Love is one of the most universal inspirations for music and has been since the first music was made. Although it can be overused as a theme, there are still musicians who continue to make it sing in original ways, tapping into its timeless presence in our human experience. The Dutch musical group BRAXI portrays love not only through their musical output, but also through their very existence. The husband and wife duo of Brandi and Max Himmelreich let their love for one another shine through their work and they help spread openness and understanding of people from all walks of life. The two recently spoke with 24Our Music about their origins as a group, their inspirations, and plans for the future of BRAXI.
24: What is your musical background?
Brandi Himmelreich: Like many musicians, I began studying singing when I was only 10 years old, involved in a touring children’s chorus called the Pensacola Children’s Chorus. I owe so much to them, as they taught me respect for all music genres and the importance of technique and performance. After studying musical theater at the University of Central Florida, I began my career performing musical theatre in the United States, landing leading roles in Actors Equity Association productions of Little Shop of Horrors (Audrey), Rent (Maureen), Flo Manfred in the World Premiere of Meat Street the Musical, The Vagina Monologues, and in a special production of the musical Grease (Frenchy), co-starring with Joey Fatone from NSync, and the late Jeff Conaway from the original film. I sang for Walt Disney in two different productions: an a cappella pop group called ‘American Vybe’ and the show Tarzan Rocks! and I also sang for Universal Studios both in Florida and in Osaka, Japan.
In 2008, after moving to Amsterdam, I auditioned for a televised talent contest called POPSTARS and won! I signed with Warner Music Benelux and had a number 1 hit on the charts. It was a great few years. I opened for 1980s star Rick Astley on his Night to Remember tour, and wrote and performed songs for huge international events such as Amsterdam, Stockholm and Antwerpen Pride, Ride for the Roses and the Tour de France. I fell in love with the music industry and knew I wanted to stay in it for the rest of my life. But after a while, I longed for something different: to write my own kind of music and have an emphasis on live performances that combined my theatrical and acting background. But I didn’t want to do it alone. When I met Max, I knew that’s exactly who I wanted to start this journey with.
Max Himmelreich: I knew I wanted to be a performer after seeing Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura. I was acting and singing through life. My mom is a primary school teacher and my dad was the co-founder and musical director of the local amateur theatre, so I was always blessed with having a great environment growing up and the support to follow my dreams and grow and train my skills. I only started singing at about age 12 in the musicals. But it really picked up when I joined a local band with friends singing pop, rock, and blues at age 16. We wrote some of our own stuff, which also landed us a local pop-prize! I had a very hard decision that year. I was accepted into the Amsterdam Academy of Musical Theatre, which meant letting the band go. I would have to give both my full attention, so it was impossible to keep up. So I decided to focus on my future in Musical Theatre and train my classical vocal technique as an addition to my musical palette. In my fourth and final year I was hired for one of the Netherland’s most successful musicals ever, Soldier of Orange. Soon after that I ran into Miss Brandi Russell at a gig in Amsterdam, and together we spent the next four years developing the concept of BRAXI’s Crossing the Classics.
24: How did you start making music together?
Brandi: We met while singing for a company in Amsterdam and hit it off right away. When I saw him, I knew he’d be in my life, and when I heard him sing, I knew I would marry him! We started off making close harmony covers of hit songs, and it grew from there. When we decided to make it official, we founded BRAXI. The name actually came from Max’s father who combined our names as “Braximus.” We dropped the “mus” and BRAXI was formed!
Max: This has always been one of the most exciting aspects of our job, finding a beautiful song and making it our own. I’ll never forget the first song we ‘braxi-fied’ back in 2012. We had to perform a few new songs and we were basically getting bored with only picking existing duets and wanted to broaden our horizon. So we picked Seal’s hit “Kiss from a Rose” and in the middle of the night we just started singing. Neither of us being able to play an instrument well enough to help us in our endeavors, it left us to rely solely on our ears. And as perhaps inefficient as this may seem, it does leave us the room to come up with unique and interesting musical decisions, because we’re not locked into the set ‘rules of engagement’.
24: What is it like to be in a band with your spouse?
