NYC-based rock artist and singer-songwriter Ryan Brahms found success at an early age. He was performing alongside some of the world's most renowned musicians. But with early success comes struggles, such as balancing your school and social life, managing yourself as a business with little-to-no experience, and sustaining that success as you grow. No one wants to be an Aaron Carter, they want to be Michael Jackson. While Brahms may not be going for pop star status, he's done an incredible job championing his talents and successes. We spoke with Brahms to figure out what keeps him going and how he handled his success at such a young age.
At the young age of 18, you already had some incredible experience as a professional clarinet and saxophone player, performing with the likes of James Brown and Dave Brubeck. What was it like having that type of exposure and success so early in the game?
It really propelled me forward. There became absolutely no doubt in my mind that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I loved doing it. I loved playing and singing, and now these guys were into what I was doing?! Just so incredible. It really never was a matter of "exposure," just amazing opportunities to do what I love doing onstage with inspirational artists who were just doing what they loved to do, too.
Tell us what it was like playing with Brown and Brubeck. How did those opportunities come about?
For Dave Brubeck, I was playing at an event honoring him for being credited with the birth of cool jazz. I was scouted to play with him and got to hang out with a major influence on both my songwriting and piano playing.
For James Brown, I was jamming at a local bar, and the alto player and I were trading fours and eights, having a great time. He invited me to come play at B.B. King's. I got there and saw the marquee saying James Brown. I figured we were just opening up for him... then I was brought into his dressing room, [and he was] looking at me in the mirror [and] just says, "I'll tell you when to come out; you've got 16 bars on 'Man's World.'" I just said, "Got it." Maybe not my most eloquent moment, but what do you say to James Brown when he tells you to do something? "Man's World" is still a song I cover today due to that amazing experience.
One of the biggest fears of so-called "child prodigies" is that they won't live up to their success, and their reputation won't succeed their youth. Has that been a challenge for you? If so, how have you confronted and overcome it?
I have been both lucky and tenacious. I have continued to work with world-renowned musicians and producers. In fact, I'm working on an Indian track right now. There's a lot to be said about being nice to everyone you meet, too. You never know who they will know. Every new person is a bit more exposure and a possible link to enhance my musical career. I am also constantly writing, so when any kind of fear enters my mind, I exorcise the demons by writing about them.
I wouldn't consider myself a child prodigy. I grew up in a very musical family, and I would sing and play with them for as long as I can remember. I just continued to practice and study. I am still learning and grow every day – that's what you do as an artist.
What were some of the obstacles you ran into being a young musician? Was it ever school versus music, football games versus gigging, etc.?
It's always a struggle to find balance. Being a musician isn't just a job – it's a lifestyle, it's a calling, it's a curse, and it's kind of great when it is all-consuming. Then you realize you need some balance or you start to get weird.
Family is always first, but it gets blurry after that. Relationships are a challenge. Being a musician is not a nine-to-five, five-day-a-week gig. You're in the studio all hours of the night, [or] a show will pop up and you have to cancel plans. Then there's the business side of it with meetings and schmoozing. A mate has to be near saint-like to deal with that. Never mind having to explain to someone new who all of those songs were written about!
Another disadvantage of being a younger musician is there's usually a lack of exposure to the industry side of things. How did you manage the business side of your music? Is it different now?
When I was younger, I was definitely alone trying to figure things out. I got plenty of bad advice – everyone thinks they are an expert and there are tons people out there just waiting to take advantage of young musicians. I made mistakes – definitely. But, you learn from that! I have an excellent support team behind me now. I just don't have the head for it. I'd rather be writing, singing, playing, anything else other than business meetings.
If you could give advice to young musicians who feel nervous that they might not be as valuable or marketable once they grow further into adulthood, what would you say?
It's good to have doubts occasionally – it keeps you sharp and makes you turn around and try harder. Art and inspiration come from everything, but they weren't kidding when they say it comes from strife. "Struggling musician" didn't come from nowhere. Life throws twists and turns at you, and being true to yourself is the one thing you must be sure of.
As for your value or marketability, look at Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Susan Boyle, Janis Joplin, and even Adele. They didn't originally fit the look of what most people consider a pop star to look like.