjective: rare; Having the ability to shape diverse elements or concepts into a unified whole.
We looked right at each other and knew it. This is exactly what BRAXI does, but with music! And so, Musical Esemplastic was born.”
BRAXI is booked for a show at the Albany Theatre in Coventry on the 21st of January, 2017, in addition to a few other UK theater dates, and will be headliner entertainment/guest acts onboard various ships and resorts worldwide throughout the year.
They have set their sights on participating in the Eurovision Song Contest; having nearly reached the goal twice in the past, they are placing their hopes in a recently written song that they feel will be perfect for the multicultural competition.
BRAXI admits that, “Another goal that we would absolutely drop everything for, would be to sing in Cirque du Soleil.” Brandi auditioned 4 years ago and are currently on a waiting list/database, but the idea of BRAXI working together with Cirque is something “that remains a huge dream.”
I can do no better than to close this interview with, once again, words from BRAXI themselves:
“We realize that we have chosen a road not yet travelled. It might be more difficult to break into mainstream music scene; it might mean we have to work harder to gain respect from the classical crossover fans and industry professionals, but it is the right path for us, and we believe that audiences are ready for something new. We are 100% true to ourselves and strongly believe that once people open their minds to our glam-rock, drag queen and Bocelli inspired music, they will never look back.“