Max: It is the best job in the world! We never have to be apart, and on stage, singing with and to each other is just magical and it will never get boring. Brandi is my biggest inspiration, my best teacher and my biggest fan. But she’s also my worst critic, and that helps the most. We want nothing but perfection and because of our different backgrounds we both add in different places, and learn something new every day. Now, as the whole ‘being together 24/7’ might seem like a problem to most people, I can only say that I love it and wouldn’t want it to change ever!
Brandi: Our relationship makes the music stronger. We are always pushing one another, both in the writing and recording process as well as in live performances, and we never let each other fall. This has really brought our music to a different level, because we push each other to do things we might not be able to if we were on our own. We can reach deep emotional levels faster than we would if we weren’t in a relationship. We are perfectionists with our music and know each other’s potential. Being in a relationship helps us with that because we can take more criticism from each other, and are forced to work through any frustrations. I mean we live together, so we can’t just walk out if something gets tough.
24: How would you describe your creative process?
Brandi: We begin with an idea, one that consists not only of a lyric or melody, but a complete message. Max is really great at writing melodies and I love writing lyrics, and together we come up with the entire package that the song should be. And usually that’s late at night, after a bottle of wine (laughs).
Max: I have to start by saying that until just over a year ago I had never successfully written anything, aside from a few monologues and musical projects in the Academy. At the time I thought I just didn’t have the guts, but when I look back I understand I simply didn’t have the right inspiration.
It wasn’t until after Brandi and I met with our producer Peter Hageras in Stockholm, where we spent three days recording several of our new songs that Brandi had written, that I started writing ideas down myself. I had only helped Brandi with a word or a line here and there and my biggest input had been creating harmonies. But since then I’ve just decided to write down all my lyric ideas and record every melody that jumps up in my head. Sometimes things that have nothing to do with one another, after weeks and sometimes months, seem to link to each other somehow. Many times I can take ideas from a while back that suddenly jump back up and fit into the song like a glove.
After a while I found that what I need is a concept for my project, one clear focus point to build from. Like with “IL NOSTRO AMORE (Our Love)” it was the piano at the start. It turned out being a waltz. But every movement, every melody and lyric that followed simply came from that piano intro. At the moment I’m writing another love song, but for the longest time I didn’t understand my own idea. I knew it was love, undying and universal. But when that concept finally presented itself to me, I finished the whole song in an hour.
Brandi: Both Max and I feel like we are constantly inspired by the love we have for one another, as well as the love we see around us. We want to help promote equality in love, because we feel like everyone deserves to feel how Max and I feel for one another. This is why we are so involved in the GLBTQ communities.
Personally, I use our music and performances as therapy, and I use my own personal experiences as a major source of inspiration. I suffered from depression for many years before meeting Max, because of childhood poverty, bullying and always being told I wasn’t good enough. The music that we make give me the chance to deal with those issues, turning them into something positive.
Max: To say that Brandi is my one and only inspiration would be the easy answer, and it wouldn’t be completely correct, but I must say that all my other inspirations I have found thanks to her. I guess the biggest one is love. Love in every form, without prejudice and the beauty and adventure that comes with it. One of the first things Brandi and I did together as a couple was record and perform a song called “I’m Gay” for the Amsterdam and Antwerp Pride together with OUT-TV. Which is of course ridiculous, and that was the fun! It wasn’t about the literal gay meaning, but the expression of love. That love for others is the only real natural feeling left and celebrating that feeling is the most beautiful and fun thing in the world. We are both huge supporters of the LGBTQ community, as of course Brandi is part of it. But that feeling, of standing for something so pure and the real conviction I have towards it, that inspires me. As well as being an inspiration to Simone (our daughter), being a role model is a drive as well as an inspiration.
Both: We are both also inspired by artists that have pushed boundaries in the past within their music, those who have broken the molds and proven that being different and theatrical in music can be a very positive thing. Artists such as David Bowie, Grace Jones, Queen, Kate Bush, Prince, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, as well as some modern artists such as Lady Gaga and Sia are all artists we look up to and are inspired by. We love how they combine every form of art in their music and performances, and how they never believed it when people told them it was “too much.” All of these artists invoke intense emotions with their music and performances, and prove that individualism can actually be a great asset when attempting to break boundaries within this industry.
24: All of this must have led to your term ‘Musical Esemplastic.’ Where does that phrase come from and what does it mean to you?
Both: Actually on our computer, we have a screen saver that shows the word of the day, and one day it was: esemplastic. After reading the definition a light bulb went off:
“Having the ability to shape diverse elements or concepts into a unified whole.”
This completely describes what we do with our music. It was a perfect way of describing us, combining different genres, languages and sounds to form a new whole: Musical Esemplastic.
24: Would you care to talk about your time on the cruise ship in the Mediterranean? How has that experience impacted your music?
Max: The time we’ve spent onboard ships – a total of 3 years – as hard and often frustrating as it has been, they have been our true push to be better and grow with every single performance. My father told me, “It has been like getting paid for doing a Master’s Degree”.
Even though we’ve had to win the trust of the management every time we boarded a new ship, that always happened quite fast. And then what we’re left with was basically a fresh free try-out audience every week of hundreds of people. That helped us coordinate our music exactly to our peers and try out things that they didn’t expect, but loved!
Brandi: We needed a break from the Dutch music industry. In The Netherlands, being different, flamboyant and theatrical is looked down upon. If we wanted success there, we would have to change everything about the music we make, who we are, and what we stand for. So we decided to take all of the time we needed to develop our music and image away from The Netherlands. The best idea was to work on ships for income, which gave us a different audience of 1000 people every seven days. We were able to try new ideas, test our music, test our image, and experiment with every part of our development on new faces every week. We noticed the types of music that people from all backgrounds and cultures loved, and after three years of intense studying and experimentation, we finally have found what we consider to be the “key” of who we are as BRAXI.
24: And haven’t you been participating in songwriting competitions as well?
Both: Yes. In February of this year, we decided to enter two of our songs, “IL NOSTRO AMORE (Our Love)” and “Breathless” into some of the biggest songwriting competitions: Unsigned Only, International Songwriting Contest, John Lennon Songwriting Contest and the UK Songwriting Contest. We are still waiting on the results from all of the contests, but as of now, our song “IL NOSTRO AMORE (Our Love)” won first place in the Vocal Performance category of Unsigned Only, and was top three in their fan-based vote competition Fandemonium.
24: It seems like you draw from many different influences for your music. Describe the importance of multiculturalism in your art.
Both: We believe that music is a universal language. You can listen to a song sung in a language you do not speak and be moved to tears. You can understand exactly what the song is about just by listening to the mood of the music and the emotion of the singer. We think this is the magic of music.
While travelling abroad, we have witnessed people being moved by the power of music all over the world, and we wanted to savor those moments in our own songwriting. For example, in Turkey we saw a street musician playing a sitar and people around them singing with so much passion in musical tones we don’t have on our western pianos. In Honduras we saw an aboriginal tribe playing instruments made from trees and rope while the families laughed and danced around them. It was so beautiful to hear sounds outside of what we consider “popular music,” and even though we couldn’t understand the words they were saying, we were still swept away in the magic of the moment. It was proof to us that our ideas of “no boundaries” could actually be taken a step further.
On the album we are currently working on, we have commissioned musicians from seven different countries to play some traditional instruments from their locations, and we are singing in at least 4 different languages, including Swahili. For us, this is the ultimate way of saying ‘no matter who you are, what you look like, what you believe in or who you love, if we come together without judgments, we can create something special and beautiful.’
24: There’s a new album on the way? What else does the future hold for BRAXI?
Both: We are finishing up our first album of original music entitled Musical Esemplastic, which should be released in the beginning of 2017, and are actually recording a new video clip in the rainforest in December. At the moment we are being booked for a UK theater tour for early 2017 with our show Crossing the Classics, where we take our genre fusion to the stage with a live band and dancers.
All information and updates can be found on our website or Facebook. If you sign up for our website newsletter, you can have special invitations to private shows, preview our new music videos, and have the opportunity to listen to our music before it is released.
Even though we have chosen a path not as easy as “mainstream pop”, we do hope that our music will reach a broad audience who believe in taking chances, embracing individuality, fighting for equality, and breaking boundaries.